Joseph Smith Had “Conjugal Relations” with Nine Plural Wives, Says FARMS
News Release, March 23, 2009
FARMS reviewer Gregory L. Smith admits, 71 pages into his 86-page review of George D. Smith’s new book, Nauvoo Polygamy: “…but we called it celestial marriage” (“George D. Smith’s Nauvoo Polygamy,” FARMS Review 20:2, 2008), that Joseph Smith had “conjugal relations” with at least eight women in addition to his first wife, Emma.
The FARMS Review (the acronym stands for Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies) is published by the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at Brigham Young University. The publication is well known for its acerbic commentary on any unauthorized scholarly studies of Mormonism.
Gregory Smith, a physician in Alberta and amateur historian (no known relation to George Smith or Joseph Smith), conceded that Nauvoo, Illinois, the one-time headquarters of the LDS Church, was a polygamy town that involved many more bigamists than just Joseph Smith. However, the reviewer was uncertain about what the purpose of plural marriage was, his assumption being that these marriages were sexless, absent explicit evidence to the contrary.
Even so, “there is good evidence of a conjugal relationship with Almira Johnson, Melissa Lott, Emily Partridge, and Eliza R. Snow,” G. L. Smith enumerated, then added that “it is also reasonable,” even “persuasive,” “to include Eliza Partridge, Maria Lawrence, and Sarah Lawrence.” He concluded that there was “some evidence” for sex with “Fanny Alger and Sylvia Sessions Lyon,” but begrudgingly pointed out that “this is only nine” of Joseph Smith’s 33-38 known plural marriages.
The reviewer’s narrow criteria led him to discount Joseph Smith’s letter to his teenage wife, Sarah Ann Whitney, in 1842, urging her to come and “comfort” him in hiding. The letter was addressed to Sarah Ann and her parents, both of whom had approved their daughter’s marriage to the Mormon prophet. At first, G. L. Smith found it obvious that Joseph Smith would have made a flirtatious appeal to a wife, writing in feigned mockery: “Shocking! … a man writing that to his wife!” Of course, the implication was that an intimate relationship following marriage would be expected. But wait! The reviewer then said the point was not sex but rather an invitation to Sarah Ann’s parents to receive their temple endowments. This is a novel interpretation, but is it a possibility?
Three factors bear on interpreting Joseph’s letter to “Brother and Sister Whitney and Etc.”: (1) The Whitneys were not initiated into the endowment until three days after Joseph’s rendezvous with their daughter; (2) Joseph offered the promise of exaltation to several sets of parents who gave him their teenage daughters; and (3) the Book of Mormon defines polygamy’s purpose as procreation: “For there shall not any man among you have save it be one wife … For if I will, saith the Lord of Hosts, raise up seed unto me, I will command my people; otherwise they shall hearken unto [this prohibition]” (Jacob 2: 27, 30). Sex and bearing children was clearly the plan.
What was the point of polygamy?
When the plural wives from Nauvoo were interviewed, they spoke in terms of complete marriage relations. Why would the reviewer want to imply otherwise? It would seem he cannot endorse polygamy for the purpose stated by early Latter-day Saints and start from an assumption of spiritual, rather than physical, unions—in other words, to deny that there was sex in some plural marriages, without evidence one way or the other, while admitting it was present in others. G. L. seems to be splitting hairs for no good reason.
He seems uncomfortable with the topic. Twice G. L. refers to Sarah Ann Whitney as Joseph’s “wife,” in the singular, instead of referring to her as one of Joseph’s wives. There is a persistent presentist bias in his writing that assigns today’s standards to what one might expect Joseph Smith to have done or not to have done. Yet in the same review, G. L. defames William McLellin by accusing him of adultery with “a harlot,” a claim that has been discounted by historians; and to undercut anything of value they might have had to say, he emphasizes that witnesses to Joseph Smith’s marriages, such as Frederick G. Williams, were later excommunicated, that William Law, for instance, was an “apostate.”
Fanny Alger in the wife column
Given the reviewer’s dichotomous view of people and his queasiness about Joseph Smith’s concurrent marital relationships, it should come as no surprise that he believes Joseph held, not just a liaison with Fanny Alger, but that Joseph married her. The logic is that since Joseph and Fanny were found having sex together in the barn, they must have been married. This is G. L. Smith’s undocumented conclusion after trying to undermine McLellin and Williams as reliable sources. Historians take another approach and usually find value in looking at all the available witnesses. G. L. Smith, by contrast, feels the need to purge the record of testimony from individuals he feels are spiritually unworthy to testify before drawing a conclusion. “It may well be,” G. L. Smith writes, that McLellin and others were “either mistaken or lying” and yet were still fundamentally correct as to the intimate relationship with Fanny Alger.
In the same vein, the reviewer criticizes George for mentioning early rumors about Joseph Smith and Eliza Winters even though George Smith mentioned this to illustrate that rumors were in circulation, not to assert or deny their veracity. Yet the reviewer cites approvingly the Encyclopedia of Mormonism wherein the 1830s “rumors” are said to have been “harbingers of challenges to come.”
Shifting rationales for polygamy
The reason the reviewer cannot settle on a consistent position regarding polygamy is because the Church has never mustered a consistent defense of it. For instance, it is easy to detect the difference in sentiment between the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith’s 1842 letter to Nancy Rigdon. The former calls Old Testament polygamous relationships “whoredoms”: “Behold, David and Solomon truly had many wives and concubines, which thing was abominable before me, saith the Lord.” In his letter to Nancy, Joseph praised Solomon, saying God gave the king “every desire of his heart, even things which might be considered abominable to all who understand the order of heaven only in part, but which in reality were right because God gave and sanctioned [them] by special revelation.” Joseph told Nancy that Nauvoo’s God was “more liberal in His views, and boundless in His mercies and blessings, than we are ready to believe.”
Nauvoo polygamy excluded from history
G. L. Smith challenges George’s assertion that information regarding polygamy in Nauvoo has been suppressed from LDS history, but the reviewer only gives quotations from LDS scholars about the alleged “rumors” of polygamy (“rumors of plural marriage” —Arrington and Bitton, The Mormon Experience; “the Saints were accused of believing in plural marriage,” —Kenneth W. Godfrey, Ph.D. dissertation) and broad generalizations (“the practice, within certain limitations and under very special conditions, of a plurality of wives” —B. H. Roberts, Comprehensive History). This is not the same thing as stating positively what did or did not happen—of telling the story of polygamy in its details and demonstrating its centrality to early Mormon culture and teachings.
The Church’s current Melchizedek Priesthood/Relief Society Manual, Teachings of the Prophet: Joseph Smith, 2008-09, similarly neglects plural marriage. The Nauvoo Expositor, which blew the whistle on polygamy, is dismissed as “an anti-Mormon newspaper that slandered the Prophet and other Saints.” How polygamy played out in the lives of the Mormon leaders is left unaddressed. The manual begins with a disclaimer that it will “not discuss plural marriages.” The disclaimer itself is an improvement over the utter absence of even the word polygamy from prior church manuals, and if Gregory Smith perceives in this a thawing in the reticence regarding the topic, then maybe there is reason for optimism; if the reviewer can produce an official or even semi-official acknowledgment that polygamy was the root cause of the martyrdom, this would be a significant contribution to the discussion.
To be entirely fair to Ken Godfrey, George might have been more precise when he commented that Godfrey, in his dissertation, discussed the reasons for Joseph Smith’s death “without mentioning plural marriage.” Godfrey did mention that the “Saints were accused of believing in plural marriage,” and this should have been noted. George Smith’s point was that LDS scholars such as Godfrey have yet to acknowledge how important polygamy was as the main cause for Joseph Smith’s assassination. It was not the false rumors circulating among uninformed neighbors but rather the accurate, firsthand knowledge of certain marital excesses on the part of Joseph Smith when, for instance, he married an “orphaned” girl, Maria Lawrence, for whose estate he served in the fiduciary role as trustee, that horrified members of the Church hierarchy. This information in the hands of believing but troubled Mormons—not malicious gossip circulating among anti-Mormons—was what strained the fabric of Nauvoo society until it reached the tearing point.
It should also be acknowledged that, as the reviewer points out, George’s citation of Gordon A. Madsen’s yet-unpublished manuscript contained two typographical errors, which will be corrected. The reviewer also thought more should be made of Madsen’s research into the Nauvoo probate court regarding Maria Lawrence, reporting that Madsen’s manuscript “is currently in preparation for publication.” This is good news considering that the research has been sequestered for twenty years. We can only hope that it will now see the light of day.
The reviewer’s fundamentalist frame of mind
G. L. Smith favors sources that are friendly to his conclusions. He rejects the idea, for instance, that Joseph Smith confessed to sins that may have included, in part, adolescent sexual curiosity. To do so, he quotes a late addition to Joseph Smith’s history, in which Joseph wrote that “no one need suppose me guilty of any great or malignant sins.” This qualification was added in 1842 and is absent from Joseph’s 1832 account, wherein he admitted more candidly that he “fell into transgression and sinned in many things which brought a wound upon my soul.” In his 1834 account, Joseph clarified that he had fallen into “uncircumspect walk, and unchaste conversation … in violation of those holy precepts which I know came from God.” In 1839, in response to speculations about what grevious sins Joseph may have committed, he defensively countered what he called “the many reports which have been put in circulation by evil disposed and designing persons,” meaning that by this time the story had morphed from a personal history into an institutional apologetic. Even at that, he confided that he had exhibited the “corruption of human nature” and submitted to “temptations to the gratification of many appetites offensive in the sight of God.” Later, “foibles” was substituted for the word “corruption” and “to the gratification of many appetites” was dropped altogether. The qualification the reviewer cited was added as “Note C” in 1842. These changes were intended, in part, to give misdirection over money digging and polygamy.
The reviewer does not make it easy for readers to follow his line of thinking because his literalism causes him to misunderstand metaphors and turns of phrases. He accuses George of making “Napoleon Bonaparte a Joseph Smith doppelgänger.” Similarly, another reviewer in the same issue (Robert B. White, “A Review of the Dust Jacket and the First Two Pages”) states that George “appears to believe” that a letter penned by Joseph Smith “may have been plagiarized” from Napoleon.* No, George was not saying that Joseph plagiarized Napoleon or that Jospeh wanted to imitate the emperor’s lifestyle; rather, the two leaders, both of whom happen to have written amorous letters, shared a profound fascination with Egypt. Napoleon pried the lid off of Egypt’s concealed past and brought the ancient hieroglyphics into the spotlight for rediscovery, while Joseph, who was born a few years later, picked up the theme of Egyptian writing and characterized his sacred sources as hieroglyphic, a writing that had not yet been deciphered by scholars. The book’s introduction thereby placed Nauvoo into the context of what was happening in the world at the time and explained why names like Cairo, Illinois, and Memphis, Tennessee, had begun to appear in the United States.
George noted that Benjamin Johnson entered “the mainstream” of LDS practice and married seven wives and added the mild quip that this was “a few short of the model of ten talents.” The reviewer responded with two pages documenting that most Utah polygamous households included fewer than seven wives. True enough, but the polygamous pioneers in Nauvoo, whose families averaged 3-4 wives, grew to 6-7 wives per family in Utah—something George discusses at length in his book and the reviewer conceals from readers. What G. L. Smith neglected to explain was Joseph Smith’s interpretation of the New Testament parable of the talents, by which the founder of Mormon polygamy justified taking a monagamist’s wife and giving her to a man who already had ten. George did not mean to imply by this that a man literally had to have ten wives to qualify for such a program.
The reviewer insisted that prior to Joseph Smith’s candidacy for the U.S. presidency, when bragging to his future running mate about his qualifications for office, Joseph was joking. His remarks to James Bennett were “a somewhat tongue-in-cheek exchange,” the reviewer insisted. But the candidacy itself, G. L. Smith was quick to add, was not a joke. Or was it? It was “a gesture,” the reviewer asserted, but one that Joseph “took seriously.” It was a serious joke “since the Saints felt no candidate was worthy of their support.” Perhaps the reviewer is not the best judge of a joke.
A disagreeable kind of agreement
One would think, from the reviewer’s rhetoric, that he disputed whether Joseph Smith married Marinda Hyde while her husband, Orson, was away on a mission to Palestine. But after seeming to want to discredit the sources, the reviewer concluded this about the Marinda Hyde case:
A second sealing ceremony between Joseph and Marinda was held in May 1843. This suggests to me that the best read on the conflicting accounts is that Orson did not know about the sealing initially, but soon accepted it and the doctrine of plural marriage upon his return. The second sealing ceremony allowed him to formally give his consent to the arrangement. While it is possible that his initial reaction was heated, this perspective derives entirely from authors writing scandalous exposés of the Mormons long after the fact. (102)
So G. L. Smith confirms how messy Nauvoo polygamy was. He notes that in one instance, Emma Smith “gave her permission for Joseph to marry two sisters who also lived in the Smith home—Emily and Eliza Partridge,” although the reviewer fails to disclose that Emma gave her permission after Joseph had already secretly married the two teenagers. Contrary to George, the reviewer believes Joseph Smith married Fanny Alger in Kirtland, Ohio, but offers no documentation for this claim. Either way, the relationship occurred eleven years before the revelation on plural marriage. The reviewer dismisses polyandry by saying that people were often confused about their marital status and would re-marry without first divorcing—which begs the question because the women continued to live with their first husband after marrying Joseph. Nor does the reviewer mention how the Church attempted to discredit John C. Bennett by disclosing that he had another wife back home in Ohio.
The relevance of this review
George Smith documented marriages of about 200 men and 700 women in Nauvoo as polygamy was begun in 1841-46. This occurred within a “perfectionist” society in which selected men were offered the “privilege” of progressing from perfection to perfection until, in another world, they would learn how to govern their own planet and, with their plural wives, populate it with “endless” children. This concept was the basis of what was called “celestial marriage.” The “restored” utopian doctrine offered a unique contribution to American culture, especially in its effects on marriage patterns across the American west. Despite political opposition and LDS manifestos ending the practice, plural marriage begun in Nauvoo has continued on today among our separatist brothers and sisters.
The review gave no evidence to bring these findings into question or to minimize the significance of polygamy to Mormon origins. The dispute raised over the number of women with whom Mormon founder Joseph Smith consummated a marriage is essentially irrelevant to the impact polygamy had on American society and to the ongoing internal dynamics of the LDS Church.
*The two FARMS reviewers, Gregory L. Smith and Robert B. White, share a harmony of ideas. For instance, both of them claim George did not include the full text of the Sarah Ann Whitney letter in his book, which is in fact untrue. The argument derives from an anonymous critique on the FAIR (Foundation for Apologetic Research and Information) website, which appeared before George’s book was released when all that reviewers had to go by was the introduction to the book, which Signature had posted on our website. The main line of attack in the FAIR review was that George had strip-quoted the Whitney letter. Apparently, when G. L. Smith saw the actual book, he had already written his opening salvos and was too enamored with the FAIR critique to abandon it; and so in his review he wrote that “in his haste to firmly fix some naughty thoughts to Joseph’s character, [George Smith] neglected to include much of the letter” (39). “The entire letter has been available for decades. In fact, it was printed in full by Signature Books in 1995” (39), he added, apparently to suggest intentional omission. But amazingly, two pages later, in an all-too transparent attempt to put a bandaid on the problem, G. L. Smith decided to add that George “eventually provides the full text of this letter.” He then complains that the full letter is given “150 pages after” the book’s introduction (41). Seemingly to provide additional cover for this amusing but dishonest subterfuge, the second review, which promised only to look at “the cover and first two pages” of George’s book, continued the criticism that Nauvoo Polygamy contained an incomplete representation of the letter. If one thinks about it, who can defend against an attack from a reviewer who, although stating falsehoods, has plainly limited himself to just the title and first two pages of a 728-page book? Such a review cannot be given any credence.