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Before Joseph’s death in the summer of 1844, roughly a hundred men and women had entered into plural marriages. However only six plural wives bore a child that seems unquestionably to have been engendered by their covenant husband prior to Joseph’s death. [1]

For months after Joseph’s death, the matter of plural marriage took a back seat to succession concerns. But by September 1844, Brigham Young and the apostles had been accepted as Joseph’s rightful successors by a majority of Joseph’s followers. The apostles continued work toward completing the Nauvoo temple and began to marry Joseph’s covenant widows and other women in need. To the chagrin of Emma Smith, the apostles gave the go ahead for men to engage in sexual relations with their plural wives.

Succession Crisis

In the immediate aftermath of the death of Joseph and Hyrum, there was lack of clarity regarding who would lead the Church. [2]

Two obvious candidates were Joseph’s surviving brothers, Samuel and William. However Samuel died later that summer, reportedly of a bilious stomach upset. [3]

William was not supported as a serious successor for long by anyone outside his own family, particularly once he made it clear that he favored spiritual wifery. William briefly aligned himself with Strang and subsequently attempted to lead other Mormon splinter groups. In 1878 William joined the RLDS Church headed by Joseph Smith III. This occurred just prior to Emma Hale’s death in 1879. Emma’s famous deathbed denial of polygamy may have been an effort to inoculate her sons against the corrupting influence of their uncle.

Brigham Young and the apostles claimed Joseph had conferred on them the keys to carry forth the work of salvation, but this event had been conducted in strict secrecy. Most of the apostles were not in Nauvoo when Joseph died, having been assigned to other states in support of Joseph Smith’s campaign to become President of the United States. [4] Under the theory that the apostles were Joseph’s rightful successors, Willard Richards had begun signing himself as “Clerk and Acting President,” as he was the only able apostle in Nauvoo after the martyrdom. [5] John Taylor was still gravely ill from being shot at Carthage.

Sidney Rigdon believed he should replace Joseph Smith, as Sidney was the sole surviving member of the Church Presidency. Joseph and Hyrum were dead. Former Assistant Presidents of the Church, William Law and Dr. John C. Bennett, had been excommunicated. Rigdon returned from Pennsylvania, [6] and proposed he be made the guardian of the Church.

Recent convert, James Strang, produced a letter that seemed to be a commission from Joseph Smith to lead the Church. [7] Strang’s baptism occurred during the time conspirators were being sought to plot against Joseph. The letter is now widely acknowledged to be a forgery.

Though Strang attracted many of those who had agitated against Joseph during the spring of 1844, the vast majority of Saints were inclined to support either Brigham Young or Sidney Rigdon as Joseph’s successor. For those informed of the New and Everlasting Covenant and plural marriage, it was clear that Sidney Rigdon would not support Joseph’s teachings on this matter. Meanwhile Brigham Young had been involved in Joseph’s teachings and practices regarding plural marriage since January 1842.

When Sidney Rigdon returned from Pennsylvania, the four apostles in town invited him to meet with them on Sunday, August 4, 1844. Instead, Rigdon preached a sermon to several thousand people, indicating his intention to lead the Church and preserve the Church as Joseph “had begun it.” That afternoon, Stake President William Marks announced that a special meeting would be held in four days to determine the matter of succession. Marks himself had a claim to succession. Emma had urged Marks to take up leadership of the Church in July 1844, but Marks was content to throw his support to Sidney Rigdon. [8]

On Thursdays the Saints commonly met in the grove for religious meetings. So Sidney Rigdon’s decision to hold a vote deciding succession on Thursday, August 8, 1844, resonated with that practice. Sidney preached for two hours, and was leading up to a vote sustaining him as guardian of the Church.

Then Brigham Young took the stand. Brigham had planned to be with the other apostles in the office of Willard Richards, but the meeting in Richards’s office had completely flown from his mind. Instead he found himself in the grove. Brigham announced to the assembled parties that a vote on the matter of succession would be held at 2 pm that afternoon. At the afternoon meeting Brigham taught a sermon that emphasized the right of the apostles to lead. Parley P. Pratt followed, also supporting the Twelve. Sidney Rigdon was exhausted from his morning sermon and asked William W. Phelps to plead his case. Instead, Phelps supported the Apostles. [9]

Brigham Young and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles were sustained by the vast majority of those in attendance. It is reported that key individuals who did not sustain the apostles were eventually excommunicated. [10]

Collecting the Widows and Abandoned

In the month after the dramatic vote to sustain the apostles, Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball began to officiate as the living were sealed to their deceased loved ones. Within a few days, these proxy sealings began to include Joseph’s widows. [11] Roughly ten months after the vote sustaining Brigham Young and the apostles as the leaders of the Church, we begin to see children born to plural wives at a significant rate.

For Joseph’s widows, there were four options:

1) Marry a Church leader (e.g., Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball)

2) Remain married to a prior husband

3) Remain widowed

4) Marry another husband who was not a Church leader

In the fall of 1844, it appears Brigham Young, Heber Kimball, and Amasa Lyman married several women who had been wives of Joseph Smith. Many of these women lacked husbands or fathers to protect and provide for them. These women were:


Olive Grey Frost Nancy Winchester
Eliza R. Snow Martha McBride [12]
Emily Dow Partridge Sarah Whitney Eliza Maria Partridge
Maria Lawrence Sarah Lawrence
Lucy Walker

Women who had covenanted with Joseph Smith [13] but were married to someone else prior to Joseph’s death remained with the other husband.


* Mortal covenant with Smith in question

JUNE 27, 1844
Fanny Alger Solomon Custer
Zina Diantha Huntington Henry Jacobs
Presendia Huntington Norman Buell
Sylvia Sessions Windsor Lyon
Mary Elizabeth Rollins Adam Lightner
Patty Bartlett David Sessions
Marinda Nancy Johnson Orson Hyde
Elizabeth Davis* Jabez Durfee
Sarah Kingsley* John Cleveland
Lucinda Pendleton George Harris
Sarah Ann Whitney Joseph C. Kingsbury
Ruth Vose Edward Sayers
Flora Ann Woodworth Carlos Gove
Elvira Annie Cowles Jonathan H. Holmes
Phebe Watrous [Woodworth]* Lucien Woodworth

Non-Mormons highlighted in grey

Other widows of Joseph Smith appear to have remained unattached in 1844. This includes Emma Smith, who was pregnant with Joseph’s son. [14]

In the months after being sustained as Joseph’s successor, Brigham Young instructed men knowledgeable about plural marriage to covenant with women in need of protection. In the year following the dramatic vote sustaining Young, thirty men would covenant with eighty women, making them plural wives. This was in addition to the women who were Joseph’s widows and those who had already become plural wives during Joseph’s lifetime.

Emma Hale and others, such as Nauvoo Stake President William Marks, had clearly hoped Mormonism could revert to a monogamous Christian religion. Brigham’s action to solemnize dozens of additional plural marriages would force a schism between the LDS Church, led by Brigham Young, and many other smaller factions. Several of these would later align themselves with the Reorganized LDS Church (RLDS), led by Joseph Smith III, Emma’s son. The two LDS faiths diverged radically over marriage, polarizing one other as they attempted to win converts to their respective viewpoints.

Sexuality in Plural Marriage

Conclusive evidence of sexuality in plural marriages prior to Joseph’s death is scant. Only William Clayton and Joseph Bates Noble are known to have produced a child with their plural wives prior to Joseph’s death. Both of these children were conceived during May 1843, when Emma openly accepted the New and Everlasting Covenant. [15]

There are four additional couples where plural wives appear to have conceived before Joseph’s death: Heber C. Kimball with Sarah Peak Noon (son born no later than Sep 1844 [16] ), Lorenzo Dow Young with Harriet P. Wheeler [Decker] (son born Sep 5, 1844), William Felshaw with Charlotte Waters (daughter born Jan 25, 1845), and Theodore Turley with Mary Clift (son born Feb 11, 1845). [17]

Joseph may have consummated his marriages with Emily Partridge and Malissa Lott, as they testified to retain the Temple Lot from RLDS possession in 1894. Conjugal relations between Joseph and others of the women with whom he covenanted could have been possible, but are even less likely than the assertions Emily and Malissa made decades after Joseph’s death. No one has produced material evidence to confirm Joseph was sexually intimate with any of the women he covenanted with other than Emma Hale [Smith]. Rather, hypotheses regarding “known” biological children have consistently been debunked by DNA analysis.

Emma Smith had made it abundantly clear that she felt plural marriages should not produce children. In a conversation with Lucy Meserve (then a pregnant plural wife of Joseph’s cousin, George A. Smith), Emma reportedly said that Mormonism was true, but “the Twelve had made bogus of it. She said they were living with their [plural] wives and raising children and Joseph never taught any such doctrine.” [18]


Brigham Young and the rest of the twelve apostles had read the revelation and took it at face value. D&C 132: 68 seemed entirely clear:

…for they [a man’s plural wives] are given unto him to multiply and replenish the earth… that they may bear the souls of men; for herein is the work of my Father continued, that he may be glorified. [19]

It was clear to the leading apostles that plural marriages were to be consummated. Now that Brigham Young was in charge, he authorized men to consummate marriages with plural wives. In the summer of 1845, as the trial was being convened in Carthage to try the accused assassins of Joseph Smith, several plural wives in Nauvoo were pregnant or caring for newborn babies. The leaders of Nauvoo wanted nothing to do with vengeance or a trial that could prove dangerous to Joseph’s surviving followers.

Turning the Hearts

Brigham insisted that the marriages of the Saints should appropriately include engendering children. He also was committed to completing the temple, so the Saints could receive the ordinances Joseph had taught could only be performed in a temple. This included sealing spouses together as well as sealing the Saints to one another as parents and children. [20]

Most of the apostates of Nauvoo left to gather to Strang’s Wisconsin refuge. Others unwilling to follow Young or Strang scattered under a variety of leaders, each claiming to be the true successor to Joseph Smith. Meanwhile the State and people of Illinois seemed determine to emulate every wrong enacted by Missouri. [21]

Joseph had cared deeply about the opinions of his wife, Emma Hale [Smith]. Brigham Young was not similarly constrained.

Brigham enacted his understanding of Joseph’s teachings in a way that Joseph never had. It was clear to Brigham Young and most of the other apostles that appeasement and a façade of pure monogamy would do nothing to halt the coming storm.

Collecting the Sorrowful – Notes

Following Joseph’s death, several possible successors were available. Joseph’s brother, William Smith, would lose support when it became clear he still practiced and supported spiritual wifery. James Strang primarily attracted those sympathetic to the conspiracy to kill Joseph. Sidney Rigdon and Brigham Young each put themselves forward to the main body of Mormons as the legitimate successor. The majority supported Brigham Young and apostolic succession.

Once Brigham had been confirmed as leader of Joseph’s people, he moved to provide for Joseph’s widows. Women who already had a husband remained with those men. Brigham Young and Heber Kimball between them married most of the nine single women who entered into levirate plural marriages in the year after Joseph’s death.

Dozens of leading men reached out to an additional eighty women in the year after Brigham was confirmed as Joseph Smith’s successor.

Brigham Young encouraged men to engender children with their plural wives. This was very upsetting to Emma Hale [Smith], who claimed this was never Joseph’s intent. Joseph was no longer alive to suppress the tension between his devotion to Emma and his devotion to God’s command. The latent contradiction would rend Joseph’s people asunder.

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[1] DNA analysis fails to confirm any child born to the women who covenanted with Joseph Smith can be proven to have been engendered by Smith. The six couples where a plural wife almost certainly conceived within a covenant marriage prior to Joseph’s death are: Joseph B. Noble & Sarah B. Alley (George born February 2, 1844); William Clayton & Margaret Moon (Daniel born Feb 18, 1844); Lorenzo Dow Young & Harriet P. Wheeler Decker (John born September 5, 1844); William Fleshaw & Charlotte Walters (Katherine born January 25, 1845); Theodore Turley & Mary Clift (Ephraim born February 11, 1845); and Heber C. Kimball & Sarah Peak Noon (Henry born ca. 1844, his younger sister Sarah born July 1, 1845). From Bergera, “Identifying the Earliest Mormon Polygamists, 1841-44,” Dialogue, online 7 Jul 2014 at http://www.dialoguejournal.com/wp-content/uploads/sbi/articles/Dialogue_V38N03_ 13.pdf. The earlier children conceived by Mary Clift and Sara Peak Noon, often believed to have been engendered by Theodore Turley and Heber C. Kimball respectively, were engendered during Dr. Bennett’s campaign of illicit intercourse. Presuming full-term deliveries, the children of Joseph B. Noble and William Clayton by their plural wives were likely conceived in late May 1843. The son of Heber C. Kimball with Sarah Peak [Noon] may also have been conceived in May 1843. The child of Lorenzo Dow Young was conceived no earlier than December 1843. The children of William Felshaw and Theodore Turley with plural wives were conceived in about May 1844. This pattern of conceptions suggests that Joseph Smith may also have consummated a plural marriage in May 1843, presumably the marriage to Emily Partridge. He also may have consummated a plural marriage in about May 1844, consistent with the 1894 testimony of Malissa Lott. There is no reason to be certain either consummation occurred without the knowledge and agreement of Emma Smith.

[2] See Succession Crisis (Latter Day Saints), online 3 Apr 2016 at  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Succession_crisi_(Latter_Day_Saints).

[3] William was in the east when Samuel died, but claimed Samuel had been poisoned. William based his accusation on the fact that Samuel was being treated by Willard Richards, a doctor specializing in Thompsonian and homeopathic methods. Homeopathic remedies can produce a brief exacerbation of symptoms before healing occurs. The tendency of the Smiths to credit each other with poisoning may have been influenced by the death of Alvin Smith as a result of “heroic” medicine, which included use of calomel, a highly toxic mercury compound. See Divett, “Medicine and the Mormons,” Dialogue, online 7 Jul 2014 at https://www.dialoguejournal.com/wp-content/uploads/sbi/articles/Dialogue_V12N03_ 20.pdf.

[4] Joseph was inspired to announce his candidacy when no current candidate was willing to endorse federal support for the liberties of the Mormons.  Dallin H. Oaks and Marvin S. Hill, Carthage Conspiracy, p. 12. Also Smith, History of the Church, VI, pp. 64-65 and Student Manual for Church History in the Fulness of Times, Chapter 21, online 7 July 2014 at https://www.lds.org/manual/church-history-in-the-fulness-of-times-student-manual/chapter-twenty-one-growing-conflict-in-illinois?lang=eng.

[5] Walker, “Six Days in August: Brigham Young and the Succession Crisis of 1844,” in A Firm Foundation, online 7 July 2014 at http://rsc.byu.edu/archived/firm-foundation/8-six-days-august-brigham-young-and-succession-crisis-1844.

[6] Sidney Rigdon was Joseph’s pick for Vice President, and candidates for President and Vice President on a ticket could not hail from the same state. Selection of Sidney Rigdon as running mate might have been a way to respectfully get Sidney out of Nauvoo at a time when conspiracy was rife.

[7] Some believe the letter was merely appointing Strang to lead the congregation (stake) in Wisconsin. Others believe the letter was a forgery that used a legitimate outer covering from a letter posted by Joseph from Nauvoo shortly before his death. See The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Strangite), online 3 Apr 2016 at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Church_of_Jesus_Christ_of_Latter_Day_Saints_(Strangite). It is suggestive that Strang became Mormon just when the Law conspiracy was gaining steam. Many of those who aligned themselves with Strang had links to the conspiracy, including William Law and Austin Cowles.

[8] Walker, “Six Days in August,” A Firm Foundation.

[9] Walker, “Six Days in August,” A Firm Foundation.

[10] McKiernan, The voice of one crying in the wilderness : Sidney Rigdon, religious reformer, 1793-1876, p. 56.

[11] Cook, Lyndon W., Nauvoo Marriages – Proxy Sealings 1843-1846, Grandin Book Company, Provo, UT, 2004. An example of these proxy sealings is Emmeline B. Harris, a deserted teenage bride who became a plural wife of Newel K. Whitney. Newel K. Whitney’s death in 1850 left Emmeline a single mother again at age 22. She approached Daniel H. Wells and asked him to accept her as a plural wife. She went on to become the General President of the Relief Society, showing how women used plural marriage to meet their needs. Plural marriage was also a pathway to power for women in the early Church, with prominent men able to promote the abilities of those of several wives who were similarly capable.

[12] Martha’s marriage to Heber C. Kimball occurred on October 12th. Some authors give the year as 1844, but as it was about two months before leaving Nauvoo, it was likely in 1845.

[13] This list of Joseph’s wives is based on Compton and Hales, though I do not believe some of these women (Mary Heron, Elizabeth Durfee, Sarah Kingsley) had actually married Joseph during his lifetime.

[14] Brian C. Hales has a list of those women he believes were married to Joseph Smith, with an indication of who they married after Joseph’s death. But Brian’s list includes many years of subsequent history, not just the events of 1844, online 7 Jul 2014 at http://josephsmithspolygamy.org/stories-of-faith-joseph-smiths-plural-wives/.

[15] It seems likely the children born in 1842 to plural wives were potentially or probably fathered by someone other than the “polygamist” who sheltered the women in that year.

[16] Henry Kimball (b. 1844), son of Sarah Peak [Noon] and Heber C. Kimball, had a sister, Sarah Helen Kimball, born on July 1, 1845. Henry was likely been born at least ten months before his sister. However it is possible Henry Kimball was also engendered/conceived in the May 1843 timeframe.

[17] See Chapters Plural Wives of 1842 and Healing Wounded Hearts for more information on the plural marriages of other men producing children prior to Joseph’s death.

[18] George D. Smith, “Nauvoo Roots of Mormon Polygamy, 1841-1846: A Preliminary Demographic Report,” Dialogue, Vol. 27, No. 1, pp. 25-26.

[19] D&C 132:63.

[20] Early Saints would bind themselves together in family units by adoption. After 1894  “adoption” sealings were entirely supplanted by sealings along genealogical lines.

[21] Assuming one finds it wrong to revoke all legal protections for a despised people as well as burning their homes and murdering individuals. It is clear that the inhabitants of Illinois, particularly the inhabitants of Hancock County, in 1845 felt such acts were legitimate.