So when it comes to the story that’s often told of Helen Mar Kimball, one of Joseph Smith youngest wives, what they say is Joseph manipulated her into this relationship with him, promising that if she’ll do this, it’ll save her whole family. They’ll frame it that Joseph is like putting pressure on this 14 year old and so he’s a pedophile or whatever. And so, you know, there’s just the assumption that a relationship means sex, right? And if so, we can kind of pick this story apart from the get go, right? So, Helen Mar Kimball gives us narratives of how the relationship and marriage came about.
And one thing that she says absolutely explicitly, like you can’t mistake it, is ‘my father, Heber C. Kimball wanted to be connected with the prophet for the eternities. And so he proposed to the prophet that the prophet marry me.’ So right off the bat, this should raise questions about ‘oh, wait, I thought the story was that this was Joseph Smith’s idea because Joseph Smith is supposedly the pedophile here. He’s the one who’s manipulating this girl.’ It’s not even his idea. It’s her dad’s idea. It’s her dad who’s pushing this, not Joseph. There is no source so Joseph was the instigator so they’re assuming.
And Todd Compton is a good enough scholar that he gives the correct narrative; he shows that Helen Mar Kimball’s father wanted the marriage and so on. So my purpose is not to say that people are attempting to be dishonest. I don’t think that’s what’s going on. But I think that they are interpreting things through the lens of being disaffected and upset. Kind of like, if people are going through a divorce and the soon-to-be ex-spouses are arguing, they will distort things through a certain filter. And that’s the truth of them. Right? ‘This person always does things this certain way’, and that may not be anything like the reality.
And then not only that, Helen Mar Kimball defended the Prophet and plural marriage throughout her life. She writes books called like, Why We Practice Plural Marriage. She’s a lifelong defender of polygamy. So this narrative is that Joseph instigates this and so on, but he doesn’t and she tells us that explicitly. Then one of the things she writes is a poem about her youth and sort of the heartbreak that was involved with all this because there was heartbreak. I mean, countering the ex Mormon narrative on this does not mean saying, ‘Oh, it was all rosy and great.’ I mean, this is a 14 year old girl who could not really have understood what she was getting herself into, especially as one of Joseph Smith youngest wives. And particularly somehow the way that her father explained what they were doing, like this idea of trying to be connected to the Prophet and his family for eternity, she didn’t understand that. She didn’t understand that it was going to be anything for this life, she thought it was just the next life.
So she writes a poem saying that she had thought that this life was hers. And then she says, like regarding eternity, I’m sacrificing eternity but this life is mine. And so how does she come to realize that that’s not the case? So she tells a story about wanting to go to a dance or party with young friends. And like she finds out, ‘No, you can’t go. You’re a married woman.’ And she’s heartbroken, right? So here’s the problem I see with the ex-Mormon narrative of the assumption. She never says they have a sexual relationship or anything like that. Like, where are they getting that? What she does say is, ‘I thought we were just married for eternity. And then because of this incident, I found out it was for this life too.’ So like, come on guys. If they were having sex, don’t you think that would have been a really good clue? I think that would have been a giant clue.
So they weren’t having sex. Right? So instead of assuming that they were having sex, why don’t we look at the actual evidence and see what the evidence shows? What the evidence shows is that it’s not Joseph’s idea. It’s her father’s idea to be connected with her in the eternities. She, sadly, thinks it’s just for the next life. She does not realize, so it’s completely heartbreaking how it unfolds. But then the way that she realized that it is for this life is not because Joseph’s having sex with her, it’s because of other things which show he hadn’t been having sex.
I think a lot of these things in the LDS essays, right, like they did talk about her and stuff. And sometimes even a slight tweak and how things are done can just make a big difference. So in the essays, they say she was almost 15. So this has been widely criticized because you’re trying to hide the fact that she’s 14, you just don’t want to say that she’s 14. Do you want to hear how simple of a fix this was? In Helen Mar Kimball’s own account she says, ‘This happened when I was almost 15.’ All they had to do was quote her and use her words, instead of their own words. People can’t criticize them for using her words. Right? That’s all they had to do.
So of the 36 Joseph Smith wives, Brian House has compiled good data regarding how many of those relationships were consummated. I’m not gonna remember the numbers very well offhand but he said he felt like it’s something like 12 ish where consummation was probable. And then like 10 that he says were possible. He’s understating that those 12, it’s like virtually certain and then the other tenants are probable. When asking how many were under 18, I think we would have to look. He does marry a woman in Nauvoo, Nancy “Mary” Winchester, and she’s 15. We don’t know that that’s consummated.
Mary was at least like 16. A couple of them are 17. I think that there’s some reason I think so. But I would have to look back at the exact data to say. But when you ask if they were ‘under age’ the answer is actually no, because then the age was 14. So that was the legal age in the state at the time. That was the legal age, specifically in Nauvoo, as well, because Nauvoo had its own marriage law that agreed with the state law which was 14. So no, there was no one who was underage for the time. I think 18 is probably a good number, for societies around the world who have differed on this vastly to judge what was being done at that time based on the current legal standard would obviously be a confusion.
By Don Bradley, Source Expert
Don Bradley, an author and historian specializing in the early days of the Latter-day Saint Restoration, holds a Master’s in History from Utah State University. His extensive contributions include serving as the main researcher for Brian C. Hales’s Joseph Smith’s Polygamy series and receiving the Mormon History Association Best Article Award in 2021 for his work on the Kinderhook plates.
Fact checked by Mr. Kevin Prince, Source Expert
Kevin Prince is a religious scholar and YouTube host of the Gospel Learning YouTube Channel. His channel currently has over 41,000 subscribers with over 4.5 million views. Mr. Prince also developed the Gospel Learning App, a trusted source where truth-seeking individuals can easily find trusted answers to religious questions from the best teachers in the world.
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