More Questions from the Mailbag (On Plural Marriage, Joseph Smith’s Youngest Wife)

By December 22, 2014

Welcome back to our series, wherein we answer questions from our readers about plural marriage. Where possible, I’ve linked to all the available sources for readers, so that others can investigate each question more fully, if they wish.

Apologies for the delay in answering questions (finals, life, etc.), but if you have any more questions, feel free to post them in the comments.

For other posts in this series, see

Samuel Brown and Kate Holbrook (Embodiment and Sexuality)

WVS (D&C 132 Questions)

Miscellaneous Questions

Was Joseph Smith’s marriage to Helen Mar Kimball sexual?

It’s impossible to say for sure. From my reading, it appears unlikely. I agree with Todd Compton, it was much more of a dynastic sealing (fostering relationships between Smith and other Mormon leaders).

  1. Todd Compton has written, “My view, based on Helen’s short 1881 reminiscence, is that she married Joseph thinking the marriage would be “for eternity alone,” linking the houses of Heber and Joseph. In my reconstruction, she may have understood that she would be free to date in her peer group and marry someone else for time.” He maintains that view in his excellent book, In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith (the first book that exhaustively researches Joseph Smith’s plural marriages).
  2. Brian Hales does an excellent job summarizing the historiographical arguments between himself, D. Michael Quinn, Michael Marquart, and others (with footnotes and citations) at his site, here.
  3. Spencer Fluhman’s article on Helen Mar Kimball is a must read on the topic.
  4. For more information on dynastic sealings, see here (citations in footnotes).[i]

Is there evidence that Joseph [Smith] had sexual relations with all those who were sealed to him? Is there any indication/possibility that he did not?

There is evidence that Smith had sexual relationships with several of those that were sealed to him, but no evidence that suggests he had sexual relationships with all (or many) of those sealed to him. Several women testified at the Temple Lot case that their relationship with Joseph Smith included sexual relations.

Brian Hales has compiled the information at his website. While I’m skeptical of his claim that there was no sexual dimension to polyandrous relationships, I sincerely appreciate his posting of the evidence he uses to find that conclusion. Here’s the evidence for Joseph Smith’s sexual relationships (from Hales’ site):

  1. Malissa Lott
  2. Louisa Beaman
  3. Fanny Alger
  4. Emily Dow Partridge
  5. Eliza Maria Partridge
  6. Almera Woodward Johnson
  7. Sylvia Sessions Lyon
  8. Maria Lawrence
  9. Sarah Lawrence


What is Brian Hales’s take on Joseph Smith’s polygamy? Why was he cited so much in the essays? Who pushes back against his interpretation and why?

Luckily, Brian was kind enough to answer these questions for JI’s readers. Here’s Dr. Hales, in his own words (I’ll mark where I pick up again):

What is Brian Hales’s take on Joseph Smith’s polygamy?

“There are actually two issues to respond to. (1) Why did God permit polygamy and (2) why did God command polygamy.  To answer the first, God gave four reasons in D&C 132.

  1. As part of the “restitution of all things” prophesied in Acts 3:19-21 (D&C 132:40, 45).
  1. To provide a customized trial for the Saints of that time and place (see D&C 132:32, 51).
  1. To provide bodies for noble premortal spirits by “multiplying and replenishing the earth” (D&C 132:63).
  1. To allow all worthy women to be sealed to an eternal husband “for their exaltation in the eternal worlds” (D&C 132:63, 16-17).

The fourth reason is by far the most important.

Regarding why God commanded polygamy between 1852 and 1890, we don’t know why specifically. Jacob 2:30 tells us God may command it to “raise up seed” unto him. But He never specifically connected the modern commandment to that reason. I believe it was a way to give a special trial with special spiritual benefits to those who obeyed.

Why was he cited so much in the essays?

I expect I was quoted because I’m the only author to attempt to include every known document (from any source antagonistic to apologetic) dealing with Joseph Smith and plural marriage in my books (by reference or citation).  Also, I might add that virtually every other book written specifically about Joseph Smith and plurality portrays him as a womanizer, hypocrite, and adulterer, to some degree or another. I could not follow as a true prophet the version of Joseph depicted by so many polygamy authors and I believe they have misrepresented him and the historical record. Hence, other authors would be quoted less often.

Who pushes back against his interpretation and why?

 Gary Bergera wrote an interesting and decidedly negative review that was published in The Journal of the John Whitmer Historical Association. I responded because I thought the review was weak in design and incomplete in content.

The most common reaction I get to my trilogy is something like: “I appreciate Brian Hales’ research but I disagree with him.”  In those instances, I always wonder what interpretation they disagree with and what evidence they would cite to support the contradictory view.  I don’t mind people disagreeing, but I generally feel they do so based upon secondary sources (believing a previous author’s written view) rather than actually going to the primary evidences and making a decision for themselves.

An interesting thing will occur as the next generation of polygamy researchers are forced to document and interpret Joseph Smith using all the available documents rather than just picking and choosing the ones they like. I have uploaded all my polygamy database to No writer will have an excuse for not knowing the documents.


(J Stuart Writing Again) As you can tell, Hales, and his researcher, Don Bradley, have exhausted every archive imaginable to find every source that relates to Joseph Smith’s practice of plural marriage and each of his plural wives. Hales has made documents available online (in transcript) that are not available in other places, so that each person can weigh the evidence for Hales’ conclusions for themselves. Hales’ views are published in a three volume set, Joseph Smith’s Polygamy, Volumes 1-3 ,available from Kofford Books.

Hales has also posted what he calls “dialogues” with those who disagree with them on his website. I have attached Gary Bergera’s review of Hales’ 3 volume series on Joseph Smith’s practice of plural marriage from the JWHA journal here. You can read Brian’s response in The Interpreter.

[i] Stapley, Jonathan A. “Adoptive Sealing Ritual in Mormonism,” Journal of Mormon History 37, no. 3 (Summer 2011): 53-118; Stapley, “Early Mormon Adoption Theology and the Mechanics of Salvation,” Journal of Mormon History 37, no. 3 (Summer 2011): 3-52. For more on dynastic relationships in Mormonism, see Bates, Irene, and E. Gary Smith, Lost Legacy: The Mormon Office of Presiding Patriarch. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2002.

Article filed under Miscellaneous Polygamy Scholarship at Church Women's History


  1. Thanks, J Stuart. This is great.

    I confess that when I read “JS Writing Again” it threw me for a second.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — December 22, 2014 @ 5:52 am

  2. Thanks, Edje. I went ahead and changed that note (I didn’t notice it when I formatted the post!).

    Comment by J Stuart — December 22, 2014 @ 8:19 am

  3. You’ve provided a very valuable resource and contribution, J. Thanks. (I’m sure it comes as no surprise that I disagree with Brian Hales’s assessment of my review of his books.)

    Comment by Gary Bergera — December 22, 2014 @ 8:40 am

  4. Thanks, Gary. No surprise. 🙂 I think your criticism is measured and articulates many objections that others have had. I’m glad that your response (and Brian’s) were published! I think yours and Brian’s interactions are valuable conversations for folks to read.

    Comment by J Stuart — December 22, 2014 @ 9:04 am

  5. I’m amused that Brian doesn’t mention my disagreement with him regarding his (in my view) willingness to accept relationships as sexual. For what it’s worth, I’m descended from one of Joseph’s plural wives (Elvira Annie Cowles), and I would actually have preferred to think there was a physical element to the relationship. But I couldn’t deny the data that suggests that marriage was celibate, and that similarly her marriage to Jonathan Holmes remained unconsummated until February 1845, when Jonathan helped relocate the remains of Joseph and Hyrum at Emma’s request (date per Huntington’s description, versus vague mention that it was ‘in the fall’).

    Similarly, the data for almost all the other plural wives (both Joseph’s and the wives of other men) indicate that sexuality in plural marriages during Joseph’s lifetime was extremely rare. All the children who are known to have been engendered in plural marriages were engendered after 1842, and the number of these children (again, by all plural marriages, which numbered in the many dozens) can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

    Regarding the one child produced by a “polyandrous” plural marriage (Josephine Lyon), Brian prefers an explanation wherein Sylvia Sessions Lyon was estranged from her husband at the time of Josephine’s conception. However another explanation that hasn’t been adequately considered is that Sylvia’s deathbed confidence to Josephine (that Joseph was her father) could have been speaking of the sealing relationship rather than a biological relationship. First, the DNA exploration does not strongly support Joseph as a biological ancestor of Josephine’s descendants, with those common markers present being attributable to common ancestry betweeh Joseph Smith and Josephine’s descendants. Second, Josephine was the only one of Sylvia’s children to survive to adulthood and marry who did not initially marry in the temple, the ceremony where Josephine would have otherwise been informed of her relationship to Joseph.

    While it is obvious that Joseph could have been having sex with everyone and anything in his general vicinity, the combination of John Bennett’s accusations and Brigham’s transformation of polygamy into a fully-sexual marriage system must be considered in interpreting statements and testimony regarding Joseph and his plural wives. Both detractors and adherents had motive to portray Joseph as fully sexual in his plural marriages. But the reproductive history does not support an interpretation that Joseph was fully sexual in any of his plural marriages.

    I am completely thrilled that Brian has done such a great job of putting information up. It sets a standard for transparency that all future researchers and writers on this topic should be challenged to meet.

    Comment by Meg Stout — December 22, 2014 @ 11:06 am

  6. Yes, Brian’s willingness to share his research as widely as possible is to be celebrated.

    Comment by Gary Bergera — December 22, 2014 @ 11:09 am

  7. Why no historians take seriously the claim that JS had no sexual relations with his wives include the fact that no wife said they didn’t, that DC 132 strongly suggests it, as does Emma’s opposition to the practice. The issue of DNA testing is inconclusive since we can’t test daughters or children who’s lines have died out. Inconclusive DNA evidence doesn’t trump strong historical evidence. (Lots of other evidence, it’s really beyond dispute at this point).

    I find this statement from Hales problematic: “every other book written specifically about Joseph Smith and plurality portrays him as a womanizer, hypocrite, and adulterer, to some degree or another.” I’d argue that Compton does not and that other works though not wholly about polygamy that are nonetheless important on the topic, don’t either. Bushman doesn’t and neither do I in my chapter on the topic in my dissertation.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — December 22, 2014 @ 12:02 pm

  8. Whether J.S. consummated all these relationships is disputed, however, as J. Stuart points out.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — December 22, 2014 @ 12:24 pm

  9. Thanks, Joey.

    Comment by Saskia — December 22, 2014 @ 1:30 pm

  10. Hi Steve,

    Conclusive DNA evidence most certainly should trump speculation, no matter how often repeated.

    The only testable case that is inconclusive is Josephine Lyon, and as I laid out, there is an alternate explanation to the common presumption that Sylvia was explaining biological paternity.

    I’d be happy to go toe to toe with you on your assertion that there is “Lots of other evidence…” The question of Joseph’s sexual activities outside his marriage to Emma Hale are not at all “beyond dispute at this point.”

    The amusing thing is that some faithful scholars are irritated with me because my framework includes the possibility of Eliza Snow being a victim of Bennett’s spiritual wifery teachings (albeit the rarified Cloistered Saint version) as well as pointing out William Clayton’s diary entry regarding Vinson Knight suggests Vinson might have been one of the men who was also taken in by Bennett’s teachings.

    Comment by Meg Stout — December 22, 2014 @ 3:47 pm

  11. I have digested Brian’s data and arguments as fully and carefully as I can. I had more or less assumed that sexuality in JS’s plural relationships could be taken for granted (for reasons something like Fleming’s arguments above). Brian and the DNA evidence have convinced me that I assumed way too much.

    Strangely enough I am now more in line with Meg Stout on that issues — except the Eliza Snow claim. I see nothing there at all and certainly nothing persuasive.

    In my opinion, Brian has responded persuasively (and in some cases devastatingly) to the criticisms made by Bergera, Quinn and especially Grant Palmer. His evidence and complete approach really make Van Wagoner and George Smith appear to be quite shallow and misinformed in my opinion.

    In addition, I believe that the relation between Emma’s consent and sexual relations needs to be reviewed again. I am working on an article with the preliminary thesis that Emma’s consent made a difference as to whether sexuality was involved. I am also skeptical of the Temple Lot testimony because it is apparent that the church’s attorneys put a lot of pressure on witnesses to testify in such a way as to at least imply sexual relations but which leaves such claims very ambiguous. It is obvious that the church was desperate for such testimony and did not readily find it. it is also obvious that several witnesses were both often confused by the questions without clarification and that they were reluctant in extremis to address the issue.

    Thanks for this write-up J. Stuart.

    Comment by Blake — December 22, 2014 @ 4:25 pm

  12. DNA only shows that JS was not the father of a handful of suspected children, not that JS did not consummate any of his dozens of relationships. See the difference. And the fact that DNA cannot test daughters or those with no descendants means that it’s not very helpful to the question. What would be helpful is any wives saying that their relationship what not consummated, but we don’t have that.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — December 22, 2014 @ 4:44 pm

  13. Steve: You do not understand DNA evidence. While females cannot be determined conclusively, there are tests that make it highly unlikely that any of the alleged female claimed offspring are JS’s. I have discussed this at length with Ugo Perego. And we do have several wives saying that the relationship was not consummated or that it was consummated only later.

    Comment by Blake — December 22, 2014 @ 4:57 pm

  14. Who’d have thought that after so many years, so much ink, so much paper, the study of LDS plural marriage in Nauvoo remains just as cloudy and uncertain as ever, if not more so. It’s definitely an exciting time to be considering this subject.

    Comment by Gary Bergera — December 22, 2014 @ 5:00 pm

  15. My apologies, Blake, could you point me to the denials?

    Comment by Steve Fleming — December 22, 2014 @ 5:01 pm

  16. Gary: Amen.
    Blake: I’m really confused. Steve is saying that fathering children is not the same as having a sexual relationship. I’m also unclear as to why anyone would think that historians should dismiss so much evidence wholesale. To say JS didn’t have sexual relationships with any of the women he was sealed to seems very unlikely for the reasons that Steve gave above.

    Comment by J Stuart — December 22, 2014 @ 7:00 pm

  17. J. Stuart: First of all, you are putting words into my mouth. First, I never said that not having children is the same as not having sexual relations. However, I think that the old yarn that JS had an abortion clinic just waiting for his plural wives is a crock of crap. Of course not having children is the not the same as not having sex; but having children is proof positive and it was that supposed evidence that led me to take for granted that of course he had sexual relations with his wives. Now we must scrutinize whether he in fact did based on sound evidence.

    Further, I never said that JS did not have sexual relations with any of his plural wives — I said he appears to have waited for Emma’s consent. However, there is a lot that is murky in the evidence and it is almost always not very clear. (I think that is the case for Fanny Alger in particular). However, I do not find Steve’s reasons at all persuasive for the thesis that JS must have had sexual relations with all of his plural wives — which is the logical conclusion to draw from his argument. I believe that it is quite probable that he had sexual relations with a small number of his plural wives.

    However, with respect to DNA evidence for females, Perego has identified 3 mutations that show up in his DNA and that of his known progeny through Emma. However, they do not show up in those that can be ruled out as his children and they do not show up in any supposed female offspring. The probability that all three mutations would be absent is very small. It is not an absolute proof; but we need some reason other than vague statements 75 years later to grant the point (I am thinking of Josephine Lyons in particular here).

    Comment by Blake — December 22, 2014 @ 9:17 pm

  18. J Stuart,

    What were the reasons Steve gave above that appear germane?

    Obviously D&C 132 includes the assertion that a purpose of marriage is for engendering children, “for [a man’s wives] are given unto him to multiply and replenish the earth, according to my commandment, and to fulfil the promise which was given by my Father before the foundation of the world, and for their exaltation in the eternal worlds, that they may bear the souls of men; for herein is the work of my Father continued, that he may be glorified.” Yet in no verse is Joseph told he is to necessarily take women to his own bed unless Emma were to refuse to grant him wives.

    Yet we see in the William Clayton journal entry of August 1843 that Emma had indeed granted Joseph the right to take the Partridge sisters to him as wives, yet Joseph opined to William that were he to do so, Emma would turn on him and divorce him. God had promised Joseph escape, as Abraham had escaped.

    Why might we not be able to consider that Joseph wished to escape consummating his plural marriages, an act that, while commanded, he believed would lose him the love of his life, the woman he had been commanded to take with him if he was to receive the plates, the woman who had buried so many children, abandoned father and parental home and comfort for Joseph’s sake?

    When we hear people say that someone was Joseph’s wife in very deed, why do we imagine they know this included sex? Did Joseph invite them to witness the goings on? Or was it perhaps as the Partridge and Lawrence girls, speaking to Jane Manning, telling this newcomer to Nauvoo that they were Joseph’s wives? Yet the Lawrence sister who survived would later emphatically deny she had been connected to either Joseph or Heber C. Kimball, see Compton p. 485). This was in 1872, around the time Joseph’s children had commenced their proselyting missions to the Utah saints. The assertion is recorded by Helen Mar Kimball 14 years later, after the Mormon community had endured bitter persecution. Sarah Lawrence’s attempt to deny any connection with Joseph and Heber to Heber’s own daughter, who knew Sarah was married to Heber, could only mean one thing if true. Since they had undoubtedly shared roofs and shaken hands, had been ceremonially united in the eyes of God and their respective friends, assertion of a lack of connection leaves very few options other than assertion that there was no sex.

    [Still to J Stuart] You appear to take as an article of faith that Joseph’s plural wives bore children that were engendered by Joseph Smith. Yet this is exactly the point we are making. No such child can be proven, though some unprovable instances have been surmised. Yet if you are a quality control engineer and every sample you take of a population fails to meet the assumptions that have been made of that populations (e.g., the assertion that gorillas were aggressive and man-eating monsters versus Jane Goodall’s observations to the contrary), then as a good quality control engineer, you might be forced to consider that the population you have sampled might be misrepresented by the paperwork that has previously been presented to you as authoritative and correct.

    Let us consider four of the childless wives.

    Louisa Beaman was Joseph’s only plural wife between April 1841 and October 1841. We have testimony from Louisa’s brother-in-law that Joseph spent the night in the same room with Louisa after the ceremony. Yet most of us know that merely occupying the same room with an individual or even spouse overnight does not mean that sexual intercourse has occurred. Louisa did not become pregnant for the extended period of time when she was the only plural wife, nor did she become pregnant during the remainder of Joseph’s life. However once Brigham started reaching out to Joseph’s otherwise single widows and offering himself (and Heber C. Kimball, etc.) as levirate husband, Louisa gives birth to five children in five years.

    Remember that reliable forms of birth control did not exist in the 1840s. Alleged surgical procedures to terminate pregnancies would have been performed by doctors who didn’t wash their hands or tools, and would have resulted in high mortality rates for women “treated” in this manner. Supposition that Joseph was indulging in sex yet using either preventative or abortive techniques to avoid children doesn’t make nearly as much sense as a Joseph who would have simply not had sex in the first place (with plural wives).

    Elvira Annie Cowles was governess to Joseph’s children from April 1840. Her daughters would relate what their biological father had explained, that Elvira was Joseph’s wife and that Elvira only became Jonathan’s wife after Joseph’s death. Elvira had been publicly married to Jonathan in December 1842, yet wasn’t sealed to Joseph until June 1843. Jonathan’s daughter from his first marriage related how Elvira would spend nights telling the children stories, while the children stole cookies from the black cook (Jane Manning) and Emma and Eliza were out and about on Relief Society business.

    Sarah Whitney, of all the women Joseph, Heber, and Brigham marry from March 1842 through December 1842, appears to have no link to the seductions Bennett and others had conducted before Bennett’s expulsion from Nauvoo. She was not vulnerable as all the other wives would have been: neither an abandoned wife, a widow, a child abandoned by parents (through death or defection from Mormonism) nor a foreign convert. In August 1842 Joseph was in hiding, and he wrote to Sarah, asking her and her parents to come visit him. It is commonly assumed that Joseph’s excitement in writing to Sarah is fueled by visions of getting it on with the young woman. But in the presence of her parents? People particularly point out that Joseph says the Whitney’s can come visit him in perfect safety if Emma isn’t there. ‘See,’ they say, ‘Joseph is keeping secrets from Emma!’ Yet it is common knowledge that those attempting to find Joseph would be following Emma. Even mother rabbits know that their presence near their newborn kits is dangerous, and therefore stay away from their babies except for two quick feedings per day. Like Louisa and Elvira, Sarah remains childless during Joseph’s lifetime, despite having two parents who were complicit in her marriage to Joseph Smith, having been likely the first to receive the ordinance of sealing between already-married spouses in conjunction with their decision to allow Sarah to be married to Joseph.

    Melissa (Malissa) Lott was married to Joseph in the fall of 1843. She walked the Smith children to school during the nine months she was married to their father. Joseph Smith III interviewed Melissa, demanding that she explain how she could be married to his father and yet remain childless. Melissa demurred, indicating that she was nervous and therefore didn’t conceive. Isn’t this “defense” of her childless state a bit too similar to the reason Todd Akins gave for why legitimate rape doesn’t produce children? Melissa, like Todd, was expecting us to believe that the female body has a way of shutting these things down, despite intercourse. If Todd was pilloried for asserting that violent attack might cause the female body to ‘shut down’ conception, why do we blithely assume that Melissa was telling the truth about failing to conceive because of nerves? Why can’t we realize that Melissa might have had Joseph in mind, father of the man who was determined to tear down the covenant structure Melissa knew Joseph Smith had erected, all because the man she had walked to school when they were near age-mates in Nauvoo couldn’t accept the idea that his father was associated with plural marriage. Melissa had motive to portray her relationship as sexual to Joseph Smith III, and she had motive to portray her relationship as sexual to save the Temple Lot from falling into the hands of the Church Joseph’s sons led in the 1890s.

    There are standards for objective historians, established by the court in the 1996 case of Irving v Penguin Books and Lipstadt:

    1. The historian must treat sources with appropriate reservations;
    2. The historian must not dismiss counterevidence without scholarly consideration;
    3. The historian must be even-handed in treatment of evidence and eschew “cherry-picking”;
    4. The historian must clearly indicate any speculation;
    5. The historian must not mistranslate documents or mislead by omitting parts of documents;
    6. The historian must weigh the authenticity of all accounts, not merely those that contradict a favored view; and
    7. The historian must take the motives of historical actors into consideration.

    Most of the historians who have written about Joseph Smith and polygamy did so prior to 1996. Few of these earlier historians held themselves to the standard established in Irving v Penguin Books and Lipstadt. In fact, I know of no historian writing about Joseph Smith and polygamy (other than perhaps Andrew Ehat) who could be found guilty of having been an objective historian. This does not denigrate the incredible value of their research and the facts they bring forward, merely that one cannot blindly trust their conclusions or inferences they make from data when they merely provide paraphrases without references to original sources or background on the motivations of those reporting on Joseph and his marriages.

    I have repeatedly indicated that Joseph might have had sex with any number of individuals. But I am bringing to your attention that the “proof” so many accept is not based on objective history, but on a partial view that excludes inconvenient facts that don’t align with the popular paradigm. In the case of so many faithful Mormons, this means they’ve simply eliminated any mention of the women who were Joseph’s plural wives, despite the fact that these women included the two Relief Society Presidents who succeeded Emma Smith in the role. In the case of those determined to see Joseph as sexually motivated (or fulfilled), they have ignored and suppressed stories and information regarding the widespread seductions Emma and Joseph together were attempting to stop, seductions the seducers and victims themselves bore witness to (e.g., Catherine Laur Fuller Warren, non-member Jacob Backenstos).

    Again, while Joseph may have had sex with all kinds of people, there is no data that any true objective historian can assert necessarily indicates Joseph actually had sex, much less that he had children by plural wives engendered by sex.

    Comment by Meg Stout — December 22, 2014 @ 9:31 pm

  19. Blake, I didn’t say that JS consummated all the relationships and Joey didn’t say that JS was running an abortion clinic.

    Let me just give a summary of how I see the evidence. It seems pretty clear that JS did not have regular sexual relations with any of his plural wives. Perhaps those who lived with him, but Partridge said that Emma kept a close eye on things. So limited, perhaps even singular, sexual relations greatly reduces the chances for pregnancy. But it’s hard to rule out at least a single consummating act, especially when none of the wives said that it didn’t happen. And Meg, it strikes me that if JS didn’t have sex but BY did, someone would have said something like, “boy, that was quite a change in policy,” especially since BY married a number of JS’s wives.

    I don’t say this as an attack. I’m a big JS fan. I try to make sense of all this in my dissertation.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — December 22, 2014 @ 9:45 pm

  20. Of course, I need to agree that Emily Partridge’s “Yes,sir” under oath when asked during the Temple Lot trial regarding whether she’d had carnal intercourse with Joseph Smith is pretty strong. And Emily was one of those Emma explicitly granted to Joseph, even according the William Clayton’s August journal entry. Yet I assert this is still not sufficient to conclude with absolute certainty that Emily and Joseph ‘knew’ one another in the carnal sense.

    People under oath sometimes utter statements that are not completely true, when sufficiently motivated. Check out the testimonies regarding a little-known shooting of a young black man in a place called Ferguson if this phenomenon is unknown to you.

    In addition to my normal typos, I see that I failed to note that Elvira Annie Cowles was unusually fecund when it came to producing children after Joseph’s death. She didn’t get pregnant every year of her reproductive life, like poor Louisa, but she conceived children with astonishing regularity once Jonathan helped re-bury Joseph’s body in February 1845, including conceiving a child within days (if not hours) of Jonathan’s arrival at the Old Fort after his stint with the Mormon Battalion. Yet after four years of daily, intimate association with Joseph, over a year of which she was ceremonially Joseph’s wife, Elvira didn’t conceive.

    Comment by Meg Stout — December 22, 2014 @ 9:47 pm

  21. Blake: I am certainly not suggesting, nor do I put any stock in those who do say, that JS had an “abortion clinic,” as you put it.

    Meg: I’m baffled by your assumption that I “take it as an article of faith” that JS fathered children with any of his wives. I never said that, nor came close. So any of your comments to that effect don’t seem to be responding to anything I said.

    2: In Sacred Loneliness was published in 1997. RSR was published in 2005.

    3: Once again, I never said he had children with them. So any commentators can stop bringing that up.

    4: You seem to be ignoring a whole bunch of “inconvenient facts” to align with your “unpopular paradigm.” I’m not sure why you’re willing to discount the testimonies of 9 women.

    5: Steve’s salient points: testimony of wives, Emma’s opposition, the secret nature of polygamy (Smith had introduced liturgy publicly), and the nature of D&C 132 (and the Book of Mormon caveat that polygamy can be introduced by God to “raise up seed”).

    Comment by J Stuart — December 22, 2014 @ 9:51 pm

  22. And absolute knowledge is impossible. None of us were there. We are all entitled to our opinions and our own interpretations of history. Steve’s comment (19) is a very good summary of where I stand (and where many other believing historians stand).

    Comment by J Stuart — December 22, 2014 @ 9:56 pm

  23. Hi Steve,

    In fact, Elizabeth Davis Goldsmith Brackenbury Durfee did indeed leave Young’s group, returning to live near Emma. She was disgusted with what Brigham was doing, making plural wives fully sexual. Durfee was one of those Bennett observed was unusually involved with Joseph, and it is based on Bennett’s allegation that many presume Durfee had been married to Joseph during his lifetime. However there isn’t really any reason to think Elizabeth was actually sealed to Joseph until she (and all too many others) decided to be sealed to Joseph in the temple well after his death.

    Emma certainly made a point that plural wives were not to have sex with their husbands (perhaps more to the point that men shouldn’t have sex with women who weren’t their known legal spouse), as related by a distressed (and obviously pregnant) Lucy Meserve, who at the time of the conversation was George A. Smith’s secret plural wife.

    Look at the children that were engendered by polygamists with their plural wives prior to Joseph’s death. We’ve got dozens of men with necessarily more than that many dozens of women. Yet once one qualifies the children born to women who may have been seduced during Bennett’s leadership of the Strikers “for we know not what else to call them,” only 4-5 children are conceived by all these dozens of women who didn’t have another legitimate spouse. And as already stated, all those of the population of children born to plural wives who were temporally married to a legitimate spouse who have been tested cannot be verified to have been engendered by anyone other than the legitimate father (as in legally recognized father).

    So with very few exceptions, all the men who embraced polygamy during Joseph’s lifetime were apparently refraining from indulging in sex with their wives. Seems to me that’s a pretty big case of “change in policy,” even if it hasn’t been written down in paper histories (merely in the reproductive histories).

    Comment by Meg Stout — December 22, 2014 @ 10:02 pm

  24. It would be clearer if we got statements for the JS’s wives that married BY.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — December 22, 2014 @ 10:10 pm

  25. 7. The historian must take the motives of historical actors into consideration.

    That is why I am not as eager to presume bouncy bouncy occurred merely because a woman said she was Joseph’s wife in very deed. They were members of a sect under federal attack over polygamy and faced with losing a sacred property from neutral opponents to those vehemently opposed to all the temple stood for (sealing the Body of Christ together).

    The only one I consider to be somewhat credible is Emily Partridge, and there is no reason she should not have had sex with Joseph. Except even here Emily was motivated to save the Temple Lot, she had reason to be unusually angry with Emma, and she was smart enough to have practiced all the possible ways they might ask her about sexuality in her time with Joseph. An Emily who never shared Joseph’s bed could still have passed him a plate of meat, technically “carnal intercourse.”

    And what of both Agnes Coolbrith and Mary Rollins, each of whom wrote that they could tell Joseph F. Smith things about what had happened in Nauvoo that he knew nothing about? These are the two women who married Joseph within a month of the launch of the 1842 Nauvoo census, which from the High Council minutes was originated by a desire to send the priesthood into each home to instruct the families on their duty, followed by formation of a Masonic Lodge in Nauvoo, formation of the Relief Society, and initiation of the endowment ceremony, each of which was involved in teaching the people to be strictly pure sexually. All this was followed by the testimonies regarding the spiritual wifery John C. Bennett had been teaching and the expulsion of Bennett from all civic, military, political, and religious positions of power in Nauvoo.

    Historians like Jan Shipps refer to the doughnut approach most historians take to the history of the west. They completely avoid that Mormon thing in the middle, even while focusing on bits like Sutter’s Mill Butch Cassidy that were intertwined with Mormon history.

    In a similar fashion, Mormon history largely ignores Bennett and the massive number of seductions associated with Bennett’s last months as mayor (from no later than July 1841 to May 1842).

    I am not saying Joseph necessarily refrained from having sex with his plural wives. I am pointing out that there is no biological proof he had sex, where there should be such proof. I am also pointing out that there is a huge portion of the history of Nauvoo polygamy that is ignored by polemicists, apologists, and even well-respected historians.

    With respect to Todd Compton, he is amazing and I love his 1997 book, In Sacred Loneliness. His scholarship is wonderful. I don’t agree with all his conclusions, but I’ve never felt compelled to agree with anyone. As to the 1996 standard for objective historians, Todd does a pretty good job. But there are times when he is sufficiently subtle in his use of the subjunctive that a reader without sufficient background in English grammar or Mormon history might not appreciate the difference between Todd’s reporting of fact and Todd’s interpretive framework.

    I am in awe of Richard Bushman. Yet there is one point I would correct in his book Rough Stone Rolling as written. Professor Bushman relates William Law’s account of Joseph commenting on how one of his plural wives afforded Joseph great pleasure (paraphrasing from memory here). Yet I do not recall Professor Bushman pointing out that this account is told by a man Joseph was forced to excommunicate, a man multiple accounts indicate had been suspected of adultery by Joseph; in fine, a man who had every reason to besmirch Joseph as a sexual opportunist and elevate John C. Bennett as Joseph’s most trusted advisor (and therefore not a base seducer who was never likely to have been inducted into Joseph’s teachings regarding the New and Everlasting Covenant).

    Like others, Professor Bushman has failed to explore the breadth of the evil taking place in Nauvoo under Bennett’s guidance, and no one to date has adequately explained why both Hyrum and Joseph were killed by bullets shot from outside Carthage jail, a bullet which, in the case of Hyrum, clearly came from a rifle, most likely a custom Hawken rifle (0.50-0.68 caliber) with a hair trigger. The shot that killed Joseph occurred roughly 30 seconds later, adequate time for the rifle that killed Hyrum to be reloaded and the hair trigger reset.

    If your framework for Nauvoo cannot explain the rifleman positioned to the east of Carthage Jail, I assert that it isn’t a sufficient framework.

    You are satisfied with a framework that threads most of the data of which you are aware. I’m not satisfied until my framework not only fits all data of which I am aware, but can predict information I have not yet examined. That has happened to me multiple times in the past years, with this framework in which a faithful Joseph (waiting on Emma’s consent, as Blake Ostler put it) is surrounded by an outbreak of horrific evil, and spends the rest of his life battling the evil, protecting those who had repented, and striving to save the souls of those who had not yet repented.

    Comment by Meg Stout — December 22, 2014 @ 10:40 pm

  26. I should also mention my regard for the probity of Gary Bergera and the research of Richard S. Van Wagoner. Yet as I have read their writings, it is clear that their framework has at times blinded them to important data.

    I was appalled by Van Wagoner’s dismissal of Jacob Backenstos’ testimony regarding Bennett and Sarah Pratt on the basis that Backenstos was a Mormon. One, Backenstos wasn’t a Mormon, and even if he had been, that’s no reason to dismiss without explanation sworn eyewitness testimony of an adulterous affair.

    I love almost everything Gary Bergera has ever written. But I was frustrated that Gary could examine the High Council minutes and not see what I saw. In particular, I don’t agree at all that Joseph Smith instructed John C. Bennett in any way that contributed to Bennett’s seductions and teachings regarding spiritual wifery. The supposed hierarchy of spiritual wives described in Bennett’s History of the Saints entirely conforms to the categories of women Bennett and his acolytes were seducing, and had nothing at all to do with Joseph’s teachings. Bennett, as a doctor specializing in treatment of women, was familiar with the common treatment for hysteria, which involved bringing the misplaced uterus to paroxysm, a treatment that involved a lot of repetitive stress-inducing digital manipulation of the affected woman’s genitalia. This external, frictive treatment might appropriately be termed “frigging.” In a town full of widows and abandoned women and unmarried orphans and new female converts and unbedded wives of missionaries, Bennett’s treatment of widespread female hysteria is sufficient to explain all the reports of his attentions to various women, the dual views of Nancy Rigdon, and how Bennett could have convinced so many highly-placed men that it was virtuous to sleep (frictive sex or otherwise) with women who had no legitimate way to treat their wandering uteruses and the associated hysteria. Tears. Must. Stop. The. Tears.

    I was sad that Gary overlooked the other reasons that could have prompted Bennett to behave as the High Council testimonies assert he did.

    But most historians of these matters aren’t women, and have therefore never attended a cousin’s bachelorette party, and had a conversation with a facilitator of such parties regarding the history of vibrators.

    Comment by Meg Stout — December 22, 2014 @ 11:22 pm

  27. Ah, J. Stuart,

    You wrote:

    “Blake: I?m really confused. Steve is saying that fathering children is not the same as having a sexual relationship.”

    This was why I asserted you appeared to take as an article of faith that Joseph engendered children with his plural wives. But as this is the internet, and I have neither your body language, vocal inflections, or other clues to help me interpret what I think I’m reading, I didn’t realize that a possible reading was that you might be saying someone else (Steve?) was asserting that engendering a child isn’t the same as having a sexual relationship.

    Comment by Meg Stout — December 22, 2014 @ 11:37 pm

  28. Meg, your comments are getting weirder and weirder.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — December 22, 2014 @ 11:49 pm

  29. Craziest JI comment chain ever.

    Comment by Hunter — December 23, 2014 @ 3:46 am

  30. Hunter, I would like your comment a thousand times if I could. I went to bed and woke up to this.

    Comment by Amanda HK — December 23, 2014 @ 6:51 am

  31. Why do you think Joseph screamed at Bennett in July 1841? It wasn’t just because he had forgotten to mention he was still married (something Joseph had been alerted to in February, had confirmed by George Miller in March, and gotten correspondence from Hyrum and William Law about in June).

    Joseph was screaming at Bennett in July 1841 because Backestos had told Joseph Bennett was having sex with Sarah Pratt, wife of apostle Orson Pratt.

    Why would Bennett have gotten access to so many women and been able to convince so many men that it was right to have sex with a woman to whom they weren’t married as long as no one found out? Just because the time honored treatment for female hysteria fell out of favor once people could see what it entailed on a movie screen (circa 1920) doesn’t mean it was out of favor in Nauvoo when taught by a powerful man who had been formally trained in this procedure.

    Ignorance of factors that might have shaped that past does not mean the past could not have been shaped by those factors, weird though they may seem to modern sensibilities.

    Comment by Meg Stout — December 23, 2014 @ 7:32 am

  32. As an amateur church history buff, I have to say this exchange is illuminating. Thanks to all who have spent so much time and effort to bring to light the complicated aspects of plural marriage.

    Comment by IDIAT — December 23, 2014 @ 7:40 am

  33. One of the most frustrating things about studying the beginnings of Nauvoo polygamy is that virtually everything we think we know depends on contested sources produced after the fact, sometimes years, sometimes decades afterwards. And we have nothing that can be shown reliably to have come directly (without intermediary) from the hand of Joseph Smith. We are forced to try to assemble a great big jigsaw puzzle for which we are missing many important pieces.

    Comment by Gary Bergera — December 23, 2014 @ 8:36 am

  34. Meg,

    You are making a lot of logical leaps. Most doctors who treated women for hysteria in the nineteenth century didn’t run around with dozens of plural wives. They saw their digital manipulation of women as being separate from sex and from marriage. If it was ultimately Bennett’s treatment of hysteria that led him to marry women clandestinely, we would expect to see a lot more polygamy among the American and British doctors.

    I should add, I am a woman. I study sexuality. I have been to a bachelorette party but not to one that included sex toys.

    Comment by Amanda — December 23, 2014 @ 8:37 am

  35. Sorry about comments getting caught in the filter. I just posted one of your comments, Meg. You have another in spam, but it looks like you said what you wanted to say.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — December 23, 2014 @ 9:47 am

  36. Hi Amanda and Gary,

    We all have to make logical leaps.

    As to the discussion of whether being a doctor specializing in treating women necessarily turns one into a sexual predator, obviously that would be like claiming that developmental delays necessarily force individuals to be mass murderers. Yet in the case of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary or the Navy Yard shooting, the mental state of the gunmen is not merely of interest, but highly germane.

    Knowing Bennett was trained in treatment of hysteria becomes germane in studying the contemporary documents produced in the early 1840s. In Bennett’s History of the Saints, he outlined a triune hierarchy of women. The lowest category, the Cyprian Saints, were merely those whose sexual activities had been discovered by the Relief Society. A study of the relief Society minutes and the High Council minutes and testimonies of various women show that there were various women whose illicit sexual activity was being uncovered by the extreme diligence of Emma, Joseph, and Emma’s trusted helpers, including Sarah Cleveland, Elizabeth Durfee, and Elizabeth Whitney.

    The more honored level were termed by Bennett Sisters of Charity. These appear to be typified by women such as Margaret and Matilda Neyman and Catherine Laur Fuller Warren, who accepted the word of men like Chauncy Higbee and John C. Bennett that it was permitted for women to engage in illicit sexual activity as long as it was kept secret. In the case of these three women, they eventually decided to come forward and give detailed testimony regarding their sexual activities to the High Council, which aparently since Jan 1841 had been alerted to a need to reach out to the general membership and teach them their duty. The testimonies of these women were published in the Times and Seasons in May 1844, when Joseph had been forced to excommunicate various conspirators, including Chauncy Higbee.

    The highest category of spiritual wife was termed a Cloistered Saint, and was to be a woman who was the exclusive spiritual wife of a particular individual. The unredacted 1842 testimony of Catherine Laur Fuller Warren hints that Chauncy Higbee and William Smith had approached Catherine about becoming their exclusive spiritual wife (sex in exchange for food). Catherine, possibly alerted to the scam by the fact that two separate men alleged they had won Joseph’s agreement to have exclusive sexual access to Catherine, repented of her activities as what Bennett termed a Sister of Charity (servicing six men, Mormon and non-Mormon between summer 1841 and late winter 1842, besides being approached by six others) and married the honorable and non-slimy Brother Warren in April 1842.

    The Cyprian Saints were clearly an artifact of the Relief Society campaign to root out sexual impurity, so could only have come about after formation of Relief Society in March 1842. Similarly, Catherine Warren’s testimony indicates that the idea of Cloistered Saints as exclusive spiritual wife was a late development, possibly also coming about in conjunction with the emergence of the Relief Society as a credible threat to the web of secrecy that had cloaked widespread spiritual wifery, which began no later than July 1841 with Bennett’s seduction of Catherine Laur Fuller, he being the first of the many men with whom she had sex during that busy year.

    So Amanda, you haven’t ever been taught how to pole dance either? Well, there isn’t a correlated program for bachelorette parties. And this cousin isn’t Mormon. Regardless of the manner in which I initially learned about these things, the manner in which doctors have treated ‘hysteria’ since antiquity through the beginning of the 20th century is a matter of historial fact, which students of Nauvoo should include in their repertoire of pertinent data.

    Comment by Meg Stout — December 23, 2014 @ 9:56 am

  37. Meg, I’m not Mormon either. I’ll respond to the rest later. Edit: Never mind. I have an article to revise and a toddler to raise. I’ll leave what I have to say at the last comment I made. I don’t have the time to spend on this. I also have no interest in pole dancing. Also, I’ve always thought of sex toy parties as extremely Mormon in a way – akin to romance novels and the popularity of 50 Shades of Gray.

    Comment by Amanda — December 23, 2014 @ 10:00 am

  38. Hi Amanda,

    I suspect most Mormons would object to your characterization of racy bachelorette parties as unusually Mormon.

    Enjoy your time with your toddler!

    Comment by Meg Stout — December 23, 2014 @ 10:37 am

  39. I wouldn’t say uniquely Mormon, but there is something about sex toy parties and Shades of Grey that makes me immediately think of conservative, white, middle class women. They don’t have the same allure among my graduate school friends as they do among my mother’s set.

    Comment by Amanda — December 23, 2014 @ 11:01 am

  40. Now that would have been a fascinating survey, to find out how much market penetration Shades of Grey achieved in different populations. Versus, for example, the recent gender issues study looking at the experience Mormon women have at Church and their feelings about priesthood (a study distributed via social media with no mechanism to ensure respondents are part of the target population and no mechanism to prevent people from voting early and often).

    My cousin is not conservative, and her sister got herself designated an ordained minister for the express purpose of being able to perform the marriage. Not all my sisters who were invited decided to attend the bachelorette party. Having accepted the invitation, I decided to remain and show my cousin I loved her rather than storming out in an offended huff at the pole dancing and anatomically correct activities and party favors. Besides, I think I had carpooled with my sisters, so we would have all had to decide to walk out on our cousin together, which would have been far more prudish than I think any of us wanted to be. After all, we had all been married, and we had been raised to regard sex as a wonderful part of life, if to be reserved for legal marriage.

    This family had in the past dealt with sexual abuse, and their way of coping was to aggressively embrace feminism. I’m pleased they didn’t resort the avoiding all men, as I have seen occur with other women who have been abused by men.

    My husband, perusing this comment thread, advised me that I should be uber professional when talking about this stuff. On the other hand, I’ve noted how people were more than happy to dismiss me as a complete crackpot based solely on rumor of my initial Faithful Joseph post. So I’m not terribly in favor of trying to conform to the scruples of all who might read my writings.

    That said, it’s probably a bad idea for me to post after midnight, or at least to make quips and allusions to why I know about certain general topics that don’t get discussed in Sunday School.

    Comment by Meg Stout — December 23, 2014 @ 12:22 pm

  41. I’ll have to take far more time to completely catch up with the original points of this thread (looks like it went way off the rails).

    I had occasion to discuss Brian’s work with Todd Compton. While Todd disagrees with Brian over some of his conclusions, Todd says that Brian’s book convinced him to change his conclusion in at least one instance about the sexual relationship with one of the wives. Unfortunately, I can’t remember which one. I think it was the young Helen Kimball. Whichever it was, I appreciate all of those who’ve written on this topic, both pro and con, with the exception of Grant Palmer, who I find intellectually dishonest–for reasons I won’t go in to. I especially appreciate Brian’s work and I respect Todd and Gary. There’s a lot out there for anyone to go over and, as Brian says, future historians won’t be able to say that they didn’t have the documents from which to draw their own conclusions.

    Comment by Terry H — December 24, 2014 @ 5:25 pm

  42. Hi Terry,

    I suppose it depends on where one things the rails belong.

    Part of why I harp on the nasty stuff Bennett and other were doing was to help people see other possible reasons for certain documents where people currently presume that Joseph Smith was the sexual partner, specifically in the case of Mary Heron Snider.

    If you don’t know about the “friggings” that were going on, you would presume Joseph Ellis Johnson’s testimony at his Church hearing might be talking about Joseph Smith frigging Mary Heron. It doesn’t make any sense in context, and yet Brian Hales’ website still doesn’t include any interpretation for the frigging of Mary Heron Snider that doesn’t involve Mary Heron Snider and Joseph Smith.

    I’m also somewhat dismayed that most people presume that Josephine Lyon was Joseph’s biological daughter, despite the DNA evidence that does not support that as a solid scientific possibility.

    If we’re going to talk Joseph and sex, then by all means let us be fully aware of the context of sexuality in 1840s Nauvoo.

    Comment by Meg Stout — December 27, 2014 @ 10:43 pm

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