married

Polygamy is undoubtedly one of the most disputed aspects of Mormon history and doctrine. Some believe that polygamy is an eternal commandment, others that it WAS a commandment but isn’t anymore, others that it was Joseph’s mistake, and others that it was a Brighamite conspiracy that got pinned on the strict monogamist, Joseph Smith.

The subject deserves the controversy. On one hand, if Joseph Smith WAS a polygamist, then it is clear that he was also a liar since he repeatedly denied it in public.

“What a thing it is for a man to be accused of committing adultery, and having seven wives, when I can only find one. I am the same man, and as innocent as I was fourteen years ago; and I can prove them all perjurers.”
—Joseph Smith (History of the Church 6:411, May 26, 1844)

If Joseph Smith was NOT a polygamist, or if his “dynastic family sealing” was non-sexual, then it is clear that polygamy was thereafter bastardized by the Brighamite church which did view polygamy as inherently sexual.

“Sisters, do you wish to make yourselves happy? Then what is your duty? It is for you to bear children… Are you tormenting yourselves by thinking that your husbands do not love you? I would not care whether they loved a particle or not; but I would cry out, like one of old, in the joy of my heart, ‘I have got a man from the Lord! Hallelujah! I am a mother…’”
-Brigham Young (Journal of Discourses 9:37)

I have read a few books, essays, and speeches that attempt to demonstrate that Joseph Smith was not a sexual polygamist. Their motive, of course, is to preserve the image of Joseph Smith as a sexually pure and honest prophet.

Most of their arguments center on the fact that there is little primary contemporary source material to demonstrate the sexuality of Joseph’s extramarital relationships. Most apologists and historians are not that extreme, but still try to paint Joseph more innocently by removing sexual culpability in the cases of underage and previously married wives.

I think both perspectives are flawed. The evidence (secondary and recollective evidence is still evidence) is far too vast for the Brighamite conspiracy theory to be plausible, and the nuanced apologetic view, per usual, drastically distorts the obvious meaning of words. Furthermore, both approaches ignore the theological context of sexual polygamy.

Jacob 2
It seems clear from Jacob 2 that the Book of Mormon condemns polygamy except in one case: having children.

27 Wherefore, my brethren, hear me, and hearken to the word of the Lord: For there shall not any man among you have save it be one wife; and concubines he shall have none;

30 For if I will, saith the Lord of Hosts, raise up seed unto me, I will command my people; otherwise they shall hearken unto these things.

The seed is the reproductive part of the plant. In scripture, “seed” is frequently used to mean “posterity.” Even the English word, inseminate, comes from the Latin word, inseminatus, meaning, “to cast as seed.”

Tell me, can you raise up posterity without insemination? Could the Nephites or Joseph Smith do that without sex? No! So the ONLY exception that the Lord gives for polygamy inherently involves sex.

Now, I’ve had this discussion with a few polygamy deniers. They argue that in this passage, the Lord is referring to spiritual posterity, not literal posterity. You know, “seed of Abraham” adoption stuff.

Okay, let’s look at the context — Jacob is talking about the law of chastity, which is defined in the LDS temple endowment as: “the sons of Adam and the daughters of Eve shall have no sexual relations except with their husbands or wives to whom they are legally and lawfully wedded.”

Sexual relations. Husbands and wives. Wedded. Seems straightforward enough.

After condemning the plurality of wives and concubines, the Lord gives his one caveat, then continues talking about the heartbreak of women whose husbands are unfaithful.

If the nature of “spiritual seed” is inherently non-sexual, then why did the Lord randomly insert it into a chapter that is absolutely saturated with sexual language? It would be completely out of place.

Section 132
The inherent sexuality becomes more obvious when we look at Section 132, the revelation that frames the theology and implementation of polygamy.

After God explains the New and Everlasting Covenant, he then talks about Abraham’s multiplicity of wives. Does the Lord use language that suggests “spiritual seed?” Not even a little bit.

34 God commanded Abraham, and Sarah gave Hagar to Abraham to wife. And why did she do it? Because this was the law; and from Hagar sprang many people. This, therefore, was fulfilling, among other things, the promises.”

35 Was Abraham, therefore, under condemnation? Verily I say unto you, Nay; for I, the Lord, commanded it.

So God commanded Abraham to take Hagar as a wife so that many people could spring from her. What was God’s only condition for polygamy in the Book of Mormon? To raise up seed.

It gets even clearer.

37 Abraham received concubines, and they bore him children; and it was accounted unto him for righteousness, because they were given unto him, and he abode in my law;”

Abraham received concubines. If the purpose of polygamy is spiritual seed, then what the heck is a spiritual concubine?!

Thereafter the Lord answers some question about adultery, you know, the sin of having sex with someone who is not your spouse.

41 And as ye have asked concerning adultery, verily, verily, I say unto you, if a man receiveth a wife in the new and everlasting covenant, and if she be with another man, and I have not appointed unto her by the holy anointing, she hath committed adultery and shall be destroyed.

What meaning does “be with another man” have other than the obvious one?

After some serious mansplaining to Emma, the Lord then discusses the logistics of implementing polygamy.

61 And again, as pertaining to the law of the priesthood—if any man espouse a virgin, and desire to espouse another, and the first give her consent, and if he espouse the second, and they are virgins, and have vowed to no other man, then is he justified; he cannot commit adultery for they are given unto him; for he cannot commit adultery with that that belongeth unto him and to no one else.

Are we clear on what it means to be a virgin? It means a person who has never had sexual intercourse. SEXUAL INTERCOURSE.

Here is that verse in the common tongue: “If a man marries a woman who has not had sex and desires to marry another, and the first wife is okay with it, and he marries the second, and they have not had sex, and she has not married another man, then he is justified. He can’t commit the sin of having sex with someone who is not his wife for his wives are given to him; for he can’t cheat with someone who belongs to him and nobody else.”

The only way to interpret this verse (and the entire rest of the chapter) is to completely change the meaning of words like “marry,” “adultery,” and “virgin.”

Furthermore, to say that the Lord actually meant something else — something spiritual and not at all sexual — is completely unsupported by the text itself. It makes absolutely zero sense that God would use such sexually-charged language without giving so much as a wink that there was any meaning other than the obvious one.

The best part about that verse is that it lays out strict rules for the implementation of polygamy. It says the virgin has to be with one person only and the first wife (which could mean ANYTHING, lol) has to give her consent.

The thing is, Emma didn’t even know about most of Joseph’s wives, AND some of Joseph’s wives were not virgins, but were already sworn to other men. So even if polygamy was non-sexual, it is still obvious that Joseph Smith broke both those commandments.

It drives me crazy to read apologists who say we shouldn’t assume that Joseph had sex with his wives. Why shouldn’t we? Isn’t that what you do with a wife? Let’s do a poll among married people and ask them whether or not they assumed upon getting married that their relationship would involve sex. I suspect the vast majority would say that OF COURSE it would.

So go on about lack of contemporary evidence (as if we should expect Protestant women to write about illicit affairs with the prophet who had been threatened with destruction by an angel with a drawn sword). The contemporary evidence isn’t what convinces me Joseph had sex. It’s the very revelations that he himself provided on the matter which all directly point to sex.  If Joseph was not having sex with his wives then he was not attempting to raise up posterity. Since he didn’t raise up any known posterity, then he failed to meet any of the scriptural justifications given by the Lord.

It doesn’t seem like Joseph can walk away from this one with his integrity intact.



Richard R. Lyman
Richard R. Lyman
Well-dressed and down for a good time, Richard R. Lyman was the most recent apostle to be excommunicated. The poor guy actually believed what Brigham Young said about only polygamists being in the Celestial Kingdom. I guess you're only allowed to take "spiritual wives" when you're President of the Church. Follow on Twitter: @tgilliland789
  • Jaasiel Rodriguez

    Interesting. I agree with the conundrum which comes about because of the way the relevantions seem to imply sex. However, what do you make about the lack of descendants? I know the argument about bennet doing abortions, but that’s it. Any insight into that? (Not trolling or flaming here. I really am looking for something to say when people point that out.)

    • Richard R. Lyman

      John C. Bennet was likewise promiscuous, yet he didn’t leave a mess of children behind either.

      Hyrum Smith testified in 1842 that Bennett assuaged the fears of the women he seduced by promising: “He would give them medicine to produce abortions, providing they should become pregnant.” (Times and Seasons 3 (1 Aug. 1842):870–72)

      Also, Mrs. Zeruiah Goddard affirmed on August 28, 1842: “Mrs. Pratt stated to me that Dr. Bennett told her, that he could cause abortion with perfect safety to the mother, at any stage of pregnancy, and that he had frequently destroyed and removed infants before their time to prevent exposure of the parties, and that he had instruments for that purpose, &c.” (Affidavits and Certificates, 7)

      Sarah Pratt described the instrument Bennett may have used: “a pretty long instrument of a kind I had never seen before. It seemed to be of steel and was crooked at one end.”

      She also said, “You hear often that Joseph had no polygamous offspring. The reason of this is very simple. Abortion was practiced on a large scale in Nauvoo. Dr. John C. Bennett, the evil genius of Joseph, brought this abomination into a scientific system. He showed to my husband and me the instruments with which he used to “operate for Joseph.” There was a house in Nauvoo, “right across the flat,” about a mile and a-half from the town, a kind of hospital. They sent the women there, when they showed signs of celestial consequences. Abortion was practiced regularly in this house.” ( Mormon Portraits, or the Truth about Mormon Leaders from 1830 to 1886, Joseph Smith the Prophet, His Family and His Friends: A Study Based on Fact and Documents (Salt Lake City: Tribune Printing and Publishing Co., 1886), 60–61)

      Beyond abortion, Joseph could have pulled out or used a condom, since they were around at the time.

      • Andrea Rice

        You also have the issue of timing and how many women Joseph was juggling. also there were women who believed their children were his, and there are some of these individuals that dna testing had been impossible to confirm or reject the possibility that they are Josephs offspring.

        • Jaasiel Rodriguez

          Lol, couldn’t they have been conceived by the spirit?

          • Andrea Rice

            Mind blown! !!! 😉

          • Jaasiel Rodriguez

            Yeah, I guess they would be the “immaculate” conceptions.

            We could call the secret combination of the children of these unions “The Immaculate”

          • Ophanim

            Nephilim of the Niall of the Nine as per his pure Ephraimite DNA.

      • Jaasiel Rodriguez

        “Joseph could have pulled out…” That’s about the most sacrilegious thing I may have ever heard about Joseph Smith.

        Got it. Thanks!

        How about the timing of John C Bennett’s falling out of disfavor with Joseph? I don’t know the exact dates, but someone made it seem it wasnt too long of time he was in favor with Joseph.

        • Richard R. Lyman

          It wasn’t too long. But he was the Assistant President of the Church.

      • k_space

        > Joseph could have pulled out

        They have a word for couples that use the pull out method: parents

    • Allyson FrostRaven

      There are a few possible explanations:
      1) Contraceptive methods did exist. Condoms were available during the time period (generally lambskin, which could be washed and re-used). Midwives and other women knew about herbal contraceptives (some of which are effective enough that they’re still regulated or banned in several states), including wild yam, Queen Anne’s lace, blue and black cohosh, rue, pennyroyal, tansy, and celery seed. Sponges and similar barrier methods were known and used by women as well. Plus, Bennet had medical books he loaned to Sarah Pratt and other women so they could learn about family planning.
      2) It’s possible some women conceived and were “sent away” (as was famously described in the first-and-only edition of the Expositor) to have their babies (who would have been placed with other families). Contemporary records from Nauvoo residents also hint at or mention this occurrence.
      3) Miscarriage and infant mortality rates were still quite high during the time period.
      4) It’s possible that Smith’s busy, secret sex life either resulted in too few/wrongly timed sexual encounters during his partners’ windows of fertility, or he was doing it so often that he rarely had enough time to build up a sufficiently high sperm count to impregnate any given partner.
      5) Some of the teen wives may not have reached sexual maturity or may not have yet been fertile enough to conceive from Smith’s sporadic conjugal visits. The married women might have conceived, but assumed or said that the children in question was fathered by their husbands, rather than Smith.
      6) He may have simply rubbed one out prior to each encounter, thus guaranteeing low sperm count. If he did that plus withdrawal, chances of conception were probably very low.

      IMHO, it was probably #6. Men masturbate. Why hasn’t anyone mentioned this before?

      • Richard R. Lyman

        Excellent comment! Thanks for the information and added perspective!

      • k_space

        because masturbating isn’t an effective form of birth control

        • Allyson FrostRaven

          The body requires time to replenish sperm. If a man discharges it all and then has sex with his partner within a few hours, he’ll have a very low count. Combine that with withdrawal, and yes, chances of conception decrease.

          • k_space
          • Allyson FrostRaven

            Nope: from The Handbook of Evolutionary Pyschology 2nd Ed (New York: Wiley) (http://www.toddkshackelford.com/downloads/Shackelford-revised-Buss-2014.pdf)

            “Ejaculates appear costly to produce for human males. Frequent ejaculation, especially occurring more frequently than every other day, results in decreased sperm counts (Tyler, Crockett, & Driscoll, 1982), suggesting limits to sperm production.”

            This is why males in infertile couples are often told to avoid masturbation or coitus for 48 hours prior to partner ovulation, in order to increase sperm count. Conversely, (from the above study, quoting Baker and Bellis in 1989), ” men who had spent the most time apart from their partners since their last copulation produced copulatory ejaculates containing the most sperm. It could be that men who tend to produce larger ejaculates also tend to spend a greater proportion of their time between copulations apart from their partners.”

            Since Smith had many partners and was presumably seeding most or all of them, we may surmise that his pattern of frequent copulations with multiple partners resulted in low sperm output with any given partner. While we’ll never know for sure, at least there’s some scientific evidence that offers a plausible explanation.

    • k_space

      I can think of only four categories of situations that would lead to no descendants: either JS did not have sex with any of his polygamous wives (unlikely), they were practicing some kind of birth control that worked, they did not use birth control but there was no kids anyway (or none lived to adulthood), or there are descendants and we haven’t found them yet (sound familiar?).

      If the first is true, then they weren’t practicing polygamy: they were practicing spiritual wifery – which is forbidden in mormon theology. What would be the purpose? The only context for sanctioned polygamy is to “raise up seed.” (But since polygamy decreases the overall birth rate, we can take that to mean raise up seed for a few favored individuals while marginalizing the unfavored males.) If Joseph was strictly holding to the purpose of polygamy, he was an utter failure at it.

      The last might be true, but I am not holding my breath.

      I suspect they were using the available birth control methods. And also remember that most of JS’s wives were taken in the last year of his life, so logistically it would be pretty hard to get around to them all frequently. Earlier in his life, when he had less, he still had to keep things secret from Emma – I wonder how often he could realistically get around to everyone.

  • Swagavad Gita

    Mormon apologists try to pretend that Joseph Smith’s polygamy and Utah polygamy were different institutions and I think that’s just ridiculous. The purpose for both was to seed a man-made Kingdom on earth. And we have journal entries and affidavits of the women that Joseph married.

    The truth is coming to light now and cannot be stopped.

  • Andrea Rice

    Polygamy is problematic no matter how you look at it. In the book of mormon and d&c it specifically said that polygamy us to make babies, so then Joseph Smith wasn’t following the commandments if he didn’t have sex with his wives. And then yes, you have the Utah period making it all about sex. So that doesn’t make sense. If we accept that Joseph did have carnal relations with his wives, like they said he did, then ti have him lying to everyone about it, coercing young girls into it and basically acting like he just couldn’t keep it in his pants, not like someone piously following divine command. Then when you look at the actual lived practice and what it was like for the women, and also the men who were forced into it, it’s clearly a horrible thing that no living God would command.

  • Nancy

    Excellent as usual

  • Jose Galdamez

    Were any of Joseph Smith’s polygamous wives ever threatened to be destroyed by an angel with a drawn sword? That’s what it seems like you are saying in the second to last paragraph of this post. My understanding was that Joseph claimed his life was the one that was threatened for not practicing polygamy, and those who were proposed to (and accepted) didn’t want to be the ones responsible for his destruction.

    The angel with the drawn sword was the stick while the promise of exaltation was the carrot. He obviously made up the angel with the drawn sword as he ended up being destroyed in spite of his obedience. Furthermore, the promise of exaltation solely for getting married doesn’t jive with any plan of salvation diagrams the missionaries teach today.

    Is there any validity to Brian Hales’ claim that Joseph didn’t practice sexual polyandry? The case of Sylvia Sessions Lyon and her daughter Josephine Rosetta Lyon would seem to counter that. Even if the DNA evidence exonerates Joseph from being the father there’s still the issue that Sylvia thought he was the father.

    • Richard R. Lyman

      Sorry, I didn’t frame that idea well. Just edited it.

      I think it’s possible that Joseph Smith may not have had sex with a couple of his wives. By then he was caught up in his own theological power trip. If he didn’t have sex, then he was clearly disobeying the one justification given for polygamy. So either way, he’s breaking commandments.

      • fecklessderek

        false dichotomy

    • MTB

      That Hales has to stretch to characterize Sylvia as a “religious divorcee” shows what lengths he (and others) will go to to defend Joseph Smith. Sylvia was married to her husband, Windsor Lyon, in 1838. They were never divorced. They had 3 children together by 1842. Sylvia’s daughter, Josephine, was then born in 1844 (Who was the father? Sylvia seems to think that it was Joseph). Windsor and Sylvia had two more children together, in 1846 and 1847. So Brian Hales, you’re telling me that Sylvia felt “divorced” from Windsor, yet went on to have two more children with him after Joseph died?

      Also interesting, Sylvia’s mother Patty was also sealed to Joseph Smith. Patty was also married to another man (David). Patty and David Sessions had been married for 30 years when Joseph sealed himself to Patty. If the primary purpose of polygamy is dynastic, why the need for Joseph to marry a mother and a daughter? Why did Joseph need to marry sisters? Isn’t one family member enough to seal yourself to that family?

      • Joseph Smith taught that non-sealing marriages (marriages not approved/overseen by him) were null and void and Brain Hales has cited this as the evidence of de facto divorce in Smith’s polyandrous unions. By this standard any civilly married woman was unmarried in God’s eyes and free to marry Bro Joe. So when Brian Hales says that Sylvia ‘felt divorced’ from Windsor one has to consider where she might have gotten this idea. I think it’s highly likely that it came directly from Joseph Smith— the source and arbiter of Mormon Celestial Marriage.

        The issue is further complicated by the dating of Windor’s excommunication. Todd Compton in In Sacred loneliness date the excommunication in November 1842 but the sealing of Sylvia to JS to in February 1842. Sylvia told Josephine that the marriage to JS was while Windsor was out of fellowship but the dates suggest the sealing happened before. It looks as if Windsor was living with Sylvia while JS was alive and as you mention they had 2 more kids after JS was dead. No evidence of an actual divorce or a remarriage after 1844.

    • Ophanim

      The most likely fruit of JS polyamory are the following: 1) Josephine (born 8 February, 1844) to Sylvia Sessions Lyon; 2) Joseph (born 21 September, 1844) to Esther Dutcher Smith; and 3) Loren (born 29 May, 1844) to Hannah Dubois Dibble.

  • lobo78

    There is a strong case to be made that Joseph never practiced polygamy. See here: http://downloads.miridiatech.com.s3.amazonaws.com/remnant/JosephSmithsMonogamy.pdf

    • Anna T.

      Someone obviously put a lot of time into that paper, but the only thing it leads me to conclude is that you can piece together bits of history to bolster virtually any theory. The primary problem with this document of course, is that the church itself doesn’t even claim that Joseph was a monogamist. If any of the items cited in this paper had more merit, or there weren’t mountains of evidence to suggest he were a polygamist, I am sure the church would have been all over it and highlighted it their first presidency approved essay on “Polygamy in Kirtland and Nauvoo”.

      • lobo78

        Does it concern you, then, that the Church’s official essay on Race and the Priesthood (https://www.lds.org/topics/race-and-the-priesthood?lang=eng) essentially condemned earlier Church Presidents and disavowed what was once official Church doctrine? Isn’t it possible that the Church doesn’t have all the answers?

        After all, these essays were not written by the First Presidency or the Apostles. They were written by scholars.

    • Sterling C

      OK, just shift to Brigham and repeat the process. What does this shift change? Not much in my option.

    • Jose Galdamez

      I don’t see how this document reconciles Joseph Smith’s encounters with Heber C. Kimball and his fourteen year old daughter Helen Mar Kimball. Both of them recollect rather well the events that transpired when Joseph Smith taught them polygamy. Neither were hostile sources. Both remained faithful in the church until the end of their lives.

      There are plenty of other contemporary accounts that corroborate Smith’s practice of polygamy. You have to do a lot of cherry-picking to show that Joseph didn’t practice polygamy. http://thoughtsonthingsandstuff.com/heber-c-kimball-passing-the-abrahamic-test-of-polygamy/

      • J.T.

        Regarding Helen Mar Kimball, the ideas at this link are worth considering and factoring in… http://goo.gl/Zo0Apn

  • Ophanim

    As Brigham said (JofD 11:268, August 19, 1866) “If it is wrong for a man to have more than one wife at a time, the Lord will reveal it by and by, and he will put it away that it will not be known in the Church.” I think after 1904 it has been difficult to clean up the history, but there are no priesthood/RS manuals which acknowledge polygamy or provide lists of the wives and even quotes were edited to achieve this polygamy clean up effect. mormon.org on 4-Dec-2015 under the heading for Joseph Smith – A devoted husband and father: “The heavy burden of leading the Church did not distract Joseph from his responsibility to HIS WIFE and children; . . . Joseph lived the doctrine he preached that strengthening our families should be an important focus of our lives. When his life was in jeopardy, Joseph relied on his faith in Jesus Christ not only to sustain himself, but HIS WIFE and children as well.”

  • Ophanim

    Terryl Givens doesn’t agree with Brian Hales on the angel being a friendly “Clarence” Angel 2nd class. As Terryl Givens said recently in an Interfaith voices NPR interview in Nov20 with Jana Riess concerning the angel with a drawn sword, “Terryl givens – do you swallow it? “I don’t know as an historian we don’t have real good confirmatory evidence. Doctrinally or theologically I find some problems with it, it doesn’t sound like a very meek, gentle and persuasive angel, it sounds like a different kind of influence that is being exercised there. it seems inconsistent with the kind of God, and the kind of influence that generally is exercised in any righteous context that the Lord approves of.”

    Also we have another big problem – no NAME for this angel. We know Enoch’s name was Metatron, we’ve got Adam was Michael, and Noah is Gabriel, we have Moroni/Nephi, Alma, Peter, James, John, John the Baptist, Moses, Elias1 & 2, but what’s the name of this polygamy angel? Maybe from 132:39/2Sam12:7-8 this is the angel Nathan?

    I like what William Law said more, “If an angel from heaven was to reveal to me that a man should have more than one wife, and if it were in my power I would kill him.”

  • Sterling C

    Joseph Smith was a religious rock star, and rock stars have lots of sex. Joseph Smith was powerful, and powerful men can get sex with lots of girls if they want to. This is not difficult to understand if you realize powerful ‘rockstar’ men get sex with their power. This is animal kingdom simple stuff.

  • Shawn Peck

    I personally believe that Jacob’s sermon in the Book of Mormon did not allow for polygamy at all. I can’t imagine the Lord saying:

    “David and Solomon’s polygamy was abominable to me, so I led Lehi and his people out of Jerusalem to raise up a branch of righteous people. I am giving a commandment that these men shall have only one wife, for I delight in the chastity of women. I have seen the sorrow and heard the mourning of the daughters of my people because of the wickedness and abominations of their husbands, and I will not let the men lead away captive the daughters of my people because of their tenderness. However, I might command them to institute polygamy in the future if I decide to raise up righteous seed unto me.”

    I believe Jacob 2:30 could read like this:

    “For if I will, saith the Lord of Hosts, raise up seed unto me, which is what I have been doing since I led this people out of Jerusalem, then I will command my people to have only one wife, which commandment I am now giving through Jacob; otherwise (or, if I do not give this commandment), they shall hearken unto their misunderstanding of scriptures and seek to excuse whoredoms because of what was written concerning David and Solomon.”

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