Less information is available about Joseph Smith’s practice of plural marriage in Nauvoo, Illinois, than Brigham Young in the Utah practice of plural Marriage. The editors of the Joseph Smith Papers point out, “Most of the information on the practice during this Nauvoo period comes either from later affidavits and reminiscences or from reports of disaffected members of the Church at the time. None of which, for various reasons, can be considered entirely reliable. Historical sources for delineating how plural marriage was understood and practiced by those involved at the time.”
In this blog, we will explore articles, sources, and questions people have about Joseph Smith wives and the history of polygamy within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
We know from a later affidavit that Joseph Smith likely married Lucy Walker. He married Lucy Walker on May 1, 1843. However, Joseph Smith’s journal from May 1, 1843, doesn’t say anything about it. Smith simply states, “Rode out. Forenoon & afternoon.” When he went out, that’s probably when the marriage occurred. We know of this marriage because of a later affidavit from Lucy Walker herself, which was sworn in 1902 that she married Joseph on the first day of May 1843 by Elder William Clayton. She says the prophet was then living with his first wife, Emma and I know that she gave her consent to the marriage of at least four women to her husband as plural wives. This is one example of a pretty good source of why we know that Joseph, coming from Lucy Walker herself, says that “I married Joseph Smith.” There are other good sources, including Eliza herself, that point to Eliza Partridge being married to Joseph Smith as well. Other sources are not as clear.
The answer to how many wives Joseph Smith married is unclear and depends on the sources, some are more credible than others. Sources point to about ten sources for ten women that Joseph married in his lifetime. Additional sources account for the possibility of there being ten to twenty additional wives. Good historians base Joseph Smith’s practice of plural marriage on reliable sources.
Joseph Smith Wives: Joseph’s First Wife
Although historians are unsure, it’s likely that Joseph may have married his first wife, a woman named Fanny Alger sometime in Kirtland between 1833-35. It’s not known if Emma Smith knew about the marriage beforehand or after or when she learned about it. It likely leads to Oliver Cowdery accusing Joseph Smith of adultery and Joseph saying that he wouldn’t commit adultery, and him trying to teach Oliver about plural marriage.
This may lead to some hesitations that there are no indications that Joseph enters into any other plural marriages during the Kirtland period. It was not until the Nauvoo period that he begins to enter into plural marriages again. Although the numbers are unsure, there’s evidence that Joseph may have been married or sealed to about 30 women during his lifetime – that’s from the church’s own essay on the subject.
Joseph Smith’s Wives Ages
If you used people’s different lists – it all depends how people frame things. Sometimes people will want to focus on Joseph Smith’s younger wives. His youngest wife was Helen Mark Kimball, who was 14 when he was sealed to her. And that he married a few others who were in their teens, but he also married women who were in their 50s and others of every age in between.
If you use Todd Compton’s list the average age of Joseph Smith wives that he married was 28 years old. The oldest was likely rhoda richards who was 58 and fannie young who was 56. None of Joseph’s contemporaries raise an issue of the ages of his wives of either being too old or too young at the time.
Joseph Smith Entering Polygamy
There are a number of later reminiscences that Joseph hesitated to implement this revelation. Most revelations from God, Joseph moved right into it. This one he seemed to have a lot of hesitation about. Brian Hales has documented there are at least 20 reminiscences of an angel with a drawn sword coming to Joseph Smith commanding him that he needed to implement the practice or that he would lose his prophetic mantle calling position. These are later reminiscences- the earliest one is 1853, and the latest is 1905. Here are a few of them: Eliza R Snow stated, “Joseph Smith received the revelation in 1837, but was himself afraid to promulgate it until the angel came and stood beside him with a flaming sword and bade him do the command of God until then did Joseph enter into polygamy.” Zion Huntington stated, “Zina D. Young told of Brother Joseph’s remark in relation to the revelation on [plural] marriage. How an angel came to him with a drawn sword and said if he did not obey this law, he would lose his priesthood; in the keeping of it he Joseph did not know, but it would cost him his life.” Helen Mar Kimball stated, “This fact [plural marriage] the Lord revealed to His prophet Joseph Smith, as early as the year 1831. And yet, had it not been for the fear of His displeasure, Joseph would have shrunk from the undertaking and would have continued silent as he did for years until an angel of the lord threatened to slay him if he did not reveal and establish this celestial principle.”
Joseph Smith Wives: When Was Joseph Married?
Joseph marries most of his wives in the Nauvoo period after he gets out of Liberty jail, and in 1844 Joseph Smith did not enter into more plural marriages at that time. One of the biggest questions people have is “Why, why did Joseph do it in private?” “Why wasn’t he public and open about it and being transparent?” Sometimes Joseph publicly denied the practice of polygamy that was happening as well. This is how the Saints summarizes it, “Joseph felt an urgency to teach plural marriage to the saints, despite the risks of his own and own reservations. If he introduced the principle privately to faithful men and women, he could build strong support for it, preparing for the time when it could be taught openly. To accept plural marriage, people would have to overcome their prejudices reconsider social customs, and exercise great faith to obey god when he commanded something so foreign to their traditions.” That might be some of the reasons why it was done in private. Joseph knew of the difficulty that it would cause and bring about upon his people as a whole. It was difficult enough when it was announced in public, and they were in Utah on their own, and it still caused so much difficulty for the church during the 1850s all the way through the 1890s up to the end.
By Dr. Anthony Sweat, Source Expert
Dr. Anthony Sweat is an associate professor of Church History and Doctrine at Brigham Young University. He received his bachelor’s degree in painting and drawing and his PhD in curriculum and instruction. He is the author of several books, most recently Seekers Wanted and The Holy Invitation. Anthony is a regular speaker at Latter-day Saint events and conferences. He and his wife, Cindy, are the parents of seven children.
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.
ABOUT JOSEPH SMITH WIVES
Our purpose at Joseph Smith Wives is to provide a factual and objective look at the history and beliefs of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. With so much sanitized history, misinformation and falsehoods being put forth, we are here to provide facts and objectivity to those who are sincerely searching for truth.