Two Quibbles with the Church’s Essay on Joseph Smith’s Polygamy: When It Was Revealed and Eternity Only Marriages

By March 30, 2015

I add my praise for the church’s essays on gospel topics, including the essays on polygamy. However, I disagree with two points that the essay on Joseph Smith’s polygamy made: that polygamy was revealed to Joseph Smith during his translation of the Old Testament and that Smith engaged in eternity only sealings. Such points have been asserted by a number of scholars so my critique isn’t so much one of the essay but of these two commonly asserted claims.

The essay says, “The revelation on plural marriage was not written down until 1843, but its early verses suggest that part of it emerged from Joseph Smith?s study of the Old Testament in 1831.” The essay cites Andrew Jenson’s quote of Joseph Noble who said, “the doctrine of celestial marriage was revealed to [JS] while he was engaged in work of translation of the Scriptures,” and Orson Pratt’s statement to Joseph F. Smith that Lyman Johnson told Orson, that “Joseph had made known to him as early as 1831 that plural marriage was a correct principle.” Yet Pratt didn’t say that 1831 was when it was first revealed, and Noble didn’t say that either. Noble made the statement at an 1883 conference where he declared “that the Prophet told him that the doctrine of celestial marriage was revealed to him while he was engaged in work of translation of the Scriptures, but when the communication was first made the Lord stated that the time for the practice of that principal had not arrived. Subsequently, he stated, the angel of the Lord appeared to and informed him that the time had fully come.”[1] So Noble said that Smith was told about plural marriage before he was told to practice it and since Pratt said that Johnson first heard about it in 1831, it would be a little strange for Smith to be telling people about plural marriage before Smith had been commanded to practice it. The statement suggests that Smith knew about plural marriage before 1831.

More than ten years before Noble’s statement, Brigham Young said that Smith did have plural marriage revealed to him before 1831. Charles Lowell Walker attended a meeting in 1872 where he heard Young say “that while Joseph and Oliver were translating the Book of Mormon, they had a revelation that the order of Patriarchal Marriag[e] and Sealing was right– but that while Oliver wanted to practice it, Joseph said ‘the time has not yet come.'”[2] Such would fit with Noble’s claim if the translation he was talking about was the Book of Mormon and not the Old Testament. That is, Smith learned about plural marriage during the Book of Mormon translation, but was not told to practice it until 1831.

Scholars have assumed Noble was talking about the Old Testament because of the question about the polygyny of patriarchs that JS’s apparently asked in DC 132:1. But I argue in my dissertation that JS was more likely asking about the patriarchs’ polygyny in 1842-43 (because this was a change in policy) and that it was the Book of Mormon’s reference to “raise up seed” that was the original prompt for plural marriage. I do agree that some of section 132 may have been revealed in 1831: my guess would be verses 3-25 (though this was likely revised) but that most of the rest of revealed in 1842-43, including verse 1.[3]

Second, the essay says, “During the era in which plural marriage was practiced, Latter-day Saints distinguished between sealings for time and eternity and sealings for eternity only…. Evidence indicates that Joseph Smith participated in both types of sealings.” I believe that both of these statements are incorrect; that is, there were no eternity sealings during JS’s lifetime and, therefore, JS did not engage in any. The essay cites volume 2 of Brian Hales’s Joseph Smith’s Polygamy for proof of these claims, but I would argue that Hales’s evidence is lacking. Hales first uses a story from Andrew Jenson’s notes about Ruth Sayers

Sister Ruth was married in her youth to Mr. Edward Sayer, a thoroughly practical horticulturalist and florist, and though he was not a member of the Church, he willingly joined his fortune with her and they reached Nauvoo together some time in the year 1841;

While there the strongest affection sprang up between the Prophet Joseph and Mr. Sayers. The latter not attaching much importance to the theory of a future life insisted that his wife Ruth should be sealed to this Prophet for eternity, as he himself should only claim her in this life. She was accordingly sealed to the Prophet in Emma’s presence and thus became numbered among the Prophets plural wives. Though she continued to live with Mr Sayers until death.[4]

I see serious problems with this story: it’s late, unattributed, and, most significantly, unbelievable. I simply don’t believe that anything like that happened since if the husband didn’t care about the afterlife, he wouldn’t be concerned about his wife’s state in it, and if he believed that JS was so special that people ought to be sealed to him, the husband probably would have believed enough to be seeking his own blessings (sealing). Furthermore, Smith was really trying to keep plural marriage hush hush during the time, making the story even more unlikely. I find it much more likely that this story was a later rumor created to deal with the uncomfortable issue of JS marrying married women.

Hales then goes on to cite a number of examples where people referred to particular sealings as “for eternity” but even Hales admits that “such clear statements [on eternity only sealings], however, do not exist.” Hales tries to account for “why ‘eternity only’ wives maintained silence on their marriage type,”[5] but I would argue that the answer is simply there were no eternity only sealings between live people in JS’s lifetime.

The essay asserts, “Helen Mar Kimball spoke of her sealing to Joseph as being ‘for eternity alone.’ But reading the quote in context, I’m not sure that’s what Helen meant. Here’s part of the poem where Helen describes her experience:

I thought through this life my time will be my own

The step I now am taking’s for eternity alone,

No one need be the wiser, through time I shall be free,

And as the past hath been the future still will be.

Another way to read this quote is in light of John C. Bennett’s claim that in 1842, JS told Nancy Rigdon that his proposed marriage “would not prevent her from marrying any other person.”[6] Or, “in time I would be free.” I argue in my dissertation that JS marrying married women, coupled with DC 132:41, which I argue suggests a condition for a woman being sealed to more than one man, indicated that women had originally been able to do so.[7] Yet 132 switched the policy to polygyny, I argue, and I see Helen’s laments in the rest of the poem as a response to this change in policy.

And like a fett’d bird with wild and longing heart,

Thou’lt daily pine for freedom and murmur at thy lot.[8]

Helen thought she would be “free,” or allowed to be courted by other men, but soon found out that she was not (the new policy in section 132). One way or another, Helen’s statement about “in time I would be free” was an expectation that was not met. Anyway, I don’t think Helen’s, or any of Smith’s sealings, were eternity only sealings.

In fact, I would argue that eternity only sealings would have run counter to Smith’s purposes for instituting plural marriage. Smith wanted to bind his loved ones to him, loved ones to whom he felt connected in life. “If we learn how to live & how we die when we lie down we contemplate how we may rise up in the morning and it is pleasing for friends to lie down together locked in the arms of love, to sleep, & locked in each others embrace & renew their conversation.”[9] The “conversation” was to be “renewed”; these were relationships that were developed while living. A quote John C. Bennett best describes Smith’s intent: “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.”[10] Mary Lighter’s recollection of Smith’s reaction to her moving 15 miles away supports the statement from Bennett. “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.”[11] Smith wanted to have his loved ones near by to build the kind of relationships that Bennett described. It was these loving relationships that Smith wanted to preserve in the next life and “eternity only” marriages would have defeated that purpose.
[1] Andrew Jenson, “Plural Marriage,” Historical Record (Salt Lake City: Andrew Jenson, 1887), 232-33.

[2] Andrew Karl Larson and Katharine Miles Larson, eds., The Diary of Charles Lowell Walker (Logan, UT: Utah State University Press, 1980), 1:349.

[3] Such would be similar to section 107, 59-100 of which were revealed in 1831. The rest of 107 came in 1835 which Smith added to the original revelation, which Smith also revised. I argue in my dissertation that JS was aware of many of the “Nauvoo doctrines” early on. Stephen J. Fleming, “The Fulenss of the Gospel: Christian Platonism and the Origins of Mormonism” (Ph.D. diss. University of California, Santa Barbara, 2014), 386-87.

[4] Brian C. Hales, Joseph Smith?s Polygamy: Volume 1: History (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford, 2013), 1:422.

[5] Hales, Joseph Smith’s Polygamy, 1:434.

[6] “The Mormons,” Sangamo Journal (Springfield, Ill.), July 15, 1842. While it?s true that Bennett is a problematic source, he did often convey correct information (Smith did propose to Nancy), and I argue that the statement fit the pattern of Smith marrying married women and the case of Hannah Dubois, who probably married Philo Dibble after she married Smith. Compton, In Sacred Loneliness, 631.

[7] Fleming, “The Fulenss of the Gospel,” 351-85.

[8] Helen Mar Kimball Whitney, Autobiography, 1881, in 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), 486.

[9] 16 April 1843, Words of Joseph Smith, 195-96.

[10] “Letter from Gen. Bennett,” in Hawk Eye (Burlington, Iowa: December 7, 1843) in Compton, In Sacred Loneliness, 636.

[11] Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner, Autobiography, typescript, 9, Perry Special Collections.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Interesting observations and arguments. Thanks, Steve.

    Comment by Gary Bergera — March 31, 2015 @ 8:13 am

  2. Didn’t Oliver Cowdery find himself in a minor scandal in the early Kirtland period due to his open courtship of a woman there even though he was already engaged to one of the Whitmer girls back in Fayette?

    Comment by JimD — March 31, 2015 @ 8:41 am

  3. I like your critiques, Steve, but I have to be honest that I disagree with your solutions. To place the origins of thinking with the BoM, instead of with the Bible, you are replacing one reminiscence with another. Historically speaking, I don’t think a strong case can be made to attach polygamous practice to Book of Mormon, given the large gap of time within the two. Rather, the BoM and Bible translations seem like they were later used to explain/justify a practice that cropped up for other, social and cultural, reasons.

    And while I agree with your second point, I am once again a bit squeemish with the evidence that is based on more reminiscences. (I don’t think the Whitney and Lightner sources should be used for much more than understanding how polygamy was justified in the late-19th century.) However, I think the JS & Bennett sources do enough work on their own to make your interpretation credible.

    Comment by Ben P — March 31, 2015 @ 9:12 am

  4. I’ve read the polygamy essays and blog posts and comments defending Joseph as “faithful” [1] and I have a question. Why is it so important to try to prove that he didn’t consummate any of his plural marriages using eternity only, DNA testing of descendants, etc.? It would be one thing if no other prophets had practiced polygamy and they were trying to deny it ever happened. Why hide/downplay Joseph’s polygamy? (Let’s not quibble over whether or not the church hid it.)

    [1] Nod to hawkgrrrl

    Comment by Q — March 31, 2015 @ 9:21 am

  5. Thanks Gary.

    Jim, Ezra Booth said that Oliver Cowdery was courting another woman in 1830 at a time he was engaged. Walker said that Young said, “Oliver said unto Joseph, ?Brother Joseph, why don?t we go into the Order of Polygamy, and practice it as the ancients did? We know it is true, then why delay?? Joseph?s reply was ?I know that we know it is true, and from God, but the time has not yet come.? This did not seem to suit Oliver, who expressed a determination to go into the order of Plural Marriage anyhow.” In 1857 Wilford Woodruff recorded Young saying, “He remarked that the revelation upon a plurality of wives was given to Joseph Smith. He revealed it to Oliver Cowdery alone upon the solemn pledge that He would not reveal it or act upon it it but he did act upon it in a secret manner & that was the cause of his overthrow.?

    So I do see Booth’s claim as fitting Young’s later statements. Cowdery even was made to apologize in a conference a little afterward.

    So that’s one piece of contemporary evidence that I see giving some legitimacy to Young’s claim. The main reason why I think that JS knew about it during the BoM translation has to do with sources that I think influenced him. (375-77 of my diss, see also 94-96, 123-26, 196-207). But I thought that would sidetrack the post. And while later stuff is no doubt problematic, I think Lighter is particularly important because she’s the only married wife that described JS’s rationale in his marriage proposal. So since it’s all we got, seems worth mentioning. All this is tricky and you make good points. Worth discussing more.

    Q I disagree with those angles as well based on what I said above.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — March 31, 2015 @ 10:24 am

  6. Oh, and I go through Helen’s poem because the essay had cited it. I just wanted to point out that I don’t think she was saying that she had an eternity only sealing.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — March 31, 2015 @ 10:48 am

  7. Very interesting, Steve. Most discussion of LDS doctrine takes place with reference to written documents, as if these establish well-defined and static doctrinal categories and precepts (coupled with the assumption that the documents are fixed, which is not always the case for LDS documents). In fact, as you detail above for plural marriage, when novel doctrines are put into practice, they can evolve rather quickly, with the changed practices then being read back into the earlier text. Hard to document but something like this certainly occurs when novel doctrines are introduced into practice.

    Comment by Dave — March 31, 2015 @ 1:50 pm

  8. Hey Steve, I think you raise some interesting points. I am personally convinced that what occurred in Nauvoo was new developments for Joseph and different from whatever may have been occurring in the 1830s. And I am fairly skeptical of later accounts that try to backdate Joseph’s doctrine or plural marriage/polygamy as early as possible. It seems hard to believe that he had the revelation so early, whether it be 1831 or earlier, yet there is evidence to suggest that none of the people closest to him at the time seemed to know about it- any of the Smiths, Whitmers and Cowdery (and that Noble, BY and Pratt are giving these statements much later in a context of proving J’s polygamy). I suppose you can say that Joseph Smith had the revelation and was telling people like Johnson but not the Whitmers or his own family.
    I really would like to read your dissertation. Is it accessible digitally somehow? Thanks!

    Comment by cjp — March 31, 2015 @ 3:41 pm

  9. Thanks Dave and cjp. Yeah, this gets a little complicated. I’m sort of combining two ideas with this post. First my argument that JS’s first plural marriage program was one where both men and women could have multiple spouses and then the program changed to polygyny in 1843 with section 132. I go into more detail in my diss, but here’s a summary.
    The second is my argument that JS was influenced by a handful of particular texts early on (a few before the BoM translation, I think). Based on the texts’ influences, I think he knew about shared marriages early on and that Cowdery’s courting of two women at once (like Booth said) is an indication that Cowdery knew and “jumped the gun” like Young later argued.

    My dissertation is called “The Fulness of the Gospel” and is on Proquest.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — March 31, 2015 @ 4:41 pm

  10. Thanks for sharing these insights, Steve. What is the earliest known documentary evidence of Joseph Smith’s receiving a commandment/revelation on plural marriage?

    Comment by Barbara — March 31, 2015 @ 10:06 pm

  11. Interesting thoughts. And after having just now read your 2009 post “Thoughts on Polyandry” – just a lingering question…I’ve always seen Joseph Smith’s polyandry as the messy-looking beginnings of a marital policy favoring woman’s right to choose her husband (even if she’s already married). In fact, one of my absolute favorite pillars of this concept is what Brigham Young is quoted as saying in 8 Oct 1861: “…[a] way in which a wife can be separated from her husband while he continues to be faithful to his God and his priesthood I have not revealed except to a few persons in this church, and a few have received it from Joseph the Prophet as well as myself. If a woman can find a man holding the keys of the priesthood with higher power and authority than her husband, and he is disposed to take her, he can do so, otherwise she has got to remain where she is. In either of these ways of separation…there is no need for a bill of divorcement… [But] if after she has left her husband and is sealed to another she shall again cohabit with him, it is illicit intercourse and extremely sinful…”
    Neither this quote nor any other I’ve ever come across sanctions women having more than one eternal husband, though it DOES give her power to ultimately settle on the best spouse she is capable of obtaining. Do you have reason to believe otherwise?

    Comment by Avila — March 31, 2015 @ 10:17 pm

  12. Barbara, the statement about an earlier revelation come later, but the fact that JS had been practicing polygamy long before July 1843 (DC 132) has led many to assume he got something earlier (myself included). As I mentioned to Ben, my belief that JS knew about polygamy very early comes from information relating to sources that I think influenced JS early on that I discuss in my dissertation.

    Avila, I don’t think that Young’s statement that you quote is what Joseph was doing in his marriages to married women. Again, I argue in my dissertation that women were originally permitted to have more than one spouse (suggested by 132:41, the statement to Nancy Rigdon and so forth).

    Comment by Steve Fleming — April 1, 2015 @ 8:28 am

  13. In an 1859 interview with newspaper editor Horace Greely, Brigham Young stated: ?I have some aged women sealed to me upon the principle of sealing which I no more think of making a wife of than I would my Grand Mother.?
    BY is sealed to 56 women but has children with “only” 16 and “only” 23 of the 56 ever belong to his household.
    I always took this as evidence of eternity only sealings or at least a desire to be sealed to a righteous man for eternity without ever living in a more traditional marriage. I realize that we can’t read BY back into JS, but do you think that eternity only sealiings never took place or just not within JS’s lifetime? If the latter, then do you have a sense of when they developed?

    Comment by Paul Reeve — April 1, 2015 @ 8:52 am

  14. I think the concept started soon after JS’s death and first manifested itself when the apostles married many of JS’s wives for time and then sealed the wives to JS for eternity. I think that was 1845. So that was a division between time and eternity sealings, but again, I don’t think JS made that division.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — April 1, 2015 @ 8:58 am

  15. Really interesting post, thanks for the research on this topic. I have one question about your point #1.

    Do we have any contemporary evidence for polygamy in the early 1830s besides the Booth letter which doesn?t specifically define polygamy, only marriages to the Lamanites. I tend to question the reliability of all the later recollections especially in the Utah environment and their defensive posture towards providing justifications for the practice early on.

    Comment by hope_for_things — April 1, 2015 @ 11:12 am

  16. Very little contemporary evidence, yes. But as I mentioned in comment 5, my belief that JS knew about some form of plural marriage early on is based on research on texts that I think influenced JS. I see Booth’s charge that Cowdery was courting another women while he was engaged as an indication that BY’s later statement that I quote had some validity.

    (And sorry to be cagey on the source. In my dissertation, I say that I think it was John Dee’s spirit diary, due to a whole bunch of similarities. The argument for the connection is a little complicated, read the dissertation for more).

    Comment by Steve Fleming — April 1, 2015 @ 11:33 am

  17. Interesting ideas… Until you relied on the JCB/Nancy Rigdon account, then it fell apart for me. Hales has the better argument here.

    Comment by Old Man — April 2, 2015 @ 9:20 am

  18. I’m happy to defend using Bennett. Bennett is one of the earliest sources and did convey a lot of correct information (JS did propose to Nancy Rigdon). Yes a lot of his claims were salacious and false, but I would argue that Nancy being allowed to marry another man wouldn’t fit that category. In fact, I would argue that it would not have made JS look any worse to his contemporaries than would polygyny (thus lessoning Bennett’s motive for making it up). Historian should try to find the accurate information rather than simply dismissing potentially useful sources out of hand.

    I don’t doubt that you like Hales’s argument more than mine, but his isn’t supported by the data. And I ask the same question on my post that I linked to on comment 9, why is a woman having more than one husband somehow worse than a man having more than one wife?

    Comment by Steve Fleming — April 2, 2015 @ 10:34 am

  19. I’m pretty certain you’ve overshot the mark. JS having possibly said those things to Nancy Rigdon seem to point to the fact that JS knew he was not long for this earth and to the fact that, as with his other polyandrous marriages, the other husbands (sometimes wittingly and sometimes possibly not – especially with disaffected or nonmember husbands) assume the role of proxy husband in his stead toward these women for this life only. I don’t see that what you propose has either a precedent or a reasonable explanation.

    Comment by Avila — April 2, 2015 @ 4:31 pm

  20. It does have precedent. I go over that in my dissertation. Proxy husbands on the other hand has no precedent that I’m aware of, nor do I see any evidence of that being JS’s practice.

    In terms of “reasonable explanation” that’s probably in the eye of the beholder. But I’ll just ask the same question: why is a woman having multiple spouses somehow worse than a man doing the same?

    Comment by Steve Fleming — April 2, 2015 @ 6:02 pm

  21. Why is Nancy Rigdon considered an unreliable source? Hasn’t history vindicated her version of events more than any of the “faithful” Mormons who perjured themselves? Does any serious scholar really think Nancy Rigdon was a lying whore? Because if she was, wouldn’t she have been down with Joseph’s proposal? Isn’t the fact that Mormons frequently quote from the “Happiness is the object and design of our existence” letter vindication enough? Or are the threats to destroy her reputation still working almost 200 years later? Honestly, if I’m missing something please enlighten me.

    Comment by Mark Grammer — April 14, 2015 @ 10:54 am

  22. The focus may have been on Bennett (who does have a lot of problems) more than Nancy, but, yeah, it’s likely that JS proposed to her.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — April 14, 2015 @ 3:41 pm

  23. […] to do that. 2) Tell the students information that I felt pretty sure was incorrect. As I mentioned in this previous post, (sorry links aren’t working […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Teaching Polygamy at BYU — April 23, 2015 @ 2:41 pm


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