There seems to me little question that the most plausible avenue of attack against Joseph Smith’s character — or, if you prefer, the most serious ground for concern about him — centers on his involvement in polygamy, or so-called “plural marriage.”
A new article by Brian Hales, the leading current authority on early Mormon polygamy, is helpful: Brian C. Hales, “Joseph Smith’s Plural Wives after the Martyrdom,” Mormon Historical Studies 13/1-2 (Spring/Fall 2012): 55-68. (Mormon Historical Studies is the very interesting journal published by the extremely useful Mormon Historic Sites Foundation.)
Dr. Hales believes that Joseph Smith was sealed to thirty-five women. Of these, twenty-five went west with the Saints and, so far as we can tell, died in Utah as faithful members of the Church. Ten did not. But three of those ten died, evidently still in the faith, before the beginning of the westward migration. So he concentrates his attention on the remaining seven, trying to discern their final attitudes toward Joseph Smith and Mormonism.
Five of the seven jettisoned their faith — which is perhaps not altogether surprising in view of their physical distance, often for many years, from other members of the Church.
However, Dr. Hales concludes, “none of Joseph Smith’s plural wives ever accused him of abuse or deception, including the seven who did not gather to Utah with the main body of the Church. Decades after their feelings had matured and their youthful perspectives were expanded by additional experiences in subsequent marriages, it appears that none of them claimed they were victimized or beguiled by the Prophet. None came forth to write an exposé indicating he was a seducing impostor or claim that polygamy was a sham or a cover-up for illicit sexual relations. Even mild criticisms seem to be absent in the historical accounts and reminiscences of the Prophet’s plural wives. It seems that if any of Smith’s polygamous wives eventually decided that he had debauched them, their later scorn might have motivated them to expose him through the press. Certainly, numerous publishers would have been eager to print their allegations.”
Dr. Hales continues, “This brief overview of the trajectory of Joseph Smith’s plural wives after the martyrdom indicates that most remained believers in the principle of plural marriage, hoping to someday be reunited with him in the eternal worlds. While many current authors depict Joseph Smith as a libertine, driven by libido, none of his polygamous spouses left a record corroborating such views. Even those who parted with the Saints and had nothing to lose by criticizing him remained essentially silent.”
Important data and observations to be incorporated into one’s judgment of the situation.