Was Polygamy, in the Nineteenth Century, Started by the
FLDS Church, or the LDS Church?
During the early 1830s, Emma Smith was beginning to have some strong
suspicions that her husband, Joseph (Mormon prophet) might be involved in
infidelity. While these were only suspicions, Oliver Cowdery (one of the three
“witnesses” to the Book of Mormon) had proof of Smith’s adultery and confronted
him on it. Smith denied to Cowdery that he was in any such activity. Cowdery
would be excommunicated from the Mormon church on several counts including,
“by falsely insinuating that he [Smith] was guilty of adultery.” 1
Emma’s suspicions were confirmed when she caught Joseph and 19-year-old Eliza
Partridge locked in a room upstairs together. Emma had hired Eliza to take care of
their newborn. 2 Joseph admitted to his personal secretary, William Clayton, that if
he took Eliza and Emily Partridge (twin sisters) as wives, he knew that Emma
“would pitch on him and obtain a divorce and leave him.”3 But, Joseph added that
“he would not relinquish anything.”4 And he didn’t. He would eventually marry the
sisters in March, 1843 (without Emma’s knowledge).
In the meantime, Smith shared to his friend John Bennett his dilemma and the
trouble he was having with Emma. He wondered what he should do, and Bennett
replied, “This is very simple. Get a revelation that polygamy is right, and all your
troubles will be at an end.”5
Joseph didn’t waste any time. In 1843 he sat down and wrote a command from the
Lord that Emma would be destroyed if she didn’t “receive all those that have been
given unto my servant Joseph.” If she didn’t obey this command, not only would
the Lord destroy her, but the Lord will bless Joseph and multiply him with “wives
and children and crowns of eternal lives in the eternal worlds” (see the Mormon
scripture Doctrine & Covenants 132:52, 54, 56, 61-62).
In this same command, Emma was told to forgive Joseph’s trespasses if she
wanted to be forgiven (D&C 132:56). She was then told that the Lord would justify
Joseph: “If he have ten virgins given unto him by this law [the law of priesthood],
he cannot commit adultery, for they belong to him, and they are given unto him;
therefore is he justified (D&C 132:61-62).
Interestingly, Martin Harris affirmed Joseph had practiced polygamy as early as
1838–five years before Joseph received his revelation.”6 But after receiving the
supposed revelation in 1843, Joseph no longer had to keep his affairs from his wife
or the public. And, he made this plural-wife doctrine available to all Mormon men
under the condition that they get permission from their first wife. Doctrine and
Covenants says that the first wife must give consent before her husband can take
another wife. The second wife also had to be a virgin and not married to any other
man. If the first wife consented then the man would not be committing adultery
It isn’t know if Joseph sought permission from Emma for each of his many wives,
but it is known that Joseph didn’t just marry virgins. He married other men’s
wives. 7 We have documentation of at least some of the women Joseph married
(there may have been more 8): Eighteen of Joseph’s wives were single when he
married them and had never been married previously. Another four were widows.
But the remaining 11 women were already married to other men, cohabiting with
their legal husbands when Smith married them.9
In addition, 11 of Smith’s wives were 14 to 20 years old when they married him.
Nine wives were 21 to 30 years old. Eight of his wives were between the ages of 31
to 40. Two wives were between 41-50, and three wives were between 51 to 60
years of age. 10 After Smith’s death, many more women married him by “proxy,”
sealed to him for eternity. And for the record, Smith had at least on acknowledged
polygamous child named Josephine. The child’s mother was Sylvia Sessions
Many Mormons today have no idea how widespread polygamy was. For instance,
Mormon singer Donny Osmond believes that “only a relatively small number of
church members did so [practiced polygamy] prior to the late 1800s when the
Church decreed the practice unacceptable.”12 However, polygamy was an accepted
practice, and it wasn’t restricted to a mere few. Let’s take a look at what a few of
the church prophets and leaders said.
First Prophet and President Joseph Smith said in 1843: “....God...gave me this
revelation and commandment on celestial and plural marriage and the same God
commanded me to obey it. He said to me that unless I accepted it and introduced
it, and practiced it, I, together with my people, would be damned and cut off from
this time hence forth....But we have got to observe it. It is an eternal principle and
was given by way of commandment and not by way of instruction.”10
Second Prophet and President Brigham Young said in 1865: “...the whole question,
therefore, narrows itself to this in the ‘Mormon’ mind. Polygamy was revealed by
God, or the entire fabric of their faith is false. To ask them to give up such an item
of belief is to ask them to relinquish the whole, to acknowledge their Priesthood a
lie, their ordinances a deception, and all they have toiled for, lived for, bled for,
prayed for, or hoped for, a miserable failure and a waste of life.”11
Third Prophet and President John Taylor said in 1880: “The United States says we
cannot marry more than one wife. God says different...when adulterers and
libertines pass a law forbidding polygamy, the Saints cannot obey it....”11
On September 27, 1886 Taylor gave this revelation: “Thus saith the Lord...I have
not revoked this law [plural wives doctrine] nor will I for it is everlasting & (sic)
those who will enter into my glory must obey the conditions thereof, even so
These statements raise some important questions. Did God really use these men,
especially Joseph Smith? God’s Word says that “holy men of God spoke as they
were moved by the Holy Ghost” (2 Peter 1:21, emphasis added). Only holy men
(although not sinless) would be used of God to write His Word. Because of this fact
alone, Mormons must question whether Doctrine & Covenants is truly the
revelations of Jesus Christ.
According to the Bible (especially since the New Testament was written) men are to
have only one living wife (1 Corinthians 7:2; Titus 1:6). Because the Bible
contradicts Doctrine & Covenants Mormons must question the validity of one or the
other. They can’t both be right.
If our Mormon friend still believes the Lord gave Joseph Smith and other Mormon
prophets a revelation on plural marriage, we can ask this: Why would the prophets
(such as Taylor in 1886) say the plural wives doctrine was everlasting, and then
some short years later (1890), deny having anything to do with such a doctrine? In
1869, fourth prophet and president Wilford Woodruff said, “If we were to do away
with polygamy...we must do away with prophets and Apostles, with revelation and
the gifts and graces of the Gospel, and finally give up our religion altogether.”14
He changed his tune when he wrote an “Official Declaration,” also referred to as
The Manifesto (found at the end of Doctrine and Covenants). Woodruff wrote:
Press dispatches having been sent for political purposes...allege that plural
marriages are still being solemnized...that...the leaders of the Church have taught,
encouraged and urged the continuance of the practice of polygamy–I, therefore, as
President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, do hereby, in the most
solemn manner declared that these charges are false. We are not teaching
polygamy or plural marriage, nor permitting any person to enter into its
practice....I now publicly declare that my advice to the Latter-day Saints is to
refrain from contracting any marriage forbidden by the law of the land.15
President Lorenzo Snow affirmed Wilford Woodruff’s statements and that he was
“the only man on the earth at the present time who holds the keys of the sealing
ordinacnes, we consider him fully authorized by virtue of his position to issue the
Manifest...which is dated September 24, 1890.”16
Yet, the U.S. Senate’s Committee on Privileges and Elections submitted a
report in which it stated, “A sufficient number of specific instances of the
taking of plural wives since the manifesto of 1890, so called, have been
shown by the testimony as having taken among officials of the Mormon
church to demonstrate the fact that the leaders in this church, the first
presidency and the twelve apostles, connive at the practice of taking plural
wives and have done so ever since the manifesto was issued.”17
A Mormon woman, we’ll call “Marjorie,” discovered that the Mormon church first
defended polygamy, then said they would stop it. Yet while the church leaders
condemned followers who were still in polygamous relationships, some remained
polygamous in secret.18 Marjorie may not have known that the Mormon leadership
even considered the idea of secret concubines, wherein men and women could live
together in secret. 19 After discovering this apparent hypocrisy, Marjorie became
concerned about other revelations that Joseph proclaimed in Doctrine and
But not all Mormons will respond as Marjorie did. There are some who still defend
this past church doctrine. Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought tells us one of
the reasons Mormons defend the plural-wives doctrine:
Many Latter-day Saints–especially those that have polygamous
ancestors–take pride in the faithful men and women who practiced plural
marriage long ago. Even though LDS men take just one legal wife today,
many devout Mormons still believe in the “principle” and may be sealed to
more than one woman for eternity. The Mormon church’s present doctrine of
celestial marriage–which includes the promise of plural marriage in the
afterlife, and the current pracitce of plural marriage among Fundamentalist
Mormons, are the legacies of Joseph Smith’s revelation sanctioning Nauvoo
polygamy as “new and everlasting covenant.”20
Other Mormons defend Smith’s revelation for another reason. For instance, a while
ago I asked Pat, a Mormon friend, “Why is it that the Mormon church accepts
Joseph’s polygamy and that of other church leaders, but condemns it for everyone
After thinking about the question for a moment, Pat replied, “Well, it was a
command from God during a very special time only. It was the same command
that God gave the prophets in the Old Testament. Also, Joseph was concerned
about the widows and the older single women who didn’t have a man to protect
them. These were the type of women he married. He really had a good heart for
Surprised at the answer, I said, “But God was against plural marriage in the Old
Testament. Only because of the hardness of man’s heart He did allow it [see
Genesis 16:4-7]. There were also consequences because of polygamy,
such as jealousy.”
I later shared with Pat (after doing some homework) what the Bible had to say (see
the verses in the box).
Leviticus 18:18,20; 20:14 tells us that God
forbids a man, which included the prophets
of the Old Testament, to marry “a woman in
addition to her sister...while she is alive
(18:18). Neither was he to marry “a woman
and her mother” (20:14). Neither was he to
“have intercourse with your neighbor’s wife,
to be defiled with her” (18:20).
After sharing with Pat the Leviticus
verses, I told her, “You can’t defend
Joseph Smith’s polygamy. He and
other Mormon men went completely
against the laws of Leviticus. Joseph
Smith, for instance, married five pairs
of sisters;21 he married a mother and
her daughter;22 and he took other
men’s wives (which included Joseph
demanding the wives of all 12 Mormon
I then gently added, “I know you want to think the best of Joseph Smith. I wish I
could, too. But if the Mormon church is about truth, as you say it is, we must look
at the truth regarding Smith’s life. He didn’t just marry widows and older single
women, as you’ve been told. He married pubescent girls, others in their late teens;
women in their twenties and thirties, and only a few in their fifties and sixties. Most
of these women had never been married or were already married. Few were
Pat was at a loss for words and simply said, “Interesting.”
So, the question must be answered, “was polygamy started by the FLDS Church or
the LDS church? The answer is, clearly the Mormon (LDS) church. Talk to any
FLDS person and they will proudly tell you they are the “true” Mormon, for they
obey the Mormon scriptures, which includes all that is written in Doctrine and
1. Joseph Smith, History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, 7 vols. (Salt Lake City,
UT: Desert Book Co., 1978), 3:16, April 11, 1838.
2. Richard S. Van Wagoner, Mormon Polygamy: A History (Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books,
3. William Clayton diary, August 16, 1843, in George D. Smith, ed., An Intimate Chronicle: The
Journals of William Clayton (Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books in association with Smith Research
Associates, 1995), 117.
5. Dr. W. Wyle, Joseph Smith the Prophet: His Family and His Friends (Salt Lake City, UT: Triune
Publishing Co., 1886), 62.
6. Dan Vogel, ed., Early Mormon Documents, (Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books, 1998), 2:348.
7. W. Wyle, 70.
8. For a list of 36 wives with marriage dates, refer to Fawn Brodie, No Man Knows My History, 335-36. For a list of 84 women who were either married to Joseph Smith and/or sealed to him as his wife
for eternity, refer to Jerald and Sandra Tanner, Joseph Smith and Polygamy (Salt Lake City, UT: Utah
Lighthouse Ministry), 41-47.
9. Tod Compton, In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City, UT:
Signature Books, 2001), 15.
10. Ibid., 11.
11. The child was born on February 8, 1844. The mother was legally married to Windsor P.
Lyon–cited in D. Michael Quinn’s The Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power (Salt Lake City, UT:
Signature Books in association with Smith Research Associates, 1994), 642, Appendix 7. One
contemporary Mormon woman of Joseph Smith’s said, “You hear often that Joseph Smith had no
polygamous offspring. The reason of this is very simple. Abortion was practiced on a large scale in
Nauvoo. Dr. John C. Bennett, the evil genius of Joseph, brought this abomination into a scientific
system. He showed to my husband and me the instruments with which he used to ‘operate for
Joseph.’ There was a house in Nauvoo, ‘right across the flat’...a kind of hospital. They sent the
women there, when they showed signs of celestial consequences. Abortion was practiced regularly in
this house” (emphasis in original). W. Wyle, 59.
12. Donny Osmond, Life Is Just What You Make It (New York, Hyperion, 1999), 13.
13. Contributor, 5:259; quoted in Ogden Kraut’s The Church and the Gospel (Salt Lake City, UT:
Pioneer Press, 1993), 186.
14. Millennial Star, Voume 27:673; quoted in Kraut, 186-187.
40. Salt Lake City Tribune, January 6, 1880; quoted in Kraut, 187.
15. Revelation given by John Taylor, dated September 27, 1886; photocopy of the original
appears in 1886 Revelation–A Revelation of the Lord to John Taylor. Published by the
“Fundamentalists,” quoted in Tanner and Tanner, Mormonism: Shadown or Reality? 242.
15. Journal of Discourses, 13:166.
16. Doctrine and Covenants, 13:166.
18. Reed Smoot Case, 4:476-82, quoted in Tanner and Tanner, Mormonism: Shadow or Reality?
19. For example, in 1896 Mormon apostle Abraham H. Cannon took a plural wife by the name of
Lillian Hamlin. President Joseph F. Smithy performed the ceremony and “obtained the acquiescence
of President Woodruff [who wrote the manifesto], on the plea that it wasn’t an ordinary case of
polygamy but merely a fulfillment of the biblical instruction that a man should take his dead brother’s
wife...” Daily Journal of Abraham H. Cannon, April 5, 1894, Volume 18, 70; quoted in Tanner and
Tanner, Mormonism: Shadow or Reality? 244-A.
20. According to the Tanners, the “apostle Abraham H. Cannon’s journal not only reveals that the
Mormon leaders approved of polygamy after the manifesto [Officeial Declaration], but it shows they
were considering the idea of a secret system of concubinage: George Qu. Cannon said, “I believe in
concubinage, or some plan whereby men and women can live together under sacred ordinances and
vows until they can be married...such a condition would have to be kept secret....” President Snow
said, “I have no doubt but concubinage will yet be practiced in this church...when the nations are
troubled good women will come here for safety and blessing, and men will accept them as
concubines.” President Woodruff (author of the manifesto) said, “If men enter into some practice of
this character to raise a righteous posterity, they will be justified in it...” Daily Journal of Abraham H.
Cannon, April 5, 1894, Volume 18, 70; quoted in Tanner and Tanner, Mormonism Shadow or Reality?
21. Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought (Salt Lake City, UT: Dialogue Foundation, 1994), Volume
27, No. 1, Spring 1994, 36.
22. The sisters that Joseph married were Prescindia (m. 1838) and Zina Huntington (m. Oct. 27,
1841), Delcena (m. before June 1842) and Almera Johnson (m. April 1843), Eliza and Emily
Partridge (m. March 1843). Cited in Fawn Brodie’s, No Man Knows My History (New York: Alfred A.
Knopf, Inc., 1945, 1971), 335-36.
23. Joseph Smith married Patty Sessions (age 47 and wife of David Sessions) on March 9, 1842.
Smith married Patty’s daughter Sylvia (age 25-26?, around 1843-44). Brodie, 335-36.
24. W. Wyle, 71.
© 2003 Donna Morley
Excerpts taken from Donna Morley’s book
A Christian Woman’s Guide to Understanding Mormonism
(Eugene Oregon, Harvest House Publishers, 2003), 73-79