The recent DNA findings regarding the paternity of Josephine Lyon have sparked renewed interest in the question of Joseph Smith’s polyandry: was it sexual or non-sexual? Brian Hales is the leading scholar advancing the “non-sexual polyandry” theory. Yet Hales finds himself virtually alone among scholars on this question, as illustrated in this visual he created. Because his theory is the only one in line with the conservative LDS mainstream, he has become an apologist for Joseph Smith on behalf of the church. This visual makes it seem like he is the lone faithful scholar willing to stick up for Joseph Smith in the face of scholastic prejudice. But this is not exactly true. In the minds of more liberal scholars and members, the sexual-polyandry theory actually redeems Joseph Smith’s character.
How Sexual Polyandry Vindicates Joseph Smith
Polygamy is almost universally detested, especially by Mormons. But Mormons differ in why they detest polygamy. Here are the two main reasons:
- It feels sexually unholy, akin to promiscuity.
- It feels unfair to women.
The first reason is an example of what morality scholar Jonathan Haight would call “conservative morality,” and the second “liberal morality.” Conservative morality emphasises the importance of purity and authority while liberal morality emphasises equality and fairness.
If Joseph Smith practiced sexual polyandry, he is redeemed from the 2nd objection. Suddenly polygamy is no longer unfair to women. Women can have more than one husband, just as men can have more than one wife. Liberal-leaning members could look at sexual polyandry as a vindication of Joseph Smith’s ultimate objectives regarding plural marriage. Polygamy could have been in the service of what Joseph Smith saw as an egalitarian, if overly-utopian sexual ideal. But conservative members might feel the opposite. If the idea of polygamy already feels sexually unholy, the idea of sexual polyandry feels doubly so, as bad as the hippy love communes of the 60s.
The Moral Unfairness of Non-Sexual Polyandry
The non-sexual polyandry theory argues that Joseph Smith married married women only for the after-life. This eases the conservative consciences of those who value purity and see polyandry as sexually unholy. But this interpretation also turns Joseph Smith into the embodiment of the parable the prophet Nathan gave to King David after he had taken Bathsheba from Uriah:
A rich man had a great many flocks and herds. But the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb which he bought and nourished; and it grew up together with him and his children. It would eat of his bread and drink of his cup and lie in his bosom, and was like a daughter to him. Now a traveler came to the rich man, And he was unwilling to take from his own flock or his own herd, To prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him; Rather he took the poor man’s ewe lamb and prepared it for the man who had come to him.”… 2 Samuel 12:3-4
Joseph Smith, like the rich man Nathan’s parable, had been promised in D&C 132 “an hundred-fold in this world, of fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, houses and lands, wives and children, and crowns of eternal lives in the eternal worlds.” But with non-sexual polyandry, even with all he has, even with the 25+ virgins he has married, Joseph takes other men’s wives unto himself in the eternal world, wives who have lived, sacrificed, and born children with poor men of lesser stature. This is not sharing. This is not the law of consecration. This is not “the linking of families” for dynastic purposes. Non-sexual polyandry is theft, pure and simple. The non-sexual polyandry theory effectively separates loving husbands from wives, whether in this life, or the life to come. There is nothing in the LDS religion that remotely justifies such an act. Apologists can try and argue individual cases: “well, the husbands were non-members” or “well, the husbands got to have other wives,” or “well, the husbands were on good terms with Joseph,” or worst of all “well, God commanded Joseph to marry them, because the wives were REALLY supposed to be with him.” None of these arguments tempers the reality that non-sexual polyandry destroys the possibility of an eternal relationship for a loving couple on earth.
Sexual polyandry eliminates all this. It is egalitarian. It evokes the Law of Consecration, which was being practiced concurrently. It challenges unhealthy cultural notions of possessiveness, reflecting the Lord’s admonition to Martin Harris not to “covet thy own property.” Is the conservative desire for purity so strong that they are willing to turn Joseph Smith into a miserly tyrant, stealing a poor man’s only lamb? Could conservatives not embrace this one liberal possibility, just to avoid the terrible inequalities non-sexual polyandry suggests?
The Scriptural Evidence for Sexual Polyandry
Apologetic bodies like FAIR and lds.org will no doubt continue to argue against the idea of sexual polyandry, as they reflect conservative, mainstream LDS morality. However, I think it might be in the best interest of all to keep the question open, allowing those with liberal morality to believe in a more egalitarian Joseph Smith, while still giving space for conservatives to interpret the evidence in a way that keeps polyandry non-sexual. This would be easy to do because the evidence for and against sexual polyandry is inconclusive.
Brian Hales makes his theory for non-sexual-polyandry look like a slam-dunk. His argument is dismissively titled: “Joseph Smith’s Sexual Polyandry and the Emperor’s New Clothes.” I’m not a scholar, nor have I read all that Hales and others have written on the subject, but I did want to point out what I think is an important omission in Hales’ argument, an omission which I would like to see more scholars try and tackle. It concerns what is written about polyandry and adultery in D&C 132: 41-42. Brian Hales argues that D&C 132 unequivocally teaches that sexual polyandry is adultery:
What did Joseph Smith teach about sexual polyandry? Does anybody think he taught about sexual polyandry? Yes, he did. He describes in D & C 132, three possible sexual polyandrous situations. One of them is verses 61 to 63: “…as pertaining to this law of the priesthood–if any man espouse a virgin, and… if one… after she is espoused, shall be with another man,”- could be a legal husband, could by anybody, another man, “she has committed adultery, and shall be destroyed, for [she is] given unto him to multiply and replenish the earth…” Verses 41 and 42 are the other two. We won’t discuss those…but they label them all adultery.
Brian doesn’t go into depth about verses 41-42, casually stating that they condemn polyandry as adultery. But on closer inspection, these verses actually present compelling evidence that sexual polyandry can be authorised in some cases:
41 And as ye have asked concerning adultery, verily, verily, I say unto you, if a man receiveth a wife in the new and everlasting covenant, and if she be with another man, and I have not appointed unto her by the holy anointing, she hath committed adultery and shall be destroyed.
42 If she be not in the new and everlasting covenant, and she be with another man, she has committed adultery.
If these verses were simply clarifying that polyandry was adultery, they would say “if she be with another man, she has committed adultery.” But that is not what these verses are saying. They are presenting exceptions to what constitutes adultery for women, not rules. This exact same argument has been used to reject polygamy in the Book of Mormon. People who argue that Jacob 2 preaches against polygamy often forget to cite the exception clause at the end of verse 30. By arguing that verses 41-42 condemn polyandry, Brian Hales falls into the same trap.
Jacob 2:27-30: For there shall not any man among you have save it be one wife; and concubines he shall have none. For I, the Lord God, delight in the chastity of women…For if I will, saith the Lord of Hosts, raise up seed unto me, I will command my people; otherwise they shall hearken unto these things.
Polyandry and the Abrahamic Test
51 Verily, I say unto you: A commandment I give unto mine handmaid, Emma Smith, your wife, whom I have given unto you, that she stay herself and partake not of that which I commanded you to offer unto her; for I did it, saith the Lord, to prove you all, as I did Abraham, and that I might require an offering at your hand, by covenant and sacrifice.
54 And I command mine handmaid, Emma Smith, to abide and cleave unto my servant Joseph, and to none else. But if she will not abide this commandment she shall be destroyed, saith the Lord; for I am the Lord thy God, and will destroy her if she abide not in my law.
We don’t know for sure if these verses refer to a potential polyandrous relationship for Emma. WVS, in his exhaustive analysis for BCC notes several possibilities:
“Joseph may have offered her a divorce with financial guarantees…Another possibility was the choice of another partner—a kind of polyamory—even “revenge sex” if you will (and see vs. 54). It has even been suggested that this passage refers to suicide as an out. I think that unlikely. “
I believe polyandry is the most likely scenario given “Abrahamic tests” Joseph had given to others, most notably with Heber C. Kimball and his wife Villate. Orson F. Whitney recounts in The History of Heber C. Kimball:
He (Joseph Smith) put him (Heber) to a test which few men would have been able to bear. It was no less than a requirement for him to surrender his wife, his beloved Vilate, and give her to Joseph in marriage! The astounding revelation well-nigh paralysed him. He could hardly believe he had heard aright…Three days he fasted and wept and prayed. Then, with a broken and a bleeding heart, he led his darling wife to the Prophet’s house and presented her to Joseph…who wept at this proof of devotion, and embracing Heber, told him that was all that the Lord required. He had proved him, as a child of Abraham, that he would “do the works of Abraham,” holding back nothing, but laying all upon the altar for God’s glory. The Prophet joined the hands of the heroic and devoted pair, and then and there, by virtue of the sealing power and authority of the Holy Priesthood, Heber and Vilate Kimball were made husband and wife for all eternity.
If Joseph’s demand of Vilate as a wife was an Abrahamic test, how do we know whether Joseph Smith was “in on it?” Abraham didn’t know his sacrifice of Isaac was going to be an “Abrahamic” test. When Joseph initially asked, was he initiating it on his own just to prove Heber, or did he really expect to have Vilate as a wife? After all, Joseph did end up marrying 14 women who already had husbands. Could it be that the “Abrahamic” nature of this commandment reflected some uncertainty in Joseph’s mind over whether or not he was actually supposed to go through with these polyandrous relationships? Could it be that verse 51 is as much for Joseph Smith as it is for Emma, seeing that he was the one who gave the previous commandment to Emma? Given that verses 41-42 propose circumstances under which polyandry can be authorised, it seems that there could have been some ambivalence in Joseph Smith’s mind about how far he and everyone else were supposed to take their polyandrous relationships.
While I am not enough of a historical expert to argue about whether sexual polyandry was practiced in individual cases, such as with Sylvia Sessions, I think there is enough evidence within D&C 132 itself, that concurrent polyandrous relationships are theoretically possible in this life and the life to come. The sexual polyandry theory resonates with the Law of Consecration and other utopian ideals being experimented with at the time. Sexual polyandry feels more consistent with the benevolent and effusive character of Joseph Smith, unlike the non-sexual polyandry theory, in which he comes across as a miserly tyrant. Joseph Smith was not a miserly tyrant. He was an open-hearted, open-minded prophet. He wanted to link families and couples together, not separate them.
- Do you subscribe to the sexual or non-sexual polyandry theory? Does this reflect your own conservative or liberal preferences?
- If you believe in non-sexual polyandry, how do you defend Joseph in the face of the injustice it represents?
- If you believe in sexual polyandry, does the “sexual unholiness” of one woman having concurrent relations with two men bother you?
- Do you agree that D&C 132:41-42 suggests the possibility of sexual polyandry?
- Were Joseph Smith’s “Abrahamic tests” only for his followers or for him as well? Do you think he initially could have believed that the Lord asked Heber C. Kimball to give him Vilate, just as he went on to take other men’s wives as well? Does verse 51 suggests a similar situation with Emma?