Questions from the Mailbag

By January 26, 2015

Welcome back to our continuing series, where we answer questions about plural marriage. As always, there are actual questions from actual readers.


To what extent was Emma aware of the various sealings? Was Joseph actively deceiving Emma about the sealings? What do we know of the impact of polygamy on the Smith’s marriage? Do we know if divorce was ever seriously being considered?

Emma was aware (and approved) four sealings, to two sets of sisters: Eliza Partridge, Emily Partridge and Sarah Lawrence, and Maria Lawrence. Smith had already been sealed to the Partridge sisters; these duplicate ceremonies were most likely performed so that he did not have to inform Emma that he had taken part in the sealings without his wife’s knowledge. Emma withdrew her permission in July 1843; the dynamics of plural marriage relationships were tenuous at best. It appears that she tried to accommodate sealings but that it carried a heavy emotional, and perhaps spiritual, tax. Soon after her withdrawal of permission, Joseph Smith received Doctrine and Covenants 132. D&C 132 appears to be a direct response to the Smith’s situation–which the LDS Historical Department seems to approve: “[Joseph Smith’s secretary William] Clayton later reported that Joseph Smith committed the revelation to writing, at Hyrum Smith’s suggestion, in order to persuade Joseph’s wife Emma Smith that she should cease her opposition to plural marriage. Emma had accepted plural marriage for a time but was opposed to the principle by July 12, 1843, when the revelation was written down.” [Footnote 22] Smith could have also received the revelation earlier without recording the revelation in writing.

Words like “actively deceive” are difficult for historians to assess, but Smith undoubtedly kept Emma in the dark for long periods of time and entered into relationships with other women without her permission or knowledge. [i] He entered into (and maintained) such relationships without her consent, most likely justified his actions through the Law of Sarah. He may have also believed that she would not accept his actions and simply hoped he would never have to explain himself. Emma, of course, became aware of Smith’s relationships before the end of her husband’s life. Like any human being would be, she was hurt and angry. Smith does not seem to have wanted to have hurt his first and only legal wife, but his continued entering into and maintaining of sealing relationships nearly guaranteed that he would. To quote Richard Bushman, “They were in impossible positions: Joseph caught between his revelation and his wife, Emma between a practice she detested and belief in her husband.”

Plural marriage wreaked havoc on the Smith’s marriage. Newell and Avery provide the best account of the Smith’s marriage in Mormon Enigma, including an entire chapter on an alleged poisoning attempt.[ii] Their book is far and away the best resource on all things Emma (and should be read by anyone interested in early Mormonism for any reason). Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling also addresses their marriage difficulties.[iii] Emma Hale Smith threatened divorce, although she did not divorce her husband. Of course, there are a host of issues that played into her decision not to divorce Joseph Smith, but her husband’s public profile (and role as a religious leader) were certainly important factors.

[On a personal, non-historical note, I want to quote Brian Hales (whom I agree with on this count): “Doubtless, Emma Smith’s polygamy-related trials were great. However, she was true to her husband throughout her life and never denied that he was the Prophet. Accordingly, no [one] is positioned to judge her.”

Is there validity to the Emma/law episode? Emma asking for Law since Joseph had his turns?

I assume that this refers to a sort of spiritual “wife-swap,” wherein Emma would have had the freedom to engage in sexual relationships with other men [William Law], because Joseph Smith had sexual relationships with other women. This historical episode stems from a line in William Clayton’s diary:

“This A.M. President Joseph took me and conversed considerable concerning some delicate matters. Said [Emma] wanted to lay a snare for me. He told me last night of this and said he had felt troubled. He said [Emma] had treated him coldly and badly since I came…and he knew she was disposed to be revenged on him for some things. She thought that if he would indulge himself she would too.”[iv]

The claim, although possible, is most likely exaggerated if not outright incorrect.Emma and Law were certainly friends and Emma seems to have confided in Law, or at least he gave interviews that suggest as much. The best source is, again (unsurprisingly), Newell and Avery. They engage with the primary sources and conclude that the basis of the rumor came from an “unprincipled” enemy of Mormonism and thus should not be taken seriously. On all things Emma Hale Smith related, I defer to Newell and Avery.[v]

I’d almost rather accept that Joseph might have made some mistakes here than all the messiness of botched polygamous situations all being acceptable as divinely guided. But are there others who feel that way?

Latter-day Saints cover a wide spectrum of personal feelings about Joseph Smith, Emma Smith, plural marriage, and everything connected to it. Opinions range from “Smith was commanded to practice polygamy” to “Smith made a huge mistake and was wrong.” Many Latter-day Saints would both agree and disagree with you.



[i] Linda King Newell and Valeen Tippets Avery, Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith, Second Edition (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1994), 95-183; Richard Lyman Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Knopf, 2005),  489-499.

[ii] Newell and Avery, Mormon Enigma, 157-168.

[iii] Newell and Avery, Mormon Enigma, 154-164; Bushman, Rough Stone Rolling, 489-499.

[iv] William Clayton and George D. Smith (editor), An Intimate Chronicle: The Journals of William Clayton (Salt Lake City, Utah: Signature Books, 1995), 108 (entry dated 23 June 1843).

[v] Newell and Avery, Mormon Enigma, 176-178.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Thanks, J.

    Comment by Saskia — January 26, 2015 @ 9:22 am

  2. Nice job, J. There are a number of troubling issues, but I think it’s important to emphasize your last remarks: “Many Latter-day Saints would both agree and disagree with you. You are certainly not alone.” There is room to disagree here and yet be called a Latter-day Saint, I believe.

    Comment by WVS — January 26, 2015 @ 11:20 am

  3. Great series and nice job.

    Comment by Clark — January 26, 2015 @ 1:40 pm

  4. […] Emma Smith?s Awareness of Joseph Smith?s Plural Marriage Practices and William Law Rumors […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Sealings Performed Outside of the Temple: Background and Resources: — March 9, 2015 @ 8:29 am


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