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There are various stories recounting that Joseph told men to give their wives to him. Alternately, there are instances where a woman who was married to another man then entered into a covenant relationship with Joseph Smith.

Prior to March 1842, Joseph covenanted with three women who were married to other men. These ladies were Zina Diantha Huntington [Jacobs], Presendia Huntington [Buell], and Mary Elizabeth Rollins [Lightner]. DNA analysis of descendants suggests none of the descendants of these women [1] are actually related to Joseph Smith. Therefore it is reasonable to speculate that these covenants were ceremonial in nature. Joseph’s covenants with the Huntington sisters appear to have been partially based on the command from the angel with the sword and partially inspired by Dimick Huntington’s desire to link the Huntington family to Joseph Smith in eternity. Joseph’s covenant with Mary Elizabeth Rollins [Lightner] was based on the command from the angel with the sword and possibly the urgency caused by Joseph’s early fears about the seductions taking place in Nauvoo.

In 1842, Joseph appears to have covenanted with five additional women who were already married:

  • Sylvia Sessions[Lyon],
  • PattyBartlett [Sessions],
  • Elizabeth Davis [Goldsmith Brackenbury Durfee],
  • SarahMaryetta Kingsley [Howe Cleveland], and
  • Esther Dutcher [Smith]. [2]

As discussed in Plural Wives of 1842, it appears these women were acting as detectives during the hunt for the men seducing women in Nauvoo. These covenants then were possibly a combination of Joseph teaching the correct doctrine and swearing these women to secrecy in pursuit of the men and women teaching or believing false doctrine about the nature of marriage and sexuality. Esther and Sylvia were associated with men who were either excommunicated or known to have committed adultery (Windsor Lyon and Gustavus Hills).

By summer 1842 Bennett had been exposed as ring-leader of the sexual predators. Bennett counter-attacked Joseph in the press, claiming Joseph was the one who had been propositioning women. As with most effective lies, there was a kernel of truth. Joseph had been talking with women about the New and Everlasting Covenant. But Joseph’s aim does not appear to have been the easy sex Bennett and his Strikers had elicited from the hapless women of Nauvoo. Yet Bennett spun a web of accusations anchored in the allegation that Joseph had made improper advances to Sarah Pratt, wife of his apostle, Orson Pratt.

Joseph’s response to the accusation regarding Sarah Pratt was outrage. Sarah was an acknowledged adultress in the eyes of the dozens who heard John C. Bennett’s confession in 1841. [3] Joseph initially counter-accused Bennett of committing adultery, only specifying to the general public that the woman was Sarah when Bennett persisted in publishing his allegations.

Judges in Israel

Unfortunately Sarah’s husband appears not to have been aware of his wife’s infidelity prior to Bennett’s accusations and Joseph’s defense. After Sarah’s infidelity was declared to the public, Orson chose to remain silent rather than publicly confirm he believed himself cuckolded.

The other apostles felt that Orson’s silence was tantamount to an attack on Joseph Smith. They believed Joseph’s very life was at stake. Certainly Joseph had been forced into hiding as a result of Bennett’s accusations. [4] The Apostles did not have Joseph to guide them as they deliberated with Orson. After a short few weeks, they decided the only way to deal with Orson was to punish him. Orson was excommunicated on August 20, 1842.

Trying the Judges

There is reason to think Joseph was very distressed by the Apostles’ decision to excommunicate Orson. Not only had Orson been harmed, those who acted had demonstrated a stunning lack of compassion. Joseph could have simply ordered them to re-admit Orson to their number. But Joseph’s goal was not mere restitution. Joseph wished to create a quorum that was truly united, one by choice rather than by edict.

There are several reports that Joseph asked apostles to give him their wives. The timing of these requests is not known exactly. Prior researchers have not suggested that Orson’s excommunication was the cause. Most have merely seen this episode as a trial of the apostles’ faith, without providing a cause that might precipitate such a trial. An example of this lore is the 1854 sermon of Jedediah M. Grant asserting “Did the Prophet Joseph want every man’s wife he asked for? He did not… the grand object in view was to try the people of God, to see what was in them.” [5] Jedediah was second counselor to Brigham Young and had been sealed to Young as an adopted son. It is likely Jedediah’s information on the matter came from Brigham Young.

The members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles that remained in the summer of 1842 had already withstood the tempest of apostasy in Kirtland and Missouri. A list of the men who had been called as apostles in the short history of the Church leading up to 1842 [6] shows how many had fallen by the wayside. The reason for leaving the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles is given. Remaining apostles from the original quorum are bolded.

  1. Thomas B. Marsh, (1835-1838) apostasy
  2. David W. Patten, (1835-1838) death, shot in Missouri
  3. Brigham Young, (1835-1847) became Church President
  4. HeberC. Kimball, (1835-1868) death
  5. Orson Hyde, (1835-1839, 1839-1878) death
  6. WilliamE. M’Lellin, (1835-1838) apostasy
  7. Parley P. Pratt, (1835-1857) death, shot in Arkansas
  8. Luke S. Johnson, (1835-1838) apostasy
  9. WilliamB. Smith, (1835-1845) excommunication
  10. Orson Pratt, (1835-1842, 1843-1881) death
  11. John F. Boynton, 1835-1837) apostasy
  12. Lyman E. Johnson, (1835-1838) apostasy
  13. John E. Page, (1838-1846) excommunication
  14. John Taylor, (1838-1880) became Church President
  15. Lyman Royal Sherman, (1838-1839) died before ordination
  16. Wilford Woodruff, (1839-1889) became Church President
  17. GeorgeA. Smith, (1839-1868) death
  18. WillardRichards, (1840-1847) death
  19. Lyman Wight, (1841-1848) excommunication

It is unclear how many of the 1842 apostles were challenged to give Joseph their wives. We only have information on this challenge for a few of these men.

Brigham Young, President of the Quorum

There is no colorful story regarding Joseph’s challenge to Brigham Young. However the view Jedediah Grant expressed, that Joseph’s request for some men’s wives was simply a test, almost certainly came from Brigham Young.

Brigham’s first wife had died in 1832. Earlier in 1842 Brigham had officiated as Joseph covenanted with Agnes Coolbrith [Smith] and Mary Elizabeth Rollins [Lightner]. Brigham Young had sheltered the abandoned Lucy Decker. Brigham had shown time and again that he was willing to do whatever Joseph asked of him.

Assuming Joseph asked Brigham for his wife, Brigham may have agreed all too quickly. He may not have had a chance to internalize the pain Orson was feeling. Brigham would require tremendous sacrifices on the part of Church members after Joseph’s death. The polygamy-related sacrifices Brigham demanded of Orson Pratt would seemingly be the final straw souring Sarah [Pratt] against her husband.

Brigham Young’s trust in Orson might never have been fully restored. Late in life Brigham would announce that seniority in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles should be based on the most recent accession to the quorum. Seniority was previously based on the apostle’s original ordination date. With seniority redefined, John Taylor, rather than Orson Pratt, was named President of the Church after the death of Brigham Young.

Orson Hyde

At the time Orson Pratt was excommunicated, Orson Hyde was still on his mission to Palestine. Orson’s bride was Nancy Marinda Johnson [Hyde], a woman who had been a teenager in the home where Joseph lived in 1832. It is possible Joseph had been prompted to ask Nancy to covenant with him in those early days. However a mob attack intervened.

During the investigation, Joseph asked Nancy Marinda Johnson for her help. Nancy Marinda was the one who reached out to Nancy Rigdon during the investigation.

Orson Hyde returned to Nauvoo in December 1842. Joseph broached the subject of plural marriage with him. Orson Hyde would covenant with two women in March of 1843. But in May 1843, Nancy Marinda Johnson [Hyde] chose to covenant with Joseph Smith, rather than Orson Hyde. It is possible Orson Hyde’s apostasy in 1838 influenced her decision.

Perhaps Nancy Marinda Johnson, like Zina Huntington and Mary Elizabeth Rollins, came to believe that she was one who had been fore-ordained for Joseph in eternity. However Nancy Marinda Johnson spent the rest of her reproductive existence with the man she had chosen to marry when Joseph hesitated. [7] Orson Hyde was the father of all of Marinda’s ten children. [8]

Parley P. Pratt

The configuration of Parley’s family was uniquely complicated in 1842. Parley’s first wife, Thankful Halsey, had died due to complications of childbirth in March 1837. Parley then proceeded to marry Mary Ann Frost [Sterns], a young widow who had been devoted to her first husband.

We do not have a record suggesting Joseph demanded Parley’s wife in 1842. However when Parley learned of plural marriage, he was overjoyed by the possibility of binding his loved ones to him for eternity.

The challenge Parley and Mary Ann suffered regarding plural marriage occurred later in 1843. Parley wished to have himself sealed to Mary Ann, ignoring the fact that she had a previous husband to whom she had been quite devoted. Hyrum Smith, himself newly introduced to the concept of Celestial marriage, agreed to perform the ceremony. Joseph cancelled this one sealing Hyrum had performed, which had been done without specific authorization. [9] It appears Joseph then proceeded to seal Mary Ann to himself. Joseph may have sealed himself to Mary Ann to make sure Parley and Mary Ann did not again attempt to usurp the eventual place of the deceased Nathan Stearns at Mary Ann’s side in eternity.


John Taylor

In the case of John Taylor, we have snippets and a rich oral history that was then published by John’s grandson, noted fiction-writer Samuel W. Taylor.

John Taylor adored his wife, Leonora Agnes Cannon [Taylor]. Leonora was fully twelve years John’s senior. So John had married Leonora despite the traditional folkways that would have had him seek a girl closer to his own age.

When Joseph asked John to yield up Leonora, John was tormented. He did not eat or sleep. But at last he determined to discuss the matter with Leonora.

Sam Taylor recounts that Leonora wanted nothing to do with the matter. She proceeded to lob kitchen items at John in her anger. At one point in the altercation, she reared back her arm and accidentally broke a glass window. The glass cut her badly, and Leonora would later claim she lost a finger as a result of the wound. More painfully, Leonora came to believe that her youngest child, Leonora Agnes, had died [10] because of the events of that day. We do not know enough of the dating of events and the details of Agnes’s death to understand why Leonora felt that way. [11]

Wilford Woodruff related:

“the Prophet went to the home of President Taylor, and said to him, ‘Brother John, I want Leonora’ … it is said John Taylor never answered the prophet, turned away and walked the floor all night, but the next morning, went to the home of the Prophet’s and said to him, ‘Brother Joseph, if God wants Leonora He can have her.’ That was all the prophet was after … and said to him, ‘Brother Taylor, I don’t want your wife, I just wanted to know where you stood.’ ” [12]

When John Taylor effectively told Joseph, “If you want Leonora, you can have her,” John Taylor may have been sporting evidence of the pots and pans Leonora had thrown at him or blood from Leonora’s self-inflicted accidental wound. Joseph did not require Leonora at John’s hand. However the circumstances hardly made Joseph’s refusal to accept Leonora seem like anything but self-preservation.

Heber C. Kimball

In the case of Heber C. Kimball, the tale as we have it comes from his grandson, Apostle Orson F. Whitney. The story is not the titillating human tale Sam Taylor told about John and Leonora. It is a faithful tale from a devoted descendant.

As John adored Leonora, so Heber adored his wife, Vilate Murray [Kimball]. When Joseph demanded Heber yield up Vilate, Heber went three days without eating or sleeping. Vilate became quite concerned.

Heber C. Kimball did not confide in Vilate. But finally Heber decided he must do as Joseph had asked. He took Vilate with him to visit Joseph. Then to Vilate’s amazement, Heber put Vilate’s hand in Joseph’s, and gave her up.

With Brigham, Joseph had likely faced a follower who obeyed without delay, an obedience too quick to change the heart. With Orson Hyde, the wife in question wished to claim an eternal blessing Joseph’s hesitation had denied her. With Parley Pratt, Joseph was likely trying to prevent folks from usurping a dead husband’s place. With John Taylor, the wife in question had a mind of her own and clearly demanded the right to remain with the husband of her choice.

Only with Heber and Vilate were husband and wife so devoted to one another and to the Lord that Joseph’s challenge was truly heart-wrenching and the decision to obey an unquestionable sacrifice.

In the face of the faith of Heber and Vilate, Joseph broke down and cried. Placing Vilate’s hand back into the hand of Heber, Joseph then performed the ordinance sealing Heber to Vilate for all eternity. [13] Heber and Vilate would therefore join Newell and Elizabeth Whitney as couples whose civil marriages were solemnized for eternity before Joseph himself had obtained this privilege.

No one would record the date of Heber and Vilate’s sealing. At the time the ordinance was so sacred that few recorded such things.

A complicating factor, perhaps, was the arrangement Heber made sometime in 1842 to take Sarah Peak [Noon] under his protection. If Heber and Vilate were to record a sealing date after Sarah Peak [Noon] entered their family, it would beg the question of why Heber and Vilate’s sacrifice in giving Sarah Peak [Noon] a home had not been sufficient to warrant the sealing ordinance.

When Heber’s grandson, Orson F. Whitney, wrote his 1888 biography of Heber C. Kimball, he was faced with determining how to assemble the facts of his famous relative’s life. To Orson Whitney, Joseph’s request for Vilate was clearly the largest challenge. It seemed to Whitney that this challenge must have been the first of his grandfather’s sacrifices on behalf of restoring the principle of plural marriage. However Whitney’s reconstruction of events does not fit the larger context. Whitney’s chronology would place Joseph’s demand for Vilate’s hand sometime in early 1842, a time when there was no apparent reason for Joseph to make such a demand of both Heber Kimball and John Taylor, as suggested by the similarity of their respective stories.

Orson Pratt, Reborn

By January 1843, Joseph appears to have won over his apostles. Orson Pratt and Sarah Pratt were re-baptized on January 20, 1843. [14] Orson was immediately readmitted to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

In 1852, when Brigham Young decided to announce Mormons were practicing polygamy, Brigham selected Orson Pratt to deliver the message. Orson, the man who had endured so much and so publicly, was by far the best man for the job.

Had Orson been allowed to ascend to the position of Church President, he could have ended the practice of polygamy with authority. However Brigham’s re-definition of apostolic seniority prevented Orson from becoming Church President. Orson would die in 1881, four years after Brigham Young’s death.

The End of Polyandry

With this saga regarding the wives of the apostles, we effectively come to an end of the cases where Joseph Smith covenants with the wife of another living man. There are two minor exceptions that bear mention.

Ruth Vose [Sayers] would eventually learn of the doctrine that allowed marriage to endure into eternity. Ruth craved the blessing of eternal marriage, but her husband did not believe. Mr. Sayers suggested Ruth covenant with Joseph for eternity. Thus we see Joseph extend an eternal sealing to a believing woman with the consent of her unbelieving husband. Mr. Sayers was both aware of the eternal arrangement and happy to allow his wife to participate in a ceremony he thought was nonsense.

Elvira Annie Cowles [Holmes] would be sealed to Joseph Smith on June 1, 1843. Joseph Smith himself had performed the civil ceremony linking Elvira to Jonathan Harriman Holmes on December 1, 1842. Elvira and Jonathan would tell their children that Elvira had been Joseph’s wife, and that Joseph had requested that Jonathan take care of Elvira in the event of Joseph’s death. Elvira appears to be participating in polyandry based on the available marriage documents. However it is likely Elvira intended to be sealed to Joseph before entering into the public marriage with Jonathan Holmes. It appears Elvira refrained from having sex either with Joseph or with Jonathan during Joseph’s lifetime. However Elvira did tell her daughters she had been Joseph’s wife during his lifetime to encourage them to accept the New and Everlasting Covenant. [15]

In February 1843 Elvira and Jonathan would welcome Eliza Snow into their home. The lives of these three (Jonathan Harriman Holmes, Elvira Annie Cowles, and Eliza Roxcy Snow) were uniquely entwined during 1842-1843.

The Apostles and Their Wives – Notes

It was claimed that Joseph asked his apostles to give him their wives. There is reason to suspect this happened with Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, and John Taylor. Joseph would reveal that the request had been a test, possibly because they excommunicated Orson Pratt.

Joseph would covenant with the wives of Parley P. Pratt and Orson Hyde. This allowed the women to spend eternity with the man of their choice. Examination of the remaining instances of “polyandry” indicate these covenants were likely only ceremonial.

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[1]  DNA analyses are only possible for those children who lived long enough to have children themselves. But those saying Joseph was a sexual partner to the women have no physical data to support their hypothesis.

[2] There are other women who would have themselves sealed to Joseph in the Nauvoo temple, at least one of whom alleged they had covenanted with Joseph during his lifetime. However these other women’s history is insufficiently documented to be certain Joseph covenanted with them, or what the nature of the covenant might have been.

[3] According to story in the May 1844 newspapers, Bennett confessed before roughly sixty men in the location that would later be used by the Masonic Lodge. “Municipal Court,” Times & Seasons, May 15, 1844, p. 539

[4] The accusation that caused Joseph to go into hiding was the claim Joseph had plotted to have Missouri Govenor Lilburn Boggs murdered. Governor Boggs was shot in May 1842, but survived. The “hitman” Joseph supposedly sent was offended at the suggestion he had been involved. Orrin Porter Rockwell testified “I never shot at anybody, if I shoot they get shot! … He’s still alive, ain’t he?” Rockwell was acquitted by a Grand Jury.

[5] Apostle Jedediah M. Grant, second counselor to Brigham Young and father of President Heber J. Grant, sermon delivered on 19 February 1854 (JD 2: 13-14).

[6] See Grampa Bill’s G.A. Pages, online 5 Apr 2014 at http://www.gapages.com/q12.htm.

[7] Nancy Johnson divorced Orson Hyde in 1870, possibly due to the visit of Joseph’s sons in 1869, the questioning regarding the covenant Nancy had made with Joseph, and the autonomy Nancy might have felt required to agitate for female suffrage and anti-polygamy legislation. See Keith Perkins, “A House Divided, The John Johnson Family,” Ensign, Feb. 1979. “After coming to Utah in 1852, [Nancy Marinda Johnson Hyde] and her husband settled in the Seventeenth Ward. In 1868 she became the ward’s Relief Society president, serving in that position until her death. She also was a member of the board of directors of the Deseret Hospital in Salt Lake. She sought the rights of Mormon women at a time when much of the nation was attempting to destroy the rights of all Latter-day Saints and was selected as a member of a committee which drafted a resolution against some of the vicious antipolygamy legislation being considered in Congress. (See Millennial Star, vol. 32, p. 113.) She also was one of fourteen women who drafted a resolution thanking the acting governor of Utah, S. A. Mann, for signing the act that gave the women in Utah the right to vote, the second such act in the United States.”

[8] Brian Hales points out Orson Washington (deceased as a child) would have had to gestate for 43 week to allow for him to be Joseph’s biological child. Frank Henry Hyde, he was born in 1846, making it impossible for Joseph to have been the biological father.

[9] Hyrum performed other impromptu Celestial marriages without correction, as in the case of Howard Coray. Therefore it seems the sealing between Parley Pratt and Mary Ann Frost [Stearns Pratt] was in error, rather than Hyrum acting without prior authorization.

[10] Agnes died in September 1843.

[11] Taylor, Samuel W., Last Pioneer: John Taylor, a Mormon Prophet, Signature Books, Salt Lake City, 1999.

[12]  John M. Whitaker typed and edited journals, 1: 242 (1 November 1890), Special Collections, Marriott Library. Whitaker provided this transcription from his original journals that he wrote in his own version of Pittman shorthand. Quoted in Michael Quinn, Evidence for the Sexual Side of Joseph Smith’s Polygamy, 2012, p. 26, online 11 Apr 2014 at http://ldsbooks.pbworks.com/f/Michael+Quinn+-+Evidence+for+Joseph’s+Sexual+Polygamy+(2012).pdf.

[13] Whitney, Orson F., Life of Heber C. Kimball, An Apostle, Kimball Family, Salt Lake City, 1888. Chapter XLVI, pp. 333-335.

[14] Rick J. Fish, Orson Pratt in Nauvoo: 1839-1846, 1993, citing Whittaker, Early Mormon Pamphleteering, p. 101. Online 8 Apr 2014 at http://jared.pratt-family.org/orson_histories/orson_pratt_in_nauvoo2.html.

[15]  In the late 1930s Phoebe Holmes [Welling] would recount that Elvira said she had been Joseph’s wife in very deed. Phoebe as a teenager refused to consider Job Welling’s proposal because he was English and a widower and a polygamist. Elvira, faced with a child who was being a bigot, may have said true things that implied more than had actually happened. Phoebe ended up marrying Job, who was already married to Phoebe’s older sister, Marietta. The two sisters combined to persuade their youngest sister, Emma Lucinda, to also marry Job. When Job was sent on a mission, he would write the most delightful crossed letters to his “Dear MPE” or Marietta, Phoebe, and Emma Lucinda.