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Many presume Joseph was marrying women to justify libido-driven actions. Yet Dennison Harris’s report  indicates Joseph considered plural marriage a commandment from God which he was required to obey. It was a commandment he said he would obey even if it led to his death.

The only canonized document discussing plural marriage is found in D&C 132, which was not published during Joseph’s lifetime. The RLDS Church questioned the legitimacy of this revelation, bolstered by the deathbed claim of Emma Hale [Smith] that she had never seen the revelation.

However Erastus Snow wrote that Joseph had received the revelation while translating a passage in the Old Testament where “one of the Old Prophets was dividing His property to His offspring,” likely Genesis 17. [1] We know Joseph abruptly ceased translating the Old Testament at Genesis 24:31 prior to March 7, 1831. [2] When we consider the initial revelation regarding plural marriage likely occurred at that time, the historical and revelatory record comes to life.

The Context for the 1831 Revelation.

Several historical events occurred prior to March 1831 that provide us insight into the relationship between Joseph Smith and his wife, Emma Hale:

  • Joseph eloped with Emma Hale over her father’s objection (January 1827).
  • Joseph obtained the golden plates and began to translate them (September 1827).
  • Emma’s first child, Alvin Smith, was born and died when Martin Harris lost the first 116 manuscript pages of the Book of Mormon (June 1828).
  • Joseph started attending the Methodist church, believing himself under condemnation for allowing the pages to be lost. Emma’s uncle kicked him out (summer 1828).
  • Translation resumed and The Book of Mormon was published (May 1829–March 1830).
  • The Hale family decided to let Joseph farm a parcel near their home (spring 1830).
  • Joseph formed the Church of [Jesus] Christ [of Latter-day Saints] (April 1830).
  • Joseph was commanded to tend to the Lord’s work. He neglected the farm (summer 1830).
  • Joseph came home to find Emma talking with her father and uncle. Hale kicked Joseph off the farm, demanding that Emma leave Joseph (September 1830). Emma stayed with Joseph.
  • Emma became pregnant with twins (likely in September 1830, presuming typical twin gestation of 36 weeks).
  • Joseph began his translation [3] of the King James Bible (NLT Dec 1830).
  • Joseph and Emma traveled to Kirtland, Ohio (February 1831).
  • Joseph resumed his work on the King James Bible, translating from Gen 5:29 through Gen 24:31 prior to March 7,

Emma had given up the family of her birth for a husband who had dedicated his life to God’s work. Yet Emma had also heard the vehement objections her father and uncle had to Joseph Smith. They considered him a heretic unfit to support a wife. Tales of religious innovators, such as Jacob Cochran, may have entered into these family conversations. Emma was noticeably pregnant with twins by March 1831 and was likely feeling vulnerable.

Based on the Genesis account up to the death of Abraham’s wife, Sarah, Joseph went to God and seems to have asked how it was that Abraham and other honored Bible figures were justified in having many wives and concubines.

Emma seems the most likely person to have discussed Old Testament polygamy with Joseph in March of 1831. She had the strongest motive to question the institution of polygamy in the Old Testament. She certainly would later question whether polygamy could be the will of God. Other people close enough to Joseph to discuss these things in 1831, such as Oliver Cowdery, or Newell K. Whitney, would likely have left a record of the interaction. Yet there is no such record.

We can infer that the initial verses of D&C 132 reflect the answer Joseph received in March 1831:

Verily, thus saith the Lord unto you my servant Joseph, that inasmuch as you have inquired of my hand to know and understand wherein I, the Lord, justified my servants Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as also Moses, David and Solomon, my servants, as touching the principle and doctrine of their having many wives and concubines—

Behold, and lo, I am the Lord thy God, and will answer thee as touching this matter.

Therefore, prepare thy heart to receive and obey the instructions which I am about to give unto you; for all those who have this law revealed unto them must obey the same.

For behold, I reveal unto you a new and an everlasting covenant; and if ye abide not that covenant, then are ye damned; for no one can reject this covenant and be permitted to enter into my glory. [4]

Independent of whether this revelation came as a result of a discussion between Emma and Joseph, it seems natural that Joseph would have shared something about the answer with Emma. Yet there is no record of what Emma thought about the revelation and covenant in 1831.

Arguing with God.

Even though Joseph did not write down the revelation related to plural marriage in 1831, we see the continued argument between Joseph and God. Section 45 of the Doctrine and Covenants, received March 7, 1831, is the first revelation that mentions the New and Everlasting Covenant:

…I have sent mine everlasting covenant into the world, to be a light to the world, and to be a standard for my people…to prepare the way before me [Jesus Christ]…in the day when I shall come in my glory in the clouds of heaven, to fulfil the promises that I have made unto your fathers… [5]

After numerous verses describing terrible events that would precede the time when Christ would come in glory, Joseph wrote God had said:

“[It] shall not be given you any further concerning this chapter, until the New Testament be translated, and in it [the New Testament] all these things shall be made known… I give unto you that you may now translate it, that ye may be prepared for the things to come. [Verily], great things await you. [6]

Joseph stopped translating Genesis and began working on the New Testament. As per direction in the revelation, Joseph moved his family from the Whitney home in the center of the village to a cabin on the Morley Farm. On April 30, 1831, Emma gave birth to twins, Thaddeus and Louisa. The two infants died hours later.

Thaddeus and Louisa were the second and third children taken from Joseph and Emma when they could have believed they were flouting commandment. Joseph and Emma may have therefore seen these deaths as a rebuke from God. [7]

Take Unto You Wives.

It is only after the revelation in early 1831 that we see mention of men having more than one wife. The first instance is a revelation remembered by William W. Phelps as occurring in July 1831. According to Phelps’s later record, Joseph Smith reportedly suggested seven married elders being sent to the American Indians should “take unto you wives of the Lamanites and Nephites.” [8]

It seems Phelps did not bother asking Joseph what he had meant in July 1831 until three years later. There is no indication that any of the men present in July 1831 courted or married an Indian woman.

In the New Testament These Things Shall be made Known.

Joseph worked his way through translation of the New Testament until he got to the Gospel of John. At this point Joseph was working on his Bible translation with Sidney Rigdon in an upper room of the Johnson home in Hiram, Ohio. A little less than a year had passed since Joseph was told to shift his translation work to the New Testament. Joseph and Sidney were translating John chapter 5 and came to verse 29:

Speaking of the resurrection of the dead, concerning those who shall hear the voice of the Son of Man:

And shall come forth; they who have done good, in the resurrection of the just; and they who have done evil, in the resurrection of the unjust. [9]

Prompted by this mention of the dead who would hear “the voice of the Son of Man,” Joseph and Sidney proceeded to record a revelation now canonized as D&C 76. This is one of the most important revelations regarding Mormon eschatology (Greek for “last study”), or beliefs regarding the ultimate destiny of mankind. The vision describes a heaven of different degrees based on earthly faith and works. The highest, or celestial, heaven would be reserved for those who were baptized and sealed [10] by the Holy Spirit of promise.

D&C 76 answered some of Joseph’s questions from the year before. This revelation, prompted by the translation of the New Testament, answered Joseph’s question about the fate of mankind when the end would come. The vision addressed in part the purpose of the New and Everlasting Covenant, to prepare a people to obtain Celestial glory.

In 1831 and 1832, Joseph did not record whether a restoration of plural marriage was convolved with the salvation of mankind and the terrible happenings predicted for the end of times, described in D&C 45. But he would tell trusted individuals in the 1840s that this is when the Lord had commanded him to restore plural marriage.

Mormon eschatology would evolve further after 1832, to include proxy ordinance work on behalf of the dead, [11] multiple degrees of glory within the Celestial Kingdom, [12] and the sealing of all mankind together via biological and adoptive family lines. [13]

Mormonism also developed a unique origin narrative, or protology (Greek for “first study”). Joseph taught that individuals were eternal and uncreated, given spiritual form by God the Father. [14] Citing Jeremiah, [15] Isaiah, [16] and John the Revelator, [17] Joseph taught that each of us made a choice before this life to trust Christ’s atonement and accept the risk of mortality and sin to gain physical form. This protology elevated mortal and eternal conjugal marriage to a divine partnership with God. [18]

Biblical Marriage.

When Joseph Smith eventually began to solemnize plural marriages, the seeds of his actions can be found in the Bible, particularly the Old Testament. Many of the biblical marriage patterns followed by Joseph and his immediate successors can be seen in the marriages of the patriarchs about whom Joseph had asked God, listed in D&C 132:1.

Abraham. Abraham was married to Sarah, who offered Abraham her servant Hagar as a wife. We see in this two important ideas, both a wife offering her servant and a wife being the one to select the additional woman for the husband.

After Sarah’s death, Abraham married Keturah and had five sons with her. Thus we see an Old Testament patriarch re-marrying after the death of his wife.

Isaac. The inclusion of Isaac in D&C 132:1 is curious, as there is nothing in the Bible account that leads us to think Isaac was married to anyone other than Rebekah. With Isaac we see one of the key Bible patriarchs mentioned in D&C 132 who is only married to one woman.

Jacob. Jacob returned to the household of Rebekah’s brother, Laban. Jacob labored in Laban’s household for seven years for the hand of his cousin, Laban’s daughter Rachel, the woman he loved. But on the wedding night, Laban switched Rachel for her older, unmarried sister, Leah.

Jacob proceeded to commit himself to another seven years of labor to obtain the hand of Rachel. With Jacob, then, we see the third Old Testament patriarch mentioned in D&C 132 married to sisters.

Both Rachel and Leah would offer their servants Bilhah and Zilpah to Jacob as wives. Here we see a repetition of women encouraging their servants to marry the family patriarch.

Moses. The Bible record only mentions Zipporah, the Israelite, as Moses’s wife. Again we have an Old Testament prophet mentioned in D&C 132 who was apparently married to only one wife.

David. King David married several women, though the number is not clear. In the story of David’s relationship with Michal, we see wives shifted between husbands. David married Abigail after the death of her husband, who the Bible claims was smitten by the Lord. This marriage of a widow resembles the levirate marriage customs codified in the Levitical law. Biblical examples of levirate marriage include the union of Tamar and Judah and the marriage of David’s great-grandparents, Ruth and Boaz.

However David caused the death of Uriah to have Bathsheba. D&C 132 explained that for this murder David “shall not inherit them [his wives] out of the world, for I [the Lord] gave them to another.” [19] This introduces the belief that a sinful man’s wife could be taken from him in eternity.

Solomon. David was succeeded by Bathsheba’s son, Solomon. The only wife of Solomon mentioned by name is Naamah, mother of Solomon’s successor, Rehoboam. But the Bible states that Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines. In the wives of Solomon, we see a pattern of creating alliances through ceremonial marriage and concubinage. The number of wives and concubines suggests sexuality may not have played a role in all these relationships.

And Eve did labor with him. As has been discussed, it appears the covenants Joseph entered into with women other than his legal wife were rarely, if ever, consummated. If the marriages were not initially for pleasure or procreation, then we must consider that some of the marriages created a bond wherein a man and the woman with whom he covenanted could simply assist one another within a relationship of complete loyalty.

Joseph entered into the vast majority of his plural marriages between November 1841 and November 1843, a period of only two years. Few understand the devastation caused when John Bennett and his followers seduced unknown numbers of women during 1841-1842. John Bennett and his acolytes taught their victims that “it was right to go to bed to a woman if not found out.” [20]

Most of the women who covenanted with Joseph fit one or more of the biblical archetypes. Bur some of the women who became plural wives prior to Joseph’s death were vulnerable, specifically to seduction. Joseph and other church leaders appear to have spoken with or “married” these women to provide for them and to protect them, as in the case of the orphaned Partridge sisters.

A few other women appear to have served as detectives seeking to uncover the corruption created by Dr. Bennett and his acolytes. Emma was one of those seeking to end the corruption in her role as Relief Society President. It is likely she knew about the other “detective-wives,” including her friends Elizabeth Davis [Durfee] and Sarah Kingsley [Cleveland].

If Joseph had married a plural wife shortly after receiving the 1831 revelation, plural marriage would have been well established by the arrival of Dr. Bennett in 1840. If so, the heresy of illicit intercourse might have been avoided. But it would take far more than revelation and biblical precedent to persuade Joseph to marry someone in addition to Emma Hale.

The 1831 Revelation Regarding Plural Marriage – Notes.

Joseph Smith initially received a revelation commanding him to embrace plural marriage in February or March 1831 while translating Genesis. The first suggestion that married men consider taking other wives occurs after this time.

Published revelations indicate that Joseph may have believed the New and Everlasting Covenant and plural marriage would play an important role in preparing the world for the Second Coming of Christ (D&C 45) or that the highest heaven was reserved for those who had been baptized and sealed by the holy spirit of promise.

Early LDS plural marriages resemble biblical archetypes. However the timing of Joseph’s plural marriages suggest many of them occurred in reaction to the illicit intercourse taught by Dr. John C. Bennett.

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[1] Erastus Snow wrote that Joseph explained in 1843 “that when He was translating the Scriptures that part of it were one of the Old Prophets was dividing His property to His offspring ^Then it was that the Lord revealed unto him^” Erastus Snow returned to Nauvoo in April 1843 but the discussion could only have occurred at a time when Joseph would have said “That the time had come now when the principle should be practiced.” See Bergera, Gary James, “Identifying the Earliest Polygamists, 1841-44,” Dialogue Vol. 38, No. 3 p. 37.

[2] Jackson, Kent P. and Robert J. Matthews, Joseph Smith’s New Translation of the Bible: The Original Manuscripts, 2004. Multiple early historians suggest the revelation on plural marriage was received in February or March of 1831, including B. H. Roberts (History of the Church V:XXIX), Joseph F. Smith (1882 funeral address), and Hubert Howe Bancroft (1889, History of Utah).

[3] This was Joseph writing or making edits based on revelation, rather than “translation.”

[4] From D&C 132:1-4. Even though D&C 132 was formally received in 1843, Joseph indicated the revelation was well known to him and that he could write it again if destroyed.

[5] D&C 45: 9, 16

[6] D&C 45: 60-62

[7] The idea that death could be a result of sin is seen in Joseph Smith’s June 23, 1843, confidence to William Clayton, where he told Clayton of [Robert] Thompson’s death as a result of sin. See An Intimate Chronicle: The Journals of William Clayton, George D. Smith editor, Signature Books, Salt Lake City, UT, 1995, p. 108.

[8] From H. Michael Marquardt’s book, The Joseph Smith Revelations Text and Commentary, p. 374-376, excerpt retrieved online 5 Jan 2014. The men were Joseph Smith Jun. Oliver Cowdery, W.W. Phelps, Martin Harris, Joseph Coe, Ziba Peterson and Joshua Lewis, all married.

[9] Wording from the Joseph Smith Translation, also D&C 76: 16-17. c.f. John 5: 28-29

[10] The original interpretation of the term sealed was different from the sealing between family members performed in temples today

[11] Sermon delivered at the funeral of Seymour Brunson on August 10, 1840, also D&C 127 and D&C 128. See also a poetic adaptation of D&C 76 in 1843 possibly written by William W. Phelps. The 1843 version does not insist an individual be judge only by their earthly works.

[12] See D&C 131 and D&C 132.

[13] April 1894 revelation received by Wilford Woodruff, see Wilford Woodruff journal for 5-6 April 1894 and Deseret Evening News, General Conference Proceedings, of 14 April 1894.

[14] This eternal pre-existence of souls is distinct from re-incarnation, where an eternal being is recycled through life in various bodies, human or other.

[15] Jeremiah 1:5, “Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee”

[16] Isaiah 14:12, “How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning!”

[17] Revelations 12:3-9, speaking of the conflict between Michael and the great serpent over the “stars” of heaven.

[18] This vision of a literal Heavenly Father of spirits is explored in Eliza R. Snow’s hymn, O, My Father, written in 1845.

[19] D&C 132:39

[20] The quoted description comes from the Church court that tried Joseph Ellis Johnson in 1850. See Hales, Brian,  Mary Heron. Online 16 Mar 2014 at http://www.josephsmithspolygamy.com/NonWivesSexualRelations/24Accusations/MaryHeronSniderACC.html. Similar descriptions can be found in the confessions of the women who had been seduced in 1842, Joseph Smith’s description of Bennett’s activities, and Bennett’s description of the “seraglio” over which he claimed Emma Hale [Smith] presided.