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Was Polygamy, in the Nineteenth Century, Started by the

FLDS Church, or the LDS Church?

Donna Morley

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

The Revelation

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 (D&C 132:61).

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 Lyon.11

The Extent

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 Amen.”13

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: