Craig Foster Defends Joseph Smith’s Underage Marriages

Salt Lake City—If Mormon girls in 1840s Illinois “followed” documented rates of maturity, then “10 percent would have reached puberty before turning 13,” says Craig L. Foster, lead author of “The Age of Joseph Smith’s Plural Wives in Social and Demographic Context,” one of eight essays in a new book, The Persistence of Polygamy: Joseph Smith and the Origins of Mormon Polygamy, published by John Whitmer Books in Independence, Missouri.

Criticizing Signature Books for drawing attention to the details of the Mormon founder’s marriages, Foster argues that Joseph Smith’s “youngest wife, Helen Mar Kimball, married at an age [fourteen], by which [time] 40 percent of the female population had already matured.” She was therefore marriageable, he suggests, although also warning against reading too much into this standard for determining marriageable age.

The Persistence of Polygamy was compiled by Foster, a Mormon Church-employed genealogist, and Newell G. Bringhurst, a retired historian from the College of the Sequoias. Both also contributed their own essays to the anthology.

From Craig Foster's article on teenage brides and polygamyThe essay by Foster includes seven charts that, according to one commentator, do not, in fact, support the author’s assertion that “Latter Day Saint marriage patterns and the age of Joseph’s wives” were “well within the norm for their time and place on the nineteenth-century American frontier.”

“I found the graphs for the most part to be useless for the average reader,” said Joseph Geisner of Santa Rosa, California, a regular on the Mormon blogs. “The parts that are understandable do not seem to support the authors’ thesis or conclusions.” Geisner found that two charts show how, in the 1840s, only about 1 percent of American women married at fifteen years or younger. Another chart shows that in New England, only 9 percent of men of Joseph Smith’s age (34-38 years old) married teenagers.

Additional charts show that the ages of Joseph Smith’s wives put him in company only with the southwest region of the country comprising Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Texas and the western region of the United States at a time when it was dominated by Mormons, who tended to marry much younger than other Americans.

“In addition to that,” says Geisner, “the authors treat Joseph Smith as if he were his own region of the country, marrying teenagers 30 percent of the time, rather than classifying him as one 38-year-old individual who married teenagers.” A final chart shows that in the 1840s, most women in the United States married in their twenties.

From Foster's article on teenage brides and polygamyFoster offers anecdotal evidence about a few famous women who married young. These include George Washington’s sixteen-year-old sister who married a twenty-seven-year-old second cousin. The stories are interesting because they vary from the norm, commented Geisner, rather than representing national trends. “They do not shed further light on Mormon polygamy.”

Yet Foster criticizes historians who have recently drawn attention to Joseph Smith’s young wives. “Jon Krakauer, George D. Smith, and other commentators have fallen into the … trap,” he writes, of imposing “their values upon another place and time.”

“When the marriage patterns do not conform to their modern worldview, they look upon and write about marriages with teenaged brides with an open-mouthed, shocked, or offended voice,” he continues. One of the two individuals he cites, George D. Smith, is the author of Nauvoo Polygamy, a book by Signature Books that documents some thirty-eight wives of Joseph Smith, including nine teenagers and women married to other men. In Nauvoo, Joseph Smith instructed his male followers to take multiple brides and eventually 196 of the men married 717 women; 200 of the women were under 17 years of age.

From Foster's article on teenage brides and polygamyIn another chapter in The Persistence of Polygamy, historian Todd M. Compton cautions readers not to assume that marrying 14-year-olds was normal. Compton writes that in New Jersey in 1848-50, as an example, only 0.1 percent of the women married at 14 years or younger. He does “not find the arguments of some … that very early marriage was common in the past” to be “convincing.”

It has been said that because of Joseph Smith’s marriage to teen brides, some of his closest colleagues in the Church hierarchy left him and publicly exposed this new development in Church practice in a newspaper article. When Smith attempted to silence this local revolt, events followed which led to Smith’s arrest and eventual murder in a nearby jail.

The article on the age of Joseph Smith’s wives was co-authored by David Keller, a computer systems engineer, and Gregory L. Smith, a physician.

For a response by David Keller, click here.

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