Blood vows: Joseph Smith, Mormonism and the invention of American polygamy

How polygamy created a schism among early Mormons — and ultimately led to the murder of the religion's founder

Salon/April 20, 2014

By Alex Beam

In the last eighteen months of his life, Joseph Smith introduced the Mormon faithful to the Old Testament doctrine of polygamy. Everyone, including Brigham Young and Joseph’s wife Emma, hated “plural wifery,” which ignited the rebellion that resulted in Smith’s death. In short order, Joseph married his friend’s wives, friends’ daughters, his wife’s maids — and even a woman he first met as a credulous twelve-year-old, spellbound by his “golden Bible…”

In 1830, Mary Elizabeth Rollins was a pretty, precocious twelve-year-old girl living with her aunt and uncle in Kirtland, Ohio. Her father had perished in a shipwreck on Lake Ontario when she was two years old. Mary and her mother went to live with her uncle Sidney Gilbert, an early convert to Joseph Smith’s new religion. Soon the mother and daughter became Saints, baptized in a stream near their home.

Visiting a neighbor’s house, Mary spotted a rare Book of Mormon. Only a few hundred copies had been printed, mostly reserved for the use of missionaries wending their way around the northeastern United States. Mary begged to borrow the book for an evening. In her autobiography, she reported that she and the Gilberts savored the “Golden Bible” until late at night. She woke up early and memorized the first verse of Nephi, the first book in the Mormon bible: “I, Nephi, have been born of goodly parents…

When she returned the book early the next morning, her neighbor chided her. “I guess you did not read much in it.”

“Actually, I read quite a lot,” she insisted.

“I don’t believe you can tell me one word of it,” the skeptical man replied.

“I then repeated the first verse, also the outlines of the history of Nephi,” Mary remembered.

“Child, take this book home and finish it,” her neighbor replied. “I can wait.”

Soon afterward, Joseph Smith himself settled in Kirtland and paid a call on the Gilberts. He spotted the Book of Mormon and asked who had been reading it. Everyone, the Gilberts replied, even our twelve-year-old niece.

“Where is your niece?” Joseph asked.

“I was sent for,” Mary later wrote, “and when he saw me, he looked at me so earnestly, I felt almost afraid and I thought, ‘He can read my every thought,’ and I thought how blue his eyes were. After a moment he came and put his hands on my head and gave me a great Blessing and made me a present of the Book.”

Just a few days later Mary and her mother attended an evening prayer gathering with other Saints at Joseph’s house. Mary watched the proceedings from a corner, sitting on a plank suspended between two boxes. After some prayers and hymn-singing, Smith suddenly froze.

“His countenance Shone,” Mary recalled, and seemed almost transparent.

    It seems as though the solemnity of Eternity rested upon all of us. He seemed almost transfixed, he was looking ahead and his face outshone the candle which was on a shelf just behind him. He looked as though a searchlight was inside his face and shining through every pore. I could not take my eyes from his face.

“Who do you suppose has been in your midst this night?” Smith asked.

“An angel?” one of the faithful suggested.

Then Martin Harris, who financed the printing of the Book of Mormon, prostrated himself in front of Joseph, grabbing the Prophet’s leg. “I know,” Harris said. “Jesus Christ was here.”

“That is right,” Smith testified, “Brethren, our Saviour has been in Your Midst, and talked with me face to face.

    He has commanded me to seal you up unto Everlasting life, and he has given you all to be with me, in his kingdom, even as he is in the Father’s kingdom. And he has commanded me to say unto you, that when you are tempted of Satan, to say get thee behind me Satan, for my salvation is secure.

“I felt he was talking to the Lord and the power rested upon us all,” Mary wrote.

Mary Rollins’s life continued to be eventful. Possessed of the gift of tongues, she sometimes interpreted Indian languages and even engaged in religious prophecy, which occasionally set her at odds with her Mormon elders. She was a talented seamstress. When she and the Gilberts followed the Saints to Missouri, the newly elected lieutenant governor, Lilburn Boggs, asked her to help tailor a formal suit for his inauguration. Impressed by Mary and her work, Boggs tried to convince her to leave the church and join his family. Four years later, Boggs would issue the Extermination Order that would send Mary and thousands of Saints fleeing for their lives across the frozen Mississippi river.

In 1839, Mary, her Gentile husband, Adam Lightner, and their two young children did indeed flee Missouri and settle not far from Nauvoo. Lightner suffered business reverses and had trouble earning a living.

Mary taught art to young children, including to Joseph Smith’s adopted daughter Julia. She was living with her family in a tiny dwelling near the Nauvoo Mansion when Smith first asked her to marry him in early 1842.

Mary was twenty-three years old, married, and pregnant with her third child. Joseph was thirty-six years old, the father of four children and, unbeknownst to Mary and almost every other member of his church, was husband to eight wives, including Emma, the mother of his children.

Joseph explained to Mary, as he would to many other women, that an angel of the Lord had revealed the doctrine of plural marriage to him three times since 1834. Naturally, he had at first found the teaching shocking and repugnant. On the final visit, the angel, brandishing a sword, “said I was to obey that principle or he would slay me.”

Joseph told Mary that the two of them had already been together, that “I was created for him before the foundation of the Earth was laid.” He further explained—and he would repeat this to many women—that God had granted him eternal life. “I know that I shall be saved in the Kingdom of God,” he said. “I have the oath of God upon it and God cannot lie.” Furthermore, his wives and children would be granted salvation with him at the end of time.

Mary worshipped the Prophet, but she had doubts about this new revelation. If you saw an angel, she asked, why didn’t I? And how do you know the angel came from heaven? Perhaps Satan sent one of his angels? Mary said she would accept this new teaching only if an angel came to her. That will doubtless happen, Joseph said. And in the meantime, please don’t repeat this conversation to anyone.

I wouldn’t dream of it, Mary answered: “I shall never tell a mortal I had such a talk from a married man!”

Mary prayed as Joseph counseled her, and one night, she reported that “a Personage stood in front of the Bed looking at me.

    Its clothes were whiter than anything I had ever seen, I could look at its Person, but when I saw its face so bright, and more beautiful than any Earthly Being Could be, and those eyes pearcing me through, and through, I could not endure it, it seemed as if I must die with fear, I fell back in Bed and Covered up my head.

Mary shared the bedroom with her mother and her aunt, who also saw “a figure in white robes pass from our bed to my mother’s bed and pass out of the window.”

This was the sign, Mary concluded. In February 1842, on the second floor of Smith’s redbrick general store, Brigham Young sealed Mary and Joseph as husband and wife for “time, and all Eternity.” She was told to remain married to Adam Lightner, who was out of town on business.

Secure atop his independent city-state, Joseph Smith was boldly re-creating the Mormon religion. He had introduced the doctrine of baptism of the dead, ensuring that the Saints’ forbears—and ultimately the nations of Gentiles—would be prepared to greet Jesus Christ in the glory of the Second Coming. He had refined and formalized the endowment ritual required for men and women to enter the Mormon priesthood, borrowing heavily from his new enthusiasm for Freemasonry. The King Follett sermon shook the theological foundations of his own church, announcing the doctrine of plural gods, and of the humanity of the Christian God. But the most controversial new teaching, which Smith insisted was a very old teaching, firmly rooted in the Old Testament experience, was polygamy, the doctrine of plural wives.

From the moment he received his first revelation, Joseph never wavered from his insistence that Mormonism was a restoration of the original church of Jesus Christ, and of the Old Testament prophets. Thus Joseph styled himself to be a prophet, aided on earth by twelve apostles. All Old and New Testament teachings, along with the Book of Mormon, were true, Joseph said. According to him, the established churches had distorted and polluted God’s messages over time. Joseph knew the Bible backward and forward and often mentioned the multiple wives of such Old Testament figures as Abraham, Jacob, Moses, and King David. The great Hebrew king was said to have had over twenty wives and concubines, and his son Solomon had “seven hundred wives, princesses, and three hundred concubines,” according to 1 Kings 11:3. In the original polygamy revelation of 1831, God reminded Smith that “David also received many wives and concubines, and also Solomon and Moses my servants… from the beginning of creation until this time; and in nothing did they sin.” In a separate revelation the same year, God suggested that the Mormons might convert the Native Americans, supposedly descendants of the Book of Mormon’s Lamanites, through polygamous intermarriage:

    For it is my will, that in time, ye should take unto you wives of the Lamanites and Nephites, that their posterity may become white, delightsome and Just, for even now their females are more virtuous than the gentiles.

Although a few Mormons did marry Native American women later in the century, the revelation—which the church never published—went unfulfilled.

Joseph received so many revelations that they inevitably conflicted. The Lord did advise him, just as he had counseled Moses in the Ten Commandments, to “love thy wife with all thy heart, and cleave unto her and none else”(Doctrine and Covenants 42:22). And it could hardly go unnoticed that the Book of Mormon, which Joseph compiled before 1831, condemned polygamy, in two passages from the Book of Jacob. The dissolute Nephites

    began to grow hard in their hearts and indulge themselves somewhat in wicked practices, such as like unto David of old desiring many wives and concubines, and also Solomon, his son (Jacob 1:15).

In Jacob 2, the Lord speaks even more directly, noting that “David and Solomon truly had many wives and concubines, which thing was abominable before me.” “Nephite Men Should Have Only One Wife” the book sternly warns, and God speaks yet again on this subject to his people:

    For there shall not be any man among you save have it be one wife; and concubines he shall have none. For I, the Lord God, delight in the chastity of women and whoredoms are an abomination before me (Jacob 2:27–28).

In the same chapter, the Lord makes the ambiguous statement, “For if I will raise up seed unto me, I will command my people; otherwise they shall hearken unto these things.” For decades, Joseph and other apologists for Mormon polygamy claimed they were “raising up seed” to their Lord, his previous strictures notwithstanding. In a famous letter to nineteen-year-old Nancy Rigdon, who repelled his advances, Joseph simply explained that “whatever God requires is right,” and he was the one entrusted to interpret God’s intentions: “That which is wrong under one circumstance, may be, and often is, right under another.”

Joseph had been confiding his thoughts about plural marriage to his most trusted confederates throughout the 1830s. It seems that Joseph was practicing polygamy without benefit of clergy during that time. “Joseph’s name was connected with scandalous relations with two or three families,” according to his friend Benjamin Winchester. “There was a good deal of scandal prevalent among a number of the Saints concerning Joseph’s licentious conduct, this more especially among the women.” In 1835, rumors of Mormon polygamy were so intense that the Saints’ general assembly issued a statement asserting, “Inasmuch as this church of Christ has been reproached with the crime of fornication, and polygamy; we declare that we believe, that one man should have one wife; and one woman but one husband.” The Saints adopted the measure while Joseph was absent on a missionary trip to Michigan.

It is possible that he married his first “celestial wife” in 1838, although his first recorded plural marriage took place in 1841. Joseph shrouded polygamy in great secrecy, for several obvious reasons. Not only was the practice morally shocking and contradicted by passages in both the New Testament and the Book of Mormon, it was also illegal in Illinois. Nonetheless, defectors and apostates were reporting Joseph’s scandalous views to the world. “Old Joe’s Mormon seraglio” quickly became a stock phrase in the nation’s newspapers, despite the Saints’ heated denials.

Polygamy was not an idea that occurred to Joseph alone. Utopian ideologue John Humphrey Noyes had been propagandizing free love during the 1830s and introduced a system of “complex marriage” at his upstate New York Oneida colony in 1848. At Oneida, all men and women were married to each other, and exclusive attachments were forbidden. It was Noyes who famously observed that “there is no more reason why sexual intercourse should be restricted by law than why eating and drinking should be.” There is no evidence that Noyes and Smith ever met, although it seems likely they would have known about each other from the popular press. Smith did meet the notorious Robert Matthews, who claimed to be the reincarnation of the disciple Matthew, returned to earth “to establish a community of property, and of wives.” After a short prison stint, Matthews showed up on Joseph’s doorstep in Kirtland, Ohio, masquerading as “Joshua the Jewish Minister.” After forty-eight hours of intense discussions, Joseph decided that “Joshua’s” doctrine “was of the Devil,” and he escorted him out of town.

Smith definitely knew about Jacob Cochran’s doctrine of spiritual wifery at his Saco, Maine, colony, because the Mormons had tried to convert the Cochranites. Future apostle and polygamist Orson Hyde visited a Cochranite community in 1832 and reported on their “wonderful lustful spirit,

    …because they believe in a “plurality of wives” which they call spiritual wives, knowing them not after the flesh but after the spirit, but by the appearance they know one another after the flesh.

In 1841, Joseph discussed polygamy with his Apostles, and the doctrine was formally recorded, albeit secretly, in July of 1843. In the revelation, God invoked the names of the Old Testament polygamists, and continued: “Verily I say unto you, my servant Joseph, that whatsoever you give on earth, and to whomsoever you give any one on earth, by my word and according to my law, it shall be visited with blessings.” In the next to last verse of the lengthy revelation, God invoked the “law of Sarah,” an insidious stricture for women who didn’t want to share their husbands. If a wife refused to consent to polygamy, the revelation instructed, the husband no longer needed her assent to take on other wives.

God also included a special message for “mine handmaid Emma,” whom he correctly imagined might greet the new doctrine with muted enthusiasm:

    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 (Doctrine and Covenants 132:54).

A decade earlier, God had issued a revelation, through Joseph, that Emma should “murmur not because of the things which thou hast not seen, for they are withheld from thee and from the world” (Doctrine and Covenants 25:4).

God might well worry that Emma would “murmur” against polygamy. Joseph’s scribe William Clayton wrote down the polygamy revelation sentence by sentence in the Prophet’s second-floor office of the redbrick store, while Smith dictated. (The revelation was hardly news to Clayton; Joseph had urged him to marry his first plural wife earlier in the year.) Joseph’s brother Hyrum was the only other person in the small room. The men realized that someone would have to show the text to Joseph’s wife.

“If you will write the revelation, I will take and read it to Emma,” Hyrum assured his brother. “I believe I can convince her of its truth, and you will hereafter have peace.”

Hyrum’s mission failed utterly. Returning from his audience with Emma at the Mansion, he announced that “I have never received a more severe talking to in my life. Emma is very bitter and full of resentment and anger.”

Emma “did not believe a word” of the revelation, Clayton wrote in his diary, noting that she destroyed the text Hyrum had handed her.

Emma hated polygamy all her life, even though there were moments when she reconciled herself to the new theology. For instance, in a gesture that must have tried her soul, she allowed Joseph to marry two pairs of young sisters who lived in the mansion with the Smiths: Emily and Eliza Partridge, and Sarah and Maria Lawrence. Joseph thanked Emma profusely, never informing her that he had in fact married the Partridge sisters two months beforehand, or that he already had sixteen other wives. Right after the marriage ceremony, Emma “was more bitter in her feelings than ever before, if possible,” Emily Partridge recounted, “and before the day was over she turned around and repented what she had done.” Emma “kept close watch on us,” Partridge added. “If we were missing for a few minutes and Joseph was not at home the house was searched from top to bottom and if we were not found the neighborhood was searched until we were found.”

Within just a few months, Emma threatened that “blood would flow” if the marriages were not undone, and the sister wives were evicted. Joseph sheepishly arranged for the girls to board elsewhere in Nauvoo. William Clayton reported that Emma was threatening to sue for divorce, an untenable proposition for Joseph. Despite her many humiliations, Emma remained the “Elect Lady” of the Latter-day Saints and was quite popular among the Mormon rank and file. She was a principal player in the brief history of the Mormon Church. Joseph often mentioned that the angel Moroni refused to show him the golden plates until Joseph was married, and that Moroni specified Emma Hale as the desired spouse. Emma was Joseph’s first scribe and an early and ardent believer in the plates (“I felt of the plates as they lay on the table,” she later told her oldest son) and in the doctrine of the newly restored gospel.

During his nine-month-long jail term in Liberty, Missouri, Joseph and Emma exchanged tender letters. She visited her husband three times, with their children, before being forced to flee Missouri for Illinois. Rather than risk a messy break with his wife of seventeen years, Joseph generally assuaged Emma’s public demands and did his best to conduct his private life in private.

In a famous incident, Emma is supposed to have surprised Joseph and another mansion lodger, the raven-haired poetess Eliza Snow, kissing on a second-floor landing. With her children begging her not to harm “Aunt Eliza,” Emma grabbed Snow by the hair, then threw her down the stairs and out into the street. Snow was said to have suffered a miscarriage as a result. The tale looms large for the Saints because Snow became the poet laureate of Mormon culture, and a grande dame in the Saints’ new Zion of Salt Lake City. A plural widow of Joseph Smith, she married his successor, Brigham Young, and outlived him by a decade. Snow never spoke of the stairway incident, confirming only that she had been the Prophet’s wife and lover.

A Gentile visitor from Carthage, while paying a call on Emma, innocently inquired, “Mrs. Smith, where does your church get the doctrine of spiritual wives?”

Emma’s face flushed scarlet, the guest reported, and her eyes blazed with fury. “Straight from hell, madam.”

Emma Smith’s horrified reaction to polygamy was the rule, not the exception, among the devout Saints. Joseph’s brother Don Carlos said, “Any man who will teach and practice the doctrine of spiritual wifery will go to hell; I don’t care if it is my brother Joseph.” Brigham Young, doggedly loyal to Joseph and his teachings, said that learning about plural marriage “was the first time in my life that I desired the grave.” Apostle John Taylor called plural marriage “an appalling thing to do. The idea of going and asking a young lady to be married to me when I already had a wife!” (Joseph told Taylor that if polygamy is “not entered into right away, the keys will be turned,” meaning Mormons will be denied entry to heaven.) “The subject was very repugnant to my feelings,” Eliza Snow wrote upon learning the doctrine. Don Carlos died without experiencing the Saints’ full embrace of polygamy. Snow and Young accommodated themselves to the new teaching. By 1846, John Taylor had married thirteen wives.

In the early 1840s, Joseph encouraged the apostles to take additional wives, and the inner circle sometimes engaged in dynastic polygamy, or sealed marriages that seemed primarily political in nature. Joseph married Willard Richards’s fifty-eight-year old sister Rhoda, and soon afterward married Brigham Young’s fifty-six-year old sister Fanny. He urged Richards to marry two teenage girls in 1843. Richards’s first wife, Jennetta, died just two years later, “of a broken heart,” according to her son Heber.

Most polygamous marriages were for “time and eternity,” signifying that the man and the woman might have sexual relations on earth (“time”) but also be joined in a larger family at the end of time (“eternity”). The larger the family that gathered to greet the Second Coming, Joseph taught, the greater the heavenly exaltation for all concerned. It is probable that Joseph married Rhoda Richards and Fanny Young for dynastic reasons, for “eternity” only. After Joseph’s death, Brigham Young married many of the Prophet’s widows, including Brigham’s first cousin Rhoda Richards, partly to ensure that the two massive clans would be together for all time.

Smith eventually married dozens of wives, including five pairs of sisters and two pairs of mothers and daughters, of whom fourteen were already married.* He introduced thirty-three of his followers to plural marriage. By the time of his death, there were 124 plural wives living in Nauvoo. At times, his invocation of the new rite seemed quite casual. One day Joseph was chatting about celestial marriage with Brigham and the unmarried Fanny Young. Fanny ventured the opinion that she planned to be alone in heaven. “I shall request the privilege of being a ministering angel,” she told the men. “That is the labor that I wish to perform. I don’t want any companion in that world.”

“Sister, you talk very foolishly,” Joseph upbraided her. “You do not know what you will want.” He turned to Brigham. “Here, Brother Brigham, you seal this lady to me.”

They were married on the spot.

The Prophet’s relation with the Sessions family illustrates the claustrophobic nature of Nauvoo polygamy. In 1838, Joseph officiated at the wedding of nineteen-year-old Sylvia Sessions to Windsor Lyon. Four years later, Joseph married Sylvia himself. A few weeks after that, he married Sylvia’s mother, Patty Bartlett Sessions.

Smith didn’t limit himself to asking his closest friends if he could marry their sisters. He also wooed their own wives and daughters. One day in 1841, after Apostle Heber Kimball had returned from a proselytizing mission to England, Joseph approached him and said God had commanded him to marry Heber’s wife, Vilate. “He was dumbfounded,” his grandson Orson Whitney said. Kimball didn’t eat, drink, or sleep for three days, and prayed continually.

Finally, Heber and Vilate walked over to meet Joseph in a private room at the Nauvoo Mansion. “Brother Joseph, here is Vilate,” Kimball said.

Smith “wept like a child” and proceeded to seal, or marry, Heber and Vilate to each other “for time and all eternity.” “Brother Heber, take her and the Lord will give you a hundredfold.”

It was a test of love and faith, Joseph explained. He had never wanted to marry Vilate after all. Smith called this the “Abrahamic test.” He acted out almost the same scenario with his friend, the Apostle John Taylor.

But he did want to marry the Kimballs’ fourteen-year-old daughter.

By 1843, Joseph had won both Vilate and Heber over to the doctrine of plural marriage. At the Prophet’s urging, Heber had married a young woman named Sarah Noon, whose husband had deserted her. After considerable praying, Vilate grudgingly accommodated herself to the union. “Her heartstrings were already stretched until they were ready to snap asunder,” her daughter Helen later wrote. Then Joseph asked the couple for their only daughter’s hand in marriage.

Speaking with his daughter in their home, Kimball, a pillar of the church, broached the subject of polygamy delicately. Would you believe me, he said, if I told you it was right for married men to take other wives?

I would not! exclaimed Helen, who had never shown anger to her father before.

Heber stunned his daughter by telling her that her close friend, Sarah Ann Whitney, had already joined Joseph in celestial marriage. Helen was close to the Whitneys; in fact, she was infatuated with Sarah’s brother, Horace, and hoped to marry him. Heber insisted that she bow to Joseph’s will. “If you will take this step, it will ensure you eternal salvation and exaltation and that of your father’s household and all your kindred,” Heber explained to her.

In her autobiography, Helen hinted that she contemplated fleeing, or something worse; “I will pass over the temptations which I had during the twenty four hours after my father introduced me to the principle.”

The family again presented themselves to the Prophet. “None but God and the angels could see my mother’s bleeding heart,” Helen wrote, when Joseph asked if Vilate would agree to the union.

“If Helen is willing I have nothing more to say,” Vilate replied.

“In her mind, she saw the misery which was so sure to come,” Helen recalled. “But it was all hidden from me.” Joseph married her in the upper room of his redbrick store, on a cold rainy Sunday, May 28, 1843. Helen Mar Kimball was a devoutly religious, unworldly young girl raised in the insular Mormon culture. Apparently no one had prepared her for what Joseph would do to her when they were alone. She was three months shy of fifteen years old; young, but of marriageable age. (Nauvoo required a girl to be fourteen years old to marry. Statewide, the age of consent was ten.) “I would never have been sealed to Joseph, had I known it was anything more than a ceremony,” Helen later told her mother. “I was young and they deceived me, by saying the salvation of our whole family depended on it.”

People change. Forty years later, with the US government waging a full-scale war against Mormon polygamy in Utah, Helen Mar Kimball Whitney—she did marry her childhood sweetheart, though “for time only”—published an eighty-page brochure-apologia, “Why We Practice Plural Marriage,” refuting “those who make our religious faith a pretext for stirring up the public mind against us.”

An adventure not unlike the Kimballs’ befell Apostle Orson Pratt. After her husband returned from a mission trip to England, Sarah Pratt complained that Joseph Smith had tried to seduce her. Sarah said she rebuffed Smith. As he often did when confronted by female accusers, Joseph smeared her, publicly accusing her of adultery with another man. He went so far as to suggest that Pratt “marry a virtuous woman—and sire a new family.” Orson Pratt fled his home and temporarily lost his mind. Brigham Young spent several days with his disturbed colleague, “whose mind became so darkened by the influence and statements of his wife, that he came out in rebellion against Joseph, refusing to believe his testimony or obey his council.”

The Quorum of the Twelve excommunicated both Pratts, although within a few weeks they reconciled with Joseph and rejoined the Saints. Orson “repented in dust and ashes.” Sarah’s return proved to be temporary. She later divorced Orson and helped found Salt Lake City’s Anti-Polygamy Society. She evinced nothing but contempt for her “gray headed” husband, “taking to his bed young girls in mockery of marriage. Of course there could be no joy for him in such an intercourse except for the indulgence of his fanaticism and of something else, perhaps, which I hesitate to mention.”

Then Joseph tried to seduce the wife of his second counselor, William Law.

Excerpted from “American Crucifixion: The Murder of Joseph Smith and the Fate of the Mormon Church” by Alex Beam.

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