excerpt – Mormon Polygamy

A History of Mormon PolygamyChapter 7
Following the Brethren

Some Mormon observers were convinced that the deaths of the Smith brothers was evidence of divine retribution, the act of an angry God. William Law, who had left Nauvoo after the destruction of his Nauvoo Expositor, wrote in a 20 July 1844 letter to a friend, “While the wicked slay the wicked I believe I can see the hand of a blasphemed God stretched out in judgment, the cries of innocence and virtue have ascended up before the throne of God, and he has taken sudden vengeance” (Law to Hill). And Sidney Rigdon wrote, “If Joseph sinned[,] which he did, the Lord has cut him off from his stewardship … he contracted a whoring spirit and … the Lord smote him for this thing” (Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate, Jan. 1845).

Contrary to the views of those who saw in it the doom of the Mormon movement, the martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum Smith, though disruptive to the Mormon community for a time, actually unified the Saints.1 Sidney Rigdon, the only surviving member of the First Presidency, returned to Nauvoo shortly after the Smiths’ deaths and presented himself to the Saints as “guardian” of the church “to build [it] up to Joseph as he had begun it.” But he was rejected as an interim president by the majority of Mormons in favor of the leadership of the Quorum of the Twelve under Brigham Young. Rigdon’s continued efforts to make himself the rallying standard for Mormonism resulted in his excommunication in the fall of 1844. Returning to Pittsburg, he attempted to gather about him leaderless remnants of the Mormon community.

Rigdon began to publicly denounce polygamy in his Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate shortly after he left Nauvoo. Referring to the Quorum of the Twelve as the “Spiritual Wife Fraternity,” he reasoned in the 15 October 1844 issue that “it would seem almost impossible that there could be found a set of men and women, in this age of the world, with the revelations of God in their hands, who could invent and propagate doctrines so ruinous to society, so debasing and demoralising as the doctrine of a man having a plurality of wives.” Decrying the “transactions of the secret chambers,” he announced that “the Twelve and their adherents have endeavored to carry on this spiritual wife business in secret.” Moreover, he added, they “have gone to the most shameful and desperate lengths to keep it from the public. First, insulting innocent females, and when they resented the insult … would assail their characters by lying.” Rigdon vented his dismay at the deceptive practices of church leaders: “How often these men and their accomplices stood up before the congregation, and called God and all the holy Angels to witness, that there was no such doctrine taught in the church; and it has now come to light.”

Church leaders in Nauvoo denounced Rigdon’s accusations. “Wo to the man,” the 15 November 1844 Times and Seasons warned, “who will thus willfully lie to injure an innocent people! The law of the land and the rules of the Church do not allow one man to have more than one wife alive at once.” But Rigdon knew better, and he was determined to make his knowledge public. On 6 April 1845, the fifteenth anniversary of the founding of Mormonism, he had himself ordained president of the Church of Christ. His call for a reformation based on the principles of the Kirtland church appealed to a few former Mormons, including his son-in-law George W. Robinson, former apostle William McLellin, Nauvoo dissenter Oliver F. Olney, and anti-polygamous Nauvoo Stake high councilman Austin Cowles.

Though the group was short-lived, its attack on polygamy was zealous. “Did the Lord ever tell any people,” Rigdon asked in the 15 February 1845 issue of the Messenger and Advocate, “that sleeping with their neighbor’s wives and daughters had any thing to do with preparing the way of the Savior’s coming[?]”2 His expose of Nauvoo polygamy was confirmed by former member of the First Presidency William Law in the spring of 1845 when Law and William McLellin arrived at a 16 February Kirtland conference of Rigdon’s followers. Addressing the congregation, Law “settled the question forever on the public mind,” Rigdon wrote, “in relation to the spiritual wife system, and the abominations concerning it.” Law reported that “Joseph Smith and others had attempted to get him into it, and in order to do so had made him acquainted with many things about it” (Messenger and Advocate, 15 March 1845).

Despite his long-standing opposition to polygamy, and published condemnations of the practice, Rigdon would be accused of introducing the system within his declining congregation. Apostle Parley P. Pratt turned Rigdon’s accusations against him in a 1 July 1845 letter in the British Millennial Star, warning the Saints to “beware of seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils, as first introduced by John C. Bennett, under the name of ‘spiritual wife’ doctrine; and still agitated by the Pittsburg Seer, and his followers under the same title.” Apostle John Taylor, editor of the 15 November 1844 Times and Seasons, published a letter from “An Old Man of Israel” which denounced the “sham quotations of Sidney Rigdon and his clique, under the ‘dreadful splendor’ of ‘spiritual wifery’ which is brought into the account as graciously as if the law of the land allowed a man a plurality of wives.”

There is no solid evidence that Rigdon ever advocated polygamy.3 His son John maintained that Rigdon “took the ground no matter from what source it came whether from Prophet seer revelator or angels from heaven [that] it was a false doctrine and should be rejected” (Rigdon, “Life Story,” 184). Yet accusations linking Rigdon to polygamy and insinuating that his daughter Nancy was a prostitute undermined his status as the only surviving member of the First Presidency. Few people took his leadership claims seriously; he never attained a large following. John Rigdon later noted that his father “was not a leader of men … the Mormon church … made no mistake in placing Brigham Young at the head of the church … if Sidney Rigdon had been chosen to take that position the church would have tottered and fallen” (ibid.).

Rumors of polygamy followed another prominent leader of post-martyrdom Mormonism, James Jesse Strang, a multi-talented New Yorker with a background similar to Joseph Smith’s own. Though never a member of the Mormon hierarchy, the resourceful Strang claimed himself Smith’s successor on the strength of a 9 June 1844 letter he said he had received from the prophet. “If evil befall me,” the letter promised, “thou shall lead the flock to pleasant pastures.” Early in August 1844 Strang declared that an angel had appeared to him at the “very hour” of Smith’s death on 27 June 1844 and had ordained him the prophet’s successor. Several prominent followers of the prophet, impressed by the charismatic similarities of the two men, joined with the Strangites.4 Establishing his disciples on Beaver Island in Lake Michigan, Strang had himself crowned “King James the First” on 8 July 1850. Theatrically inclined George J. Adams placed a metal crown on Strang’s head and draped across the shoulders of the king-to-be a bright red robe which had served as a stage prop. Amidst the pomp and ceremony Strang read to the congregation for the first time his “Book of the Law of the Lord,” a portion of which he claimed was a translation of the “plates of Laban,” part of the Book of Mormon record.

Strang, like Joseph Smith, publicly denounced polygamy. The king’s private posture, however, also like the prophet’s, radically differed from his public position. Former Mormon apostle John E. Page, a follower of Strang, wrote, “We have talked hours, yea, even days with President Strang, and we find to our utmost satisfaction that he does not believe in or cherish the doctrine of polygamy in any manner, shape, or form imaginable whatever” (Fitzpatrick 1970, 74). To underscore his opposition, Strang published the following official denial in the 12 August 1847 Voree Herald: “I have uniformly and distinctly discarded and declared heretical the so-called ‘spiritual wife system’ and everything connected therewith.” Yet one year later he took his first plural wife, Elvira Eliza Field, who traveled about the country with him masquerading as his male secretary, “Charlie Douglass.” While the community on Beaver Island eventually reached seven hundred members, only about twenty families were polygamous. Strang himself had five wives and fourteen children. And like Smith, he too came to a violent end. On 16 June 1856, Thomas Bedford, a Beaver Island resident who had been publicly whipped on Strang’s direction, fatally shot the king.

Initially Joseph Smith’s family may have supported Strang’s succession claims. For example, the July 1846 Voree Herald contained a certificate endorsing Strang, reportedly prepared by the prophet’s brother William and signed by the entire Smith family, except Emma, Smith’s widow. More than fifty years later the certificate was repudiated in the Saints’ Herald, the official voice of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (RLDS). Regardless of the authenticity of the Smith family statement, the Strangite movement proved to be the fertile soil in which the RLDS church germinated.5

Opposition to polygamy motivated three influential members of Strang’s congregation to withdraw from the group. Jason W. Briggs, Henry H. Deam, and Zenas H. Gurley, Sr., directed on 6 April 1853 the “New Organization of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints,” which eventually became The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. For a period of seven years, from 1853 to 1860, Jason W. Briggs, as president of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles, presided over the movement. In 1860, Joseph Smith III, the eldest son of Joseph Smith, Jr., became the first president of the RLDS church.

In his 6 April 1860 acceptance speech, delivered in the presence of his mother, young Joseph left no doubt as to where he stood on polygamy. “There is but one principle taught by the leaders of any faction of this people that I hold in utter abhorrence,” he announced; “that is a principle taught by Brigham Young and those believing in him.” Elaborating on his hatred of polygamy, the young prophet attested: “I have been told that my father taught such doctrines. I have never believed it, and never can believe it. If such things were done, then I believe they never were of Divine authority. I believe my father was a good man, and a good man never could have promulgated such doctrines” (Tullidge 1880, 608-11).

Opposition to polygamy and other militant theocratic innovations attributed to his father became the hallmark of the leadership of Joseph Smith III.6 His opposition to such practices probably originated with his mother. Though evidence indicates that Emma possessed intimate knowledge of not only polygamy but also Endowment Council and Council of Fifty matters, she did not pass this information down to her children. Robert Flanders, an RLDS historian, has pointed out that “while it seems evident that Emma taught her children Christian principles and virtues, she never talked much to them of the old church and its affairs. There is no indication that she prejudiced them in any way, although she did maintain in them respect for their father.” Flanders sees the “ignorance later shown by Joseph and Alexander about church history” as evidence that “their mother had been for the most part silent on the subject” (1954, 11).

The reality of her husband’s polygamous relations undoubtedly evoked painful memories for Emma. It may be that she refused to give tongue to memory simply because she could not face the shadows of the past. Emma, like her son Joseph, spent a lifetime struggling to bring honor and respectability to the Smith name. An admission that Joseph was a polygamist was impossible for both of them.

Emma, in an April 1867 interview with a Reorganite elder, Jason W. Briggs, would not even admit to a personal knowledge of her husband’s revelation on “celestial marriage” (Shook 1914, 185-86). Her sons, shying away from what must have been a very sensitive subject, apparently never asked her about their father’s involvement in polygamy, despite the urgings of many to “ask your mother, she knows.” In 1879, however, Joseph and Alexander “decided to present to her a few prominent questions, which were penned and agreed upon.” Emma responded to the questions as follows: “Q. What about the revelation on polygamy? Did Joseph Smith have anything like it? What of spiritual wifery? A. There was no revelation on either polygamy, or spiritual wives. There were some rumors or something of the sort, of which I asked my husband. He assured me that all there was to it was that, in a chat about plural wives, he had said, “Well, such a system might possibly be, if everybody was agreed to it, and would behave as they should; but they would not; and besides, it was contrary to the will of heaven.” No such thing as polygamy, or spiritual wifery, was taught, publicly or privately, before my husband’s death, that I have now, or ever had, any knowledge of. Q. Did he not have other wives than yourself? A. He had no other wife but me; nor did he to my knowledge ever have. Q. Did he not hold marital relation with women other than yourself? A. He did not have improper relations with any woman that ever came to my knowledge. Q. Was there nothing about spiritual wives that you recollect? A. At one time my husband came to me and asked me if I had heard certain rumors about spiritual marriages, or anything of the kind; and assured me that if I had, that they were without foundation; that there was no such doctrine, and should never be with his knowledge, or consent. I know that he had no other wife or wives than myself, in any sense, either spiritual or otherwise” (“Last Testimony,” 289-90).

Emma’s interview with her sons was not published until after her death. This led to speculation from some Utah Mormons that the entire interview was a sham. But the document accurately portrayed the public posture of both Emma and Joseph Smith. Irrefutable evidence in letters and journals of Smith’s closest Nauvoo associates, particularly William Clayton and Emily Partridge, portray the contradictory private and public positions of the prophet and his wife. Even statements by founding RLDS churchmen dispute the Smiths’ public posture by affirming the prophet’s practice of polygamy.

Some have admitted that Joseph Smith became involved in polygamy but later tried to disentangle himself from the practice. Brigham Young conceded in 1866 that “Joseph was worn out with it, but as to his denying any such thing I never knew that he denied the doctrine of polygamy. Some have said that he did, but I do not believe he ever did” (Unpublished Address). But Smith’s niece, Mary Bailey, writing in 1908 said that her uncle finally “awoke to a realization of the whole miserable affair [and] … tried to withdraw from and put down the Evil into which he had fallen” (Newell and Avery 1984, 179). Prominent early leaders of the RLDS church also shared this viewpoint. Isaac Sheen, who became affiliated with the RLDS movement in 1859 and edited the church periodical Saints’ Herald, wrote in the first issue of that paper (March 1860) that though “Joseph Smith taught the spiritual-wife doctrine,” he “repented of his connection with this doctrine, and said it was of the devil.” Former Nauvoo stake president William Marks, a close friend of Emma, wrote in a July 1853 letter to the Zion’s Harbinger and Baneemy’s Organ that he met with the prophet a short time before his death. “We are a ruined people,” Marks quoted Smith; “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 … 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.” Marks said that Smith ordered him “to go into the high council, and I will have charges preferred against all who practice this doctrine; and I want you to try them by the laws of the Church, and cut them off, if they will not repent, and cease the practice of this doctrine … I will go into the stand and preach against it with all my might, and in this way, we may rid the Church of this damnable heresy.” But Smith was killed shortly after this conversation, and when Marks related what Smith had said, his testimony “was pronounced false by the Twelve and disbelieved.”

Much later in his life, after his mother’s death, Joseph III seems to have modified his earlier position on the origins of Mormon polygamy. “I believe that during the later years of my father’s life,” he postulated in an 1879 address, “there was in discussion among the elders, and possibly in practice, a theory like the following: that persons who might believe that there was a sufficient degree of spiritual affinity between them as married companions, to warrant the desire to perpetuate that union in the world to come and after the resurrection, could go before some high priest … pledging themselves while in the flesh unto each other for the observance of the rights of companionship in the spirit.” Once this idea of spiritual or eternal marriage began to spread, young Smith theorized, “lines between virtue and license hitherto sharply drawn, grew more and more indistinct; spiritual companionship if sanctioned by a holy priesthood, to confer favors and pleasures in the world to come, might be antedated and put to actual test here.… From this, if one, why not two or more, and plural marriage, or the plurality of wives was the growth” (Tullidge 1880, 798-800).7

Despite his personal animosity towards Brigham Young, young Joseph maintained close ties with his Mormon cousins. In a 20 January 1886 letter to Utah cousin John Henry Smith, he wrote: “As the son of Joseph Smith, I have a son’s right, independent of any religious obligation, to see that the name of my sire is not burdened with shame, obloquy, or unjust censure.” He related that after seriously considering joining the Mormons as a young man in 1853, he was told “by the voice of revelation, not to have anything to do with polygamy, except to oppose it.” “If father had more wives than one,” he wrote, “it does not affect the rule given to the Church. It proves nothing only that he was a transgressor against the rule, and the civil law. From my view polygamy could not and never did emanate by command from God. It had [an]other source. Hence, Joseph Smith was not justified in its practice; nor is the practice defensible from the consideration that he did so.”

In a 29 April 1905 letter to Sidney Rigdon’s son John, Joseph clarified his position: “Whether my father was or was not the one through whom the practice was introduced into the church and was or was not guilty of practicing it, both the dogma and the practice were contrary to the Bible, Book of Mormon, and the revelations given to the church.” The younger Smith felt “under no obligation to take his [father’s] practice or his teaching of the dogma, if he did so practice or teach, as evidence of its divinity; nor was I under obligation to either teach or practice it.”

Though the movements founded by Sidney Rigdon, James Jesse Strang, and other minor historical figures were of brief duration, the RLDS church continues to grow today.8 But the most powerful leader to emerge from the chaos surrounding Joseph Smith’s 1844 death was Brigham Young. He, as president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, became the standard-bearer for the continuance of the revolutionary developments Smith had introduced to faithful members of the church after his 1839 escape from Liberty Jail. At the center of those policies lay polygamy. Young and select members of the Twelve began in the fall of 1844 to marry secretly the widowed plural wives of Joseph Smith. As the Nauvoo Temple neared completion, all women known to have had a polygamous relationship with Smith were resealed to him by proxy. Zina D. H. Jacobs Smith Young related that at the time of these eternal sealings, each of Smith’s plural wives was given the opportunity to be sealed to the church leader of her choice “for time” (Firmage).

Church leaders knew by 1845 they could not remain in Nauvoo much longer. The surrounding non-Mormon community was whipped to a fever pitch by the anti-Mormon element. They wanted the Mormons out of the state. The Saints, who had heard those rumblings before in Ohio and Missouri, made plans to leave Illinois. Their magnificent temple, which could be seen for miles up and down the Mississippi, became a beehive of activity day and night as church leaders sought to introduce the Mormon temple endowments to the general church membership. By mid-February an advance party of Mormons vacated the city and crossed the frozen Mississippi into Iowa. Within a year Nauvoo, which had been renamed “The City of Joseph,” was a virtual ghost town.


1. In a 1 March 1845 letter Isaac Scott wrote of this confusion: “The Church is now divided, and part go for Sidney Rigdon and William Law, the only Presidents left the Church. The other part hold to the Twelve, who arrogate to themselves the authority to lead the Church” (Mulder and Mortensen 1958, 155). For background on events surrounding the succession of Joseph Smith, see Quinn 1976.

2. Though Rigdon did not mention Smith’s polygamous proposals to his daughter Nancy, a follower, J. Gibson Divine, apparently did in the 15 March 1845 Messenger and Advocate: “I now ask if it is not a system of oppression to lead a man, standing at the head of a family of interesting children, into a covenant to obey every revelation or every order coming from a certain source, asking no questions, and in a few days after one of his daughters to be demanded as a wife for a married man, and not a question to be asked by the father.”

3. Peter Hess, a follower of James Strang, recounted in a 14 December 1846 letter to Strang a second-hand story that during a September 1846 conference in Antrim, Pennsylvania, “Mr. Rigdon had introduced a System of Wifery or the Battle Axe System or free or common intercourse with the women” (Gregory 1981, 61). But Ebenezer Robinson, who was Rigdon’s counselor in Antrim, wrote in 1886 that Rigdon did not practice polygamy there (ibid.). Furthermore, Rigdon claimed a 4 March 1866 revelation answering a question raised by a follower, Stephen Post, which announced: “I the Lord say unto my servant Stephen that the system of polygamy as had among a people who were called after my name was not of me.… I never gave to Joseph Smith nor any other man authority to introduce in my name that system as had among that people in any of its forms as a pretended spiritual relation or otherwise” (Post to Adams, 16 May 1866).

4. In addition to George J. Adams, John E. Page, William Marks, George Miller, and William Smith, John C. Bennett also became a follower of Strang. The king had written to Bennett on 9 March 1846 offering him a position in his organization. At Voree, Wisconsin, Strang’s “Garden of Peace,” Bennett became “the Prime Minister for the Imperial Primate of the Order of the Illuminati”—Strang’s chief advisor. But, as in Nauvoo, his sexual adventures got him into difficulties. The “Minutes of a High Council Meeting held Oct. 4, 1846 to investigate certain charges against J.C. Bennett” report that Moses Smith brought charges against him for “Teaching False Doctrine such as Polygamy & concubinage and attempting to carry them into practice.” In the same minutes, Willard Griffiths testified that “Bennett was about to exalt him and wished him to fill a certain quorum and by doing what he was directed he would become a father of a tribe.” Griffiths further testified that when he asked Bennett concerning illicit intercourse, Bennett “told him there was no harm in it, [he] wanted good FUCKERS” (emphasis in original). Griffiths added that Bennett also taught him “that it was no harm for married men to have intercourse with other women.” Griffiths was a high priest and Bennett told him that when women came to him for confession “he would have good chance to have connection with them” (Strang Papers). Bennett was not excommunicated from the Strangites until the summer of 1847.

5. Mormon church leaders, in addition to denouncing Sidney Rigdon, also attacked Strang through the pages of their English newspaper, The Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star. Typical of the shrill Mormon rhetoric of the day was the portrayal of Strang as the “successor of Sidney Rigdon, Judas Iscariot, Cain (the brother and murderer of Abel) and Co. Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary of His Most Gracious Majesty Lucifer the I, assisted by his allied contemporary advisors, John C. Bennett, William Smith [a brother of Joseph], G. J. Adams, and John E. Page [former member of the Council of Twelve]” (Fitzpatrick 1970, 149-50).

6. In a revealing 1883 letter to E. L. Kelley, Joseph Smith III detailed his reason for discounting the evidence supporting his father’s polygamy. “I have been ambitious of but one thing,” he wrote: “to prove by the logic of conduct that my father was not a bad man. When my duty was made plain, and I was directed to the Reorganization already begun, I found its policy in some things, I thought at fault—notably the admission that my father taught polygamy. I found no proofs sufficient … to prove it to me. I adopted a different theory, and was at first much decried for it. It was charged as being the result of pride in family name. I think, however, I have disproved that statement. If not it will be proved by and by.”

7. Joseph III’s anti-polygamy position may have stemmed from both his mother and his uncle William Smith. Not only was the mercurial William Smith involved with John C. Bennett’s scandalous Nauvoo behavior, but in mid-1844 he, along with George J. Adams and Samuel Brannan, introduced polygamy to Mormons in New England. After church leaders were sent to the area to try to reverse the damage the actions of the trio had caused, Smith returned to Nauvoo where on 17 August 1845 he openly advocated polygamy in a public gathering of the Saints. William Clayton in his journal of this date wrote that Smith “intimated in strong terms that [the Twelve] were practising such things in secret but he was not afraid to do it openly.” His frankness and instability resulted in his excommunication on 19 October.

William lapsed into the same patterns when he joined the Strangites. Both he and John C. Bennett were excommunicated for immorality in the summer of 1847. Shortly afterwards, Smith formed his own church in northern Illinois. But his followers saw his polygamy as a coverup for promiscuity. Isaac Sheen, who severed himself from the movement in early 1850, referred to William as a “hypocritical libertine.” “He professed the greatest hostility to the plurality wife doctrine,” Sheen noted, yet “he told me that he had a right to raise up posterity from other men’s wives. He said it would be an honor conferred upon them and their husbands, to allow him that privilege, and that they would thereby be exalted to a high degree of glory in eternity.” Sheen insisted that Smith offered his wife to him “on the same terms that he claimed a partnership in other men’s wives” (Isaac Sheen to editor, Cincinnati Daily Commercial, 22 May 1850).

Despite his involvement in polygamy within the flamework of three separate Mormon factions, William was able to write to his nephew, Joseph Smith III: “Neither your father nor any member of the Quorum of the Twelve ever said any thing to me about [the] Plural marriage Revelation either before or Since your fathers death-up to the time of my Seperation from that Quorum which took place in September 1845 up to the time I was driven out of Nauvoo by the Bloody Danites” (Hutchins 1977, 81).

By this time, however, William Smith was old, ill, and financially dependent on his nephew. He was therefore willing to accept such directives as Joseph III gave to him in a 11 March 1882 letter as he was preparing a book about his involvement in Mormonism: “I have long been engaged in removing from Father’s memory and from the early church, the stigma and blame thrown upon him because of Polygamy; and have at last lived to see the cloud rapidly lifting. And I would not consent to see further blame attached, by a blunder now. Therefore, Uncle, bear in mind our standing today before the world as defenders of Mormonism from Polygamy, and go ahead with your personal recollections.… If you are the wise man I think you to be, you will fail to remember anything [but] referring lofty standard of character at which we esteem these good men. You can do the cause great good; you can injure it by vicious sayings” (Launius 1988, 112).

8. In 1983 the RLDS posture on polygamy was modified. This position, detailed in a paper by official church historian Richard P. Howard, suggests polygamy was practiced by “some of the participants of the church in Nauvoo … [but] does not claim that Joseph Smith, Jr., was directly responsible for the practice of polygamy himself, or that it was among the authorized beliefs and practices of the church at Nauvoo” (Saints’ Herald, 15 Dec. 1983). See Howard 1983.