Joseph Smith and the Origins of Plural Marriage, 1829-1841
As with so much else about Mormonism, the basis for Plural Marriage is found in the Bible and the Book of Mormon. The former providing legitimacy through the practices of the ancient patriarchs, particularly Abraham and the promises made to him of priestly power, an eternal lineage, and earthly dominions. In portions of the Book of Mormon produced in 1829, an ancient prophet is portrayed as excoriating certain of his followers who had assumed, based on the practice of these ancient patriarchs, the right to take additional wives. The men’s argument from scripture was, said the prophet, an “excuse” which rationalized “whoredoms” not only in their lack of right to marry, but also in the manner in which they treated their wives and children. The short of the story is the command that patriarchal (or polygamous) marriage was permissible only when God commanded and his prophet licensed it. As a narrative of an ancient spiritual crisis and prophetic response, this text appears to have not only introduced the concept of polygamy to Smith’s biblical restorationism, but also the basic rules for its regulation: God had to command it and only Smith permit individual cases of it.
Regardless of its regulatory force, such language in the Book of Mormon makes identifying the ideological roots for Smith’s doctrine of plural marriage relatively easy compared to tracing his efforts to put that ideology into practice. The level of confusion in the historical record seems to indicate he had the same problem. Most scholars turn to events in 1833 for evidence that Smith was trying to implement plural marriage. A scandal arose in Kirtland over whether Smith had committed adultery with Fanny Alger, who served as Emma’s housemaid. Not surprisingly the facts are few and often volunteered many years after the event. Based on various readings of the several dozen documents that make some reference to the Alger case, most historians believe there was a relationship between Alger and Smith. The documents relied on are admitted by all to be highly problematic, however, and ultimately fail to dispose of the chief question. Was there a marital alliance or a sexual dalliance between the two? The strongest evidence for a marital relationship comes from the recollection of another of Smith’s plural wives, Eliza Snow, that Alger was a plural wife.
Not until 1841, after the exodus from Missouri and relative stability achieved in the church’s new headquarters in Nauvoo, did Smith resume his efforts to establish plural marriage. That year he sealed himself to three women: Louisa Beman and the Huntington sisters, Zina and Prescendia and begun to introduce the doctrine to a relatively small circle of trusted associates. As for the total number of women Smith was sealed to, the number varies. Most scholars are confident in the thirty-seven names listed on this page. Notwithstanding the uniformity implied by such a list, there are several kinds of relationships and a variety of commitments to be found among these unions. Others have considered that variety in detail and we will not repeat it here, but rather have listed some of those sources below.
Bushman, Richard Lyman. Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling. Vintage, 2007.
Compton, Todd. In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith. Signature Books, 1996.
Hales, Brian C., and Don Bradley. Joseph Smith’s Polygamy. Greg Kofford Books, 2013. (3 vols.), https://josephsmithspolygamy.org/plural-wives-overview/.
Newell, Linda King, and Valeen Tippetts Avery. Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith. University of Illinois Press, 1994.
Smith, George D. Nauvoo Polygamy:”… But We Called it Celestial Marriage.” Signature Books, 2008.