Joseph Smith’s Plural Wives after the Martyrdom


Joseph Smith (1805-1844)


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.



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  • Elizabeth Scott

    Interesting thoughts, Dan! I will definitely read the article.
    Do you think, though, that even if these women had felt “wronged” by the prophet, they might have kept silent so they didn’t embarrass themselves?

    • danpeterson

      Maybe. But there’s no apparent evidence for that.

      And there were plenty of people who would have eaten up any negative stuff that they had to dish out.

      • Rick

        I agree, Dan, but not only would they have eaten it up, I have no doubt they would have embellished it, possibly beyond recognition. We have ample evidence for that.

  • Viliami Pauni

    For those interested here is a link to Brian’s books.

    DCP’s suggestion that we incorporate Brian’s work into a larger body of research is wise.

  • Bob Oliverio

    Given the environment of that time that there were so many more women than men, I think these women would not want to “rock the boat” with feelings of ill will toward the prophet. Their life’s needs were dependent upon being accepted in to this culture remaining. Their silence would obviously prevent any evidence from surfacing. I think if we look at the post death statements from
    Emma, as well as the prophets own documented statements of denial, we can see alot into the ways of Joseph Smith when it came to what he forced onto these women.

    • danpeterson

      “What he forced onto these women”?

      That assumes a huge amount that isn’t in evidence.

      And this article is focused on women who left the Church, and were outside of Utah — so your notion that Mormon culture imposed silence on them is irrelevant both to what I wrote and to the article by Dr. Hales.

  • Eric

    Dan, thanks for the constructive pointer to this article. –Eric

  • Jason Covell

    I recall reading a somewhat recent article (alas, I cannot remember where) which gave an account of efforts to follow up the question of whether Joseph Smith fathered children by any of his plural wives. I seem to recall that the researches to date had failed to confirm that there were any – even going to the extent of DNA testing of some of the descendants of those who had claimed Josoeh as their biological father.

    I would love to dig this up, as it supplies an important angle on this matter. After all, the many children of Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball (et al.) by their various wives are well documented.

    To put it bluntly, we know that Joseph was not infertile. Emma’s many pregnancies confirm at least that. But if he had as many as 35 women sealed to him, what does it say if he never had any child by them? If true, I do believe this is significant.

    • danpeterson

      The foremost expert on this matter is Dr. Ugo Perego, and you can find references, and etc., on his website at

    • Adam G.

      Todd Akin and Bob Oliverio could tell you what it means. Divine providence protected these women from the consequences of their debauchment.

  • Lucy Mcgee

    William Law swore in an affidavit that: I hereby certify th at Hyrum Smith did, (in his office) read to me a certain written document, which he said was a revelation from God, he said that he was with Joseph when it was received. He afterwards gave me the document to read, and I took it to my house, and read it, and showed it to my wife, and returned it next day . The revelation (so called) authorized certain men to have
    more wives than one at a time, in this world and in the world to come. It said this was the law, and commanded Joseph to enter into the law. -And also that he should administer to others. Several other items were in the revelation, supporting the above doctrines. – WM. LAW May 1844.

    The one and only Nauvoo Expositor publication took aim at Joseph Smith not only for his dalliances, but also for abusing the power he had amassed. Some outside the Mormon faith shared those concerns. For this non religious person, this is an interesting phenomenon.

    It is interesting that Joseph Smith, having been visited by God and Jesus, and instructed to bring the restored Gospel to all Christians on planet earth, would engage in behavior which would bring forth contempt, condemnation and persecution by the very countrymen he was tasked in bringing the Holy Gospel message to. Even for some who were devout believers in the restored Gospel, there were multiple issues with Joseph Smith’s activities not only regarding his alleged polygamy and polyandry, but with the consolidation of his civil and military powers in Nauvoo. This concern was expressed in the Nauvoo Expositor newspaper in detail, including the affidavits of some directly involved.

    To me, it seems odd and counterproductive that God would task a man with bringing the restored Gospel to planet earth, and at the same time choose a man who had proclivities tending toward behaviors that many would consider so egregious, that he and his faithful would be continually persecuted for decades.

    • The Only True and Living Nathan

      Because we all know that Christ always got along with the established political and social structures of his day… [sarcasm off]

    • danpeterson

      You accept the prosecution’s case without question, then?

      They wouldn’t accuse him if he weren’t guilty, right?

      • Lucy Mcgee

        No, but the result of the events following Joseph Smith’s prosecution lead to a terrible and inhumane persecution of the Saints for many decades over not only polygamy and polyandry, but also of separatist inclinations and the willingness to wage war on the Republic. Outliers on the vast frontier don’t make for the best reasons to join the most current spiritual movement toward everlasting bliss and repose.

        • danpeterson

          So the fact that unbelievers treated the Mormons really badly proves that disbelief in Mormonism is justified?

          • Lucy Mcgee

            A more interesting question would be to ask why God would choose Joseph Smith to spread the reformed Gospel to a world of hundreds of millions of Christians, given the condemnation he seemingly evoked in some of those very same believers, who were not only critical of polygamy, but also angry at being informed that their Christian beliefs were not correct and that the Latter-day Saints were members of the only true church of Christ and that they were not. All this at a time when millennialism was in the forefront of religious thought in America.

            The fact that Joseph Smith built a standing militia of thousands probably didn’t help the Saints in their desire to spread their gospel message. It also didn’t help that some in Nauvoo would be so bold as to speak out against Joseph Smith, going as far as to offer their sentiments in the Nauvoo Expositor.

    • Stephen Smoot

      Here is McGee’s comments slightly modified.

      To me, it seems odd and counterproductive that God would task Jesus with bringing the Gospel to planet earth, and at the same time choose a man who had proclivities tending toward behaviors that Pharisees and religious elite would consider so egregious, that he and his faithful would be continually persecuted for decades.

      See how easy it is to play this game?

      • Lucy Mcgee

        It might be more enlightening if you moved your game board to China in the 1850′s and discover the root cause of the most deadly civil war ever experienced on planet earth. I’d bet you never learned about it in school as the winners are most responsible for writing history.

        Your comment regarding Jesus has no bearing on anything I’ve written. You may, of course, play that game in your own mind.

  • Robert Rey Black

    What about the Sarah Pratt affair, or the Jane Law affair?

    • danpeterson

      They weren’t wives. Hence, they weren’t covered by this article.

  • Bob Oliverio

    Have any of the “Mormon authorities”, current or past, on polygamy ever attempted to analyze or delineate differences of rationale, reason or legalies between Joseph Smith and Warren Jeffs in their respective practices of polygamy? Are there any differences? Does Mr Hale address this in his latest book? If so, I would buy his book.

    • danpeterson

      There are plenty of reasons to buy his book. That particular one seems pretty far down the list of potential justifications.

  • Mike

    Lucy, I don’t know where you are going with your reference to the Nauvoo Legion. Obviously its purpose had nothing to do with missionary efforts. It was founded as a defensive unit for a people that had been rooted out of Missouri, faced mobs and murderers, and had most of their land and personal property stolen from them. It was in this light that the Illinois legislature authorized the formation of the Legion. It undoubtedly brought a sense of comfort and protection to the Mormon people. What is most telling, however, is the reaction of the Legion when the Smiths were killed and Governor Ford left the Mormons without state protection: the Legion did not seek revenge or pitched battles. Instead, the the Mormons peaceably disassembled and left Nauvoo while the mobs continued to attack Mormon settlements and the federal government refused to provide assistance.

    I don’t see anything wrong with Smith’s affiliation with the Nauvoo Legion, especially in the context of the often brutal environment of 19th century frontier America. In the biblical sense, how man prophets led armies? Joshua obviously comes to mind. And he was one of many. I don’t recall Joseph Smith, though, conquering any cities.

    • Lucy Mcgee

      As I’ve written previously, it seems very odd that a prophet of God, tasked with bringing the restored Gospel to the planet’s Christians, would ever allow himself or his followers to be in such a terrible situation. When you think about this entire history big picture, why in the world would a God task such a human to carry out such a plan, nearly doomed to absolute failure? Had it not been for Wilford Woodruff and his anti-polygamy proclamation in 1890, the assets of the Church would have been taken over by the U.S.

      I’ve twice read the Nauvoo Expositor as a reference and realized that Joseph Smith was to some, a fallen prophet. There was turmoil even among the Saints. So for me, trying to look at the picture of events objectively, there seems to be much in Joseph Smith’s history, which could be sincerely viewed as counter productive to bringing the restored Gospel of Christ to the planet’s Christians.

      • kaph

        Was there any “good” out of plural marriage?
        I believe there was. I believe several extremely strong generations were raised, and then it was time to end. Of course it was a complicated mess all the way through and after it was through. Human relationships are like that. But I believe a great righteous posterity was raised up that benefited the church for generations even to this day. Perhaps more “good” could have come (at great personal cost for all those involved no doubt) if the practice continued longer. Or perhaps it was always God’s plan for it to end and add yet another strengthening trial of faith for all those involved.

        What I do know is that if you accept the claims of the church, the church the Apostles setup in the time of Christ fell apart and/or was corrupted (and many well intentioned believers continued on with the accompanying loss of authority). The church Joseph setup thrived and grew.

        It’s politically incorrect to point out that plural marriage might have played a role in this. But I think it did. Your mileage may vary.

        I’m certainly not hoping for a return or suggesting it’s a “swell” thing. It’s an Abraham self-sacrifice of the highest order. I’m grateful we don’t have to endure such a sacrifice in our time, but remember there were many sacrifices made throughout church history and scripture which seem beyond the pale. And in the cases where those people remained faithful, they came to know God more fully. I don’t think personal sacrifice comes without blessings from heaven to those involved.

        So finally, if there was some good, in the midst of the hardships and complexities, I think you might have your answer why God would have such a task. If that seems impossible to accept, consider the life of the Savior being swallowed up in the will of the Father. Sometimes eternal good can come from events too terrible to contemplate.

      • JohnH

        Read Job, read 1 Peter, or read the D&C. God is perfectly willing to throw those that are faithful into the fires of affliction in order to refine them, both as a people and individually, until they are as gold.

        Given the ideas which have in the last century killed millions and which continue to kill, and even more then kill continues to destroy lives, then I think it is perfectly reasonable for God to want His people to know that they should be wary of governments, not be willing to trust the popular mobs, and be able to feel compassion for groups that are labeled pure evil.

        It certainly seems from the New and Old Testaments that God does not want His people to be built off of what is popular or appealing to the wisdom of the world.

        • Lucy Mcgee

          Throwing the faithful into the fires of affliction seems like a great excuse for all the mistakes made by those all knowing religious denizens in power (name your period in history). If you read about Christopher Columbus, for example, and his subjection and destruction of the Arawak tribes in the Caribbean, or the Spanish Conquistador’s near total destruction of Maya, Aztec and Inca cultures, all under the auspices of the Church, you may come away with the basis for my argument.

          • JohnH

            “all knowing”- ? Since when has any religious person claimed to be all knowing? Not even Jesus was all knowing, at least not at first. As for mistakes, the only one that didn’t sin was Jesus, whether he made mistakes that were not sins is up for debate.

            If you are desiring perfection in knowledge and perfection in action from religious leaders in any period of time ever then you had better be certain that you yourself are perfect in knowledge and action and that others in very different times and circumstances from the one you live in will and would also judge you to be perfect. Since no one can say they are perfect then perhaps trying to understand what was known, what was thought, what was believed, why people acted the way they did, how others around them were acting, and how their actions relate to others from different time periods would be a very good idea.

            I am totally unsure of the point you are trying to make in regards to Christopher Columbus or Diego de Lambda. Am I supposed to be defending the Catholics or agreeing with you that for about 1600 years they had huge issues in regards to anyone practicing anything other then Catholicism?

  • Bob Oliverio

    What did the practice of polygamy provide the Church, or it’s members, at that time that would not have been, or has not been, provided through monogamy?

    If the only answer we have is:  “It was the will of our Heavenly Father”, the why did JS, as publisher and editor of the Church paper ‘Times & Season’ publicly lie, in print, as to his practice of polygamy?

    • Doug

      That’s easy: lots of children (even though only a small minority practiced polygamy).

    • kaph

      A righteous posterity raised by the creme of the crop. It’s not just the quantity of children raised, but the children raised who were direct descendents of Apostles and other extremely faithful Saints who sacrificed all for the gospel — including and especially those women who were a part of it.

      • kaph

        I’d just add, my personal opinion is I think the practice is inherently complex and messy and there’s not really a feasible way (that I see) it could continue through multiple generations. First of all, the people involved were human, and even in its “best case” it was no picnic. Over time, I’m quite certain polygamy itself would have destroyed the church more so than any threats from the government. Or rather, the individual members of the church would have destroyed themselves. Think along the lines of Elder Packer’s statement about distributing the authority of the priesthood has raced a head of distributing the power in the priesthood. He (and I) don’t connect that statement to plural marriage, but what he’s getting at is power in the priesthood only comes through personal righteousness. Plural marriage in a situation were those involved are the epitome (as much as humanly possible) of personal righteouness is an doomed to stain all parties. And I even grant this was unfortunately sometimes the case when it was practiced.

        So I’m glad it’s gone, but I’m not regretful for the generations who came into existence on a stronger foundation as a result.

        It’s nuanced, ya know. Maybe it would be a good time to practice some of the open minded nuanced thinking that a lot of leftist claim they have in spades :)