Helen Kimball as Joseph Smith’s 14-year-old wife understandably gets a lot of attention in discussions about Smith’s marital practices. In my dissertation, I argue that the story of Helen’s marriage to Smith sheds lights on larger issues so I’m posting those passages here. First, however, I’m posting a few paragraphs where I give a summary of my argument about Smith’s overall intent. It’s pages 371-74 of my dissertation.
The sexuality of Smith’s marriages has been much debated, but boiling Smith’s marital relationships down to sex misses the point. The point of the marriages, again, was best described by Mary Lightner, both in her description of the 1831 “sealing” and in the proposal to her by Smith: to be united with Smith so as to go with him into the Father’s kingdom. This was something that many early Mormons wanted. Oliver Huntington said that “soon after Dimick had given our sisters Zina & Prescinda to Joseph as wives for eternity,” Smith offered Dimick any reward he wanted. Dimick requested “that where you and your fathers family are, there I and my fathers family may also be.” Todd Compton argues that a number of polyandrous husbands may have known about the sealing, particularly Henry Jacobs and Windsor Lyon.…
As all the sealings during Smith’s life were between men and women (none were between persons of the same gender), being sealed to a common spouse may have been the means by which men were sealed to each other in Smith’s system. Such is suggested in Bernheisel’s sealings: he was sealed to the wife of his brother, which may have sealed him to his brother in Smith’s system. When Smith changed from marrying married to single women (discussed below), Heber C. Kimball felt that having his daughter sealed to Smith allowed him to be sealed to Smith as well. The popular ancient Jewish writer, Flavius Josephus, expressed a similar idea in his telling of the story of Pharaoh taking Abraham’s wife that Smith likely read (see Chapter Six). “And when he had found out the truth,” Josephus explained, “he excused himself to Abram, that supposing the woman to be his sister, and not his wife, he set his affections on her, and desiring an affinity with him by marrying her, but not as incited by lust to abuse her.” “Affinity” was the term used by Perfectionists to explain the special relationship between soul mates (Smith might also have used this term). Perhaps men who felt this kind of spiritual connection for each other, felt like Josephus’s Pharaoh that marrying a close relative or even the wife of the special friend was a means by which men could be linked to each other.
At the same time, it would be a mistake to think that Smith’s wives were simply connectors between Smith and their husbands; Smith told Mary Lightner that they had a pre-mortal bond. After Lightner was sealed to Smith, her husband moved her fifteen-miles up the river from Nauvoo: “The Prophet felt very sad when he knew we were going to leave,” said Lightner, “and with tears running down his cheeks he prophesied that if we left the Church we would have plenty of sorrow.” This statement suggests that Smith felt a deep attachment to Lightner, and that he wanted her nearby. Again the purpose of the sealings was to be bound together in the Father’s kingdom for eternity. Sealing marriage seems to have been the means to create this great union, this “nucleus of heaven.” In 1843, John C. Bennett asserted that Smith taught that because individuals could not marry in heaven, “It has been revealed to him that there will be no harmony in heaven unless the Saints select their companions and marry IN TIME, FOR ETERNITY!!! They must marry in time so as to begin to form the sincere attachment and unsophisticated affection which is so necessary to consummate in eternity in order to the peace of Heaven.” This statement from Bennett is similar to Benjamin Johnson’s assertion: “That our great mission to earth was to Organize a Neculi [nucleus] of Heaven to take with us.” Bennett’s statement also sheds light on Smith’s reaction to Lightner moving up the river: the goal of the sealing unions was to form earthly attachments that would persist in the next life. Having those attachments broken, even by fifteen miles, was painful for Smith.
Therefore, the sealing marriages were the means of enacting what Mary Lightner had recalled from the meeting at Smith’s house in 1831: they were ordinances that would bind Smith’s special loved ones to him for time and all eternity. The importance of being connected to loved ones was essential according to Smith. In language similar to his revelation on marriage, Smith declared, “Those who keep no eternal Law in this life or make no eternal contract are single & alone in the eternal world and are only made Angels to minister to those who shall be heirs of Salvation never becoming Sons of God having never kept the Law of God.” As Smith’s brother William said in a blessing to Ann B. Peterson, “But the fullness of her Salvation cannot be made perfect until her companion is with her & those who are of his kingdom for until the kindred Spirits are gathered up: and are united in the celestial kingdom as one.”
Here is my passage on Helen’s marriage to Smith. It’s pages 377-82 of my dissertation.
According to Heber Kimball’s grandson, Orson F. Whitney, before Smith taught Kimball about plural marriage, “He put him to a test which few men would have been able to bear. It was no less than a requirement for him to surrender his wife, his beloved Vilate, and give her to Joseph in marriage.” “Three days he fasted and wept and prayed,” said Whitney, “Then, with a broken and bleeding heart, but with a soul self-mastered for the sacrifice, he led his darling wife to the Prophet’s house and presented her to Joseph.” Whitney said that the act proved his faithfulness, “The will for the deed was taken, and ‘accounted unto him for righteousness.’” Kimball held “back nothing,” but laid “all upon the altar for God’s glory.” Thus Whitney presented Kimball as passing the Abrahamic test, and Kimball was rewarded by being sealed to Vilate. Todd Compton dates this event as having occurred in early 1842, when Smith was marrying married women. While the proposal fits the pattern, Smith telling his married wives that his proposal was just a test does not; Smith married a number of married women.
There was an addendum to the story that Whitney mentioned almost as a side note: “Soon after the revelation was given a gold link was forged whereby the houses of Heber and Joseph were indissolubly and forever joined. Helen Mar, the eldest daughter of Heber Chase and Vilate Murray Kimball was given to the Prophet in the holy bonds of celestial marriage.” Helen’s account of her marriage to Smith suggests that her story was linked to that of her father’s. In her 1881 autobiography, Helen stated, “Just previous to my father’s starting upon his last mission but one, to the Eastern States, he taught me the principle of Celestial marrage [sic], & and having a great desire to be connected with the Prophet, Joseph, he offered me to him; this I afterwards learned from the Prophet’s own mouth.” According to Helen, who was fourteen at the time, it was Heber who offered her to Smith because he wanted to be connected to the prophet.
This brings up the question: if Heber wanted to be connected with Smith, why didn’t Smith simply marry Vilate? Again, Smith married a number of married women. Helen’s language also invokes that of the Abrahamic trial: “My father had but one Ewe lamb, but willingly laid her upon the alter.” Might Helen have been a replacement for Vilate? Wilhelm Wyl, the anti-Mormon editor of the Salt Lake Tribune, in 1886 asserted that Helen was a replacement for Vilate. When asked about Wyl’s assertion, Helen responded that “the falsehoods furnished by Sarah M. Pratt about my father, mother, & myself are enough to damn her without any thing more.” Wyl put the matter in very negative terms, but Helen had used similar language in her autobiography five years earlier. Again, Orson Whitney said Smith asked for Vilate and we know that Smith was marrying married women at that time. Helen said that Smith told her that Heber had promised Helen to Smith. The two incidents could have been linked.
The story of Heber and Helen Mar Kimball may provide a window into the shift of Smith’s marital practices from married to single women: upset at the prospect of sharing wives, Smith’s inner circle may have preferred that he marry their daughters instead. In 1854, Jedediah Grant (Brigham Young’s assistant at the time) recalled what the early days of polygamy were like for Smith’s followers in Nauvoo: “When the family organization was revealed from heaven—the patriarchal order of God, and Joseph began, on the right and on the left, to add to his family, what a quaking their was in Israel. Says one brother to another … ‘now suppose Joseph should come and say he wanted your wife, what would you say to that?’ ‘I would tell him to go to hell.’ This was the spirit of many in the early days of the Church.” Grant asserted that Smith was asking for the wives of his followers and that telling Smith “to go to hell… was the spirit of many in the early days.” Grant used the phrase “what a quaking there was in Israel” to describe the attitude. The despondency of Orson Pratt (another apostle) over the claims that Smith had proposed to his wife Sarah, best demonstrates the “quaking in Israel” that Grant described. While the incident is controversial, Smith proposing to Sarah Pratt fits the pattern of him proposing to many married women at that time.
The controversy surrounding Smith’s fallout with John C. Bennett, who placed the claims of Sarah Pratt at the center of his attack on Smith, was likely the catalyst behind Smith’s shift from marrying married to single women. Orson Pratt was despondent at the claim that Smith had proposed to his wife, “My sorrows are greater than I can bear!” he wrote his wife, “Where I am henceforth it matters not.” Pratt turned dissenter for a time and Bennett’s disclosures were very bad press. In addition, Smith was forced to hide from Missouri extradition attempts that summer. On June 29, 1842, Smith married his first single wife since Louisa Beaman, Eliza R. Snow, indicating a change in Smith’s marital practices. Furthermore, Smith’s new marriages slowed considerably that summer; he only married four women between the summer of 1842 and the spring of 1843. After Eliza, Smith’s next wife was Sarah Ann Whitney, his first teenage bride since Fanny Alger. After Sarah, Smith’s next wife was Martha McBride Knight who was widowed and the next was Ruth Vose Sayers who was married. The median age for these women was 34, the mean was 29.
The major change in Smith’s marital pattern came in the spring of 1843 when he began marrying again in earnest. Smith had reconciled with Orson Pratt and seemed to have regained his confidence. But now he was marrying almost all single women, who were, on the whole, considerably younger than his previous wives. Smith married 14 women between spring and summer of 1843, all but one of whom were single and most of whom were young. The median age of these single women was 19. This was a very different pattern than the one of 1841-42, where the median age was 32. If Smith could not marry married women, then he needed to marry women before they were married, which meant he needed to marry them at a younger age.
Interestingly, Smith’s polygamy revelation began by saying, “You have enquired of my hand, to know and understand wherein I the Lord justified my servants Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; as also Moses, David, and Solomon, my servants, as touching the principle and doctrine of their having many wives, and concubines.” The revelation was dated July 1843 (though it may have been given earlier) but since Smith had begun marrying other women as early as 1833, Smith asking about the polygyny of the biblical prophets at this much later date is further evidence that polygyny was not the original program. Again the Book of Mormon condemned David and Solomon’s polygyny: Jacob says of the Nephites, “They seek to excuse themselves in committing whoredoms, because of the things which were written concerning David, and Solomon his son. Behold, David and Solomon truly had many wives and concubines, which thing was abominable before me, saith the Lord…. 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.” Therefore switching to polygyny would be in defiance of the Book-of-Mormon commandment. Again, Jacob does say that there is an exception (“raise up seed”) but, as I argue above, that was likely a reference to shared wives, or even composite marriage. But now Smith was asking a new question: despite what the Book of Mormon said, God seemed to have allowed a number of Old Testament figures to have multiple wives. In response, the revelation explains that there is a higher antinomian law: the law is to do what God says, and if God said to practice polygyny, then the saints were to practice polygyny despite what other prophets (Jacob) had said. The evidence suggests that such was a shift in practice.
If a central purpose of polygamy was to bring people into Smith’s sacerdotal family, then composite marriage, in which women could also marry multiple men, would work better for that purpose than would polygyny, because it allowed for more people to be connected to each other. The Bennett and Orson Pratt disasters of the summer of 1842 caused a change in the program, which resulted in a switch to younger, single women. Yet Heber C. Kimball still sought to be bound to Smith by having Smith marry his daughter. Polygynous linking was more limited, however, since it was only possible with those who had unmarried daughters and it also led Smith to marry younger wives, very young in the case of Helen Mar Kimball.
 Quoted in Compton, In Sacred Loneliness, 122-23.
 Compton, In Sacred Loneliness, 81, 179.
 Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 7.2 in The Genuine Works of Flavius Josephus, trans. by William Whiston, 6 vols. (Worcester Mass.: Isaiah Thomas, 1794), 104.
 Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner, Autobiography, typescript, 9, Perry Special Collections.
 “Letter from Gen. Bennett,” in Hawk Eye (Burlington, Iowa: December 7, 1843) in Compton, In Sacred Loneliness, 636.
 Zimmerman, I Knew the Prophets, 47.
 Smith, sermon, July 16, 1843, Words of Joseph Smith, 232.
 Early Mormon Blessings, 328.
 Orson F. Whitney, Life of Heber C. Kimball An Apostle: The Father and Founder of the British Mission (1888, reprint; Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1967), 323-24.
 Compton, In Sacred Loneliness, 495.
 Whitney, Life of Heber C. Kimball, 328.
 Hellen Mar Kimball Whitney, Autobiography, 1881, in Helen Mar Kimball Whitney, A Woman’s View: Helen Mar Whitney’s Reminiscences of Early Church History, ed. Jeni Broberg Holzapfel and Richard Neitzel Holzapfel (Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University 1997), 482.
 Whitney, Autobiography, 482.
 Wilhelm Wyl, Joseph the Prophet: His Family and Friends (Salt Lake City: Tribune, 1886), 71-72.
 Sarah Pratt, to whom Smith also may have proposed (discussed below), had become disaffected by this time and made a number of charges against Smith in Wyl’s book (Wyl, Joseph the Prophet, 56, 60-62.) Wyl did not cite Pratt for the accusation that Helen was a replacement for her mother, but Helen apparently assumed the Pratt was the source of the accusation.
 Helen Mar Kimball Whitney, A Widow’s Tale: the 1884-1896 Diary of Helen Mar Kimball Whitney, ed. Charles M. Hatch and Todd M. Compton (Logan: Utah State University Press, 2003), 183, Aug. 26, 1886.
 Jedediah Grant, February 19, 1854, Journal of Discourses, 2:13.
 Richard S. Van Wagoner, “Sarah M. Pratt: The Shaping of an Apostate,” Dialogue 19, no. 2 (1986): 69-99.
 Bushman, Rough Stone Rolling, 466-72.
 Compton, In Sacred Loneliness, 4-6.
 Van Wagoner, “Sarah M. Pratt,” 81.
 Compton, In Sacred Loneliness, 6.
 “Celestial Marriage,” 7.
 Jacob 2:23, 24, 27. Richard Bushman notes that Jacob only condemns David and Solomon’s polygyny and notes that Deuteronomy 17:17 condemns excessive polygyny like David and Solomon’s, perhaps leaving Abraham, Jacob, and Moses uncondemned for their more moderate polygyny, and that those three figures may have fallen under the exemption. Bushman, Rough Stone Rolling, 646 n. 27. But again, the passage’s exemption used the phrase “raise up seed,” suggesting that the exemption may have related to sharing wives.
 Brown, “Early Mormon Adoption Theology,” 38-39.