Nauvoo Polygamy: Some Thoughts

For me, George D. Smith’s Nauvoo Polygamy: “…but we called it celestial marriage” is one of the most anticipated Mormon books of recent years. A great deal of Mormon Studies writing about the origins of polygamy suffers, in my view, from a serious limitation: it regards the story of polygamy as a story about Joseph Smith. Of course, Joseph is central to the story. No other person had a greater role in shaping the way Mormons thought about and talked about plural marriage.

Yet during the Nauvoo period some 900 other Mormons participated in polygamous marriages, while some indeterminate number of others were taught the doctrine but rejected it. These individuals are far more central to the story of Mormon polygamy than our literature seems to recognize. In the first place, polygamy obviously could not have occurred as a real-world practice if none of these people had chosen to participate. One imagines that most of them either felt some degree of dissatisfaction with prevailing marital customs or such a loyalty to Mormon religious belief and authority as to overcome their orientation toward mainstream marital practice. Research that carefully parsed out the extent to which various early participants in polygamy were motivated by ideas from each of these two categories — and which specific dissatisfactions with established family patterns were most important — would represent a real contribution.

As a second, subtler but perhaps more important, point, these hundreds of participants in polygamy clearly had a role in shaping the presentation and practice of Mormon plural marriage. How these individuals responded to the polygamous ideas of Joseph Smith or others after his death would certainly, through normal processes of persuasion and dialogue, have taught those leaders which ways of framing the doctrine were most useful and which were unhelpful or even counterproductive. Hence, these early participants’ thoughts and reactions have a sort of secondary authorial role in Mormon marital doctrine. This is perhaps clearest when thinking about Emma Smith; the Doctrine and Covenants revelation on celestial marriage is both directed to her and clearly at least partially shaped by an anticipation of the arguments she will find most persuasive. A similar role was almost certainly played by countless others, but the evidence is not yet as clear.

Nevertheless, the protagonism of these hundreds of Nauvoo polygamists is usually lost in historical narratives of Mormon plural marriage. Even classics of the genre, such as Lawrence Foster’s Religion and Sexuality, tend to narrate early polygamy as something of a one-man heroic quest, rather than an emergent social system. More comprehensive accounts are needed, and the framing of George D. Smith’s book as a general history of polygamy in Nauvoo led me to hope that it would address this problem.

Yet the text largely turns out to be a let-down. I doubt that I have been as disappointed by a book in any genre in recent years. This is partly a function of my expectations, but it also derives from certain weaknesses in Smith’s history itself. The biggest problem with the book is simply that so much of it is unnecessary.

Chapter 1, for example, provides a general overview of Mormon history up to the Nauvoo period. The author rehashes material as loosely connected with the theme of Nauvoo polygamy as Joseph Smith’s role as a treasure seer and the general apocalyptic outlook of early Mormonism. The book’s casual treatment of these subjects gave me an interesting idea about how to improve the Nauvoo Polygamy book: replace the chapters that contain less detailed accounts of material better covered by other books with hyperlinks to those other books.

In that spirit, I would replace Chapter 1 with links to D. Michael Quinn’s Early Mormonism and the Magic World View (a much better treatment of Joseph Smith’s participation in treasure digging and magic; an especially interested reader will also want to consult Dan Vogel’s Joseph Smith: The Making of a Prophet and the early chapters of Richard Bushman’s Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling); Grant Underwood’s The Millenarian World of Early Mormonism or Dan Erickson’s As a Thief in the Night: The Mormon Quest for Millennial Deliverance (both are more interesting sources for early Mormon apocalyptic expectations than is George D. Smith’s volume); and Steven C. Lesueur’s The 1838 Mormon War in Missouri (which provides a far better treatment of the events that serve as prologue to the Mormon Nauvoo experience).

It is of course unfair to expect a book on polygamy during the Nauvoo period to provide a treatment of these themes that compares favorably with that found in entire books devoted to the subject. Yet I wonder why a book on the Nauvoo period had to provide an extensive treatment of these topics at all. Out of Chapter 1’s 51 pages, roughly 10 (pgs. 12-13, 19-20, 23-28) are devoted to treasure digging topics. The analysis of this material does not link it with the development of polygamy, and it is not used at any later point in the argument. It is simply a distraction.

Chapters 2 and 3 are almost entirely redundant to Todd Compton’s In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith. In the 187 pages of text that George D. Smith devotes to the formation of Joseph Smith’s complex family, nearly none of the material presented is new in comparison with Compton’s earlier work. Lost in the transition from Compton to Smith is the rich interest in the lives of the women in question. Smith justifies his discussion as not redundant to Compton’s treatment as follows:

The present chapters, by contrast, focus on Smith’s marriages within the context of his daily activities. What interested me most was how Smith went about courting and marrying these women, unseen amidst his public life as a religious and community leader who would even become a candidate for the U.S. presidency. (pg. 55)

The material in Chapters 2 and 3 seems to be about equally divided between two objectives: establishing that each plural marriage in fact occurred, and adding chronological context to the marriage. The first topic is, of course, redundant to the efforts of Compton and others. The second is more novel, but it adds up to very little. Indeed, it strikes me as a step in the wrong direction: it pushes the focus for early polygamy more centrally back on the figure of Joseph Smith himself than it was in Compton’s work.

This would be fine if George D. Smith had some larger interpretive point to make on the basis of the chronology. Yet I can find no such point. The conclusion to Chapter 2 summarizes the material on a strictly mathematical basis: Joseph married such a number of wives. Chapter 3 concludes with a thin historical description of the connection between polygamy and Joseph’s death. The interpretation that would justify the chronology work — and make Smith’s chapters valuable contributions beyond what Compton has written — is not present in its natural location at the end of each chapter, nor is it evident in the middle of the text.

Chapters 4, 5, and 6 contain the genuinely valuable material in this volume; I will return to these 170 pages momentarily.

Chapter 7, on secrecy and deception related to Mormon polygamy, discusses an important topic. Unfortunately, its treatment of this material is not as powerful as that offered by B. Carmon Hardy in his essay “Lying for the Lord,” to be found as an appendix to his excellent Solemn Covenant: The Mormon Polygamous Passage.

Chapter 8 serves as a useful if somewhat elementary essay on some important primary sources for early Mormon polygamy. For those who are unaware of the central role that conflict between the LDS and RLDS churches played in producing documentation of polygamy during Joseph Smith’s life, this may well be a valuable chapter.

Regarding Chapter 9, I have mixed feelings. Most of the chapter recounts episodes of Christian polygamy prior to Mormonism. In treating this material, the chapter is an inferior reiteration of the discussion in John Cairncross’s After Polygamy Was Made a Sin: The Social History of Christian Polygamy. Yet many Mormons are probably unaware of this background and of Cairncross’s book. So this chapter may serve a useful popularizing function.

Let us return, then, to Chapters 4, 5, and 6, which I think of informally as the real book. The first two chapters provide a series of well-researched and -documented vignettes regarding several Mormon men’s journeys into polygamy, with disappointingly few women’s stories included. A few incidents of unsuccessful attempts at persuasion into polygamy are also provided. These are very useful texts, and are essential reading for anyone interested in polygamy or the history of the Nauvoo period.

These historical vignettes demand interpretation, and Chapter 6 provides some initial ideas. The chapter establishes the diversity of reactions to polygamy among Mormons, and also the multiplicity of persuasive strategies used by Joseph Smith and others. It does not adequately link the two questions, nor does it generally do enough to explore the motives that these Mormons had for accepting or rejecting polygamy. The chapter also provides a disappointingly thin analysis of what life in polygamy was like. Overall, this sequence of three core chapters would feel woefully incomplete without the analysis in Chapter 6, yet the discussion also leaves a great deal either unanswered or incompletely considered.

So, about 1/3 of this book’s length contains useful or important material. That is enough to make this an important book for many purposes, but it nonetheless renders the book a major disappointment. This reaction is heightened, for me, by pervasive problems of style and editing. Yesterday, I posted an overly hasty and ill-tempered satirical approach to some of these problems. As a more sober-minded treatment, let me here offer a few examples (many more could be provided, but there is little point multiplying instances).

The revivalist atmosphere of upstate New York in the 1820s coincided with Joseph’s reorientation from his commerce in seer stones and money digging toward a more orthodox expression of religion, although with many unique qualities, such as the millennialist emphasis, which had more in common with Anabaptist and other radical theological currents than with mainstream Protestantism. (pg. 24)

If these qualities of Joseph Smith’s religious involvement were in fact unique, how could they have commonalities with the Anabaptists? The comparison seems fruitful, but the word choice is simply incorrect. Later on, George D. Smith offers an unusual sideswipe commentary on the Anabaptists:

The arc of Smith’s life, including his many wives, paralleled in important ways the heretical Anabaptist movement of sixteenth-century Germany, which also included polygamy as part of its biblical “restoration.” (pg. 54)

Why, I wonder, is it necessary for George D. Smith to take sides in a centuries-old religious conflict in Germany, assigning the Anabaptists the pejorative “heretical”? Once again, composition and editing choices create a tone somewhat inconsistent with level-headed scholarship, and in this instance to unclear purpose.

Some passages express unnecessary hostility:

Beyond the issue of having more than one wife, Smith engaged in even more perilous anti-social behavior by indulging in sexual relations with the daughters and wives of close friends, albeit mostly in marital and religious contexts. (pg. 50)

I can see little content in this passage that would be lost if it were reworded as follows:

Smith’s doctrine of multiple marriages challenged contemporary morality by providing a religious justification for engaging in sexual relations with the daughters and wives of several of his close friends.

Another passage reflects a persistent stylistic irritation: a tendency to badly overstate the degree to which the LDS church has historically hidden the history of Nauvoo and Utah polygamy.

Having come full circle — denial, secrecy, discovery, open advocacy, secrecy, and denial again — the next step for the Latter-day Saints was to forget that they had ever countenanced polygamy. Rather than explore this curious, and perhaps most fascinating aspect of its esoteric past, the church mounted an effort to dispel plural marriage from memory. However, as Latter-day Saints began discovering a renewed interest in their past, they reconstructed the lives of their ancestors, and this “lost” chapter of the church’s pilgrimage from east coast to west began to make more sense. That the church had sought to disclaim this colorful aspect of its past became motivation to locate primary documents — diaries and affadavits — in dusty attic spaces and from the shelves of church archives which were tended by wary gatekeepers. (pg. 409)

I agree completely that official LDS church publications today sometimes go to unhelpful lengths to obscure the history of polygamy. Yet the idea that Latter-day Saints in general ever came close to forgetting that polygamy had happened is nothing short of puzzling to me. As a child, I remember listening to the relatively extensive treatment of polygamy in the Living Scriptures Dramatized Church History, and later reading pulpy mainstream Mormon novels like the Storm Chronicles, Saints, and The Work and the Glory that also talked frankly — if sometimes inaccurately — about polygamy. While recent converts may often not know much if anything about polygamy, especially in the developing world, my experience is that multi-generational members always know that polygamy happened. Mormon folk culture seems to be replete with jokes and stories about the days of polygamy. None of this is consistent with the image of mass forgetting that George D. Smith presents.

In fact, while Nauvoo Polygamy is salted with statements about how “official” Mormon history has completely hidden Mormonism’s polygamous past, the book also routinely cites official Mormon sources to provide evidence regarding various aspects of that polygamous past. Smith makes repeated use of B. H. Roberts’ Comprehensive History of the Church, as well as various widely available historical church publications such as the Journal of Discourses. He also draws evidence for conclusions about polygamy from recent Deseret Book publications such as Dean C. Jessee’s The Papers of Joseph Smith. Simply put, the book’s claims of official cover-up and mass forgetting regarding polygamy are a caricature.

George D. Smith’s legacy within Mormon culture is secure, with or without this book. He has done invaluable work as an entrepreneur within the independent Mormon intellectual world. Without his efforts, a large number of books and journal articles that I love may never have seen publication. His name belongs in any catalog of influential late-20th- and early-21st-century Mormons. Furthermore, this book is not a total waste; its information regarding the early polygamous experience of Mormon men other than Joseph Smith is a real contribution. Even so, the book as a whole is a disappointment. We still await the really definitive treatment of Nauvoo polygamy.


  1. Thanks for this, JNS; you bring up a lot of the same critiques I plan to write on (so I can condense my review now). I find especially troubling his state purpose for chapters 2 and 3–the quote from page 55 that you cite–because I think he doesn’t achieve that at, nor does he come anywhere close. I also find his dealing with polyandry to be quite superficial.

    But you are also right of the benefits of the book: the middle chapters are new ground, even if they are poorly done. And, the long graph at the end with the 900 people who took entered polygamy in Nauvoo is worth the price of the book by itself, me thinks (at least the amazon price, anyhow).

  2. Ben, you’re right — it’s an excellent table, and well worth mentioning in addition to the material discussed in the post.

  3. Steve Evans says:

    To what extent, JNS, are you judging this book based upon the author’s potential, rather than on the book’s own merits? Agreed that it’s hard to separate the persona of George D. from Signature or from this book, but it seems like more than anything, this book is a letdown because the author just ought to have done better.

  4. Steve, I agree that my expectations are relevant here. I hoped for a lot from this book, and the contrast between those hopes and my actual experience of the book is definitely relevant.

    That said, even if I received a samizdat copy of this book that was completely lacking author or publishing house information, I would still feel that the majority of the book is a rehashing of material handled much better in books that are equally as accessible as this one. Calling the book a disappointment certainly has reference to my expectations. Finding that many of the chapters are redundant to other publications seems to be less connected with that.

  5. John Mansfield says:

    So, there were 900 Nauvoo polygamists. I would have guessed only a tenth that number. As you write, we can get too wrapped up in studying Joseph Smith and miss that there was a Church of thousands involved in the work with him. As an example, some of the concern over identifying which early Church publications are authored directly by Joseph Smith seems to devalue the Church acting as a body.

  6. Question about the 900 participants in polygamous marriage: I’m assuming that in its baldest form, that means 300 men and 600 women (in reality fewer men and more women, since some men had more than two wives). Or are children, or polyandrus husbands, or other family members included in that count?

  7. Re the table, how does it compare to the table published in George Smith’s Spring 1994 Dialogue article, “Nauvoo Roots of Mormon Polygamy, 1841-1846: A Preliminary Demographic Report” (pp. 37-72)?

  8. Ardis: the numbers are closer to 200 men and 700 women, and they do not count children, polyandrus husbands, or other family members.

    Justin: just by a quick glance, the dialogue article has 153 men and the book has 196, so there is about 40 more men and probably more than 100 more women in this new table.

  9. Ardis, the numbers break down as a bit fewer than 200 men and just over 700 women. Children and polyandrous husbands evidently don’t count.

    Justin, the book’s table is in alphabetical (by husband’s name) and then chronological (by sealing date) order rather than purely chronological order by sealing date as in the Dialogue article. The book’s table also includes additional details: it includes both marriage and sealing dates, ages of husbands and wives at the time of the marriage, and for each husband the number of wives and children broken down into three time periods (Joseph Smith’s life, after Joseph’s life but in Nauvoo, and after Nauvoo). The book’s table also includes sealings in Nauvoo after Smith’s death, as well as post-Nauvoo sealings for husbands who were polygamously married at Nauvoo. The book’s table is considerably longer than the Dialogue one; new polygamists have either been identified or the criteria have changed.

  10. Thanks. That is a substantial polygamous community in Joseph’s orbit. I did want to be sure I wasn’t subsconsciously thinking of it as three times larger than it actually was, though.

  11. Excellent review JNS, a pleasure to read!

    I had been intrigued by this book and am appreciative of your review and the comments that have followed.

  12. Thanks, Ben and JNS, for the helpful information. I am also reminded of the table in Gary Bergera’s 2005 Dialogue article, although it only covered 1841-1844.

  13. Kari, thanks — and thanks for helping talk me down from the unhelpful earlier post.

    Justin, quite right; the book makes significant use of the Bergera article, as well.

  14. My question isn’t related to the book, but just the history of polygamy. Did any men other than Joseph take wives who were already married to other men?

  15. It appears that the vast majority of Nauvoo plural marriages were performed AFTER Joseph was killed. The 900 number seemed shockingly high to me at first, but that is because I was forgetting to distinguish “Nauvoo-era” from “Joseph-era.”

    How many participants in plural marriages were there during Joseph’s life, and how many with men other than Joseph?

  16. ed, looking quickly through Smith’s table, I count 55 plural marriages involving men other than Joseph Smith during Smith’s lifetime.

  17. Aaron Brown says:

    JNS, great review. I haven’t read any of the book-length treatments of polygamy since Van Wagoner’s Mormon Polygamy: A History. I’m curious as to whether Van Wagoner’s volume contains any valuable historical discussion of the topic that hasn’t been superseded/discussed better by later volumes. Thoughts?


  18. Great review.
    the AQ was, what, 68 members when JSJ died? Were there polygs outside of the AQ? My memory is that Ehat has it as fairly evenly split between men and women, so something like 40 men in the AQ as of June 1844. How did they get to 55?
    Maybe they could republish the central chapters as a new pamphlet.

  19. Thanks for the review, JNS. This is a volume that could have dramatically benefited from an editor with Ninja skills. Then there is the tone, as you say (there are more than a few eye-rolling moments). It makes the good stuff in the volume simply less accessible.

    smb, there were polygamists outside the anointed quorum; though I am away from my materials so can’t dig in. I’m sure others will chime in. This is, I believe, the greatest weakness of Ehat’s study. His venn diagram is a handy way of looking at things; but not incorporating a detailed study of polygamy leaves a significant blindspot. For example, what does it mean that D&C 132 is saturated with Anointed Quorum context, while the reality of polygamy wasn’t particularly sync with that?

  20. StillConfused says:

    It was only in my 40th year of life that I learned the extent of Joseph Smith’s polygamy stuff. And, based on what I read here, I don’t think I know the half of it. I have huge problems with him marrying already married people. It really seems creepy to me. And I can’t fall for any of the pat answers. How can someone be Mormon but not buy off on the celestial marriage stuff?

  21. Bruce in Montana says:

    “How can someone be Mormon but not buy off on the celestial marriage stuff?”

    I don’t think you can…although a few million are trying. As a fundamentalist, I don’t have that problem but recall really being in denial when I was a member of the mainstream church.
    As far as Brother Joseph marrying sisters that were already married to good men, I believe he may have recognized certain individuals from the pre-existance that he should give the opportunity of being sealed to him. I don’t think that he did it for any selfish/sexual/dishonest reasons and I’m sure that he wrestled with it.
    Merry Smithmas all.

  22. . . . I believe he may have recognized certain individuals from the pre-existance that he should give the opportunity of being sealed to him.

    Perhaps you’re actually thinking of Todd and Julie from Saturday’s Warrior.

  23. #20: I know plenty of people who are active LDS Mormon and don’t like polygamy at all.

  24. #20: And I know plenty of people — myself included — who are active LDS Mormon, generally knowledgeable of the topic, and aren’t bothered by historical polygamy at all.

  25. Aaron, to the extent that I understand your question, I think I’d answer that, no, the Van Wagoner book doesn’t really have anything that isn’t covered in a better way elsewhere. It’s still a handy introduction and overview, but there are a lot of books now that give the reader much more. As I’ve probably mentioned on other occasions, I think the best overview volume on Mormon polygamy is now Carmon Hardy’s documentary history, Doing the Works of Abraham.

    smb, note that we’re talking about 55 marriages, which involve somewhat fewer men. The Anointed Quorum didn’t include every polygamist and some members of the Quorum were monogamists.

  26. I apologize if my question above (#14) was phrased in a way that sounded antagonistic. It’s not meant to be — I just want to know the answer. Anyone?

  27. Dane, there’s Zina Huntington, married to Henry Jacobs and to Joseph Smith, who married Brigham Young in February 1846 and bore a child to Henry Jacobs in March 1846. I’m not aware of any others, but the Nauvoo era isn’t my strong suit.

  28. Dane, I didn’t suspect antagonism, either. I just don’t definitely know the answer. Zina Diantha Huntington Jacobs Smith Young is the clearest instance, and it’s possible that others of Smith’s polyandrous wives were subsequently married by Young or Heber C. Kimball.

  29. Dane:

    I know that after Joseph Smith died, Brigham Young (and possibly Heber C. Kimball) married many of Joseph Smith’s former wives. I believe this included some of the polyandrous ones, but I’m not 100% sure. I don’t think others followed this practice, either in Nauvoo or out west.

  30. It sounds like Brigham Young did marry women who were already married to someone else. We know that Joseph did that. Which other men married women who were still married to another living husband? Were there any? I think that may be Dane’s question, as well.

  31. Dane, another case is Presendia Huntington, who was legally married to Norman Buell during her plural marriage to Joseph Smith and still legally married subsequently when she was plurally married to Heber C. Kimball in 1845. Sylvia Sessions seems to have still been legally married to another man when plurally married to Heber C. Kimball in 1844. These three cases all involve Joseph Smith’s widows.

    J. Stapley points me toward what looks to me like problematic but possible evidence of one other very complex marriage:

    On 2 December 1841, while Orson Hyde was absorbed in his historic mission to the Holy Land, Smith revealed a divine directive ordering church printer Ebenezer Robinson to take Nancy Hyde and her children into his home, the first floor suite of the Times and Seasons office on the corner of Bain and Water streets. The revelation concluded: “[L]et my handmaid Nancy Marinda Hyde hearken to the counsel of my servant Joseph in all things whatsoever he shall teach unto her, and it shall be a blessing upon her and upon her children after her, unto her justification, saith the Lord.” An entry four months later in the prophet’s personal diary notes that Nancy was sealed to him in April 1842, one of several relationships contracted with married women during his lifetime.

    Evidently Hyde, although sealed to the prophet, was shared with Smith’s scribe, Apostle Willard Richards, whose wife was in Massachusetts. Ebenezer Robinson wrote that in late January 1842, after his family was forced to vacate the printing office, “Willard Richards nailed down the windows, and fired off his revolver in the street after dark, and commenced living with Mrs. Nancy Marinda Hyde.” John C. Bennett, former member of the First Presidency, wrote of Richards “Hyde-ing” and “Mrs. Hyde and Dr. Richards” residing at the printing office “on special business.” (Richard S. Van Wagoner, Sidney Rigdon, p.294)

    The quality of this evidence does not rate especially high, in my view, although Bennett is accurate enough about some issues that it cannot be dismissed entirely. Van Wagoner finds a letter from a later, disaffected Sidney Rigdon that supports the story, as well. If such a relationship occurred, it may have been a polyandrous marriage with Richards as the plural husband. Alternatively, it might have fit Lawrence Foster’s highly speculative suggestion that in some rare circumstances Mormons may have adopted a form of temporary marriage for the purpose of raising up seed for men who are absent on missions (Foster 1981: 163-66).

  32. Dane, there are several (I think 5-6). Compton treats all the known wives–if you’re curious, I would read his Sacred Loneliness. All were offered levirate temporal marriages to members of the Anointed Quorum (generally HCK and BY) after JSJ’s death; not all accepted a second polyandrous union. As for de novo polyandry, there’s a new rumor, not yet substantiated, that another apostle may have been engaged in polyandry. Hard to know whether it’s true or relevant; we’ll need to await documentary evidence.

    #20/23/24: sorry, I assumed it was implicit that there are plenty of people knowledgeable about and not bothered by early polygamy who are still a) devoted to the LDS church and b) do not support the return of polygamy.

  33. smb, my response was more an eye-roll for the drive-by fundie than a protest to anything you wrote.

  34. Bruce in Montana says:

    My apologies. I meant no ill will. May God bless you and yours.
    Hopefully we all will come to a mutual understanding someday when things are put in order.
    It will be a great day when we can learn from each other, live together in peace and love, and not have to lower ourselves to name calling like “fundie”.

  35. Thanks, JNS, for the review. As you know, I had plans to review this for the blog, but my dislike of the author’s tone (along with a ridiculously busy end of semester) made if difficult for me to slog through the volume.

    There were real style problems, from right out of the gates when he draws some fantastic comparison between JSJ and Napoleon Bonaparte. There were moments in the early chapters (on Smith’s polygamous history) when I felt like GDS flirted with an original contribution — like his emphasis on the fact that JSJ had long standing relationships with most of the women and/or their families with whom he pursued polygamous marriages — but more often seemed to flirt with suggesting that JSJ was a sexual predator and a pedophile. At one point he even blatantly declares something like, “if you want to know why people were scandalized by JSJ’s plural marriages, just look at the reaction to the Warren Jeff’s sect in Texas today.” At times I was waiting for him to pull out a comparison to Brian David Mitchell. His work in this section seemed largely dependent sourcewise on Compton, et al — note, for example, the prevalence in the footnotes of phrases like “as cited in Compton.”

    You’re also right that the chapters detailing the full extent of polygamy in Nauvoo — i.e. beyond JSJ’s personal experiences with it — are the most historiographically valuable. Both topics — JSJ’s personal history with polygamy and its wider practice during and immediately following his life — need to be thoroughly revisited by more analytically adept historians. Overall, I was very, very disappointed in this volume.

  36. Brad, I don’t think my review need preempt yours! If you have any lingering desire to write it, of course.

  37. StillConfused says:

    I am SO bothered by early polygamy and polandry. This is some pretty out there stuff. I cannot support it. My heart, brain and belly tell me it is wrong.

  38. Bruce in Montana says:

    “I am SO bothered by early polygamy and polandry. This is some pretty out there stuff. I cannot support it. My heart, brain and belly tell me it is wrong.”

    Heart,brain, and belly….all flesh.
    I’m 53 and had a 20-plus year struggle with it.
    We could argue/analize the point “til the cows come home” but it comes down to seeking a PERSONAL verification of what is true/not true.

  39. I had the pleasure of reading both your earlier (hastily written) draft and this one as well.
    I liked them both.
    Is that the bonus of subscribing to this blog on my reader?
    I guess that will teach me about posting something before it’s really what I want to say . . .

    Thanks for the review. It was helpful.

  40. It will be a great day when we can learn from each other, live together in peace and love, and not have to lower ourselves to name calling like “fundie”

    Fortunately, it’s easy to make that day arrive, at least on BCC. From here on out, let’s use respectful language to talk about other religions, including variants of Mormonism.

  41. Bruce, I will respect Kristine’s wishes; but understand that this is not a venue for your evangelism.

    StillConfused, it is okay to feel that way. A lot of the early Restoration doesn’t make sense from our modern perspective. And, as I have said before, no matter how you slice some of how polygamy went down, there is some disturbing stuff there. I do, however, believe that with proper context, a lot of what went on, including Joseph Smith’s polyandry, are at least understandable.

  42. Steve Evans says:

    Kristine, I am sorry but I can’t commit to being respectful of others, especially when I think they’re nutty.

  43. You remember the man who was hailed into court for calling a lady a pig? He asked the judge whether there was any law against calling a pig a lady, and when told “of course not,” promptly doffed his hat and said “I beg your pardon, lady.”

    I beg your pardon, variant.

  44. I liked the earlier version too, JNS. Though this one is fine as well. :)

    “Yet the text largely turns out to be a let-down. I doubt that I have been as disappointed by a book in any genre in recent years. This is partly a function of my expectations, but it also derives from certain weaknesses in Smith’s history itself. The biggest problem with the book is simply that so much of it is unnecessary.”


    The chart is great. Really, really good. And the new info is nice. But I really, really wish he had written — or even tried to write — the book that you wanted him to write. Someone needs to really examine the growth of polygamy as a community movement rather than just the one-man show angle.

    “From here on out, let’s use respectful language to talk about other religions, including variants of Mormonism.”

    Right on, Kristine. If posts that are actually about fundamentalists can be conversational in tone, then simple comments ought to be able to be the same.

    I can understand and support Steve’s impulse to keep any fundamentalist recruiting off of the board. Absent any problem history, Bruce’s comment here didn’t strike me as inappropriate.

  45. #42: Didn’t you commit to being respectful of other last New Year’s? ;)

  46. Passive participant says:


    Thank you for the review. I have been debating over whether to give this book as a gift to my father but have decided not to based on your comments and those on this tread. I will however buy it for myself with appropriately lowered expectations.

    Bruce in Montana. Please don’t be too put off by certain personalities on this board. Not everyone shares their crankiness. For some reason a few smart and articulate people who are generally interested in the exchange of ideas have forgetten their manners and have behaved in a manner that is best described as snotty. I welcome your perspective if you choose to stick around after your rude treatment.

  47. “I am SO bothered by early polygamy and polandry. This is some pretty out there stuff. I cannot support it. My heart, brain and belly tell me it is wrong.”


    I agree with you, I had a difficult time reconciling it also. As far as your survey regarding how others react to this information, this is much more complicated than polygamy. I think often many of those who get frustruated over polygamy are strictly viewing the Church and Joseph Smith through that lense. We sort of get tunnel vision on polygamy. Others who are able to get past this issue, do so I think by viewing Joseph Smith much more broadly, and in context of all of his claims. If you feel so strongly about the First Vision for example, trying to approach polygamy from an optimistic angle is much easier. Then some do as you say, either ignore it, or as others have mentioned – they accept it. None of this makes a case for what the truth actually is, that still must be sought out as a personal matter of faith, study, and prayer.

    Just on observation from experience however, this is not a wise place for this type of venting. I think many of the regulars here who are so apt to level insults would even agree with me about this.

  48. Okay. Passive participant (who isn’t so passive), and Bruce in Montana, and Kristine, and anybody else who feels that it is perfectly fine to call me cranky and snotty, who considers me rude while championining the intrusion of so-called “ideas” that most Mormons find abhorrent: message received. I know you for what you are, too.

  49. Kids!! It’s not ok to call anyone cranky or snotty or fundie or poopyhead. We can discuss even those ideas we find abhorrent, or even say they’re not welcome and we’re not interested without resorting to namecalling.

    Good grief, it’s Christmas. Play nice.

  50. Steve Evans says:

    FHL, it’s been a long year!

  51. I thought Fundies were edible underwear.

    In any case, I consider it a much lesser gaffe to use a slightly disrespectful nickname for fundamentalists than for a fundamentalist to use this venue to suggest mainstream Church members would embrace polygamy if only we’d take the time to ask God about it.

  52. Oops, my bad. They’re actually underwear built for two.

    I think Ardis is on to something.

  53. I would like to join the ranks of those who appreciated J’s review of George Smith’s comprehensive new treatise on the origins of Mormon polygamy. I think I can help translate J’s review into something more comprehensible for those who are unfamiliar with J’s style.

    For example, where J says that the introductory chapters “contain less detailed accounts of material better covered by other books,” what he means is that George stands on the shoulders of others who have gone before him and adds to the work of other scholars, sometimes summarizing what well-read history buffs like my friend J, will already know but pointing other readers in the direction of where they can read more about the topic.

    Where J says that “chapters 4, 5, and 6 contain the genuinely valuable material in this volume,” he means that in these chapters George charts a course through virgin territory and not only builds on the research of other scholars but has to invent the wheel, so to speak.

    Where J. continues to say that George’s discussion of the sixteenth-century Anabaptists is a “comparison [that] seems fruitful,” he means that until he read George’s book, he didn’t realize that the Anabaptists called themselves “latter-day saints” and followed a prophet who received new revelation and called twelve apostles and reinstituted polygamy and other Old Testament practices while preparing for Jesus’ imminent return to the New Jerusalem, the city of Münster, Germany. The parallels are extraordinary and not, as J. suggests, previously covered anywhere else. In fact, chapter 8 is particularly fun, from my perspective.

    J tells us, with regard to one of the later chapters in George’s book, that it is not true that the church covered up its polygamous past since, in making that case, George often sites the History of the Church. But whenever George cites the History of the Church, he does so to demonstrate how the church covered up what was going on. In other words, what we learn from this is that my friend J skimmed the book for its major points and possibly looked at the footnotes to get a sense of its scope but clearly didn’t actually read the book.

    J. also offered some tangential criticism, for instance regarding George’s use of the word “heretical” in describing the Anabaptists, saying this was “somewhat inconsistent with level-headed scholarship.” He doesn’t explain why he thinks the Anabaptists were not heretics when they themselves understood that they were “radical” and “heretical” (see George Huntston Williams, The Radical Reformation). If this is a charge of intemperance, J himself isn’t exactly a well-tempered clavier either.

    One more observation. Where J says everyone already knows most of what George covers in his early chapters, the responses to his review from Ardis Parshall and others asking for more information on the topic clearly indicate that the information is new to most people, just not to experts like my friend J, bless his heart.

  54. Apropos Anabaptists, many anti-Mormons in 1830s and 1840s said Mormons were the modern incarnation of the Anabaptists, including John C. Bennett (many quoted the Buck’s entry on Anabaptists–some even predicted that LDS would practice polygamy because Anabaptists did), and it has been old hat in the new Mormon history since at least Quinn’s comparative essay (this has been low-hanging fruit for anyone who reads anti-enthusiasm tracts/anti-Mormonism since Alexander Campbell’s 1831 “Delusions”). I would not propose that comparison to the most famous fossil of the Radical Reformation is somehow new or important scholarship.[1]

    #53 does raise, however, the important question of audience. Reviews reflect audience, and those of us who are unimpressed with the book come from the Mormon Studies audience. I would be interested in a review from someone from a different audience to get a sense for their impression of the book.

    [1]”The parallels are extraordinary and not, as J. suggests, previously covered anywhere else.”?
    D. Michael Quinn, “Socio-Religious Radicalism of the Mormon Church: A Parallel to the Anabaptists,” in New Views of Mormon History: A Collection of Essays in Honor of Leonard J. Arrington, ed. Davis Bitton and Maureen Ursenbach Beecher (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1987), 363-86.
    Clyde Forsberg, “Are Mormons Anabaptists” [1999]
    Spencer Fluhman’s dissertation
    Samuel Brown and Matthew Bowman, “Joseph Smith and Charles Buck: Enthusiasm, Common Sense, and the Living Witness of History,” oral presentation at Mormon History Association Meeting, May 24, 2008, Sacramento, CA.
    Brooke, Refiner’s Fire, 14-15.

    the list goes on and on.

  55. Tom, thanks for the good-natured response. I should reiterate that the chart showing non-Joseph-Smith plural marriages, and the discussion of this material, is very new indeed. It’s not true that every reference to the History of the Church is to show something that’s left out, but I will agree that several are. Most of the references seem to be either to establish Joseph Smith’s chronology or to provide citations for speeches. Some instances are more significant, such as the citation on pages 212-13 in which the History of the Church is used to provide an account of Joseph Smith’s dictation of the polygamy revelation — a cover-up indeed!

    Regarding the Anabaptists, it turns out that you’re wrong, in fact. I’ve known about the Anabaptists since before I knew about polyandry; European religious history has been interesting to me for as long as I can remember. This material is also covered, as I discussed in the text, by Cairncross’s book — a very good read. That book doesn’t spend much time making detailed comparisons with Mormonism, but as you note the parallels are simple enough to stick out, as it were.

    I’d offer a suggestion: publish a paperback version of this sucker that includes only chapters 4-6 and the chart in the appendix. That would probably sell well and reach a much broader and more appreciative audience than the full volume will do. (Not that I’d argue in favor of not buying the volume — by all means, everyone, do read the original research on non-Joseph-Smith polygamy in Nauvoo!)

  56. Tom,
    “Bless his heart”? I thought we’d resolved to play nice on this threat.

  57. StillConfused says:

    What I am frustrated with as well is how this information was not made readily available to me when I was progressing through the Church. When I first learned of Joseph Smith’s spiritual marriages to other women (learned about it on this site by the way), I was astonished. I talked to a number of other LDS people. The majority of them had not heard of this and questioned the authenticity of the information. Those who had heard of it, didn’t know much. Maybe I am out there, but I would have considered knowing that the founder of the Church engaged in these spiritual marriages important information to know prior to baptism, going to the temple etc.

    Are there cases in the bible where spiritual leaders took already married women to wife and God was okay with it?

    I appreciate the opportunity to ask these questions to an audience that will actually respond.

  58. StillConfused, I have always wondered why polyandry — situations in which women have more than one husband — troubles so many of us more than does polygyny, in which men have more than one wife. Certainly several of Joseph Smith’s wives already had another husband — but for each of his wives after Emma Hale, they were married to a husband who already had a wife. I don’t really see much difference.

    Of course, there is one clear element of difference in early Mormon practice in that wives with multiple husbands were only sealed to one of those husbands, meaning that many husbands were left to feel that they had lost their wives for eternity. It seems that this might be part of the difficulty for many of us, although it seems not to be all of it. This problem strikes me as less than compelling, however; I trust God to fix what humans have put wrong.

    On the bible front, I’m unaware of any stories there in which polyandry is approved.

  59. Kevin Barney says:

    Probably the closest biblical parallel are the instances when the beautiful Sarah, already wife to Abraham, is taken as a wife by some ruler (similar stories of Pharaoh and Abimelech). So for a time at least she had two husbands–on multiple occasions.

    I’m of two minds on this question of what to teach our people about polygamy. I personally am not bothered by polygamy, I’m convinced because it was openly discussed in my home growing up. My parents were very proud of their polygamist forebears, and so polygamy itself held no shame in my mind. It took time for me to learn some of the details, but when I did I had been prepared to acknowledge the basics so it wasn’t the traumatic experience for me it is for many converts and others.

    So more education of our people about polygamy would probably be a good thing. But I understand the reticence the Church feels to talk too much about this practice it is trying so desperately (and unsuccessfully) to distance itself from. There are probably down sides to greater youth education in the Church about polygamy that I haven’t even contemplated.

    It is a difficult issue of Church pedagogy.

  60. Kevin, those examples have the challenge that God seems to curse the second husbands.

  61. I have a well-stocked library here at my fingertips. Let’s see what I can find on the Anabaptists of Münster, based on smb’s list. Quinn, in New Views of Mormon History, devotes a couple of sentences to them in passing, mentioning their beliefs in capital punishment and polygamy (369, 375, 380). Similarly, Brooke, in Refiner’s Fire, makes only superficial reference to Münster without any details other than to note their confessional baptism, millenialism, and practice of polygamy (14, 24). Cairncross is out of print. The other sources smb mentions are similarly unavailable. Fluhman’s dissertation is on anti-Mormonism in antebellum America, not on Anabaptist polygamy. Giving this some thought, I think smj has confused information about Anabaptists generally with info. on the Anabaptists of Münster in particular. Most of George’s sources are in German, including correspondence with the leading experts on Münster from German universities. I’ve never seen the story of Münster laid out like George presents it and doubt the information is available in English. Maybe it could be pieced together from articles in the Mennonite Quarterly Review and so on, but probably not from the sources smb lists. But then, smb hasn’t read George’s chapter, has he?

    I guess the biggest problem with Mormon Bogs it that it’s really more about Mormon opinions and not Mormon Studies so much.

    Can’t wait until we get to the Prophet or Predator part of the conversation. That’s going to be a hoot!

    Merry Xmass to all.

  62. StillConfused says:

    #60. That is my point. God has approved a man having multiple wives. But I am not sure about God approving a man taking a wife who already actively belonged to someone else. (Or a woman taking a husband who was actively married to someone else.)

    If the Church thinks what Joseph did was right, it should stand by it. Ancient prophets had multiple wives. We stand by that. We don’t hide it or pretend it didn’t exist.

    I can honestly say that knowing that Joseph Smith was sleeping with women who were already married to someone else would have made a huge difference in deciding which church to which I was affiliated. The concept of polygamy as a way that widows and other women received support that would have otherwise not been available to them is understandable in light of the circumstances. But I am not sure why Joseph Smith sleeping with married women was reasonable in light of the circumstances.

  63. The concept of polygamy as a way that widows and other women received support that would have otherwise not been available to them is understandable in light of the circumstances.

    This explanation for polygamy is at least partly a myth, actually. Most polygamous wives evidently weren’t widows, and many plural wives had to provide their own economic support as husbands sometimes lacked the means to substantially contribute to maintaining multiple households.

  64. Tom, regarding the Cairncross book, it is indeed out of print. Yet First Search shows me 346 libraries with copies; the book remains fairly accessible. Nonetheless, if Signature were able to arrange for a reprinting, I’d be an enthusiastic purchaser.

    I’m not really convinced that the Munster Anabaptists are a particularly obscure or unknown topic. Wikipedia suggests that I’m not wrong, offering an entry with a lot of details, links to other web sites that provide more detail on many aspects of the Munster situation than George Smith’s book does, and publication details for a recent version of the Kerssenbrock volume that (with all the color and biases of a basically contemporary source) provides all desired details.

  65. #61 – Stuff it – in a stocking hung by the fire, and have a Merry Christmas. :)

  66. Tom, you are in a tough position, no question. You have to be a booster of this volume. Unfortunately for your task, JNS’s review is quite accurate and your attempts to controvert it are flimsy. I think that you are going to be fairly lonely if you want to maintain a position of this volume’s magnificence in spite of the evidential reality.

    As everyone who has read the volume has indicated, there are some real contributions in the book. It has value. But let’s not pretend it isn’t what it is or question JNS’s erudition (which is copious and wonderful).

    And I believe any body of scholars will come to similar conclusions. If anyone is peddling opinion over scholarship, I believe it is you. You can take your predatory paradigm.

  67. Tom, I’m sympathetic to your position and have great respect for the work you all have done over the years. I just don’t find your position here persuasive. (I’ll admit that Quinn’s essay is not of particularly high quality, but it makes the comparison explicit. Also, did you check Forsberg’s article?) The Munster Anabaptists are so old hat as the most outrageous representatives of the Radical Reformation that it’s hard for me to understand why one would position George’s treatment as scholarship. My point re: Fluhman’s dissertation is that comparing early Mormons to the Munster Anabaptists has been happening since 1831 (seriously, read Campbell, “Delusions” or Turner or Bennett or a variety of others), and in an important respect it is stereotypical early 19th century anti-Mormonism (I do NOT mean this as an attack on George Smith personally or an argument that his book is on this basis anti-Mormon or even that this is currently a useful category, merely that if you’re trying to map the intellectual history of this comparison, you’re stuck with that context for it).

    Getting curious about the Radical Reformation is great–I applaud attempts to tease out the meaning of groups like the Munster Anabaptists. But make it scholarly or demonstrate some insight about the intellectual heritage of the comparison, don’t expect that an inversion of Nibleyan parallelomania will somehow sway thoughtful readers curious about Mormonism.

    And, Tom, you’re not being fair to try to discount input from people actively engaged in scholarly Mormon Studies by calling them “Mormon B[l]ogs.” Of all the people actively publishing in Mormon Studies (from JMH/Dialogue on up to non-Mormon scholarly journals), I haven’t found anyone yet who disagrees with the fundamentals of JNS’s review.

  68. Stillconfused:

    I doubt that any serious investigator would not be very interested to know these details surrounding Joseph Smiths conduct. After all, a primary focus of the missionary discussions is not just about belief in Jesus Christ and the atonement, but also how he called Joseph Smith as a prophet. Not only that but the gravity of this prophetic calling was such that whether by Gods mouth, or by Joseph Smith’s, it is the same. This all according to Joseph Smith of course. I can’t concieve of any reason why lying or any level of dishonesty, particularly about these issues, would be considered acceptable. At very least, this conduct does not build faith or trust, hence your current state of bewilderment.

  69. There really isn’t anything wrong with polygamy (historical and otherwise) that isn’t equally wrong with monogamy:

    1. Underage brides – check.
    2. Coerced marriages – check.
    3. Stealing other men’s spouses – check.
    4. Neglecting your wife or kids – check.
    5. Fraudulent gaming of the welfare system – check.
    6. Jealousy – check.
    7. Favoritism – check.

    Good monogamists have done a perfectly fine job of committing all the abuses currently heaped at polygamy’s door ever since men and women decided to start formalizing sexual relations.

    To me, it seems much ado about nothing.

  70. I want to write an article about ploygamy.
    So i seach it.
    Thank you for your views.

  71. Seth:

    If christianity broadly advocated points 1 – 7, then you might have a case. Since they don’t, and infact would frown upon that list behaviors, I’m not sure it compares.

    I think Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball made similar points. Something to the effect that prostitution was an outgrowth of man’s divine need to be with more than one woman. In that same spirit he chided western monogamy as a false marriage tradition bequeathed by the pagan Roman empire. Yet today that is just the marriage tradition we advocate, while shunning the restored Celestial form of polygamy.

  72. Gary Bergera says:

    The opinions regarding George Smith’s new history of Nauvoo polygamy have been both interesting and provocative. While I definitely don’t consider myself an expert, I have published a handful of articles on the topic. Plus I’ve known George for some twenty-five years, which I hope doesn’t automatically disqualify me from offering my own thoughts on the book.

    For me, George’s volume makes a very important contribution to the study of the Nauvoo beginnings of Mormon plural marriage. I appreciated the opening framing chapter, as well as the chapters on Joseph Smith’s plural marriages. Todd Compton’s book may remain the “definitive” treatment of Joseph’s own polygamy, but George’s discussion is important in helping to contextualize the general experience of polygamy in Nauvoo. I agree that in many ways the three chapters on other men’s (and women’s) Nauvoo plural marriages make for the book’s greatest contribution (and I concur as well that the appendix identifying all known Nauvoo polygamists is alone more than worth the price of the book–even the retail price). I suspect that the ground-breaking work that went into these sections may be, for many readers, difficult to appreciate fully.

    The next chapters are valuable for what they document of the Church’s response to its polygamous past. I understand the book’s point here is to highlight the Church’s evident discomfort with its polygamous past, beginning in about the 1880s, through the first Manifesto, statehood, the second Manifesto, and especially the beginning of the Fundamentalist movement up to the present. It is ironic, of course, that a practice that was once said to be essential for the highest degree of exaltation has today become something of an institutional embarrassment (while still being performed by proxy in temples worldwide).

    The final chapter, which treats, in part, the polygamous activities of some sixteenth-century European Anabaptists, was a revelation for me. While I’d been vaguely aware of some similarities between the early Anabaptists and the early Mormons, I knew nothing of the Anabaptists’ practice of polgamy, and benefitted greatly from George’s discussion. (I also appreciated his having had two German experts on the subject review his discussion prior to publication.)

    George’s book may not be the final word on the topic, but for me, at least, it represents a big step forward in our understanding of the beginnings of this controversial, problematic practice.

  73. Ray (61)–careful, there. I’m on niceness patrol and I’m ruthless about niceness.

  74. whatever happened to poor Ruth?

  75. StillConfused says:

    #68. Thank you. You seem to understand where I am coming from.

    I am still waiting for you wise ones to show me other places where God has encouraged/commanded/allowed his prophet to have marital relations with women who were already and actively legally wed to someone else. I don’t have recollection of such an event but the scholars on this site seem to know all things. Share the wisdom, oh wise ones. After all, I am StillConfused.

    (p.s. lest there be any doubt, I am not being sarcastic. You guys really do seem to know everything regarding LDS history and religion in general)

  76. I have been checking this website every few hours hoping that someone will answer “StillConfused’s” questions because he is articulating the very same concerns I have. Like him (her), I am hoping that someone who has found answers will share them. I find it interesting that those who have polygamist heritage do not seem bothered by the history, while we who are converts struggle to a much greater extent. Today, as I rocked my grandson to sleep, I realized that he is a direct descendent of Zina Huntington Smith Young etc. He is also a descendent of me, a very confused grandmother, who is holding on by my fingernails to the religion I brought my children up in. Whether on this thread or in a future blog, I am pleading for this discussion to continue. I have always held to Alma 32–plant a seed and see if is bears fruit. The fruit of polygamy seems to be confusion and heartache and, in the case of the fundamentalist LDS, severe oppression of women and children.
    I second what “StillConfused” said, I also have respect for the opinions of so many who contribute here.

  77. Cowboy, early Mormon polygamy didn’t advocate points 1-7 either, so I’m not sure your point holds.

  78. StillConfused,

    Why does it matter if it’s in the Bible or not?

    Why does it matter if there’s a precedent or not?

    Are you saying God isn’t allowed to do anything new?

  79. StillConfused says:

    #76 StillConfused is a gal.

    #78 I find that God is a pretty predictable God. I believe that he says that he is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow (paraphrased). If I can see that this is a regular practice of God’s, then I just chalk it up to one of those things that I have to ask God about when/if I get to heaven. It just makes it clear that this was not just to doings of a man but was divinely inspired.

    Man having more than one wife does seem to be common in religious history. But the only examples that I can think of where a man/prophet/leader goes after a woman who is already married are ones where God is not too happy about that.

  80. So, StillConfused, is it possible to suppose that, in fact, God was not pleased with Joseph taking other men’s wives, but still worked through him as a prophet? There’s NOTHING, except the current fad in thinking about Church leaders, that should make us think prophets don’t or can’t sin. Moses had killed a man! Perhaps that detail gets included in Holy Writ because God is trying to tell us something about his capacity to work through deeply flawed, but visionary and faithful human beings.

  81. StillConfused: I find that God is a pretty predictable God

    Excellent. Then you probably have found that God is really good about answering prayers too. So you could ask for God’s opinion on Joseph Smith, his choices, and Mormonism in general — no need to wait until you get to heaven to ask those kinds of question after all.

  82. a man/prophet/leader goes after a woman who is already married

    and that, in a nutshell, is the problem with your question. The only example I can think of off the top of my head that fits your wording is David and Bathsheba – and that example is so different than Joseph’s practice of polygamy that they might as well be in different universes.

    Oh, and for an actual answer, read up on Onan, Samson, Isaiah again. The OT is much messier on many more topics than most people realize – and Joseph was quite clear that he felt he was restoring OT practices.

    I find that God is a pretty predictable God.

    We must be reading different scriptures. If God is predictable, probably 10-25% of our canon (especially the OT and the BofM that corresponds to the same time period) is totally incomprehensible. Part of what makes scripture so interesting is that is simply isn’t predictable. It’s incredibly hard to understand by our modern standards – sometimes almost impossible.

  83. StillConfused says:

    #82. Why would Joseph restore Old Testament practices after we had the New Testament? That seems odd.

    #81. I am unable to get confirmation that this was okay via prayer. But that could be because God expects me to research the topic more.

  84. StillConfused: I am unable to get confirmation that this was okay via prayer.

    But you don’t have to wait to get God’s general opinion on Joseph Smith and the movement he started.

  85. “Man having more than one wife does seem to be common in religious history. But the only examples that I can think of where a man/prophet/leader goes after a woman who is already married are ones where God is not too happy about that.”

    Re-read your Biblical story of David and Abigail, SC.

    “Why would Joseph restore Old Testament practices after we had the New Testament?”

    Why assume that this was one of the OT practices that the NT did away with?

    The NT didn’t replace all OT practices, after all — only some of them.

    You’re right, though, that polyandry is one of the more difficult early church practices to accept. Some people are able to do it, and some are not. It’s probably not possible to know about polyandry and continue in the simple hero-worship understanding of Joseph Smith that many rank-and-file members have.

    On the other hand, many people are able to reconcile the two — active believing members like Richard Bushman or Kathryn Daynes know about all of the skeletons in the polygamy closet.

    In my observation, it largely depends on how inculcated one is in the black-and-white mindset (which, ironically, the church itself tends to encourage). The more brittle one’s views on prophets, the more likely polyandry is to be a deal-breaker. The more flexible one’s views on Joesph Smith, prophetic role, church history in general, the more likely it is that polyandry will be simply another piece of the (fascinating) puzzle of early church history.

  86. Kaimi:

    From this comment and others it would seem that I have the brittle view on prophets while you take the flexible position. These differences notwithstanding, I think your comments are insightful and reasonable.

  87. Seth:

    1) With the exception of point #5 (Cheating the welfare system), a reasonable case can be made for each of the other six points on historical Mormon polygamy.

    2) Even if your comment was correct (#77), doesn’t that just make table of complaints argument null and void? If no groups behaved according to those complaints how is that a defense for the culture Mormon polygamy being as benign as monogamy?

  88. StillConfused,

    Why are you assuming that the New Testament practices were so different that the Old Testament practices?

    Sounds like you’ve been drinking the Evangelical cool-aid. They too seem to the be of the opinion that the mere fact of Jesus life and death means that almost the entire Old Testament is somehow null and void – even though Christ gave no real good reason to think that.

    For myself, I think polygamy (which includes both multiple wives AND husbands) is a beautiful principle that stands for the fact that the human heart is large enough to encompass more than one person.

    Joseph’s entire ministry as a prophet can be seen largely as an attempt to bind the human family together – Zion, consecration, redeeming the dead, polygamy – they all fit a pattern of him trying to forge sacred covenant connections between himself and others and among others. Polygamy fits in.

    I think it is an absolutely lovely principle that a man who has lost his wife and remarried can be sealed to both women. Same for women in reverse. It’s a wonderful principle to those who have been forced to learn to love again, and something not well-understood by those who equate love with possessiveness and insecurity.

    As for your complaint that this God is not “predictable,” not sure what to tell you. The Mormon God accommodates the circumstances and character of His children – which means there will always be a part of Him that changes.

    I find the idea of a God that changes to work with His children comforting and exciting. If you want some philosophically abstract God that just sits there unmoving and unmoved by everything around Him, I would suggest that you’d have a better career as a Southern Baptist than as a Mormon.

    Frankly, it sounds like a pretty boring and unpleasant God. But whatever floats your boat, I guess…

  89. To be clear, I am totally open to the idea that Joseph may have screwed up the implementation.

    Taking already married women may be one of those things. Perhaps God wasn’t OK with that aspect. It’s possible.

  90. Seth:

    For all of it’s beauty, I just don’t think I could sell that concept to my wife. “hey little lady, relax, there’s plenty of o’le Cowboy to go around. What can I say, I’ve just got a big heart”. Truthfully the Church has had a hard time selling it too, that’s why today they try to avoid it.

    Just out of curiousity, why would you suggest that Joseph was in error by taking “already married women”, when you feel confident that Polygamy was a beautiful manifestation of the capacity of the human heart? You also seem to embrace the literal spirit of polygamy by including both polygyny and polyandry, yet question more liberal community sexuality. It is interesting that in the Church we emphasize those fruits of the spirit which bring peace, joy, etc, as the spiritual baromoter of truth when contemplating such things as the official First Vision account. Likewise when praying to know if The Book of Mormon is true, yet when approaching Polygamy, or the even more innovative semi free love case you seem to be making, we are sort of told: “well God’s ways aren’t our ways, so of course that would seem uncomfortable to you”. In other words, we follow those feelings as the spirit witnessing truth to us when we are studying truly inspiring stories, yet we are encouraged not to be decieved by our naive mortal expectations when we experience negative feelings while studying some of the truly embarrassing details of Church history.

  91. I never said whether he was in error one way or the other.

    I said I was open to the possibilities.

    But I see no reason for Mormons to go into fetal position just because someone steeped in the culture of our times is yelling “eeew gross!”

  92. Seth:

    It appears that I have misunderstood you. You seem to have a fairly liberal tolerance of Joseph Smith’s conduct, even the broader possibilities. That is acceptable of course, and since there is nothing wrong with that, I will just say sorry for the misunderstanding.

    I would however add just one caveat, that perhaps you have also misunderstood the seriousness of Stillconfused’s less liberal perspective. Your callous passivity is probably unproductive towards alleviating her concerns, and certainly no more valid given that largely your disagreements lie within personal ideology.

  93. #83-Stillconfused,
    “I am unable to get confirmation that this was okay via prayer. But that could be because God expects me to research the topic more.”

    I hate it when that happens…so research it more, and I advise the same for Hestia.

    The Cliff notes version:
    There is a difference between being a “spiritual wife” and being a “plural wife”.

    Joseph was sealed to a select group of women whose current mortal marriages had no hope of becoming eternal ones, in order to make exaltation available to them in the future.

    Most of the women that Joseph was “sealed to” who were “married to” other men continued to live with their spouses, and evidence that Joseph had sexual relations with any of them is almost non-existent. (The little that does exist is so controversial that there is continual debate about it amongst both LDS and non-LDS scholars alike). What does exist is plenty of evidence that the men they were married to, whether they were members or not, remained friendly with and loyal to Joseph throughout his life. Is that the behavior of men whose wives are sleeping with another man?

    A couple of excellent articles to get you started can be found at . One by Gregory L. Smith called “Polygamy, Prophets, and Prevarication: Frequently and Rarely Asked Questions About the Initiation, Practice, and Cessation of Plural Marriage in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” and one by Samuel Katich called “A Tale of Two Marriage Systems: Perspectives on Polyandry and Joseph Smith.”

  94. Cowboy,

    I’ll agree with the “callous” part.

    I really shouldn’t blog when I’m sick. It makes me a bit grumpy.

  95. Joseph was sealed to a select group of women whose current mortal marriages had no hope of becoming eternal ones, in order to make exaltation available to them in the future.

    Nancy Hyde?

    Perhaps this is where we have been shortsighted and neglectful in the Church in 2008. Perhaps during interviews a Bishop should determine which Sisters in the ward have no chance of exaltation with their current, perhaps less active/non-member, husbands. Once this has been determined he could arrange marriages with these women and some of the better men in the ward, to you know, just give these ladies a shot at exaltation.

  96. I’m not responding to the Js because I work for Signature Books, although working for Sig rocks! I’m responding because, like Ardis, I was unaware of how many polygamists there were in Nauvoo and how this all went down. It turns out that the missionaries were not just looking for convers but were also on the prowl for women. As missionaries, William Clayton, Grapa Heber, Parley Pratt, Edwin Wooley, Brigham Young, and others converted women, some of whom were married and had children, and convinced them, without divorcing their husbands, to leave their families, come to Nauvoo, marry their missionary, and bare him children. It’s kind of creepy, chilling information. Meanwhile, I’m interested that Jay says he speaks for the scholars. Wow. I assume by that, he means the two Js. I think we will have to see what the scholars have to offer when they review the book in the professional journals and see how professional scholars respond to them.

    I’m enjoying the thread. Thanks to all.

  97. “Meanwhile, I’m interested that Jay says he speaks for the scholars. Wow. I assume by that, he means the two Js. I think we will have to see what the scholars have to offer when they review the book in the professional journals and see how professional scholars respond to them.”

    Tom, how petty of you. At least when the pharmaceutical reps appear on the Today Show they’re up front about how their pockets are lined, and don’t act like asses despite their biases. As a “professional” marketer for your employer I would have thought you’d want to endear yourself to the marketplace as opposed to just looking like a heel. Shows what I know.

    As for the rest of your comment, using insulting and inaccurate pejoratives about the early saints of the Restoration is both unwelcome and inaccurate. Continuing to peddle your wares in this way may cement your market share among the antimormons, but among faithful saints you’re just alienating yourself and asking to get excluded from any important conversation.

  98. Tom,

    I agree with you (and Ardis, and J.) that the description of the number of Nauvoo polygamists is good. The discussion of missionaries is good. The chart is very good.

    The problem is, these aren’t really a book. They’re a very good Dialogue article. They’re very interesting small-picture details. But they really aren’t enough for a book.

    Smith sees to realize this, and he repeatedly tries to step back and look at the big picture. But it seems to me, at least (and others here) that Smith’s attempts to talk big picture don’t work well.

    So the book ends up being kind of schizophrenic. Is is a small-picture look at the details of Nauvoo? In part, it is. But then, why would people give a damn about the details of Nauvoo? So the book also tries to be a big-picture primer for the neophyte.

    The problem is, there are already some very good primers. In positioning itself as a big-picture primer, it inevitably runs into the recently published (2007) Doing the Works of Abraham, which gives very good analysis of the big picture. It’s not clear why another primer is needed. And in comparison to Hardy, Smith’s attempts at big-picture analysis seem clumsy and derivative.

    In particular, Smith seems intent on sensationalizing the topic (with clumsy sideswipes at other sensational topics like magic). And then there’s that eye on the spine . . . the Nauvoo polygamists are watching you!

    So yes, I wouldn’t be surprised if scholars liked the new small-picture stuff. It’s really helpful material, even if it really belongs in an article or two. As for whether scholars like Smith’s attempts at big-picture analysis — well, I’d be surprised if scholars found that particularly helpful. (But then, I’ve been wrong before.)

    I do have to ask, though, since you’re talking about scholars liking it. Why is the only blurb a Klaus Hansen note about how useful its post-JS polygamy material was? Where were Bushman, or Hardy?

  99. Cowboy writes,

    “From this comment and others it would seem that I have the brittle view on prophets while you take the flexible position. These differences notwithstanding, I think your comments are insightful and reasonable.”

    That may be so, I can’t speak for you.

    I don’t mean that as a value judgment, either, about one approach being morally superior or better or whatever else. I’m just saying it as a descriptive observation. In discussions about Joseph Smith and polygamy, the more that a person seems to focus on black-and-white statements — “either he was a prophet, or he wasn’t”, “either God revealed polygamy, or Joseph made it up” — the more likely it is that they will find it not reconcilable with LDS belief. On the other hand, the more likely a person takes a flexible approach to prophetic roles — “Joseph was a person who communicated with God, but filtered those communications through his own cultural understandings” — the more likely it is that a person will find polygamy not to be a deal-breaker.

    Ironically, there are a lot of things in mainstream LDS culture that encourage a black-and-white mindset; while that very mindset seems at least somewhat correlated with an inability to tolerate information about JS polygamy.

  100. Kaimi:

    Thanks for the clarification. I originally took the comment as your follow up suggests, observation and not a value statement. I also agree that in many cases the Church both socially and institutionally encourage absolute thinking. I have wondered if that influence hasn’t contributed to my own inability to reconcile eccentricities of early Church history. That is what I meant in drawing the dichotomy between you and I. Respectfully, I did not intend for that to come across as a value statement either. I have taken my position as have others, but I do not see my self as superior to even those who I disagree with.

  101. Steve

    “Continuing to peddle your wares in this way may cement your market share among the antimormons, but among faithful saints you’re just alienating yourself and asking to get excluded from any important conversation.”

    Thanks for this comment. It has taken me some time to understand that faith and scholarship are not mutually exclusive. Even so, it’s difficult for me to understand the logic or hysteria of those who think that tackling an issue regarding my faith tradition is anti-Mormon. Maybe I’m a bit flippant, but it’s my clumsy attempt to be up front (as I have also been about my employment, not hiding behind anonymity as some posters do).

    When I put my hands on my son’s head and ordained him a deacon just after Thanksgiving, I didn’t feel like an anti-Mormon. I felt like a Latter-day Saint. Maybe that’s just my style. Take the pill without the spoonful of sugar. This “b(l)og” that you run has still offered little comment on the evidence George and other scholars have mustered. But in terms of feelings, these are honest conversations that have to be had among the Saints.


  102. Mark Brown says:


    I’m proceeding on the assumption that there is still something to salvage from this conversation.

    It is unfair for you to single out Steve, although that is an understandable error on your part. Some of the rest of us who have at least a little responsibility for this blog ought to start pulling our own weight and stop allowing Steve to be the fall guy.

    Your remark about Joseph Smith Jr. being “on the prowl” for women is incredibly offensive. If you think that is a fair characterization of Nauvoo polygamy, you are simply out to lunch. It is the equivalent of me saying that Tom Kimball is swindling customers by peddling crummy books. It would be uncharitable and unfair, not to mention inaccurate.

    I’ve been an observer at more scholarly and academic presentations than I can count which dealt with aspects of Mormonism in Nauvoo and Kirtland. I have never heard anybody use that phrase to describe our early experimentation with polygamy, and it is not hysteria to say that if you want to participate in conversation, you need to adopt a different manner of expressing what you think.

  103. Tom, the difficulty that I have in finding a useful response to your last comment, I guess, is that I don’t object to most of the evidence in George D. Smith’s book. My concerns about the book aren’t about the evidence, but rather about nonevidentiary aspects of the text. There is nothing in Smith’s evidence that compels him to describe polygamy as (in language I quoted in the original post) “perilous anti-social behavior.” Smith presents no evidence showing a compelling link between Joseph Smith’s treasure sorcery and polygamy. And for several of the chapters, my concern is simply that Smith hasn’t brought to bear very much new evidence in comparison with other books. A book can get all the facts right and still be substantially flawed; for that reason, I don’t really know that your invitation to dispute the evidence is entirely helpful.

    That said, I don’t think language like “anti-Mormon” is at all helpful in describing disagreements “within the tribe,” as it were. I do hope people can avoid such unnecessary negative characterization in the future.

  104. Mark and J.

    I wasn’t trying to single out Steve, just that he made a comment about my character and motivation. Actually, he reflects the general tone of some of the other comments on the thread. Meanwhile, as for Joseph and early apostles being “on the prowl,” it is certainly not a mischaracterization of their pattern of courtship. Regarding the themes George’s book raises that are new and could be discussed, here are five:

    1. Joseph met many of his future wives when they were adolescents and he stayed overnight in their parents’ homes.

    2. There is a recognizable correlation between Joseph’s new plural marriages and Emma’s pregnancies.

    3. Joseph used persuasion (pick-up lines) in convincing women to marry him, even telling them the true meaning of the biblical ten talents was polygamy—that the single wife of a man would be given to a polygamist.

    4. When the other Nauvoo polygamists (apostles, etc.) were proselyting, they convinced married women to abandon their husbands and children and join them as their plural spouses in Nauvoo—like something right out of a horror movie (and incidentally answers the questions posed by Dane, Nora, and Still Confused which were not adequately answered in this thread).

    5. This is not the first time we’ve seen this story play out in the real world. Find a significant belief or practice from the 16th-century Anabaptists in Munster that doesn’t show up in Nauvoo! (“How long has this been going on?”)

    I hope that a careful reading of George’s book for perhaps a second go-around would offer more to the reader than what’s been portrayed here so far.

    J. Thanks for sticking up for me. It’s an interesting crowd you run with here—but far different than the scholarly, thoughtful crowd as portrayed in the past.


  105. How is George D. Smith, “within the tribe”?

    He may nominally be LDS (not sure anymore), but has published several times with a pro-atheist publication, Free Inquiry, “where he makes a sustained (if unoriginal) case against the historicity of the Book of Mormon and against Joseph Smith’s prophetic calling.”

    If it walks like a duck…

    I recognize the problems with labels and definitions. I just don’t see GDS as “one of us.”

  106. Sorry, forgot the link for my quote.

  107. Thanks, Tom, for calling most of us here ignorant and brainless. There really isn’t much else to say.

  108. Mark Brown says:

    Tom, I guess we aren’t getting anywhere.

    Your continued insistence that J. Nelson-Seawright’s review which started this thread is unfair is unsupported, your claim that “on the prowl” is a good description of JSJ’s activities is ridiculous, and your apparent belief that talking about Nauvoo polygamy in this manner means that you are scholarly, thoughtful, and academically respectable is laughable and infantile. You also apparently think that b(l)og is funny. Forgive me if I don’t laugh along.

    People, I think we have looked at this review from multiple angles, so I’m closing comments now.

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