excerpt – In Sacred Loneliness

The Plural Wives of Joseph SmithINTRODUCTION.

This book had its genesis in a research fellowship I received from the Huntington Library in 1992. My interest, among other things, was Eliza R. Snow’s pioneer diaries, housed in the Huntington’s impressive document collection. As a leading woman of early Mormonism—a poet, female activist, secret polygamous wife to Latter-day Saint (LDS) church founder Joseph Smith, and later a wife of Brigham Young—Snow seemed significant enough to warrant further attention, even though much had already been written about her. Particularly interesting to me were her oblique allusions to other plural wives, sometimes referred to by given name, sometimes by maiden or married surname only. To identify these women, I knew I would have to consult reliable lists of the marriages of Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, and Joseph Smith. Jeffery Johnson had published a good list of Brigham Young’s wives, and Stanley Kimball had provided a full list of Heber’s. Nevertheless, for Smith himself, I could not find any definitive listing of his plural marriage partners.

Andrew Jenson’s century-old list of twenty-seven of Smith’s plural wives provided a core of basic data. In the 1950s, Stanley S. Ivins compiled an unpublished list of eighty-four women, but many of these were only sealings to Joseph after his death. The first fully annotated, footnoted inventory of Smith’s plural wives was the appendix of Fawn Brodies No Man Knows My History, published in 1945, with minor updating in the 1971 edition. Although Brodie was a pioneer in documenting Smith’s polygamy, fifty years of secondary publications and classification of primary documents have dated her book, and, moreover, scholars have faulted her for relying on antagonistic sources that have since proven unreliable.

Eventually I concluded that a full, complete, up-to-date list of Joseph Smith’s wives would be a valuable addition to Mormon studies, and my project on Eliza Snow metamorphosed into an investigation of all of the wives of Joseph Smith, with Snow being one among many. Since early polygamy was secret and not officially documented, there are still many uncertainties in even a conservative, carefully documented description of Smith’s extended family. Nevertheless, this book furthers research on these women, provides an update to Brodie, and attempts a more balanced evaluation than her book offered.

Viewing Joseph Smith’s Wives Holistically

 Since the evidence on many of these women is ambiguous and problematic, I divided my list into two categories: women who were certainly or very probably married to Joseph Smith during his lifetime and whose marriages are supported by affidavits, reliable testimony, or multiple pieces of evidence; and “possible” wives whose marriages to Smith are supported by limited and inconclusive evidence. In addition, there are women whose marriages to Smith are poorly documented (supported by weak evidence, often sensationalized, contradictory attestations, lacking multiple confirmations) and might be called improbable candidates. There is also a category of posthumous marriages in which women were married (i.e., sealed) to Joseph after his death without evidence of a marriage relationship during his life.

Having arrived at a group of “certain” wives, while other studies have analyzed the marriages of these women in some detail, I try to view them holistically, from birth to death, devoting a full chapter to each woman. A study of their whole lives, apart from the intrinsic value of looking at important early Mormon women carefully, also shows the impact of their connection to Smith in their later lives. Most of them, because of their marriages to the Mormon prophet, became “proxy wives” to Mormon apostles and other leading Mormons, especially to Brigham Young and Heber Kimball—sealed to Smith for eternity, with the apostle standing in as Smith’s proxy in the flesh, to “raise seed” to Smith in this life—and thus the proxy husband was married to the woman only for time. This arrangement had significant advantages for the women (high status and visibility in Mormon society) and certain drawbacks. As Young and Kimball were among the most married of Mormons, many of Joseph Smith’s widows experienced the difficult trial of living in very large polygamous families.

These women were extraordinary in many ways. Many were authentically heroic, living lives of loss, hardship, and tragedy. Most were pioneers, sometimes throughout their lives, moving from New England to Ohio, then to Missouri, to different parts of Missouri, to Nauvoo, to Winter Quarters, and on to Utah. Houses were built, then abandoned, with nearly every move. When they reached Salt Lake Valley, and may have been anticipating a well-deserved rest, Brigham Young often sent them to settle outlying colonies in southern Utah, Idaho, Nevada, Colorado, California, and Arizona, where they endured desert conditions and were sometimes menaced by hostile Native Americans and outlaws. Eliza Partridge Lyman participated in virtually all of these migrations, helping to settle the almost inaccessible badlands of San Juan County in southeastern Utah. Another of Joseph’s wives, Agnes Coolbrith, traveled from Boston to Ohio, Missouri, Illinois, and through Utah to California.

While my study may be revisionist in some ways, it is also unabashedly celebratory. As it praises thirty-three women, it nevertheless looks at them and other early Mormons seriously and we see Mormon history from a new perspective—not from the viewpoint of male church leaders but from the viewpoint of women. This book tries to celebrate in a responsible, balanced way that all of its characters, female and male, Relief Society president and prophet, had weaknesses as well as strengths. Those who would portray Mormon history as carried on by superhuman men and women, without flaws, would turn them into inhuman automatons, which in fact betrays a deep disrespect for the real humanity of our foremothers and forefathers.

Recovering Clues to Forgotten Lives

 All historians are subject to the limitations of the evidence available, and this book is no exception. But it is surprising that these key women have been comparatively forgotten, especially considering the reverence Mormons hold for their founding prophet, and considering how important polygamy was to Smith. In fact, one occasionally meets Mormons who have no idea that Joseph Smith had plural wives at all; twentieth-century Mormons are undoubtedly uncomfortable with the details of nineteenth-century polygamy. In any event, many of these women are poorly documented, and it was difficult to reconstruct their lives. For some, even their death dates are unknown. Others, such as Sarah Bapson and Olive Andrews, have seemingly dropped out of history almost entirely.

When a woman is poorly documented, I have resorted to various strategies to trace the outline of her life. The first sources I have turned to are naturally the writings of the women themselves—diaries, autobiographies, letters—all of which, despite their obvious value, have limitations. Diaries lack hindsight and historical perspective. Eliza R. Snow’s Nauvoo diary, for instance, never overtly mentions her marriage to Joseph Smith. On the other hand, autobiographies idealize and often lack precision in dating. Letters preserve only half of a conversation.

The writings of close relatives often have great value. The autobiography of Louisa Beaman’s sister, Mary Beaman Noble, sheds considerable light on her sister s childhood, while Oliver Huntington’s journal is an important source for studying his sisters, Zina and Presendia. Later family histories are another important source of information for these women. These are nearly always idealized, second- and third-hand in nature, and generally too short. Also, generations of oral re-tellings invariably lose or change details. Nevertheless, family history often preserves valuable anecdotes and explanations for events that historians have misunderstood due to the fragmentary nature of the historical record.

Hints about a woman’s life are also found in the bare bones of genealogy. If the woman’s brothers and sisters die in Utah, it tells us that she probably had a support group in Mormonism throughout her life. The birth and death dates of children allow an imaginative reconstruction of the main patterns of a woman’s life: joyful celebrations at her children’s marriages and harrowing ordeals when a child dies.

History has too often neglected women in favor of their husbands, especially in a male-dominated social structure like Mormonism. Still, one finds information about women embedded in their husbands’ stories. For instance, much has been written about Orson Hyde, including a biography and other book-length studies, but his first wife, Marinda Johnson, has had almost nothing written about her. Yet if one traces Orson’s career, it is possible to follow her movements through his. When a husband is excommunicated, one imagines the wife’s dismay. When he goes on a long mission, one visualizes the wife at home, struggling to keep herself and her family afloat. So the feminist biographer often must use men to unearth the buried lives of spouses and relatives.

When documents actually written by the woman or her siblings or children or close friends exist, I have let them speak for themselves when possible, using fairly long quotations. This brings the woman vividly to life, giving a flavor of the way she talked, thought, felt, and believed, evoking humor and humanity that over-idealized or academic history sometimes ignores. Furthermore, there are problematic issues in the study of Mormon polygamy that must be examined closely, and the most effective way of doing this is to show the evidence when possible. Often, when one is treating an important issue, each relevant source needs careful interpretation, so I leave nineteenth-century texts unedited as much as possible. Original misspellings and grammatical idiosyncrasies are intact, with additions in brackets. No punctuation has been added beyond capitalizing the beginning of a quote. An uncertain reading is put within S brackets: { }. Since some readers will find these unpunctuated texts difficult, the end of a sentence or thought has been marked by an extra space between words.

The Supernatural

The supernatural—revelations; prophecy fulfilled; miraculous healings and glossolalia; visitations from dead relatives, from angels, from demonic spirits, and from the Three Nephites—comprise a major element of nineteenth-century Mormon writings. While the traditional historical-critical method might simply judge these to be non-factual and ignore them, I include supernatural elements in this book without offering positive or negative judgment so as to reproduce the world view of nineteenth-century Latter-day Saints. It would be naive to try to understand these women in their socio-cultural milieu without exploring and respecting their own ideology. For instance, Helen Mar Whitney’s belief in the presence of demonic spirits by her bedside is the necessary back-drop for understanding her sickbed conversion to polygamy. Belief in Joseph Smith as a seer who knew the future and past in detail, a major theme in Mary Elizabeth Lightner’s autobiography, provides insight into why she and other women agreed to become his polyandrous wives. This is the methodology used by Richard Bushman in his Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism: “My method has been to relate events as the participants themselves experienced them, using their own words where possible. Insofar as the revelations were a reality to them, I have treated them as real in this narrative. General readers will surely be left with questions about the meaning of these experiences, but at least they will have an understanding of how early Mormons perceived the world.”

In Sacred Loneliness

 Anti-Mormon polemicists saw polygamy as pure evil. Mormon men were viewed as insidious enslavers of women; polygamous women were seen as helpless, mindless victims. A representative period novel was entitled, Elder Northfield’s Home; or, Sacrificed on the Mormon Altar: A Story of the Blighting Curse of Polygamy. After sweeping aside such melodramatic propaganda, one finds that, in actuality, Mormon polygamists, both female and male, were generally sincere, intensely religious, often intelligent and able, and men and women of good will. Nevertheless, my central thesis is that Mormon polygamy was characterized by a tragic ambiguity. On the one hand, it was more than secular, monogamous marriage—it was the new and everlasting covenant, having eternal significance, a restoration from the prophetic, patriarchal milieu of Abraham which gave the participant infinite dominion in the next life. On the other hand, day-to-day practical polygamous living, for many women, was less than monogamous marriage—it was a social system that simply did not work in nineteenth-century America. Polygamous wives often experienced what was essentially acute neglect. Despite the husband’s sincere efforts, he could only give a specific wife a fraction of his time and means. Plural wife Annie Clark Tanner described herself as raising her ten children “alone.” When one of her boys caused trouble, her “frank admission” to a neighbor was: “Well I am alone.” The ambiguous nature of Mormon polygamy, for women, is summed up in a paragraph from Tanner’s moving autobiography: “As a girl I had been proud that my father and mother had obeyed the highest principle in the Church … I was aware now that my mother’s early married life must have been humiliating and joyless on many occasions because of her position as a second wife.”

Some feminist scholars have suggested that there were positive sides to the man’s frequent absence in a polygamous wife’s life; she became more independent, self-supporting, and closely tied to sister-wives, developing, as Annie Clark Tanner, noted, “an independence that women in monogamy never know.” Ironically, Tanner’s husband resented her independence and self-reliance. These advantages of polygamy, while real, are clearly consequences of the less-than-ideal absence of a marriage partner. Annie Tanner, in her discussion of the independence of women, also emphasized their isolation and insecurity. She often envied monogamous neighbors.

This is not to deny that there are examples of polygamous families that approached the supposed ideal. But special conditions (especially limited plurality) probably accounted for these successes. The more women a man married, the greater the danger for serious problems in the family, for the husband’s time and resources became more and more divided. By an almost cruel irony, the greater the number of women married, the greater the man s exaltation, according to nineteenth-century Mormon theology.

Not surprisingly, therefore, polygamous wives, even those married to prominent, well-to-do men, were often not supported adequately financially. Annie Clark Tanner wrote: “We returned from Provo after a single school year there. All of us were conscious now that we would have to make our own way, if possible, independent of help from Mr. Tanner.” In 1913 Annie s husband told her that she should “look to [her] stalwart sons for support.” Clearly, monogamous men also struggled financially at times, but polygamy exacerbated financial problems.

As the polygamous husbands were generally church leaders, demands on their time further reduced their ability to be with their families. Polygamous husbands generally had favorite wives, which limited even more their time with other wives. As a result, some women left their polygamous husbands, but if they remained in the family, they compensated by developing especially close ties with sister-wives, siblings, and children. Annie Clark Tanner wrote, “A woman in polygamy is compelled by her lone position to make a confidant of her children.” Plural wife Olive Andelin Potter wrote, “I have worshipped my children all my life, as I have had no husband to love so all my love has been for them.”

Polygamous marriage, by modern monogamous standards, often does not seem like marriage at all. Sometimes polygamous wives consciously steeled themselves to limit affection for their husbands, as a strategy for emotional survival during absences. Vilate Kimball advised a plural wife that “she must lay aside wholly all interest or thought in what her husband was doing while he was away from her” and be “pleased to see him when he came in as she was pleased to see any friend.” Annie Clark Tanner wrote of her husband, “When he came to my house, he was more like a guest.”

Thus the title of this book, In Sacred Loneliness. Often plural wives who experienced loneliness also reported feelings of depression, despair, anxiety, helplessness, abandonment, anger, psychosomatic symptoms, and low self-esteem. Certainly polygamous marriage was accepted by nineteenth-century Mormons as thoroughly sacred—it almost defined what was most holy to them—but its practical result, for the woman, was solitude.

An Overview of Joseph Smith’s Wives

Agnes Moulton CoolbrithI have identified thirty-three well-documented wives of Joseph Smith, which some may regard as an overly conservative numbering. Historians Fawn Brodie, D. Michael Quinn, and George D. Smith list forty-eight, forty-six, and forty-three, respectively. Yet in problematic areas it may be advisable to err on the side of caution. Unless further evidence surfaces, I regard the “possible” wives as subjects for additional research rather than as women whose marriages to Joseph Smith can be conclusively demonstrated.

What criteria can be used to evaluate whether a woman’s marriage to Joseph Smith (during his lifetime) can be reliably documented? In 1869 Joseph F. Smith, countering Reorganized Latter Day Saint Church (RLDS) denials of Joseph Smith’s polygamy, had Joseph Smith’s living widows sign affidavits documenting their marriages to him. An affidavit is very good evidence. A woman mentioning in a journal or autobiography that she married the prophet is also good evidence, as is a close family member’s or friend’s testimony or affidavit or reminiscence, especially if he or she supplies convincing detail, anecdotal or documentary.

Even without an affidavit or holographic evidence for a woman, multiple pieces of evidence can make a convincing case for her marriage. The contours of a woman’s life support or weaken the likelihood that she married the Mormon leader. For instance, while two or three uncertain pieces of evidence suggest that Vienna Jacques may have married Smith, the rest of her life does not make her look like his plural wife. (Some assume she married him in Kirtland, Ohio, but then immediately left him and moved to Missouri, where she married another man. Nor did she have a proxy marriage to Smith in the Nauvoo temple.) If a woman lived in Smith’s home, this is possible supporting evidence for a wedding but not conclusive by itself.

Certain lists have proved to be reliable. Though John C. Bennett was unscrupulous in many ways, he was a Nauvoo insider, and his 1842 list of Smith’s wives has been adequately substantiated. Assistant Church Historian Andrew Jenson’s 1887 list of twenty-seven wives, based on interviews and affidavits, is also a basic resource. Small lists, from sources both sympathetic and hostile to polygamy, have been authenticated.

The eight “Possible Wives” listed in the chart (see book) are supported by limited, problematic, or contradictory evidence, sometimes only one attestation in a late source. For instance, Hannah Dubois Dibble’s marriage is supported only by two pieces of evidence in late sources. Hannah did live in the Smith home briefly, but Joseph officiated when she married Philo Dibble. Later she married Philo, not Joseph, for eternity in the Nauvoo temple.

For another example, Orson Whitney, son and nephew of two of Joseph’s wives, referred to Mary Houston as a “[wife] of the Prophet.” Mary certainly married Smith for eternity after his death and was sealed to Heber Kimball for time in a Nauvoo temple proxy marriage, and Whitney possibly assumed that this proved she married him while he was alive. But there is no evidence for a non-proxy marriage to Smith during his lifetime.

This leads us to my final category, “Early Posthumous Proxy Marriages”—sealings to Smith after his death. It is true that most of his wives recommemorated their marriages to him by proxy after his passing. But not all of the women sealed to him after his death had a previous marital relationship with him. For instance, Cordelia Morley stated in a memoir that she had never married Smith while he was living. Other early posthumous-only marriages to Smith include Augusta Adams Cobb Young (1848) and Amanda Barnes Smith (1852). Mary Ann Frost Stearns Pratt seems to have married Parley P. Pratt for eternity during Smith’s lifetime, so her later sealing to Smith is also probably posthumous-only.

Thus I arrive at a list of thirty-three well-documented wives of Smith. Such a limited, but solid list allows a reliable overview that offers great insight into the women themselves, into Joseph Smith, and into pre-Utah polygamy. Antagonistic, often sensationalizing sources list other women as wives of Joseph Smith; he also proposed to at least five more women who turned him down.

The Timing of Joseph Smith’s Marriages

 As we trace the trajectory of Smith’s marriages, we see that he apparently experimented with plural marriage in the 1830s in Ohio and Missouri. Detailed records are not extant, but the evidence, when weighed carefully, suggests that these were probably authentic plural marriages. In 1841 Smith cautiously added three wives. But in 1842 he married eleven wives in the first eight months of the year. New marriages then stopped for five months—a significant gap—perhaps caused by the John Bennett exposé in which Smith’s former right-hand man published a series of lurid articles chronicling Joseph’s alleged misdeeds, including polygamy.

However, during the first half of 1843, Joseph married fourteen more wives, including five in May. After July his marriages stopped abruptly, with only two exceptions in September and November. He didn’t take any wives during the last eight months of his life—a striking fact, especially when contrasted with the number of women he married during the previous two years.

This puzzle has a number of possible solutions. Nauvoo stake president William Marks suggested in 1853 that Smith came to have doubts about polygamy before his death:

When the doctrine of polygamy was introduced into the church as a principle of exaltation, I took a decided stand against it; which stand rendered me quite unpopular with many of the leading ones of the church … Joseph, however, became convinced before his death that he had done wrong; for about three weeks before his death, I met him one morning in the street, and he said to me, “Brother Marks … We are a ruined people.” I asked, how so? he said: “This doctrine of polygamy, or Spiritual-wife system, that has been taught and practiced among us, will prove our destruction and overthrow. I have been deceived,” said he, “in reference to its practice; it is wrong; it is a curse to mankind, and we shall have to leave the United States soon, unless it can be put down and its practice stopped in the church.”

Smith then reportedly told Marks to excommunicate all polygamists. This testimony seems to reflect a slight RLDS partisan coloring; furthermore, Marks was not in the inner polygamy circle in Nauvoo. However, the eight-month cessation of plural marriages before Joseph’s death might support Marks’s story.

Another possibility is that the discontinuation of marriages resulted from tensions between Smith and his first wife, Emma, who threatened to leave him during this period. Such a scandal would have been disastrous for him and the church. He was also under pressure from his counselor in the First Presidency, William Law, a confirmed opponent of polygamy. Whether Smith came to believe polygamy was wrong or was merely pausing for tactical reasons, as he had during the Bennett scandal, is uncertain. But the eight-month cessation of marriages at the end of his life is a notable phenomenon.

The twenty-five or so wives whom Joseph married in early 1842 and 1843 bear impressive testimony to the fact that plural marriage was not simply a footnote to his life or theology, particularly since he was well aware of the threat of exposure. When he taught the principle of plural marriage to Sarah Kimball, wife of Hiram Kimball (such teaching usually presaging a proposal), “He said that in teaching this he realized that he jeopardized his life.” Furthermore, some of his marriages were polyandrous, which incurred the danger of jealous husbands.

Thus the doctrine of plural marriage was of central importance to Smith for religious, doctrinal, ecclesiastical, and emotional reasons. William Clayton, his scribe and companion in Nauvoo, wrote that the Mormon prophet spoke of little else in private in the last year of his life. As he developed the principle of sealing ordinances that connected families for eternity, this doctrine was inextricably bound up with plural marriage. Later nineteenth-century Mormons taught that a monogamist could not gain complete salvation, a belief that was clearly based on Smith’s teachings.

The Number of Joseph Smith’s Wives

 Though thirty-three is less than forty-eight, it is still a remarkably large, polygamous family. One may wonder why Smith married so many women when two or three wives would have complied with the reported divine command to enter polygamy. However, the church president apparently believed that complete salvation (in Mormon terminology, exaltation, including the concept of deification) depended on the extent of a man’s family sealed to him in this life. Benjamin Johnson, a brother of Smith’s plural wife Almera, wrote:

The First Command was to “Multiply” and the Prophet taught us that Dominion & powr in the great Future would be Comensurate with the no [number] of “Wives Childin & Friends” that we inheret here and that our great mission to earth was to Organize a Neculi [nucleus] of Heaven to take with us. To the increace of which there would be no end—

The emphasis on increase echoes the Abrahamic promise, in which God promised Abraham that his posterity would be as plentiful as the dust of the earth, the stars in the sky, and the sands of the seashore (Gen. 13:16, 16:10, 17:6, 18:18, 22:17). Early Mormons taught that the doctrine of plural marriage was revealed to Smith “while he was engaged in the work of translation of the Scriptures,” and historian Danel Bachman concludes that it was specifically the translation of Genesis, the Abraham passages, that caused Joseph to pray about polygamy in February 1831 and receive his first revelations on the topic. The example of Abraham and the Abrahamic promise are prominently mentioned in the LDS church’s Doctrine and Covenants (D&C 132), the officially canonized revelation on polygamy and exaltation.

The idea that one had to be sealed to one’s family nucleus in this life probably depended on another biblical passage, Matthew 22:30, in which Jesus states that “in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage.” Smith apparently interpreted this to mean that one had to create one’s “extended family,” one’s kingdom, by marriage while on earth. Orson Pratt, in a discourse given in 1859, taught this explicitly.

Thus the Mormon practice of polygamy, influenced strongly by these two scriptures, is an example of the early American biblical primitivism that shaped Joseph Smith and early Mormonism. The Old Testament, with its prophets and temples and polygamy, is a central thread running through Joseph’s life and is clearly a primary source for his sense of prophetic mission and for his doctrine.

The importance of the size of one’s eternal family, and the necessity of building it up on this earth, is shown by the custom of adoption practiced in the late Nauvoo period by Brigham Young and other Mormon leaders who would have grown men sealed to them as “sons.” These “sons” even signed their names with their new “father’s” last name. In the late Nauvoo period, Mormon leaders reportedly competed to add new members, “sons,” to their adoptive families.

In Helen Mar Kimball’s marriage to the prophet, Smith and her father, Heber Kimball, desired the marriage so that Heber’s family would be linked eternally to Smith, thus assuring their salvation. D. Michael Quinn, with his interest in prosopography, emphasizes the fact that Smith’s marriages linked him with important men in the church, giving them reciprocal earthly and eschatological advantages. When Jedediah Grant preached on plural marriage, he spoke of Smith “adding to his family”: “When the family organization was revealed from heaven—the patriarchal order of God, and Joseph began, on the right and the left, to add to his family, what a quaking there was in Israel.”

Thus in Smith’s Nauvoo ideology, a fullness of salvation depended on the quantity of family members sealed to a person in this life. This puts the number of women Joseph married into an understandable context. This doctrine also makes it clear that, though Joseph’s marriages undoubtedly had a sexual dimension, theological concepts also drove his polygamy, as well as the related purpose of gaining the highest possible exaltation by linking elite families to him for both earthly and eternal reasons.

The Ages of Joseph Smith’s Wives

 In the group of Smith’s well-documented wives, eleven (33 percent) were 14 to 20 years old when they married him. Nine wives (27 percent) were twenty-one to thirty years old. Eight wives (24 percent) were in Smith’s own peer group, ages thirty-one to forty. In the group aged forty-one to fifty, there is a substantial drop off: two wives, or 6 percent, and three (9 percent) in the group fifty-one to sixty.

The teenage representation is the largest, though the twenty-year and thirty-year groups are comparable, which contradicts the Mormon folk wisdom that sees the beginnings of polygamy as an attempt to care for older, unattached women. These data suggest that sexual attraction was an important part of the motivation for Smith’s polygamy. In fact, the command to multiply and replenish the earth was part of the polygamy theology, so non-sexual marriage was generally not in the polygamous program, as Smith taught it.

One may ask why the Mormon leader married any older women at all. Two reasons can be offered. First, two of these women, Fanny Young Murray and Rhoda Richards, were sisters of favored apostles, so the marriages were dynastic. Interestingly, Joseph’s youngest wife, Helen Mar Kimball, was the daughter of another loyal apostle, Heber C. Kimball, so that marriage may also be considered dynastic, not motivated solely by sexual interest. Second, older women served as teachers and messengers to introduce and convert younger women to the practice in Nauvoo. Elizabeth Durfee and Patty Sessions belong in this category. Eliza R. Snow acted in this capacity in Utah. For Mormon feminists unsympathetic to patriarchal polygamy, this will be one of the most troubling aspects of Mormon polygamy: women co-opting other, younger females into the order.

Sexuality in Joseph Smith’s Plural Marriages

 Joseph Smith’s first wife, Emma, allegedly told the wife of Apostle George A. Smith, Lucy, that Joseph Smith’s plural wives were “celestial” only, that he had no earthly marital relations with them. “They were only sealed for eternity they were not to live with him and have children.” Lucy later wrote that when she told this to her husband:

He related to me the circumstance of his calling on Joseph late one evening and he was just taking a wash and Joseph told him that one of his wives had just been confined and Emma was the Midwife and he had been assisting her. He [George A. Smith] told me [Lucy Smith] this to prove to me that the women were married for time [as well as for eternity], as Emma had told me that Joseph never taught any such thing.

Because Reorganized Latter Day Saints claimed that Joseph Smith was not really married polygamously in the full (i.e., sexual) sense of the term, Utah Mormons (including Smith’s wives) affirmed repeatedly that he had physical sexual relations with them—despite the Victorian conventions in nineteenth-century American culture which ordinarily would have prevented any mention of sexuality.

For instance, Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner stated that she knew of children born to Smith’s plural wives: “I know he had six wives and I have known some of them from childhood up. I know he had three children. They told me. I think two are living today but they are not known as his children as they go by other names.” Melissa Lott Willes testified that she had been Smith’s wife “in very deed.” Emily Partridge Young said she “roomed” with Joseph the night following her marriage to him, and said that she had “carnal intercourse” with him.

Other early witnesses also affirmed this. Benjamin Johnson wrote “On the 15th of May … the Prophet again Came and at my hosue [house] ocupied the Same Room & Bed with my Sister that the month previous he had ocupied with the Daughter of the Later Bishop Partridge as his wife.” According to Joseph Bates Noble, Smith told him he had spent a night with Louisa Beaman.

When Angus Cannon, a Salt Lake City stake president, visited Joseph Smith III in 1905, the RLDS president asked rhetorically if these women were his father’s wives, then “how was it that there was no issue from them.” Cannon replied:

All I knew was that which Lucy Walker herself contends. They were so nervous and lived in such constant fear that they could not conceive. He made light of my reply. He said, “I am informed that Eliza Snow was a virgin at the time of her death.” I in turn said, “Brother Heber C. Kimball, I am informed, asked her the question if she was not a virgin although married to Joseph Smith and afterwards to Brigham Young, when she replied in a private gathering, ‘I thought you knew Joseph Smith better than that.'”

Cannon then mentioned that Sylvia Sessions Lyon, a plural wife of Smith, had had a child by him, Josephine Lyon Fisher. Josephine left an affidavit stating that her mother, Sylvia, when on her deathbed, told her that she (Josephine) was the daughter of Joseph Smith. In addition, posterity (i.e., sexuality) was an important theological element in Smith’s Abrahamic-promise justification for polygamy.

Since there is a great deal of evidence that Joseph Smith had sexual relations with his wives, one wonders why he did not have more polygamous children. However, some of his children apparently grew up under other names, as Mary Lightner suggested. Furthermore, he may not have had numerous posterity because he was not able to visit his wives regularly, both because he was often hiding from the law and because Emma, his first wife, watched him carefully. In addition, polygamy was illegal. On top of these pressures, he soon had many wives, which made it more difficult to visit all of them frequently and regularly. Since polygamists generally had favorite wives, Smith probably neglected some of his. Finally, some of his wives were married to other men in polyandrous relationships, so such wives would probably have had children by their “first husbands,” with whom they were cohabiting regularly, not by Joseph. All of these factors would have combined to limit the number of his children. However, it is clear that some of his plural wives did have children by him, if we can rely on the statements of George A. Smith, Josephine Fisher, and Elizabeth Lightner.

Despite this evidence, some have argued that Joseph did not have marital relations with his wives, using the following arguments: First, some conclude that Helen Mar Kimball, who married Smith when she was fourteen, did not have marital relations with him. This is possible, as there are cases of Mormons in Utah marrying young girls and refraining from sexuality until they were older. But the evidence for Helen Mar is entirely ambiguous, in my view.

Some, like Emma Smith, conclude that Joseph’s marriages were for eternity only, not for time (thus without earthly sexuality). But many of Joseph’s wives affirmed that they were married to him for eternity and time, with sexuality included. Eliza Snow, in her autobiography, wrote that “I was sealed to the Prophet Joseph Smith, for time and eternity, in accordance with the Celestial Law of Marriage which God has revealed.” Furthermore, there are no known instances of marriages for “eternity only” in the nineteenth century.

Some have pointed out that Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner said in 1905, “I … was sealed to Joseph for Eternity.” Thus, they argue, Smith had no relations with her, a polyandrous wife, as he was married to her for eternity only. However, Lightner apparently was merely emphasizing eternity in this statement; she testified in three different places that she was also sealed to Smith for time. For example, in a 1902 statement, she said, “Brigham Young Sealed me to him [Smith], for time & all eternity.”

Zina Huntington Young also had a polyandrous relationship with Smith and her first husband, Henry Jacobs. Some point out that she gave an interview in which she referred to her marriage to Smith as “eternal,” not for “time.” However, in the same interview she emphasized that she was married to the Mormon leader for time, as well:

[Zina:] … he [Joseph Smith] married me … When Brigham Young returned from England, he repeated the ceremony for time and eternity. … I was sealed to Joseph Smith for eternity.

[Zina:] I meant for eternity.Some interpreters place great weight on these statements, as showing that Zina’s marriage was “spiritual” only. But the interview is so contradictory on this issue, as the elderly Zina sounds defensive and confused while answering an RLDS judge’s harsh questions, that it cannot be used as solid evidence. One even wonders if early Mormons did not use the term “marriage for eternity” to encompass “time and eternity,” as Mormons do today.

[Q:] Mrs. Young, you have answered that question in two ways; for time, and for time and eternity.

[Question:] Mrs. Young, you claim, I believe, that you were not married to him “for time?”

[Zina:] “For eternity.” I was married to Mr. Jacobs, but the marriage was unhappy and we parted …

[Q:] Is it a fact then, Mrs. Young, that Joseph was not married to you only in the sense of being sealed “for eternity?”

[Zina:] As his wife for time and eternity.

In conclusion, though it is possible that Joseph had some marriages in which there were no sexual relations, there is not any explicit or convincing evidence for this (except, perhaps, in the cases of the older wives, judging from later Mormon polygamy). And in a significant number of marriages, there is evidence for sexual relations.

Marital Status at the Time of Marriage: Polyandry

Lucy Walker (Smith Kimball) in later life. (Courtesy Salt Lake City Daughters of Utah Pioneers.)Eighteen of Joseph’s wives (55 percent) were single when he married them and had never been married previously. Another four (12 percent) were widows. One, Agnes Coolbrith Smith, was the widow of his younger brother, Don Carlos, making this a strict Levirate marriage. However, the remaining eleven women (33 percent) were married to other husbands and cohabiting with them when Smith married them. Another woman, Sarah Ann Whitney, married Smith, then married another man soon after in a civil, “pretend” marriage. I use the term polyandry—which means one woman being married to two men simultaneously—to describe this marital triangulation.

Polyandry is one of the major problems found in Smith’s polygamy and many questions surround it. Why did he at first primarily prefer polyandrous marriages? Did the husbands know about the marriages, and, if so, how did they feel about them? Did they allow the marriages to Joseph willingly or reluctantly? Did such marriages include sexuality, and what was the doctrinal rationale for them?

In the past, polyandry has often been ignored or glossed over, but if these women merit serious attention, the topic cannot be overlooked. Joseph F. Smith, seventh president of the LDS church, and Andrew Jenson, Assistant Church Historian, documented these women’s polyandrous marriages to Joseph Smith, including affidavits with dates of the ceremonies. Their civil marriages and dates of childbirths are also easily corroborated. Joseph F. Smith and Andrew Jenson have forced the issue for the serious historian, and the only option is to try to come to as complete and balanced an understanding of the phenomenon as possible.

A common misconception concerning Joseph Smith’s polyandry is that he participated in only one or two such unusual unions. In fact, fully one-third of his plural wives, eleven of them, were married civilly to other men when he married them. If one superimposes a chronological perspective, one sees that of Smith’s first twelve wives, nine were polyandrous. So in this early period, polyandry was the norm not the anomaly. His later marriages were largely to single women, with two exceptions in 1843. Polyandry might be easier to understand if one viewed these marriages to Smith as a sort of de facto divorce from the first husband. However, none of these women divorced their “first husbands” while Smith was alive and all of them continued to live with their civil spouses while married to Smith.

Some have suggested that the first husbands in these marriages were generally disaffected from Mormonism or were non-Mormon and that Smith married the women to offer them salvation. In such cases, the women would have wanted to be married to Smith as a righteous husband who could bring them exaltation. If so, one would have expected the women to leave the unworthy men.

The totality of the evidence, however, does not support this theory. In the eleven certain polyandrous marriages, only three of the husbands were non-Mormon (Lightner, Sayers, and Cleveland) and only one was disaffected (Buell). All other husbands were in good standing in the church at the time Joseph married their wives. Many were prominent church leaders and close friends of Smith. George W. Harris was a high councilor in Missouri and Nauvoo, a position equivalent to that of a twentieth-century general authority. Henry Jacobs was a devoted friend of Joseph and a faithful missionary. Orson Hyde was an apostle on his mission to Palestine when Smith married his wife. Jonathan Holmes was one of Smith’s bodyguards and served as a pallbearer after Smith’s death. Windsor Lyon was a member in good standing when Smith united with Sylvia Lyon, and he loaned the prophet money after the marriage. David Sessions was a devout Latter-day Saint.

These data suggest that Joseph may have married these women, often not because they were married to non-members, but because they were married to faithful Latter-day Saints who were his devoted friends. This again suggests that the men knew about the marriages and permitted them.

Another theory is that Joseph married polyandrously when the marriage was unhappy. If this were true, it would have been easy for the woman to divorce her husband, then marry Smith. But none of these women did so; some of them stayed with their “first husbands” until death. In the case of Zina Huntington Jacobs and Henry Jacobs—often used as an example of Smith marrying a woman whose marriage was unhappy—the Mormon leader married her just seven months after she married Jacobs, and then she stayed with Jacobs for years after Smith’s death. Then the separation was forced when Brigham Young (who had married Zina polyandrously in the Nauvoo temple) sent Jacobs on a mission to England and began living with Zina himself.

Having rejected the theories that Smith married polyandrously when the marriages involved non-member husbands or were unhappy, we turn to statements in the historical record that do supply a convincing rationale for polyandry. First, Smith regarded marriages performed without Mormon priesthood authority as invalid (see D&C 132:7), just as he regarded baptisms performed without Mormon priesthood authority as invalid. Thus all couples in Nauvoo who accepted Mormonism were suddenly unmarried, granted Joseph’s absolutist, exclusivist claims to divine authority. John D. Lee wrote:

About the same time the doctrine of “sealing” for an eternal state was introduced, and the Saints were given to understand that their marriage relations with each other were not valid. That those who had solemnized the rites of matrimony had no authority of God to do so. That the true priesthood was taken from the earth with the death of the Apostles … They were married to each other only by their own covenants, and that if their marriage relations had not been productive of blessings and peace, and they felt it oppressive to remain together, they were at liberty to make their own choice, as much as if they had not been married. That it was a sin for people to live together, and raise or beget children in a!ienation from each other. There should be an affinity between each other, not a lustful one, as that can never cement that love and affection that should exist between a man and his wife.

This is a radical, almost utopian rejection of civil, secular, sectarian, non-Mormon marriage. Civil marriage was even a “sin,” unless a higher “affinity” “cemented” spouses together.

Another relevant doctrinal statement comes from an 1861 speech by Brigham Young:

The Second Way in which a wife can be seperated from her husband, while he continues to be faithful to his God and his preisthood, I have not revealed, except to a few persons in this Church; and a few have received it from Joseph the prophet as well as myself. If a woman can find a man holding the keys of the preisthood with higher power and authority than her husband, and he is disposed to take her he can do so, otherwise she has got to remain where she is … there is no need for a bill of divorcement … To recapitulate. First if a man forfiets his covenants with a wife, or wives, becoming unfaithful to his God, and his preisthood, that wife or wives are free from him without a bill of divorcement. Second. If a woman claimes protection at the hands of a man, possessing more power in the preisthood and higher keys, if he is disposed to rescue her and has obtained the consent of her husband to make her his wife he can do so without a bill of divorcement.

This allows for two options: (1) if a man apostatized, his wife could leave him without a formal divorce; (2) if a woman desired to be married to a man with greater priesthood authority than her current husband, and if both men agreed, she could be sealed to the second man without a formal divorce. In some ways this principle can be applied directly to Smith’s polyandrous marriages, for clearly he was regarded as having more priesthood authority than any other living man. The emphasis on the desire of the woman is notable. In nineteenth-century Utah there are well-documented cases in which married women asked to be joined to a prominent church leader. In Nauvoo, however, such cases would not be frequent, as polygamy was secret. In Young’s statement the husband is granted his own volition, which would be consistent with the suggestion made above that the first husbands in Smith’s polyandrous marriages may have known about the marriages and permitted them.

Jedediah Grant’s 1854 statement already referred to can now be quoted more fully:

When the family organization was revealed from heaven—the patriarchal order of God, and Joseph began, on the right and the left, to add to his family, what a quaking there was in Israel. Says one brother to another, “Joseph says all covenants [previous marriages] are done away, and none are binding but the new covenants [marriage by priesthood sealing power]; now suppose Joseph should come and say he wanted your wife, what would you say to that?” “I would tell him to go to hell.” This was the spirit of many in the early days of this Church [i.e., unwillingness to consecrate everything to Smith as the mouthpiece of God] … What would a man of God say, who felt aright, when Joseph asked him for his money? [he would give it all willingly] Or if he came and said, “I want your wife?” “O yes,” he would say, “here she is, there are plenty more.” … Did the Prophet Joseph want every man’s wife he asked for? He did not … the grand object in view was to try the people of God, to see what was in them. If such a man of God should come to me and say, “I want your gold and silver, or your wives,” I should say, “Here they are, I wish I had more to give you, take all I have got.” A man who has got the Spirit of God, and the light of eternity in him, has no trouble about such matters.

This remarkable sympathetic testimony to Smith’s polyandrous marriages touches on many areas of interest. First, Grant sees the practice in terms of extended “family organization.” Polyandry would obviously be useful in linking families to Smith. “Joseph says all covenants are done away, and none are binding but the new covenants.” Here we have the doctrine that previous marriages are of no effect, “illegal,” in Orson Pratt’s words. Grant disapproves of those who were asked to give up their wives and refused. The proper response, according to Grant, would have been instant, unquestioning consecration of all “possessions” to the prophet. He states that Smith did not want every wife he asked for, which implies that he wanted some of them. The emphasis here is on Smith’s testing his followers, as when Smith demanded Vilate Kimball from Heber Kimball. Yet the fact that at least eleven women were married to Joseph polyandrously, including the wife of prominent apostle Orson Hyde, shows that in many cases Joseph was not simply asking for wives as a test of loyalty; sometimes the test included giving up the wife.

Another doctrine that apparently served as an underpinning for Smith’s polyandry was his doctrine of a pre-existence, which holds that our spirits lived with God before birth and were given assignments there relating to what we would do here. According to Mary Elizabeth Lightner who was married to Adam Lightner when Joseph proposed to her, “Joseph Said I was his, before I came here. he said all the Devils in Hell should never get me from him.” Elsewhere she wrote that Smith told her he had been commanded to marry her, “or Suffer condemnation—for I [Mary] was created for him before the foundation of the Earth was laid.” Apparently, if Smith had a spiritual intuition that he was linked to a woman, he asserted that she had been sealed to him in the pre-existence, even though she was legally married to another man. But, as we have seen, he taught that civil marriages performed without the priesthood sealing power were not valid, even at times sinful. Therefore, the link in the pre-existence would take immediate priority over a marriage performed by invalid, secular or “sectarian ,” authority in this life. John D. Lee wrote that a spiritual “affinity” took precedence over secular ceremonies. Perhaps Joseph Smith also felt, as the Brigham Young statement suggests, that men with higher priesthood had a greater aptitude for spiritual affinity.

According to an early, though antagonistic, eyewitness source, William Hall, the doctrine of “kindred spirits” was found in Nauvoo polyandry. According to this report, Smith taught that “all real marriages were made in heaven before the birth of the parties,” which coincides neatly with Lightner. There is at least one early “friendly” reference to the “kindred spirit” doctrine. In an 1845 patriarchal blessing, William Smith said, “But the fullness of her salvation cannot be made perfect until her companion is with her and those who are of his Kingdom, for the kindred spirits are gathered up and are united in the Celestial Kingdom of one.”

Thus heavenly marriage in the pre-existence required earthly polyandry here. Certain spirits were “kindred,” matched in heaven, were born into this life, and, because of unauthorized marriages performed without priesthood sealing power, became linked “illegally” to the wrong partners. But when the kindred spirits recognized each other, the “illegal” marriages became of no effect from a religious, eternal perspective and the “kindred” partners were free to marry each other through the priesthood sealing power for eternity as well as for time.

Apparently, however, Joseph would allow the wife to continue living with her first husband after such a marriage. There were not any divorces as a result of his polyandrous marriages. But the first husband probably recognized that he and the wife were married only until death, while Smith was married to her for eternity as well as for time. When eternal sealings were repeated in the Nauvoo temple in late 1845 and early 1846, two “first husbands,” George W. Harris and Jonathan Holmes, stood proxy for the prophet as their wives were sealed to him for eternity. Another “first husband,” Henry Jacobs, stood as witness when his wife, Zina, was sealed eternally to Smith (with Brigham Young, not Jacobs, standing proxy in this case), then witnessed his wife’s sealing to Young for time, after which, Henry and Zina with their son, Zebulon, began the pioneer trek to the west together. Zina bore a second son to Jacobs, Henry Chariton, halfway across Iowa.

This kind of marriage was not viewed as eternal polyandry. A man could be sealed to many women for eternity, but a woman could be sealed to only one man for eternity. The distinction between civil and spiritual marriage produced what might be called practical polyandry—i.e., on earth there were clearly two co-existent marriages, but they were of different types. By Joseph Smith’s authoritarian perspective, there was only one marriage that was “real,” performed by priesthood authority—the eternal bond.

Neither of these concepts—the divine illegality of civil, sectarian marriage, and the idea of higher, spiritual “affinity” between male and female spirits (even though they may happen to be married civilly to other people)—was original to Joseph Smith, though he developed them in his idiosyncratic way. An 1868 study by William Hepworth Dixon, Spiritual Wives, traces the roots of “spiritual affinity” to Protestant Europe, in particular to the Swede Emanuel Swedenborg. In Joseph Smith’s milieu, we find Rev. Erasmus Stone experiencing a vision of men and women in the sky looking at each other with yearning and pain; this meant, said Stone, that “in the present stage of being, men and women are nearly always wrongly paired in marriage.” The people in the vision sought their spiritual mates with whom they had true “affinity,” a crucial word in this tradition. Stone proceeded to find a spiritual affinity with a married woman, Eliza Porter. When true affinity is found, such love would not be limited to this life but would be eternal, and so we have a comparand to the Mormon doctrine of eternal marriage. Swedenborg also taught that spirits were matched in a pre-existent life: “Two souls which grew up together before life are bound to find each other again on earth,” which foreshadows the doctrine Joseph taught Mary Elizabeth Lightner when he proposed to her.

Stone’s story, like Joseph Smith’s, was the product of the Burned-over District in New York, where a Protestant revival atmosphere served as a seeding ground for a great deal of religious and marital experimentation. The “Spiritual Wives” polyandrous doctrine, so foreign to twentieth-century Mormons, was part of Joseph Smith’s Zeitgeist. Though the system was clearly subject to the danger of extremist abuse, it was developed by sincerely religious men: “The advocates of Spiritual wifehood are, and have been, for the most part ministers of the gospel, men of thought and learning,” wrote Dixon.

Some historians have proposed the interpretation that Joseph either did not have any marital relations with his “polyandrous” wives, if the husband was faithful to the church, or that the “first husband” had no marital relations with the woman. Such a theoretical relationship has been called “pseudopolyandry.” However, the Josephine Lyon Fisher affidavit argues against this. According to Josephine, her mother, Sylvia, one of Smith’s polyandrous wives, “told me that I was the daughter of the Prophet Joseph Smith, she having been sealed to the Prophet at the time that her husband Mr. Lyon was out of fellowship with the Church.”

Another piece of evidence used to show that polyandrous wives were married only for eternity, not for time, is the interview with Zina Huntington Jacobs, which, as we have seen, is unsatisfactory for taking either side of the argument. In the same way, Mary Elizabeth Lightner’s statement that she was married to Smith for eternity (as a polyandrous wife) has been used to show that she was not married to him for time; but she elsewhere specifically and repeatedly stated that she was married to him for time and eternity. Patty Sessions, another polyandrous wife, wrote in a genealogical record that she had been married to Joseph Smith “for Eternity,” but to clarify, wrote above the line, “time and all eternity.”

Therefore there is not any good evidence that Joseph Smith did not have sexual relations with any wife, previously single or polyandrous. On the other hand, there is evidence that he did have relations with at least some of these women, including one polyandrous wife, Sylvia Sessions Lyon, who bore the only polygamous offspring of Smith for whom we have affidavit evidence.

Finally, one wonders why these “first husbands” apparently acquiesced to their wives’ marriages to Smith. One possibility would be that they were promised spiritual rewards as a result of the marriages, as was the case with the families of three “single” plural wives. When Fanny Alger married Joseph, her family was proud of the sealing, according to Ann Eliza Webb. In the same way, when Sarah Whitney was sealed to the prophet, he re-baptized her parents and gave special blessings to her father, Newel Whitney. Heber C. Kimball greatly desired that his daughter, Helen, should be married to the prophet so that there would be an eternal connection between the two families; Joseph himself told Helen that her marriage to him would ensure her family’s salvation.

If this held true for the polyandrous families as well, including the husbands, it would explain some of the psychological dynamics of these unusual marriages. The husbands may have been promised that Smith’s marriage to their wives would contribute to their own higher exaltation after this life. “Buckeye’s Lament,” an attack on Smith published shortly before his death, supports this interpretation: “But if you yield willingly,/ Your daughters and your wives,/ In spiritual marriage to our POPE,/ He’ll bless you all your lives;/ He’ll seal you up, be damned you can’t, No matter what you do—If that you only stick to him,/ He swears HE’LL take you through.” The phrase “your daughters and your wives” clearly suggests that Joseph offered salvation to “first husbands” as well as to the fathers of his brides.

It should also be borne in mind that the men and women involved in Nauvoo polygamy and polyandry did not understand it thoroughly. It was new doctrine, preached only in great secrecy, and though Smith taught polygamy to his inner circle, practical experience often differed from didactic religious doctrine. So a husband giving his wife to Joseph may not have understood fully what the marriage would entail. Helen Mar Kimball, a non-polyandrous wife, found her marriage to mean much more, on an earthly plane, than she had expected; possibly the husbands and wives in polyandrous triangles had the same experience. In Nauvoo-period theological terminology, there was some ambiguity in the terms “sealing” and “marriage,” and it is possible that some men and women did not grasp that “sealing” also meant “marriage” and therefore sexual relations. It is unfortunate that we do not have a full, frank memoir from even one of the polyandrous “first husbands,” although two polyandrous wives, Mary Elizabeth Lightner and Zina Huntington Jacobs, left autobiographies.

Whatever the uncertainties in documenting this aspect of Latter-day Saint practice, there is a clearly discernible outline of ideology in the historical record that explains the development and rationale for the practice of Smith’s polyandry. “Gentile” (i.e., non-Mormon) marriages were “illegal,” of no eternal value or even earthly validity; marriages authorized by the Mormon priesthood and prophets took precedence. Sometimes these sacred marriages were felt to fulfill pre-mortal linkings and so justified a sacred marriage superimposed over a secular one. Mormonism’s intensely hierarchical nature allowed a man with the highest earthly authority—a Joseph Smith or Brigham Young—to request the wives of men holding lesser Mormon priesthood, or no priesthood. The authority of the prophet would allow him to promise higher exaltation to those involved in the triangle, both the wife and her first husband.

But with polyandry, as with the better-known polygyny, despite the elaborate doctrinal justifications, despite the reverence for a modern prophet and the unquestioning devotion to a restored biblical religion, the emotional challenges of this new marital system must have been tremendous. In the cases of most of the polyandrous wives, the human dimensions of polyandry are not recorded; it is not even openly acknowledged. However, the wives and husbands must have felt conflicted. Puritanical New England morality and attachment to the first husband or wife undoubtedly warred with devotion to Joseph Smith, viewed as an infallible oracle of God, and to a church and community that were believed to be a restoration of primitive Christianity. Only in the marriage of Zina and Henry Jacobs, as enigmatic as their relationship was, do we even have hints of the human price that Smith’s polyandrous system demanded. The other polyandrous husbands and wives probably paid the same high price.

Chart: Joseph Smith’s Plural Wives
(see Key to Abbreviations and Terms below)
Well Documented Wives
1. Fanny Alger
{early 1833} single [16]
Fanny separated from JS and married Solomon Custer, non-LDS
2. Lucinda Pendleton (Morgan Harris)
{1838?} married 37?
Lucinda remained with polyandrous first husband, George Harris, LDS; married by proxy in Nauvoo temple to JS {Harris}; later divorced Harris
3. Louisa Beaman
5 April 1841 single 26
Louisa was married by proxy to JS {BY}
4. Zina Diantha Huntington (Jacobs)
27 Oct. 1841 married 20
Zina remained with polyandrous first husband, Henry B. Jacobs, LDS; polyandrous proxy marriage to JS {BY} but remained with Jacobs; eventually left Jacobs and became BY’s connubial wife.
5. Prescendia Lathrop Huntington (Buell)
11 Dec. 1841 married 31
Prescendia remained with polyandrous first husband, Norman Buell, disaffected LDS; polyandrous proxy marriage to JS {HCK} but stayed with Buell; eventually left Buell and became HCK’s connubial wife.
6. Agnes Moulton Coolbrith (Smith)
6 Jan. 1842 widowed 33
Agnes was married by proxy to Don Carlos Smith {G. A. Smith}. Don Carlos was JS’s deceased brother and Agnes’s first husband. She then married William Pickett, erratic LDS, in a technically polyandrous union; eventually separated from Pickett.
7. Sylvia Sessions (Lyon)
8 Feb. 1842 married 23
Sylvia remained with polyandrous first husband, Windsor Lyon, LDS; polyandrous proxy marriage to JS {HCK}; remained with Lyon until his death; married Ezekiel Clark, non-LDS; divorced Clark; moved to Utah (to be with HCK?).
8. Mary Elizabeth Rollins (Lightner)
late Feb. 1842 married 23
Mary remained with polyandrous first husband, Adam Lightner, non-LDS; polyandrous proxy marriage to JS {BY}, but stayed with Lightner till his death.
9. Patty Bartlett (Sessions)
9 March 1842 married 47
Patty remained with polyandrous first husband, David Sessions, LDS, till his death; married John Parry for time.
10. Marinda Nancy Johnson (Hyde)
Apr. 1842 married 27
Marinda remained with polyandrous first husband, Orson Hyde, LDS apostle, and was married eternally to him in the Nauvoo temple; later eternal proxy marriage to JS; eventually divorced Hyde.
11. Elizabeth Davis (Goldsmith Brackenbury Durfee)
<June 1842 married 50-51?
Elizabeth apparently remained with polyandrous first husband, Jabez Durfee, LDS, after JS’s death; separated from Durfee; proxy marriage to JS {Cornelius Lott}; separated from Lott.
12. Sarah Kingsley (Howe Cleveland)
< 29 June 1842 married [53-54]
Sarah remained with polyandrous first husband, John Cleveland, non-LDS; polyandrous proxy marriage to JS {John Smith}; stayed with Cleveland to her death.
13. Delcena Johnson (Sherman)
<July 1842 widowed [37-38]?
Delcena was married by proxy to Lyman Sherman {Almon Babbitt}.
14. Eliza Roxcy Snow
29 June 1842 single 38
Eliza was married by proxy to JS {Brigham Young}.
15. Sarah Ann Whitney
27 July 1842 single 17
Sarah separated from Joseph Kingsbury, her “pretend” polyandrous husband; proxy marriage to JS {HCK}.
16. Martha McBride (Knight)
Aug. 1842 widowed 37
Martha married by proxy to JS {HCK}; separated from HCK?
17. Ruth Vose (Sayers)
Feb. 1843 married 33
Ruth remained with polyandrous first husband, Edward Sayers, non-LDS, till his death.
18. Flora Ann Woodworth
Spring 1843 single 16
Flora married [Carlos] Grove, non-LDS.
19. Emily Dow Partridge
4 March 1843 single 19
Emily married by proxy to JS {BY}.
20. Eliza Maria Partridge
8 March 1843 single 22
Eliza married by proxy to JS {Amasa Lyman}. Later divorced Lyman.
21. Almera Woodard Johnson
2-22 Apr. 1843 single 30
Almera married Reuben Barton (proxy marriage?).
22. Lucy Walker
1 May 1843 single 17
Lucy married by proxy to JS {HCK}.
23. Sarah Lawrence
May 1843 single 17
Sarah married by proxy to JS {HCK}; divorced HCK; married Joseph Mount.
24. Maria Lawrence
May 1843 single 19
Maria married by proxy to JS {BY}? Separated from BY? Proxy marriage to JS {Almon Babbitt}.
25. Helen Mar Kimball
May 1843 single 14
Helen married by proxy to JS {Horace Whitney}.
26. Hannah Ells
<mid-1843 single 29-30
Hannah never remarried. Died [1845].
27. Elvira Annie Cowles (Holmes)
1 June 1843 married 29
Elvira remained with polyandrous first husband, Jonathan Holmes, LDS; proxy marriage to JS {Holmes}.
28. Rhoda Richards
12 June 1843 single 58
Rhoda married by proxy to JS {BY}; separated from BY or never cohabited.
29. Desdemona Fullmer
July 1843 single 32-33
Desdemona married by proxy to JS {Ezra Taft Benson}; separated from Benson; married Harrison McLane but later separated.
30. Olive G. Frost
summer 1843 single 27-28?
Olive married by proxy to JS {BY}.
31. Melissa Lott
20 Sept. 1843 single 19
Melissa married by proxy to JS {John Bernhisel}; separated from Bernhisel; married Ira Willis.
32. Nancy M. Winchester
[1842-43?] single [14?]
Nancy married by proxy to JS {HCK}; divorced HCK; married Amos Arnold.
33. Fanny Young (Carr Murray)
2 Nov. 1843 widowed 56
Fanny never remarried.
Possible Wives
1. Vienna Jacques
1823-33/41-43? single/
Vienna married Daniel Shearer in 1838; separated by 22 Jan. 1846.
2. Hannah Ann Dubois (Smith)
11 Feb 1841? widowed? 32-33?
Hannah married Philo Dibble 11 Feb. 1841; sealed to Dibble for eternity in Nauvoo temple 15 Jan. 1846
3. Sarah Bapson
<June 1842? single? 48-51?
4. Mrs. G*****
June 1842? married/
5. Sarah Scott (Mulholland)
1841-43? widowed 24-27?
Sarah married by proxy to James Mulholland {HCK}, 3 Feb. 1846.
6. Mary Houston
1841-43? single 23-26?
Mary married by proxy to JS {HCK}, 3 Feb. 1846.
7. Mrs. Tailor
1841-43? married/
8. Mary Heron (Snider)
1842/3? married 38-39?
Mary continued with polyandrous first husband, John Snider.
Key to Abbreviations
earlier than
[ ]
{ }
Brigham Young
Heber C. Kimball
Joseph Smith
Marital Status:
On this chart “marital status” refers to the civil status at the time a woman married Joseph Smith. For instance, “married” means civilly married to another man at the time, creating polyandry, as the woman continued to cohabit with the “first husband.”
Polygamy (“many marriage”):
A man or woman has two or more marriage partners. Plural marriage is the preferred Mormon term. Anthropologically polygamy is divided into two subcategories: polygyny and polyandry.
Polygyny (“many women”):
A man is married to two or more women simultaneously.
Polyandry (“many men”):
A woman has multiple husbands.
When one is sealed for eternity to a deceased person, with a living partner standing in for the deceased, the living surrogate is known as a proxy. In early Mormon history the woman was also sealed (for time, not eternity) to the living proxy. Children from the “time only” marriage were sealed eternally to the deceased husband, not to the biological father. On this chart the living proxy’s name is given with S brackets.