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As the Nauvoo temple neared completion, the non-Mormons in Illinois took away all civil protection from the people in Nauvoo.

First to go was the Nauvoo city charter, which had authorized creation of the Nauvoo legion. Lacking a charter, Nauvoo could not even maintain a police force to protect against petty crime. [1]

The next peril was the beginning of the “wolf hunts” that had been initially threatened in 1844, a euphemism for attacks on outlying Mormon settlements and dwellings. In the months before the temple was completed, the wolf hunt mobs burned hundreds of homes. [2] Given the violent history of Missouri, atrocities may have been committed in addition to the burning of homes. [3] In Missouri the wrongs were documented as there had been a hope of redress. There was no hope for redress in Illinois.

Illinois put out an arrest warrant for Brigham Young. In addition, word came that federal troops were advancing on Nauvoo, coming up the Mississippi River. [4] It was a time of severe tension, and Brigham knew he would be responsible for moving his people west.

Brigham was faced with the question of how to help women whose husbands had died. The women wished to be sealed to their beloved, departed spouses. But what man could be counted on to marry or care for a woman who was eternally sealed to another man?

Brigham apparently made a policy decision. [5] If an individual wished to be sealed to a deceased spouse for eternity, they could. However the person standing proxy would have to agree to marry the bereaved individual for time. In this manner every woman who was married eternally to a deceased man would have a living man with the responsibility to care for her. Similarly, every widower would be encouraged to reach out to care for an otherwise unattached woman in the community.

Accordingly, hundreds of women technically became plural wives in 1846. Dozens of these women were merely seeking eternal union with a deceased husband. Scores of women covenanted with a man who was already sealed to a sister, mother, or daughter. Ironically, this policy trivialized the “for time” marriages. Several women shifted husbands after fleeing Nauvoo, including women married to prominent Church leaders.

Sealing Joseph to His Wives

The first endowments were performed in the Nauvoo Temple starting on December 10, 1845. Those previously endowed as part of the Quorum of the Anointed received the ordinances again in the temple. Brigham Young, Heber Kimball, and the other apostles worked nearly around the clock at the temple, working until 4 am that first day and sleeping for less than two hours before rising to continue the ordinances the next day. [6]

The temple records for the Nauvoo temple are unique because the time of day was noted as well as the date each ordinance was performed. So we get a detailed picture of the immense, time consuming effort it was for the Saints to receive their ordinances. These records are available to review in person [7] at the Church Family History Library in Salt Lake City. [8]

Brigham and Heber had already married several of Joseph’s widows for time starting in September 1844. One of the many responsibilities they had during these hectic months was ensuring that all Joseph’s wives had the chance to be sealed to Joseph in the temple. Apparently they came to the conclusion that a Church leader should stand proxy for Joseph for these sealings.

Most of Joseph’s wives who choose to be sealed to Joseph in the temple allowed Brigham Young, Heber Kimball, or some other high Church leader to stand proxy. [9] However the women who were married to other men when Joseph Smith was killed typically continued as the wives of those men, independent of who stood proxy in the Nauvoo temple.


Bolded women conceived during their covenant with Joseph Smith

JUNE 27, 1844

Bolded men were not members

Temple Proxy
Married to
Brigham Young
Louisa Beaman None Brigham Young
Eliza R. Snow None Brigham Young
Emily Dow Partridge None Brigham Young
Maria Lawrence None Brigham Young [10]
Olive G. Frost None Brigham Young [11]
Rhoda Richards None Brigham Young
Zina Diantha Huntington Henry Jacobs Brigham Young
Mary Elizabeth Rollins Adam Lightner Brigham Young
Married to
Heber C. Kimball [12]
Nancy Winchester None Heber C. Kimball
Sarah Lawrence None Heber C. Kimball
Lucy Walker None Heber C. Kimball
Martha McBride None – widowed Heber C. Kimball
Sarah Ann Whitney Joseph C. Kingsbury Heber C. Kimball
Presendia Huntington Norman Buell Heber C. Kimball
Sylvia Sessions Windsor Lyon Heber C. Kimball
Married to
Other Leader
Eliza Maria Partridge None Amasa Lyman
Desdemona Fullmer None Ezra Taft Benson
Melissa Lott None John Bernhisel
Agnes Coolbrith None – widowed George A. Smith
Delcena Johnson None – widowed Almon Babbitt
Elizabeth Davis * Jabez Durfee Cornelius Lott
Sarah Kingsley * John Cleveland John Smith
Lucinda Pendleton George Harris George Harris
Phebe Watrous Lucien Woodworth Lucien Woodworth
Marinda Nancy Johnson Orson Hyde Orson Hyde [13]

* Mortal covenant with Smith in question

We see that there are two women who chose to be sealed to Joseph in the Nauvoo temple where the proxy was not a high Church leader. In both these cases, the woman spent the rest of her life with the man who stood proxy for Joseph.


Bolded women conceived during their covenant with Joseph Smith

JUNE 27, 1844

Bolded men were not members

Temple Proxy
Married to
Helen Mar Kimball None Horace Whitney
Elvira Annie Cowles Jonathan H. Holmes Jonathan H. Holmes
Not Sealed to Smith in Nauvoo Temple
Hannah Ells None [14]
Almera Johnson None – widowed [15]
Emma Smith None – widowed [16]
Fanny Young None – widowed [17]
Patty Bartlett David Sessions [18]
Fanny Alger Solomon Custer [19]
Flora Ann Woodworth Carlos Gove [20]
Ruth Vose Edward Sayers [21]
Esther Dutcher * Albert Smith [22]
Mary Heron * John Snider [23]

* Mortal marriage to Smith in question

Three women who covenanted with Joseph and subsequently became pregnant were married to men who were not members: Presendia [Buell], Mary Elizabeth [Lightner], and Sylvia [Lyons]. Possibly these husbands did not know about their wife’s covenant with Joseph. In any case, these husbands had no reason to refrain from marital relations with their legal wives.

Two women seem to have been associated with Bennett or his strikers: Esther [Smith] [24] and Eliza Snow. [25] Evidence that Esther [Smith] covenanted with Joseph is tenuous and may merely reflect her vows to assist Joseph in 1842. Eliza Snow is not bolded because pregnancy is disputed, as is Joseph’s paternity of the reported child. Nancy Marinda Johnson is not bolded based on her assertion that she covenanted with Joseph in 1843. Lucinda Pendleton is not bolded as her covenant with Joseph likely occurred after 1840.

Researchers have noted other cases where women were sealed to Joseph by proxy in 1846, suggesting that this alone is reason to consider that they had covenanted with Joseph during his lifetime. This may be true, and these women were mentioned in Chapter 12, Hunt in the City Beautiful. As the years passed, however, women would request to have themselves sealed to Joseph Smith by proxy when there could not have been a relationship during his lifetime. The fact of a temple sealing between a woman and Joseph doesn’t necessarily confirm the woman had covenanted with Joseph Smith during his lifetime. Alternately, the woman may merely have wished to enter into the New and Everlasting Covenant, like Ruth Vose [Sayers].

Unique Cases Among Joseph’s Widows

Most of the women who had husbands already when Joseph died remained with those husbands, independent of which man stood proxy in the temple. This seems to indicate that when a man and woman were “sealed husband and wife for time” after the man had served as proxy for the woman’s dead husband, the man was serving some other role than actual husband. It may be more useful to think of these proxies as protectors rather than husbands. [26] It seems they were covenanting to ensure the woman was properly cared for. The Church had a particular responsibility to both protect the widows of Joseph Smith and retain them as a spiritual resource for the community. Those women who did not have a husband when Joseph died were taken on as the plural wife of whoever acted as Joseph’s proxy in the Nauvoo temple.

There are a few cases that bear examination.

Emma Hale [Smith]. It is not documented that Brigham Young or Heber Kimball approached Emma Smith about remarriage in 1844, while she was pregnant with Joseph’s last child, David. [27] By 1845 it had become clear that Brigham viewed Joseph’s estate as an asset of the Church, while Emma viewed Joseph’s estate as a resource to redeem Joseph’s debts and care for Joseph’s family. There was also the matter of Emma’s severe disapproval that men were consummating marriages with plural wives. Between the property concerns and the plural marriage concerns, Emma would decline to follow Brigham Young west. Though not documented, it seems her rationale for refusing to be sealed to Joseph in the temple may have been a refusal to allow a Church leader to serve as Joseph’s proxy.

Elvira Cowles [Holmes]. Brigham or Heber may have suggested they could become levirate husband to Elvira after Joseph’s death. However Joseph Smith had specifically asked Jonathan Holmes to care for Elvira. [28] Elvira lived out her days with Jonathan Holmes in relative obscurity. Jonathan was the only Nauvoo husband of one of Joseph’s covenant widows to serve in the Mormon Battalion. [29] Left behind, Elvira faced the death and burial of her infant daughter at Winter Quarters. Elvira took young Sarah Holmes and drove a wagon and team west from Winter Quarters to Salt Lake City in 1847. Elvira’s three biological daughters to survive to adulthood married a handcart pioneer. Elvira is Joseph’s only widow to link all the iconic Mormon trail experiences in a single family.

Helen Mar Kimball. Helen was 14 when she covenanted with Joseph. She had resented the way this “marriage” interfered with her ability to socialize. It appears possible that Heber felt he could watch over Helen as her father, rather than requiring that she marry a high Church leader. Helen was allowed to marry Horace Whitney, young son of Bishop Newel K. Whitney. Alternately, it may have been felt that Horace needed a wife who was strong in the faith, given his former sympathy with those teaching spiritual wifery in 1842.

Sarah Ann Whitney. Sarah Ann had been married to Joseph Kingsbury, and Kingsbury had recorded in his journal that he had “agread to Stand by Sarah Ann Whitney as Supposed to be her husband & had a pretended marriage…” [30] Kingsbury was Sarah Ann’s brother-in-law, and this pretended marriage may not have been consummated. Sarah apparently declined to remain with her widower brother-in-law.

Nancy Winchester. Nancy was only 15 when Joseph died and may have been as young as 13 when she covenanted with Joseph, if the covenant occurred at the time her brother was excommunicated. Heber C. Kimball married Nancy and cared for her, but never consummated the marriage. [31]

Zina Diantha Huntington [Jacobs Smith]. Zina continued as Henry Jacobs’s wife, despite Brigham having stood proxy for Joseph. Following Henry Jacobs’s excommunication for sealing William W. Phelps to a plural wife without authorization, Zina left Henry Jacobs and become Brigham’s wife in deed. Zina’s Church career flourished as one of Brigham’s wives. Zina would eventually succeed Eliza R. Snow as President of the Relief Society, the most powerful position a woman could hold in the Church. The position of Relief Society General President gave Zina the ability to collaborate with women’s rights advocates throughout the United States.

Other Polygamous Families in Nauvoo and Beyond

In order to act as levirate husbands to the dead Joseph’s many covenant wives, Brigham Young and other Church leaders took responsibility for dozens of women, forming the cores of their large polygamous families. In response to the violence with which the Saints were threatened, Brigham encouraged men to take responsibility for widows, unprotected women, and relatives for whom they cared deeply.

By the time Brigham Young closed the temple in February 1846, over 175 men had between them married approximately 500 plural wives. [32] Initially these plural marriages were not openly acknowledged to “the world.” But as the years passed, it became impractical to either hide the fact of these plural marriages or adopt a policy of monogamy that would sunder hundreds of families, many with young children. The LDS Church formally announced that it practiced plural marriage in 1852.

Public acknowledgement of Mormon “polygamy” caused extreme opposition from the United States government and her people. Forceful rejection of Mormonism as a valid faith tradition would continue for decades by numerous means, including social activism, laws, immigration restrictions, and military force. The fruit of this rejection continues even today.

Yet less than forty years after Mormons publicly embraced plural marriage, Wilford Woodruff would issue a document in 1890 known as the Manifesto, promising no new plural marriages would be solemnized contrary to the law of the land.

In 1904 Joseph F. Smith would issue a clarification of the Manifesto. The clarification, sometimes referred to as the Second Manifesto, reaffirmed that the Church had completely abandoned the practice of solemnizing “polygamous” marriages.

The Manifestos ended solemnization of Celestial marriages where a man would be simultaneously united with more than one living woman. But LDS policy continues even today to allow every woman to be united or sealed to her husband in Celestial marriage. However the panicked urgency of 1846 that caused widows and other women to covenant with any available man is a thing of the past.

For Eternity and Time – Notes

When the Nauvoo temple was sufficiently complete, faithful Mormons thronged to the temple to solemnize their commitments to God. They also entered into Celestial marriages, uniting themselves as husbands and wives for all eternity. Actual and promised attacks were coming from surrounding mobs, the government of Illinois and even the Federal government. Even so, Brigham and the faithful spent inordinate amounts of effort to ensure all who wished could receive their ordinances.

Given the threat to vulnerable women, Brigham apparently decided no woman could be sealed to her deceased spouse unless the man standing proxy agreed to take responsibility for her as her mortal husband. In the case of Joseph’s many widows, high church leaders stood proxy for most of Joseph’s wives, even for those who already had a living husband. Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball ended up with vast families, each married to many of the women who had covenanted with Joseph. The leaders stood ready to ensure proper protection for each woman if her mortal husband were to falter. This occurred in the case of Zina Huntington when Henry Jacobs was excommunicated.

In 1890, less than fifty years after the flight from Nauvoo, Wilford Woodruff would declare an end to the practice of plural marriage which united a living woman with a living man whose wife was still living. In 1904 Joseph F. Smith issued a Second Manifesto, making it clear that Church policy on the matter was not a mere political accommodation limited to the United States.

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[1] Dallin H. Oaks and Marvin S. Hill, Carthage Conspiracy, p. 65.

[2] Dallin H. Oaks and Marvin S. Hill, Carthage Conspiracy, pp. 36, 70. Jonathan Hughes writes that 175 homes were burned in Lima, Illinois, alone. See Hughes, The Vital Few, Oxford University Press, 1986, p. 79.

[3] My ancestors, the Delongs, died during the timeframe of the wolf hunts. The children who survived suggested poisoned berries may have been the cause of the deaths.

[4] Dallin H. Oaks and Marvin S. Hill, Carthage Conspiracy. Also documented at the Library of Congress, from research performed by Stephen Stathis circa 1978.

[5] This policy could well have been modeled on the ceremony making Mercy Thompson a plural wife to Hyrum Smith, who had earlier stood proxy for Mercy’s dead husband on 29 May 1843. See Woodward, Jed, “Mercy Thompson and the Revelation on Marriage,” Jan 2, 2015, online 11 Jan 2015 at https://history.lds.org/article/doctrine-and-covenants-eternal-marriage?lang=eng.

[6] Nauvoo Endowment Companies, Edited by Devery Anderson and Gary Bergera, exercpt Online 13 Jul 2014 at http://signaturebooks.com/2010/10/excerpt-nauvoo-endowment-companies/.

[7] Any individual may view these records, provided they are able to obtain a written recommendation from the LDS bishop who presides over the location where they live. For LDS individuals, a temple recommend serves this purpose.

[8] When I viewed these records, they were restricted and could only be reviewed by those who either hold a temple recommend or those without a temple recommend who have obtained a recommendation from the bishop over the locality where they lived. Lyndon W. Cook has published these records in Nauvoo Marriages and Proxy Sealings, Grandin Books, 2004. George W. Smith includes an extensive table of Nauvoo polygamists and their wives in Nauvoo Polygamy, Signature Books, 2012, pp. 573-656.

[9] See Todd Compton, In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith, pp. 4-9, and Brian C. Hales extensive research into the wives of Joseph Smith, online 7 Jul 2014 at http://josephsmithspolygamy.org/stories-of-faith-joseph-smiths-plural-wives/.

[10] Though Brigham Young had stood as proxy, high Church leader Almon Babbitt apparently stepped forward to be the mortal husband for Maria, who died during the years Almon Babbitt remained in Nauvoo as one of the three Nauvoo trustees.

[11] Olive died in October 1845 before she could be sealed in the temple, but had married Brigham Young for time in the fall of 1844. A late report of questionable provenance indicates Olive bore Joseph Smith a child, but that she and the child both died [see http://josephsmithspolygamy.org/plural-wives-overview/olive-g-frost/]. If Brigham was the father of Olive’s child, the child would be attributed to Joseph under levirate custom. While it is possible Olive’s reported child was engendered by Joseph, the report is also consistent with Brigham Young being the biological father of “Joseph’s” child.

[12] Orson Whitney (b. 1855) indicates two other women Heber married in 1846 were known to have covenanted with Joseph Smith: Mary Houston (b. 1816) and Sarah Scott [Mullholland Mullinder] (b. 1818). The profile for both these women suggests they could have been put under covenant in response to the illicit intercourse scandal.

[13] Initially sealed to Orson Hyde, later sealed to Joseph Smith and separated from Hyde.

[14] Died 1845 with Eliza Snow at her side. Her death almost certainly occurred before December 10, 1845, when the first ordinances were performed in the Nauvoo temple.

[15] Almera married Reuben Barton after Joseph’s death. It does not appear Almera was sealed to Joseph Smith in the Nauvoo temple.

[16] Declined to be sealed to any high-Church leader due to disputes over property and the doctrine of plural marriage as practiced by Brigham and the apostles.

[17] As Fanny was Brigham’s sister and an older woman, it is possible Brigham and Heber determined there was no need to provide her another “husband” to care for her and husband her as a Church resource.

[18] Patty apparently did not participate in any sealings in the Nauvoo temple. Patty was in her fifties and a trusted mid-wife. She remained a mentor and confidant of the rest of Joseph’s wives, and was viewed as one who cared for others, not so much as one who needed to be “taken care of.” Patty would have herself sealed to Joseph Smith decades later, after the RLDS Church began sending missionaries to Utah to convince people Joseph had never taught plural marriage.

[19] Married non-Mormon, left Mormon community in fall 1836.

[20] Married non-Mormon in 1843.

[21] Had been sealed to Joseph with husband’s consent in February 1843 or 1844 in what was clearly an eternity-only sealing.

[22] Esther’s covenant with Joseph Smith during his lifetime likely occurred in 1842, either following Gustavus Hill’s attempt to seduce her or her subsequent testimony months later before the Nauvoo High Council. Esther was sealed (again) to Joseph with her husband standing proxy in 1851.

[23] I do not agree that Mary Heron should be listed as a wife of Joseph Smith, but include her here because others have listed her as a likely wife (Quinn, Hales) or possible wife (Compton). I think Joseph Kelly was the “Joseph” described as frigging Mary in Nauvoo.

[24] Esther Smith testified Gustavus Hills taught it was acceptable to engage in illicit intercourse. There are only two possible Esther Smiths in the vicinity of Nauvoo in 1842, Esther Dutcher [Smith] and Esther Smith [Fuller]. Esther [Fuller] lived in Iowa, making it unlikely she participated in the Nauvoo Choir, as was true of the Esther Smith who testified before the High Council. It is unlikely Esther [Fuller] was called by her maiden name, as she had been married for a decade.

[25] The rationale for including Eliza Snow in this category is covered in Chapter 19.

[26] This idea of a proxy “husband” having little to do with the woman once they left the temple the day of the sealing is seen in the story of Mary Leamon, see Making It Up versus The Scientific Method, online 24 Apr 2014 at http://www.millennialstar.org/making-it-up-versus-the-scientific-method/ retrieved.

[27] It may be significant that Emma’s only son to be named after a biblical polygamist was born after the 1843 ceremony where she entered into the New and Everlasting Covenant.

[28] Recounted in Wright letter provided to the Church in the early 1900s as well as Holmes family history. See Chapter 7, page 49.

[29] Melissa Lott would later marry a veteran of the Mormon Battalion, Jonathan’s colleague Ira Willis, but she was not married to Ira when he left to serve in the Battalion.

[30] Compton, In Sacred Loneliness, p. 351.

[31] Compton, In Sacred Loneliness, P. 608.

[32] George D. Smith, Nauvoo Polygamy: “…but we called it celestial marriage”, pp. 573-656. Smith reports higher numbers as he includes women who were not technically plural wives as well as men who it appears were not technically polygamists, such as Porter Rockwell.