From the Archives: Hannah Tapfield King’s Introduction to Polygamy

By April 2, 2012

[If Elder Holland was correct in his General Conference talk from saturday that we are never too far along the path of sin to repent and return to God’s fold, then I hope I can make amends for not participating in March’s Women’s History Month by reproducing a revealing document written by one of my female idols.]

Hannah Tapfield King (1807-1886) was a fascinating woman. Born in Cambridge, England, to Peter Tapfield, a land steward and second son of the 5th Duke of Leeds, and Mary Lawson, daughter of one of the most respected families of Yorkshire, she was married at a young age to Thomas Owen King–an arrangement between the King and Tapfield families that set Hannah for a life of wealth and comfort. While living in Cambridge shortly after her fortieth birthday, she was introduced to the Mormon message and went through a long, complicated, and intense investigation period. (Probably worth its own post.) Finally, on April 17th, 1851, she was “buried in the liquid grave and raised up out of it in the likeness of the burial and resurrection of our Saviour.” Her baptism brought a lot of trouble: it was in the midst of a debate concerning Mormonism in the Cambridge area, and Hannah, before a highly respected member of the community, received much condemnation from her peers. Even worse, her parents strongly disapproved of her decision, and were almost apoplectic when she announced she would be immigrating to Utah. Fortunately, her husband, though he never joined the LDS church, was supportive and even agreed to move with her to the American west two years later.

But prior to the big immigration, Hannah was rocked by the same news that rocked all British Mormons in 1852 and 1853: the announcement of polygamy. For Hannah, who had heard rumors the previous year (though never recorded them), she learned of plural marriage the same way many Saints in southern England did: at a regional conference with Apostle Orson Spencer in December 1852. Unprepared, Hannah took a train down to London with her daughter, Georgiana (“Georgey”), son-in-law Claudius, and Claudius’s father, Daniel Spencer (“Mr. Spencer”). A week after the meeting, she wrote the following in a letter to fellow convert and close friend Elijah Larkin:

Well now a few words on the events of Sunday last – it was a day never to be forgotten by me! – The meeting was held in the splendid Freemason’s Hall which was a perfect cram to overflowing[.] Georgey and I were favored with chairs on the platform[.] In the afternoon the revelation was read which will I expect set the world in a blaze – Oh! Brother I shall never forget my feelings! it had an extraordinary effect upon me! for tho’ I had Known for a year that such a principle existed in the Church, when I heard it read, and some things in it which I did not know, I confess to you I became Sceptical, and my heart questioned with Tears of agony, did this come from God? – I could not speak or shed a tear at first, I felt overpowered stunned as it were! – We had a Cab home Mr Spencer, Claudius, Georgey, and I in it -Claudius seing my state of mind, got up as he sat opposite to me and Kissed me affectionately, and asked me how I felt[.] That was sufficient – the floodgates of my heart were burst open & I wept like a child – he soothed me – and but for the Kiss & the Kindess God Knows how long the Evil One would have held my spirit in bondage – my Eyes seemed to rain tears – when we got out of the Cab – I asked Mr Spencer Senr if I might speak to him – he Kindly walked up and down the square with me while I asked him if he Knew that the revelation was from God! he was very Kind – and said every thing to Comfort and Console me, and build up my trembling faith, till I became calmer – I then went to my Lodging close by…and there I wept unrestrainedly till the agony of my feelings subsided.

It is impossible not to be struck by the amount of emotion Hannah records: her immediate response was shock and skepticism, she bursts into tears as soon as they are on the car ride home, she has an emotional walk with Daniel Spencer (an elderly leader in the Church who had just returned from a mission), and then wept again bitterly in the privacy of her own home. While she was not at immediate risk of having a second wife thrust into her family due to her husband’s apathy to the gospel, she had attended this conference with her daughter who was married to a priesthood-holding, respectable Mormon man who might be–and later, was–expected to marry more wives. Less poignant but still important must have been the sting of knowing that the church he had defended to her Cambridge community, which involved often denying accusations of moral infidelity supposedly taking place in Utah, was indeed associated with a practice she found repulsive. Her pleas to Mr. Spencer must have been fraught with despair, as even recording them days later she felt the need to highlight her insistance on whether the priesthood leader knew that the doctrine was from God; the letter was a way to both purge and relive that harrowing drive home.

As soon as polygamy was publicly known, the LDS Church launched an expansive defense in print. New newspapers were formed to publish editorials and articles explaining and justifying the practice. Orson Pratt’s The Seer, published in Washington D.C., was probably the best-known, and Pratt’s articles were republished through other Mormon periodicals–including the British paper Millennial Star. One week after Hannah found out about plural marriage, the first of many defenses of polygamy appeared in the same paper that also published her poetry. These defenses were based in literal Bible readings, radical (and controversial) philosophical theories, and even caricatured (and often misrepresented) demographic and ethnic understandings. When Daniel Spencer sought to comfort Hannah that winter night, he likely shared the same calm, cool, logic-based reasoning for the doctrine; Mormon polygamy was meant to be understood in a serious, highly-Biblical, and dispassionate framework that dismissed accusations of passion and eschewed insinuations that it was based on emotion.

Hannah, though, didn’t share that gendered space of dispassionate logic and ecclesiastical apologetics that took place in the public sphere, and couldn’t help but react in a more emotional way: in response to the announcing discourse, she held back tears and shock; when asked how she felt, she desired a shoulder to cry on; when offered calm reasoning and a long walk, she composed her long enough to get home and weep. In the coming weeks and months, she eventually came to terms with the doctrine through commiserating with other female (and sometimes male) members, both in person and through correspondence, as well as prolonged moments of recluse where she wrote and cried. Though Mormonism offered scriptural defense and calming apologetics, Hannah embraced her own gendered space of the private home and the privacy of the pen.


All documents quoted from and referenced are found in Hannah Tapfield King, “Autobiography,” Church History Library. (Her baptism quote also comes from this document.) King’s “Autobiography” is fascinating in itself: throughout her life she kept volumous journals of up to 40 volumes, which she later condensed into a 7-volume memoir.

Article filed under From the Archives Gender


  1. Thanks, Ben. This is very interesting. I wonder if there are any similarly anguished reactions from men. And if so, what, if any, the gender proportion is. I also wonder about men’s and women’s reactions to the announcement of the 1890 Manifesto. Similar anguish? Relief? Gender differences? Polygamist vs. non-polygamist reactions? Thanks again for this post.

    Comment by Gary Bergera — April 2, 2012 @ 10:00 am

  2. Thanks for this, Ben. Great stuff. And I’ll second Gary’s questions and hope that future research will address these in more depth.

    Comment by Christopher — April 2, 2012 @ 12:08 pm

  3. Really interesting stuff. Thanks, Ben. I thought that the public introduction of polygamy to Britain was the one of the strengths of Polly’s McAuslin biography. I don’t know much about Hannah T-K, but I remember reading her notes about the Reformation, which struck me as very intelligent. And she was ultimately sealed to BY, right? So she did reconcile herself to the principle in some way. Every time I hear about such a voluminous record as her diaries, I experience envy, though.

    Comment by J. Stapley — April 2, 2012 @ 1:16 pm

  4. This is very interesting. I think that polygamy caused so much heart ache. And although I think many accepted it and tried to live happily, it was still devastating. I have a difficult time reconciling the idea that God really did intend plural marriage.

    I have been writing an essay on the negative effects of polygamy on men and society in general. I think that we do not discuss the historical implications on males and plural marriage. But we really should discuss it more.

    I have also been researching the idea that the main instances of polygamy in the OT, were not commanded by God, but by human beings and by culture and trickery.

    Comment by Jessica F — April 2, 2012 @ 3:21 pm

  5. Ben– An interesting look at one woman’s response to polygamy, and well-written, too.

    A couple of years ago, one of my students wrote a paper arguing that some missionaries/church leaders actually denied accusations of polygamy to new British converts, only waiting until they had gathered to Zion to let them in on the secret.

    So, between the extremes of leaders’ outright denial of the practice vs the immediate teaching of it (marriage proposal to new convert?), how typical was Hannah’s experience along the spectrum of discovery for British saints?

    I’m also struck by Brother Spencer, who

    “Kindly walked up and down the square with me while I asked him if he Knew that the revelation was from God! he was very Kind ? and said every thing to Comfort and Console me, and build up my trembling faith, till I became calmer.”

    I’m picturing a similar scene today, in which a priesthood leader, or CES instructor, etc., pressed by someone on a controversial or troubling doctrinal/historical issue, might use the same gradualist approach to work the magic of acceptance. Interesting.

    Comment by Andrea R-M — April 2, 2012 @ 4:44 pm

  6. Thanks, all. I agree that it would be fascinating to find out how representative Hannah’s reaction was.

    Hannah did indeed reconcile herself to the practice, and even defended it in print decades later.

    Comment by Ben P — April 2, 2012 @ 4:58 pm

  7. Very interesting.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — April 2, 2012 @ 5:56 pm

  8. Interesting post, Ben! One of the things I have been thinking about since you posted this is the role that family life played in British society. A lot of scholars, most notably Catherine Hall and Leonore Davidoff, have argued that displaying correct understandings of domesticity was integral to claiming middle class status. Identification with the Church of England further buttressed one’s position as a member of the middle class. I am wondering to what extent Hannah felt a loss of class status when she joined Mormonism. Joining a fringe religious group in and of itself would have been seen as aligning oneself with miscreants and troublemakers but to join one that practiced polygamy — that would have been unconscionable for many people! Does Hannah ever talk about class dynamics in her journal?

    Comment by Amanda HK — April 2, 2012 @ 8:41 pm

  9. Thanks, Ben. Another nice reading of a rich artifact.

    Comment by Ryan T. — April 3, 2012 @ 10:56 am

  10. The assumption being made is obviously that polygamy is a true doctrine, but what if it’s not? The more I look at the origins of polygamy, the more convinced I have become that Joseph never taught or practiced it. Not publicly and not privately. Polygamy came from Brigham, and Joseph fought against it. The ancient patriarchs may have practiced it, but that doesn’t mean God was pleased with them for doing so. Polygamy is a “false tradition of our fathers.”

    Comment by Adam Thornton — April 3, 2012 @ 2:45 pm

  11. Nice piece Ben.

    It seems to me that Hannah’s process does line up with other sources I’ve seen of those who eventually accepted it, but most are a little more succinct–they may talk about anguish, but not quite as descriptively. This is fantastic. Most of those are accounts written much later…I would love more contemporary accounts. Do you know when she wrote the autobio? Before or after she begins to defend polygamy?

    I’m also interested in those who didn’t ever accept it. What about those like Sarah Kimball who told Joseph to go and teach it to someone else or another feisty Englishwoman Jeanetta Richards who stopped her husband from marrying a second wife? (Of course that only worked while she was alive–dying at 38 opened the way for Willard…)

    Comment by janiece — April 3, 2012 @ 3:27 pm

  12. Thanks for this gem– these intimate and personal reactions say so much about the nature of polygamy, how the doctrine was handled by the recipients and messengers, and most importantly, what the spiritual, emotional, and intellectual impact was on the individuals themselves (which I still think is the most personally compelling defense against any argument for its supposed eternal value or law-like status; can any commandment [meant to be sustained] that causes so much instinctive moral and spiritual repulsion and pain possibly fit the description of judging by the light of Christ [Moroni 7] or the character of God [D&C 88:13 and 50:23-24]? Sure, our moral attitudes are influenced by our environment, but there comes a point when “God commands it because it’s good” shifts to “It’s good because God commands it”– and that’s one tenet I’m proud Mormonism does not [or should not] support.

    I also am interested in the men’s perspectives, since the few I am familiar with– Heber Kimball, Hyrum, and other close associates of Joseph’s–seem very similar.

    Adam T, I’m interested in what you are finding in your look at the origins of polygamy that convinces you Joseph never taught or practiced it.

    Does anyone have information about section 132, and its canonization? I have heard bits and pieces about it that cast a lot of doubt on the straightforward reading some Mormons give it.

    Comment by Rachael — April 5, 2012 @ 9:18 am

  13. Rachael, there are folks in the LDS tradition who advocate for Divine Command Ethics. As you, I find that terribly problematic. It gets play in some Rel Ed classes, though.

    Regarding 132, it was written when Hyrum Smith converted to a belief in polygamy and asked for it so that he could take it to Emma and convince her. It didn’t go like Hyrum hoped, but the text makes a lot more sense in that context. I personally favor the July 1842 revelation to NK Whitney on the topic.

    Comment by J. Stapley — April 5, 2012 @ 11:22 am

  14. J. Stapley- really? Divine Command Ethics in Mormonism? Isn’t that pretty incompatible with believing in a God subject to laws, who would cease to become God if he did not heed them? I wonder how they deal with that.

    Why do you favor that revelation? I’m curious to know.

    Comment by Rachael — April 5, 2012 @ 12:34 pm

  15. Rachael, it was actually in context of that bit in Alma that I heard one professor at BYU advocate for it. Gary Bergera also suggested that it was descriptive of polygamy’s reception in Nauvoo at MHA a couple of years ago. I think it may have been published since then, but I forget where…perhaps the JWHA. Still, I agree with you that it doesn’t jibe with the vast majority of Mormon beliefs.

    Regarding the 1842 revelation, it doesn’t have the discomfiting/problematic aspects of 132, while at the same time doing a better job of elucidating the cosmology at play.

    Comment by J. Stapley — April 5, 2012 @ 1:13 pm

  16. To be honest, it amazes me that some people still doubt Joseph Smith’s involvement with polygamy. That might have been a credible belief before all the relevant documents became available over the last few decades, but there are simply far too many contemporary records directly referencing the practice that it cannot be denied.

    Re: divine command ethics. There was actually several students in BYU philosophy courses who tried using that belief as a way to rectify certain ideas or practices. I agree with Rachael and J, though, in saying it doesn’t fit the larger Mormon cosmology. I imagine that Joseph Smith’s “happiness” letter may be read along that way, but I don’t think that necessarily has to be the only reading, and now the JSP are challenging the letter’s authorship anyway.

    I agree with J that the 1842 revelation is absolutely crucial, as well as the importance to read D&C 132 in light of its historical context in late summer 1843.

    Amanda: I think you are exactly right. While Hannah doesn’t mention class dynamics directly, much of what she writes could be interpreted within that framework.

    Thanks for the discussion, all.

    Comment by Ben P — April 5, 2012 @ 3:37 pm

  17. Rachael (#12), most members of the LDS Church (including the leaders of the Church) are in complete agreement with the anti-Mormon crowd on the history of polygamy in the Church. Since it?s difficult to find anyone defending Joseph, it?s assumed that the so-called documentary ?evidence? ?overwhelmingly? supports Joseph Smith?s practice of polygamy (see Ben P?s (#16) comment).

    The anti-Mormon?s will believe and support anything that casts Joseph in a negative light (and multiple, ?adulterous? relationships with young girls certainly qualifies in this regard). The members of the Church are taught to faithfully and obediently follow their leaders, and the leaders of the Church, Section 132, and the faithful history of the Church all lend support to the idea that the Prophet Joseph secretly practiced polygamy.

    Consequently, almost all members of the Church accept without any real question that polygamy was (and still is) a true doctrine. To believe otherwise requires one to consider some very uncomfortable possibilities. For example, Section 132 may not be a true revelation. The current leadership of the Church is either ignorant of the truth, or are purposely hiding the truth about polygamy from the members. All of the very real pain and heartache suffered by our ancestors was unnecessary.

    There?s not enough space in the comment section of a blog to provide all of the evidence that supports that the Prophet Joseph never taught, sanctioned or practiced polygamy. However, what that evidence demonstrates is that Section 132 (or at least the portion pertaining to the practice of polygamy) was not written by Joseph Smith. Section 101 of the original Doctrine and Covenants published with Joseph?s approval is consistent with scripture in the Bible and Book of Mormon supporting monogamy and condemning polygamy. All of the Prophet Joseph?s public statements, writings and actions condemning the practice of polygamy are consistent with his private actions. Emma was Joseph?s only wife, and he was faithful to her his entire life. Both Emma and Joseph testified of this until their dying days.

    Polygamy is an abomination and has been from the beginning. Believe what the Prophet Joseph said, not what others said about him.

    Comment by Adam Thornton — April 6, 2012 @ 11:39 am

  18. Its been a long time since I’ve seen a polygamy denier.

    Comment by J. Stapley — April 7, 2012 @ 9:22 am

  19. A year ago, if I had read what I posted, I too would have immediately dismissed it as silly or ignorant. After all, everyone ?knows? Joseph secretly practiced polygamy, everyone ?knows? it?s a doctrine of the Church as found in Section 132, and everyone ?knows? the ancient patriarchs practiced polygamy. Right? We couldn?t all be deceived about something this big. What a kook to think that Joseph never taught polygamy!

    If you have spent countless hours searching, reading and researching every document and account you can find about the topic (as I have) and decided that in your opinion the evidence supports the mainstream version of polygamy/polyandry in the Church, then I am content and willing to agree to disagree.

    Comment by Adam Thornton — April 10, 2012 @ 12:01 pm


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