One of the most anticipated questions of the new Church history series Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days is the treatment of Joseph Smith’s polygamy. It turns out there is much to commend in how Saints deals with this issue, but there is also something left to be desired. Here are the pros and cons I saw in the book regarding Joseph Smith’s plural marriages.
Before we begin…
First, a disclaimer. I am a big fan of this new series. One reason is this effort signifies a monumental shift in how the Church is writing about its history. Another is that the Church has invested heavily in marketing this less white-washed version to regular members via Newsroom releases, Church News articles, Church magazine articles, Mormon Channel podcasts, a worldwide Face to Face devotional, and even a FamilySearch campaign. The Church actually wants members to read this book.
It should also be noted quickly that the Church has created a Church History Topics database to supplement Saints. Although not as long as the Gospel Topics essays on lds.org, the 110+ essays in this database similarly add historical context and detail to specific issues. The Church History Topics sections usually list further reading resources, and sometime contain associated video explanations. Such is the case for the topic “Joseph Smith and Plural Marriage.”
Okay, now we can start.
Pro: More of a general polygamy thing, it is stated early on (p. 121) that polygamy is an exception to God’s rule of monogamy for the purpose of raising up “righteous children.” Later, we get plural marriage as “a way to extend [Abrahamic] blessings to more individuals and raise a covenant people to the Lord.” (p. 433) Further in the book it says that Joseph taught the principle to some of the apostles, instructing “them to obey it as a commandment of the Lord.6 While plural marriage was not necessary for exaltation or the greater endowment of power, obedience to the Lord and a willingness to dedicate one’s life to Him were.” (p. 443) Themes of raising up seed, sacrifice, obedience, and extending blessings appear to be the current preferred explanations for the temporary historic practice. I like them using justifications that hold up better in the historic record, and I’m really liking the emphasis on temporary. Heck, even Elder Cook in the Face to Face broadcast stressed, “In the senior councils of the Church, there is a feeling that polygamy, as it was practiced, served its purpose and we should honor those Saints, but that purpose has been accomplished.”
Pro: We get a more in-depth description of Joseph’s marriage to Fanny Alger than is found in the early plural marriage Gospel Topics essay, and we get to hear from Fanny herself (p. 291-292). Occasionally in the book we hear about Joseph being accused of adultery with Fanny, so the relationship is an important thread. There is even a Church History Topics section for Fanny Alger, and it provides some additional details on her life. (Minor qualm: No age range was given for Fanny in the book, just that she was a “young woman.” The marriage must’ve happened between 1831, when Joseph first started asking about plural marriage, and 1836, when Fanny’s family left Kirtland. Fanny was thus in her late teens, between 15 and 20 years old. I’ve already seen some people on Facebook assume she was Joseph’s 14-year-old plural wife.)
Con: In an extended discussion on plural marriage, the book states “not every woman accepted [Joseph’s] invitation, but several did” (p. 444). Throughout the book it’s easy to pick up that Joseph Smith had multiple plural wives, but at no point is the scale revealed unless you look at note 6 of Chapter 46 (p. 657 in the hard copy). It is there we get the “careful” estimate of 30-40 wives. The early plural marriage Gospel Topics essay does the same thing, referring to the 30-40 wives estimate only in footnote 24. Hiding the scale in footnotes is BY FAR my biggest pet peeve when it comes to Church publications dealing with Joseph’s polygamy.
Pro: Another general polygamy thing, I love this two-paragraph summary of Nauvoo plural marriage (p. 444). It covers almost all the points succinctly, even polyandry.
In Nauvoo, some Saints entered plural marriages for time and eternity, which meant their sealing would last through this life and the next. Like monogamous marriages, these marriages could involve sexual relations and having children. Other plural marriages were for eternity only, and the participants understood that their sealing would take effect in the next life.9
In some cases, a woman who was married for time to a disaffected Saint, or to a man who was not a member of the church, or even to a church member in good standing, could be sealed for eternity to another man. After the sealing ceremony, the woman continued to live with her current husband while anticipating the blessings of an eternal marriage and exaltation in the life to come.10
Con: Even though that description indicates plural marriages could involve “sexual relations and having children,” you have to look up note 9 of Chapter 37 (p. 640 in the hard copy) to find out if that applied to Joseph’s situation. “Though it is possible Joseph Smith fathered children within plural marriage, genetic testing of potential descendants has so far been negative.”
Pro: Polyandry is covered more in-depth in Saints than it is in the early plural marriage Gospel Topics essay. A polyandrous marriage between Joseph Smith and Mary Rollins Lightner is highlighted in Chapter 37, with lots of quotes from Mary’s perspective.
Con: We don’t hear specifics about any of the other polyandrous marriages (names, ages, or numbers). From that description on p. 444, though, we know that other husbands could be non-members like Adam Lightner, disaffected members, and even church members in good standing. According to Brian and Laura Harris Hales, Joseph Smith was sealed to 14 women who were legally married to other men.
Pro: We hear Emily Partridge’s perspective often throughout Saints, including the circumstances surrounding her marriage to Joseph within days after her 19th birthday (p. 482-484). Emily’s marriage illustrates Joseph marrying women without Emma’s knowledge (p. 490). Emily’s perspective also helps us see Emma’s struggles with the practice. Emma eventually gave permission for Joseph to marry Emily (after he’d already done so), but Emma later kicked Emily and her sister, another of Joseph’s plural wives, out of the Smith household (p. 507). Even though Emily was furious at the time, it’s through her that we get advice to reserve judgment on Emma. Touchingly, we see the two reconcile (p. 585) after Joseph’s death.
Con: As far as I can tell, only five of Joseph’s 30-40 plural wives are identified as such in the book: Fanny Alger, Louisa Beaman (p. 435), Mary Rollins Lightner, Emily Partridge, and Eliza Partridge (p. 484). Helen Mar Kimball is a glaring omission. Helen is famous for being Joseph’s youngest known plural wife at the age of 14, or “several months before her 15th birthday” as a Gospel Topics essay puts it. On p. 449, at least 3 women mentioned as part of the Relief Society also became Joseph’s plural wives, but those relationships are not noted in the book (Desdemona Fuller, Eliza Snow, and Elvira Cowles).
That’s all I got for this post. What do you guys think? Have you read Saints Volume 1? If so, what do you think about the depiction of Joseph Smith’s polygamy? Are you more surprised by what was included about Joseph Smith’s polygamy in Saints, or by what was left out?
Lead image from the Church’s Newsroom.
 Have you ever read the Revelations in Context essay for D&C 132? In the essay “Mercy Thompson and the Revelation on Marriage” by Church historian Jed Woodworth, plural marriage is stated as a commandment (same as in Saints), but then explained within the context of deceased spouses. Hyrum Smith “was ultimately converted to the principle when he realized that he had married two women on earth whom he could not bear to part with in eternity.” (In Saints, Hyrum obtains a testimony of the principle while speaking with Brigham Young prior to learning he could be sealed to both Jerusha and Mary – p. 492). Mercy Fielding Thompson became converted to plural marriage after Joseph Smith testified her deceased husband had appeared to him in vision. Robert Thompson expressed his desire for Mercy to become the plural wife of Hyrum because he wanted Mercy to be taken care of. It’s literally a “taking care of widows” argument for polygamy.
 I don’t know that many 19th century leaders would’ve agreed with viewing polygamy as a temporary thing.
 Let me know in the comments if I missed any other women noted in Saints as plural wives of Joseph Smith.