Reviews – Nauvoo Polygamy: “… but we called it celestial marriage”
Journal of Illinois History, Roger D. Launius
Plural marriage, or polygamy, among the Mormons has long been one of the most controversial and fascinating subjects in the history of the American religion. During the Nauvoo, Illinois, sojourn of the Mormons between 1839 and 1846, the practice of marrying more than one wife grew as a tenet of the faith, and Joseph Smith Jr., founder and prophet of the Mormons, initiated several of his closest associates into the “Principle,” telling them that it was demanded of God for his chosen people. This book by George D. Smith, long a student of Mormon polygamy and the dominant force behind Signature Books (an alternative publisher of Mormon history from that offered by the church’s official press), offers the most detailed and sophisticated analysis of polygamy’s origins and practice during the life of the prophet.
Gossip about the practice of polygamy had swirled about Mormonism since the early 1830s—an 1835 General Conference had even adopted a resolution explicitly denying the charge—but the practice emerged full-blown in Nauvoo during the early 1840s. According to faithful Mormon accounts, Smith had initiated the practice only because it was the will of God. A commandment to that effect had come as early as 1831, and Smith had practiced polygamy in fits and starts over the years, but he expanded it secretly in Nauvoo.
A formal revelation commanding the practice came in 1843, but it was still not well known even among the faithful until after Smith’s assassination in 1844. His first plural marriage in Nauvoo was to Louisa Beaman on April 5, 1841, and by the time of Smith’s death the best evidence suggests that he had married some thirty-three different women. Some were young teenagers, most of whom he had met while they had been servants in his home. He also pressed other confidantes to take additional wives, some of whom were already married to other men. Rumors swirled and Smith consistently denied them. When resistance arose in the church and dissenters accused Smith of reprehensible actions—including internal dissenters such as the upright William Law—they were defamed as “persecutors,” “false swearers,” and “wolves,” whose charges were “of the devil.”
For those accepting plural marriage, the practice was about extending familial ties into eternity; achieving eventually the status of godhood in the “celestial kingdom.” The complex theology justifying the practice emerged over time, but it was built on a set of assumptions about gender relations, priesthood, hierarchies of power, and both subservience and surrender to church authorities on the part of those entering the “Principle.” The critical aspect of this is the necessary linkage of women to men. The faithful wife, or more likely wives, had gifts and promises and blessing with the husband, but not in her own right, and this helped ensure her subservience.
These themes of subservience and surrender are brought to the fore in this book. The men who engaged in polygamy signaled their surrender and subservience to Smith, although they would have said they signaled it to God, by agreeing to alter their lifestyles in ways that forever set them apart from the American mainstream. The women who entered the “Principle” also sacrificed their desires and dreams on the altar of plural marriage to serve their husband and family. Accepting plural marriage required a remarkable alteration of societal norms. It ensured that as long as the individual desired maintaining a relationship to the family, he or she also had to remain true to the Latter-Day Saint Church as the only place where the practice of polygamy would be tolerated.
This domination of the lives of believers in such a fundamental manner led to abuses and a series of scandals in Nauvoo. George Smith delights in relating these issues. First, there is the seduction of married women who were induced to leave their legal husbands, usually without a divorce, and sometimes their children to take up with some Mormon priesthood member in plural marriage. Second, and more nefarious, was the pursuit of teenagers and their inducement to enter plural marriage with much older Mormon priesthood. Prurient interests, as George Smith makes clear, drove much of this effort. That is not to say that those engaged in plural marriage were motivated solely by lust; the vast majority seemed to believe they were engaged in carrying out God’s will.
The story that George Smith tells here, with its emphasis on subservience and surrender, seduction, and priestly hierarchies, is one that makes modern Mormons uncomfortable. Although the church practiced polygamy openly in Utah until 1890—abandoning it only as part of an agreement with federal officials—some believers in the mission of Joseph Smith Jr. continue to practice polygamy to the present. The last part of Nauvoo Polygamy details the debate over the nature and meaning of polygamy in Mormon history and how it has been dealt with, or more likely not dealt with, by the church’s current membership. George Smith titles one of his chapters discussing this subject, “A Silenced Past,” and excoriates the church hierarchy: “Instead of evaluating a difficult past in order to not repeat it, the church leadership tried to separate its troubles from their apparent causes” (page 442).
Understanding these myths, how they arose, why they have salience, and how they have affected the people being studied is critical to further understanding of Nauvoo and the church’s experience there. George Smith found little of this in the recounting of the official church response to Nauvoo polygamy. Indeed, Smith concludes, “The thirteen-million-strong mainstream LDS Church tries to suppress the memory of a half century of polygamy (page 550). While Smith is essentially speaking to the Mormon membership in Nauvoo Polygamy, his desire to tell this story is also appropriate for non-Mormons interested in the history of Illinois, and his study makes an important contribution that will be valuable to all seeking fuller understanding of the Mormon experience in Nauvoo.
The John Whitmer Historical Journal, William D. Morain
This skillfully written book will enlighten, inform, and perhaps trouble any who are game to absorb over seven hundred pages of prose, photographs, and a comprehensive appendix. Through exhaustive research and documentation, George Smith has chronicled the definitive account of polygamy in early Mormonism. With nonjudgmental voice, the author presents his narrative in full detail, permitting the reader to draw whatever conclusion suggests itself from the historical facts. The reader may alternatively see an evolving story of religious cultural evolution or a most vexing tale of misogyny, opportunism, and abuse—or perhaps both.
The clear protagonist of the book is Joseph Smith Jr., himself, whose quixotic pursuit of multiple marital partners became an obsessive idée fixe that he would pursue against all obstacles until it led inevitably to his demise. The author begins with a description of Smith’s early life, conventional marriage, Book of Mormon authorship, and church founding. The narrative follows through successive chapters in the following sequence:
* Smith’s first sixteen plural wives and a conjugal pause during a period of dissent
* His resumption of wife acquisition to the author’s estimated total of thirty-seven
* Smith’s selective granting of polygamy to male associates
* The cultural expansion of polygamy until the time of Smith’s death
* A description of polygamous domestic life
* The internal and external dissent occasioned by polygamy
* Problems in the historiography of Mormon polygamy
* Some interesting polygamous antecedents in history
The distinguishing feature of the book’s treatment of Smith himself—setting it apart from Brodie’s, Compton’s, and others’ expositions on the subject—is the juxtaposition the author continually places between Smith’s marital pursuits and his contemporaneous activities in other realms. The result is a depiction resembling in some respects a kind of dual personality with one persona leading a very public charismatic role as societal leader and another as a secretive and charming seducer—both frequently on the same day. Highly public religious and civic duties are carried out betwixt secret sealing ceremonies and overnight trysts with dizzying boldness. The reader is left to wonder on what terms Smith’s two personas related to one another.
Equally important is the emphasis the author places on the unusual nature of the primary historical record for this chapter of the Mormon story—the near complete absence of any but the most carefully protected documentation for the many early marital sealings. Despite the fastidious daily record of Smith’s clerical and civic activities in the History of the Church and personal diaries, there is almost total absence of any official mention of his thirty-seven polygynous relationships. Only the author’s efforts at precise comparison of the daily chronicle of Smith’s activities on the date of each sealing ceremony illuminates the true clandestine purpose of that carefully worded citation regarding the “meeting in the upper room … to attend to ordinances and counseling.” As the author notes, the record of Mormon polygamous practices has largely been a retrospective piecemeal process, gathered only after the fact from diaries, letters, affidavits, and court testimony. The author further points to the official Latter-day Saint reluctance to acknowledge or possess this pre-eminent feature of its own institutional history, much less the centrality of the practice to its eschatology—to say nothing of the abject denial of the practice by the Reorganized group for over a century.
The extraordinary detail with which the author describes Smith’s courtship patterns (what some contemporaries would call his love map) offers considerable food for thought concerning the nature of Smith’s personality peculiarities. It is clear that he patiently groomed each target through his attentions and charisma before making his many bids for consummation using the consistent line of a claim to divine favor and the promise of eternal bliss to each intended. But it is difficult to regard the power discrepancy between each woman and him as other than clerical abuse, especially as exercised against those in their mid-teens whose naiveté and childish inexperience were no match for the command of a presumed prophet of God.
A striking message of the book is the manner in which polygamy for Smith himself differed dramatically from that of his many lieutenants. For all of his remonstrations to his associates about placing the hand of the second wife into that of the first, he was profoundly reluctant to do so himself. His own machinations to keep his liaisons secret from first wife Emma (and from the vast body of his flock as well) were carried out with the greatest care to avoid detection. Smith himself appears to have carried out few, if any, of the customary domestic or fiduciary duties to his many mates after the sealing other than occasional clandestine conjugal visits. The other polygamous husbands brought into the practice, however, did not otherwise for the most part, bringing the new spouses into the household alongside the first wife.
The author expands on this point with careful numerical analysis of the expansion of the practice from the time of its introduction. In 1844, Nauvoo held sixty-eight polygamous families. By 1846, there were two hundred polygamous husbands with a total of 717 wives, an average of almost four wives each. These men added 417 more wives to their households after leaving Nauvoo, bringing the average nearly to six per husband, largely sharing living space and domestic responsibilities.
In an additional distinction between Smith and his fellow polygamists, the author reminds us that Smith’s earliest justification for the practice in the latter days was to raise up seed to the Almighty. Many gladly did their seminal duty, including John D. Lee with sixty-four children and Brigham Young with fifty-five. Oddly, Smith himself seems to be nearly alone in never having produced polygamous progeny (at least insofar as Perego and associates have lately been able to determine through DNA testing). In view of his many documented conjugal visits with numerous wives alongside his demonstrated capacity to bear children with wife Emma, the reader of this book is left with the obviously awkward question of possible contraceptive methodology on Smith’s part—especially occurring in the era before the vulcanized rubber condom. Though several solutions suggest themselves, the question must be left hanging for lack of historical evidence, and the book’s author has chosen to sidestep this pregnant issue.
There are many disturbing threads running throughout this book. Among these are the many polyandrous episodes when missionaries, such as Brigham Young, would entice married women with families to leave their husbands and remarry without first divorcing. Wife swapping also occurred without official resistance. And men with higher priesthood office could usurp the wife of one with lower station through the privilege accorded through ecclesiastical rank. The author also reinforces D. Michael Quinn’s observation that Smith’s care in wife selectivity began the formation of a kind of royal super clan of privilege and authority that would assume hierarchical dominance of leadership in the movement for generations to come.
George Smith’s book is a gift to nineteenth-century historians. He has mined Mormon polygamy’s mother lode to its precious depths wielding the pick and shovel of encyclopedic historical detail. In the process he has removed uncertainties and denial that have muddied the previous record through dispute and design. But his work will undoubtedly lead to new speculation concerning the original prophet puzzle, certainly to the enrichment of future debate and deliberation.
Association for Mormon Letters, Vickie Cleverley Speek
From time to time, I still meet people who believe Joseph Smith Jr., the founder of the Mormon Church, had only one wife. Those people are sometimes shocked to learn Smith married at least thirty-seven women before his death on June 27, 1844.
Until about thirty years ago, many people including most members of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, believed the founder of Mormon polygamy was Brigham Young, Joseph Smith’s successor, and that polygamy started in Utah, not Nauvoo. Most historians now accept Joseph Smith’s plural marriages as fact.
Still, I must admit I was astonished to learn the full extent of Joseph’s unusual marriage practice at Nauvoo. I didn’t realize Joseph Smith had married an average of one new wife a month between April 1841 and November 1843 and that he personally launched at least thirty-three plural marriages among his closest friends. I had no idea polygamy in Nauvoo was so extensive. By 1846, when the Mormons vacated Nauvoo, close to 10 percent of that city’s 11,000 residents (196 men and 523 women) were involved in the practice.
Nauvoo Polygamy: ” … but we called it celestial marriage” is a hefty book containing more than 672 pages, 16 pages of photographs, and 60 pages of marriage charts detailing Nauvoo’s 196 polygamous families. The author, noted historian George Smith, is one of the founders and the current publisher of Signature Books. Smith skillfully examines the roots of Mormon polygamy from Joseph Smith’s marriage to Emma Hale in 1827 to Joseph’s other thirty-seven documented marriages. The author then continues that examination to the men Smith invited to share the “favors and privileges of polygamy.”
In contrast to Todd Compton’s book, In Sacred Loneliness, which relates the lives of each of Joseph Smith’s wives, Nauvoo Polygamy focuses on Joseph Smith’s marriages within the context of his daily activities. The author reads between the lines of diaries, autobiographies, letters, affidavits, church records, and the authorized History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to show how Joseph Smith went about secretly courting and marrying women while carrying out his public life as a religious and community leader and prophet of the Mormon Church. The unannounced marriages were publicly denied during Smith’s lifetime and kept secret for eight years after his death.
On April 4, 1841, Joseph married Louisa Beaman in a grove of trees in Nauvoo. The bride wore a hat and coat and was disguised as a man. Although this was his first official plural marriage, Joseph Smith may have had affairs or other marriages before he lived in Nauvoo. Joseph’s last documented marriage was in November 1843 when he married Fanny Murray, Brigham Young’s widowed older sister. Joseph Smith is believed to have married at least six other women during his lifetime, but documentation on those unions is lacking.
George Smith proposes that the secret practice of polygamy at Nauvoo, disclosed by John C. Bennett’s book History of the Saints and revealed by the Nauvoo Expositor, was the direct cause of Joseph Smith’s murder on June 27, 1844. While many scholars have discounted Bennett’s book as a vengeful tell-all, George Smith suggests that the History of the Saints was basically accurate. Bennett was one of Joseph’s closest associates and correctly identified Louisa Beaman, Presendia Buell, Elizabeth Durfee, Sylvia Sessions, and Agnes Smith as a few of Joseph Smith’s wives. According to at least one contemporary, Joseph Smith had taught Bennett the principle of celestial marriage but the “pupil fairly overran the teacher,” which incurred the displeasure of Smith, and they quarreled.
Nauvoo Polygamy also takes a fresh look at the Nauvoo Expositor and how its revelation of polygamy and subsequent destruction precipitated the murder of Joseph Smith. The LDS Church has historically labeled the seven men who published the Nauvoo Expositor as apostates and malcontents. In fact, they were all successful businessmen and community leaders. Three days after the newspaper was published and while the owners were out of town, Joseph Smith, as mayor of Nauvoo, ordered the press destroyed. When the owners returned that same night, they found the press and type, paper and fixtures demolished in the street. They were told their homes would be burned down if they offered resistance. This public disregard for free speech in association with the revelations of polygamy was the last straw for the nearby nonmember population. Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum were murdered seventeen days later.
In a chapter titled “A Silenced Past,” George Smith shows how polygamy at Nauvoo was denied by Joseph Smith’s widow Emma. Emma must have assumed plural marriage and the insult to her reputation would end with Joseph’s death, and how it must have shamed and embarrassed her to see so many of her husband’s plural wives being taken by Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, and other Mormon leaders. So she told her sons their father was not involved. The lie continued for over 100 years.
The impact of the formal announcement of polygamy on church growth in Europe is also related in Nauvoo Polygamy. In Great Britain alone, baptisms declined by 88 percent and over 15,000 members were purged from church roles.
If there is a weakness with Nauvoo Polygamy, it is the sheer size of the manuscript. At nearly 700 pages, it could easily have been two or three books. The chapter where Smith compares Mormon polygamy to that practiced by the Anabaptists over 300 years ago is very interesting but overly long. Like the LDS, the Anabaptists, forerunners of the Mennonites and Amish, were intent on restoring biblical truths, including polygamy. These sects flourished for reasons similar to those later put forth by Joseph Smith: a perceived sign of urgency in preparing for the last days; loyalty to their perceived leaders; a modern cure for the social ills surrounding prostitution; finding a home for widows and orphans; and assisting God in sending his valiant children to righteous homes.
Faithful Mormons who deify Joseph Smith may be disturbed by some of the material related in Nauvoo Polygamy. Joseph is shown as more of a man than a prophet as he looks forward to conjugal visits with his young wives. In about 1842, while in hiding, Joseph wrote a letter to his wife of three weeks, seventeen-year-old Sarah Ann Whitney, the daughter of Newel K. Whitney and Elizabeth Whitney, Emma’s best friend. Emma, Joseph’s wife of fifteen years, had left his side less than twenty-four hours earlier after spending three nights out of nine with him. Joseph wrote to Sarah Ann, his fifteenth wife, shortly after Emma departed, explaining he was lonely and wanted her to visit him. “I know it is the will of God that you should comfort me now in this time of affliction,” he wrote. He advised the young woman to burn the letter, but she did not. A photograph of the letter, now held in the LDS Church archives, is included in the volume.
The experience of eighteen-year-old Martha Brotherton is also related in the book. Brotherton claimed she was kept in a locked room above Joseph Smith’s store and pressured to marry Brigham Young. She refused. Word of the incident leaked out, church officials denied her story, and the young woman’s reputation was ruined.
Apprehension that the secret plural wives might become pregnant was a deep-seated concern among the men asked to participate in polygamy. Joseph told one of them, William Clayton, not to worry. Clayton might be formally expelled from the church but would be quietly rebaptized and returned to his former position. Hyrum Smith told Ebenezer Robinson in 1843 that if he were to marry a young woman and she should have an offspring, they (church leaders) would give out word that she had a husband, an Elder who had gone on a foreign mission. Forty years later, Ebenezer Robinson claimed men involved in polygamy were told there was a place a few miles from Nauvoo where females were sent to give birth.
Overall, Nauvoo Polygamy is an important book that should be on the shelf of every Mormon scholar. It is interesting to note that, to modern members of the LDS Church, celestial marriage has become a term referring to all temple marriages rather than to sacred polygamy, which had been the key to afterlife kingdoms on distant planets where husbands would raise multiple families.
Joseph Smith himself gave the example of plural marriage. It was Joseph who started polygamy, not Brigham Young. Polygamy’s importance in Mormon culture cannot be overstated, and it all started in Nauvoo.
Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Todd M. Compton
George D. Smith’s Nauvoo Polygamy: “… but we called it celestial marriage” is an extremely important contribution to the history of polygamy and to Mormon history. Carefully written and the result of exhaustive research, it provides many significant insights into the beginnings of Mormon polygamy.
Nauvoo Polygamy has been compared to my In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1997) but in some ways it is broader in scope, covering Nauvoo polygamists from Joseph Smith to the last Mormon who married plurally in the Nauvoo Temple before the Mormons left for the West. In addition, my book was consciously written to tell the stories of Smith’s plural wives, to write from the viewpoint of women. Nauvoo Polygamy tends to look at early Mormon polygamy from the viewpoint of Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and other early Mormon male leaders. This focus is not a matter of right or wrong; both perspectives are entirely valid. We should look at early polygamy from a variety of angles.
George Smith, then, follows Fawn Brodie, Donna Hill, and Richard Bushman in looking at the earliest Mormon polygamy largely from the viewpoint of Joseph Smith. But the comparison of Bushman’s treatment of Joseph Smith’s polygamy and George D. Smith’s is enlightening. Bushman spends about eighteen pages on the subject;1 George Smith spends approximately 200 pages on it. Clearly, Joseph’s polygamy was not a main focus of interest for Bushman. In what I think is clearly a serious lacuna in Bushman’s otherwise superb biography, he doesn’t even mention many of Joseph Smith’s plural wives, one of whom, Helen Mar Kimball Whitney, left an important memoir describing her marriage to the Mormon prophet. Helen Mar was Joseph’s youngest wife and the daughter of Apostle Heber C. Kimball; her marriage to Smith constitutes an important example of dynastic linking in his polygamy.
Therefore, if one is seriously interested in Joseph Smith’s polygamy in the context of his life and doctrine, or in Joseph Smith’s Nauvoo years, after reading Bushman’s few pages, one must turn to George Smith and to my In Sacred Loneliness. However, although Joseph Smith is a major figure in my book, I see him only through the lens of his thirty-three plural wives, which leaves much of his life out of the picture. Nauvoo Polygamy provides much more of the broader context of Joseph’s life when he was practicing plural marriage.
Reading this book often left me with an overwhelming impression of how busy Joseph Smith was—the sheer multifaceted nature of his life, including the demands of sacred leadership of a people and church; of “secular” and military leadership of Nauvoo; of evading legal harassment and imprisonment; of caring for his public family, including a strong-willed first wife who disliked polygamy intensely, despite moments when she reluctantly gave her husband permission to practice it. Yet despite all of the projects he was juggling in the Nauvoo years, he constantly took time to court and marry plural wives—sometimes two or three per month. (In May 1843, he married four plural wives.) Clearly, polygamy was extremely important to him.
George D. Smith, in Nauvoo Polygamy, examines each plural marriage date for Joseph Smith carefully and often simply quotes the official History of the Church for that date. I found this juxtaposition of the public versus the private record extremely enlightening at times, aside from the support it gave for the validity of the marriage date. Doing this allows one to see how Joseph Smith’s marriages fit into the context of his daily life.
In addition, Joseph Smith was not just marrying his own plural wives; he was also introducing other people to “the Principle.” Much of this material simply wasn’t applicable to my book, but it’s central to George D. Smith’s book. And it’s fascinating material. I especially enjoyed Chapter 6, “How Plural Marriage Worked,” which gives many of the human interest stories behind a number of these early Nauvoo polygamists.
As George D. Smith turns from Joseph Smith to the rest of the Nauvoo polygamists, he makes a major contribution by demonstrating conclusively that the argument that Nauvoo polygamy (at least, later Nauvoo polygamy) was a limited phenomenon is wrong. Many Mormons wanted to form and seal their plural families in the Nauvoo Temple before the trek west. As a result, late Nauvoo is really the foundation of what I call practical polygamy in Mormonism. Plural marriage became a virtually open secret in the Mormon community in late Nauvoo, as opposed to its general sub rosa nature while Joseph Smith lived. One tends to think of polygamy’s entrance into the mainstream of Mormonism occurring in Utah, but this book shows that it was solidly launched in the late Nauvoo period.
I was impressed, as I read Nauvoo Polygamy, with the importance of Brigham Young in providing polygamy with a solid practical foundation in Nauvoo. Joseph Smith never lived openly with any of his plural wives; Brigham Young, as leading apostle of the Church, did—setting up households and openly providing for his plural wives in Nauvoo. As in so many other areas, Brigham Young continued what Joseph did and raised it to another level. Depending on how one views polygamy, Young’s actions may be entirely praiseworthy or a major wrong turn in religious praxis, but Young’s historical impact and influence in this area are undeniable.
Contrast how nineteenth-century Mormon history might have unfolded if the anti-polygamous William Marks (who had a strong legal claim to lead the Church after Joseph’s death) had succeeded to the presidency, rather than Brigham Young with his eventual fifty-six wives.2 Plural marriage might have died in Nauvoo (with perhaps some break-off polygamous groups); the major cultural conflict between Mormonism and America might have been averted; and many Mormon genealogies would have been infinitely simplified.
But clearly Brigham Young (and other key apostles, such as Heber C. Kimball, eventual husband to forty-five wives)3 had been thoroughly converted to plurality by Joseph Smith—and not just to the idea of polygamy, but to the concept that the more wives one married, the greater one’s exaltation in the hereafter. This doctrine continued to have major impact throughout the Utah period of Mormon polygamy.
Nauvoo Polygamy includes a magnificent, extensive, wonderfully detailed, appendix of Nauvoo polygamists, listing the full marriage history of each male polygamist who started his plural family in Nauvoo, but also including wives added after Nauvoo. It is even footnoted. It has already been of great use to me in research I have been doing on age at marriage in Mormon polygamy and will be a valuable resource for Mormon historians for generations to come.
No book is perfect, and this book certainly has limitations. I accept Fanny Alger as a well-documented plural wife of Joseph Smith, based on the autobiography of Alger’s cousin, Mosiah Hancock, as well as on other supporting evidence, but George D. Smith does not include her in his list. Also, in the case of Helen Mar Kimball, Joseph’s youngest wife, I believe that there is no evidence, pro or con, that she and Joseph physically consummated their sealing. Given the lack of evidence either way, I believe that, based on plural marriage patterns involving younger wives in Utah, it is unlikely that Helen Mar had marital relations with Joseph.
George Smith offers no additional evidence but portrays the marriage of Helen Mar and Joseph Smith as including physical relations. This book would have been improved if Smith had included a fuller discussion of these two issues, including an analysis of the Mosiah Hancock document.
I number thirty-three plural wives for Joseph Smith, while George D. Smith counts thirty-seven. George D. Smith actually has a strong case for including those additional wives. I may have erred on the side of caution when I did not include them as “well-documented wives” in In Sacred Loneliness, though I did include most of them in my “possible wife” category.
One could argue that Chapters 7 (dealing with secrecy in Nauvoo polygamy and in the subsequent Mormon historical record), 8 (on Mormons looking back at Nauvoo polygamy), and 9 (discussing antecedents to Mormon polygamy in the Reformation) of Nauvoo Polygamy, about 140 pages, have some passages that extend beyond the chronological compass of this book’s central theme, and that might have been summarized or compressed. Chapter 9 on “Protestant polygamy” especially detracts from the unity of a book about Nauvoo polygamy. On the other hand, it is a useful and interesting chapter. It’s an important subject that has not been written about sufficiently. Much work remains to be done on the close and distant non-Mormon ancestors of Mormon polygamy in “mainstream” Christianity in Europe and in early American culture.
As some reviewers have already noticed, Smith does not write this book from the perspective of conservative or traditional Mormon histories.4 But I believe that Mormon history is enriched when responsible non-Mormons or liberal Mormons (as well as moderate Mormons or conservative Mormons) are involved in it. I think the best way for conservative Mormons to respond is not by attacking the motives or character of the historian with whom they disagree or by demanding that non-Mormons or liberal Mormons write conservative history. Rather, I would urge such historians to research and write in the same field, producing an account of Nauvoo polygamy written from a conservative perspective that embodies the highest ideals of scholarship—thoroughness, honesty, balance, respect for primary sources, and relevant modern scholarship, just to name a few—as they do so.
As in any major work of scholarship, many details and interpretations in Nauvoo Polygamy will be debated and perhaps modified in the future. A book about a secret practice that later became a taboo subject in Mormon culture will necessarily deal with many under-documented and debatable facts. But there is no denying the enormous contribution this book has made to our understanding of Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and Nauvoo polygamy.
1. Richard Lyman Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), 323–27, 437–46, 490–96, 498–99.
2. Jeffery Ogden Johnson, “Determining and Defining ‘Wife’: The Brigham Young Households,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 20 (Fall 1987): 70. The article identifies fifty-five wives, but Johnson has confirmed by email that Amanda Barnes Smith, the fifty-sixth wife, was also sealed to Brigham Young in Utah.
3. Stanley B. Kimball, Heber C. Kimball: Mormon Patriarch and Pioneer (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986), Appendix A, 307–16.
4. I realize that one could write at length on the many gradations of “conservative,” “moderate,” “centrist,” “liberal,” and “radical” within Mormonism. I use the term “conservative” as descriptive, not negative. In fact, any historian is by nature a conservative in one important sense, as he or she seeks to conserve knowledge of and the experience of the past. However, the process of choosing what to conserve as most important and what to regard as less important in any tradition is a matter of moral insight, not a mechanistic process. The twentieth century has seen a gigantic shift in official statements about what constitutes the “traditional” view of Mormon polygamy—including denials that it ever involved more than 2 or 3 percent and insistence that the 1890 Manifesto stopped authorized plural marriages—to a less defensive and more nuanced view. No doubt this process will continue. I tend to disagree with conservatives who look on religious texts, principles, persons, events as absolute—as all good or all bad. This perspective leads to what Leonard J. Arrington has called the “theological marionette” bias in LDS history. “The Search for Truth and Meaning in Mormon History,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 3 (Summer 1968): 61.
Journal of Mormon History, Daniel Walker Howe
On June 7, 1844, the Nauvoo Expositor published its first and only issue. Founded by dissident Mormons, the newspaper accused Joseph Smith and a few of his close disciples of practicing plural marriage and teaching a plurality of Gods. Both charges were essentially true, but the Prophet was not ready to have them made public. He persuaded the Nauvoo City Council to suppress the newspaper and destroy its press. This action initiated the chain of events that led to his own arrest by Illinois state authorities and his lynching by a mob. In this volume, a present-day Mormon iconoclast, George D. Smith, the publisher of Signature Books, in effect revives the Expositor’s cause and publicizes the practice of polygamy in the 1840s Nauvoo.
This is a long book, and it takes the reader through a series of enterprises. The first is to track the secret life of the Mormon prophet during his years in Nauvoo, trying to figure out how he fit so many courtships and marriages into his busy schedule, “unseen amidst his public life as a religious and community leader who would even become a candidate for the U.S. presidency” (55). The author treats each of thirty-eight wives separately and in detail; he lists six other “women of interest” (224) as possibilities.
George Smith next turns to the ways the Prophet spread the practice of plural marriage within his inner circle of followers without publicly announcing it. Starting around 1840, Joseph would approach individual men privately and persuade them to follow his example; then in 1843 he dictated a revelation from God legitimating plural marriage (LDS Doctrine and Covenants 132), though this revelation still remained a secret in his lifetime.
The author then turns to the subject that interests him the most—the efforts by Mormon authorities to conceal the practice of polygamy. These continued after Joseph’s assassination and characterized both Josephite and Brighamite official histories of the Nauvoo period. George Smith pursues the historiography through the first half of the twentieth century and the formation of “analytic Mormon history” by Stanley Snow Ivins, Juanita Brooks, Dale Morgan, and Fawn Brodie (470-71), which faced up to the practice of plural marriage. What most concerns George Smith is the tendency of present-day Mormon General Authorities to minimize the importance of polygamy, which he interprets as a continuation of a legacy of suppressing the truth. His book concludes with a history of the Munster Anabaptists of sixteenth-century Germany, offered as an analogous example of millenarians who restored the Old Testament practice of polygamy and suffered persecution in consequence. While the parallel might be worth exploring in a scholarly journal article, it struck me here as a forty-eight-page digression in an already long book.
A certain ambiguity exists about the intended audience for this book. If the audience is the general Mormon public, then perhaps they do need reminding about the importance of plural marriage to early Mormonism, and that it was practiced not only in Brigham Young’s Utah but also in Joseph Smith’s Nauvoo. The Community of Christ, as the former Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is now known, no longer denies that Joseph Smith practiced polygamy and declares a willingness to accept historical inquiry on the subject. But the sheer length of George Smith’s volume and his massive, conscientious research in primary sources imply a scholarly audience. The question then arises, do we historians need someone else to go over the same ground that Todd Compton covered not long ago in his In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1997, 788 pp.)? To be sure, the point of view is different. Compton undertook to write about the wives; George Smith is, on the whole, more interested in the husbands, though he treats Emma Smith extensively and sympathetically. But there is not reason I know of to think that the existence of Nauvoo polygamy has been doubted within the scholarly community for a long time.
George Smith counts thirty-eight probable wives for Joseph; Compton, thirty-three with eight more as “possible.” Richard L. Bushman, in his recent biography, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), decided that the “most likely” number was between twenty-eight and thirty-eight (440). Fawn Brodie, in her second revised edition of No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith, the Mormon Prophet (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1971, pp. 457-88), came up with forty-eight. Compton and Bushman consider that the Prophet must have married his Kirtland housekeeper Fanny Alger, but Brodie, like George Smith, judged their relationship an affair.
The most significant contribution that George Smith makes in this book does not seem to be recalculating the number of secret wives the Prophet managed to wed during the last two and a half years of his ministry, for this is to a considerable extent a matter of surmise based on scanty evidence. Rather, it is the author’s research on how many of the Prophet’s followers embraced plural marriage during a period when the LDS Church was emphatically denying the practice. Smith found 196 men and 717 women who contracted plural marriages in Nauvoo. (Many of the men married still more wives after going to Utah.) The marriages included both polygynous and polyandrous relationships. The author tabulates demographic and marital information on all these people (574-639). If this seems like overkill, it results from his conviction that he is struggling to overcome a legacy of suppressing the truth. Here is how he sees it:
From the earliest whisperings of extramarital relationships in the 1830s to official records kept in the 1840s, Mormon authorities downplayed reports of polygamy as “anti-Mormon” rumors. However, an 1852 announcement in Utah led to a period of openness about plural wives. Then the polygamists retreated into the shadows again in 1890 when, for reasons of survival and statehood, the church withdrew its endorsement of plural marriage. Thereafter, the LDS church in Utah tried to distance itself from its polygamous roots, just as the RLDS Church (recently renamed the Community of Christ) had already done. The two communities became united on one front: their mutual disavowal of a doctrine that was once said to be essential to salvation. Yet the memory of Mormon polygamy was kept alive, in part, by contemporary “fundamentalist” Mormon societies, primarily in Utah. (xiii)
George Smith combines a lucid writing style with an impressive dedication to amassing data. One must admire his love for the subject of Mormon history. He clearly wants the Mormon community to own up to its past, an ideal which commends itself to any community.
Salt Lake Weekly, Dallas Robbins
With an endless stream of books on polygamy and its discontents, do we really need another one? If the answer includes mention of Nauvoo Polygamy: “… but we called it celestial marriage” by George Smith, it would be a definitive yes. Ten years in the making, Nauvoo Polygamy traces the origins and establishment of Joseph Smith’s vision of “spiritual wives” before it ever stepped foot in the State of Deseret. The book should dispel forever the common misperception that Joseph pined after only one wife and that polygamy was Brigham’s idea while crossing the plains.
The book argues that good brother Joseph engaged in extramarital affairs—e.g., Fanny Alger—before officially marrying his first plural wife, Louisa Beaman, in 1841. Afterward, he married women at an average rate of one per month until late 1843. By early 1846, nearly 200 men and 717 women entered the practice, making up the polygamous pioneers who would later lay the foundation in the Great Basin. The book fills a gap in exploring how polygamy was established and worked at this early state.
Revealing the drama, secrets, and sexual politics along with historical issues, Nauvoo Polygamy places a human face on the men and women who struggled with their strange lives in a new religion. So whether you are a history buff, interested in starting your own unique marriage practice, or just waiting for the new season of Big Love to start, Nauvoo Polygamy should be on your reading list.
Midwest Book Review
Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon Church, had several other unique accomplishments in his shortened life. Among the most unusual was the institution of plural marriage or polygamy that he began in response to revelations from God. Beginning in the Mormon city of Nauvoo, Illinois, Smith married thirty-eight women and, in the process, introduced the theological concept and practice of “celestial marriage” to his most important followers. By early 1846 some 200 men had adopted a polygamous life style with 717 wives in total. After being expelled from Nauvoo by their non-Mormon neighbors, these men of the church would go on to marry a recorded total of 417 more women giving them an average of six wives each. In their new Utah settlements, this example would be taken up by others, and despite the eventual abandonment of the practice by the Mormon Church the practice continues among Mormon splinter groups to this very day. “Nauvoo Polygamy” is a 705-page work of impressive, meticulous, insightful, detailed, and documented historical scholarship by a noted Mormon historian and publisher making it very highly recommended reading for students of Mormon history in general and the evolution of the practice of polygamy within the Mormon Church in particular.