In 1792, a young French soldier wrote to his lover of their first night together: “I have awakened full of you. The memory of last night has given my senses no rest . . . what an effect you have on my heart! I send you thousands of kisses—but don’t kiss me. Your kisses sear my blood.” This ambitious Frenchman, Napoleon Bonaparte, went on to conquer Austria, invade Egypt, and, in 1804, crown himself Emperor of France. Although she would never be the only woman in his life, the renowned Josephine, the attractive Creole from Martinique to whom Napoleon’s letter was addressed, married Napoleon in 1796 and became Empress of France.
Fifty years later, on the American frontier, another young man of ambition and vision penned his own letter of affection to a young woman. It was the summer of 1842 when thirty-six-year-old Joseph Smith, hiding from the law down by the Mississippi River in Illinois, confessed: “My feelings are so strong for you . . . come and see me in this my lonely retreat . . . now is the time to afford me succour . . . I have a room intirely by myself, the whole matter can be attended to with most perfect saf[e]ty, I know it is the will of God that you should comfort me.” Three weeks earlier, seventeen-year-old Sarah Ann Whitney had secretly become the fourteenth plural wife of Joseph Smith, founder and leader of the millennialist Latter-day Saints (LDS).
A man’s interest in more than one woman may not be so unusual. What is unexpected, however, is to institutionalize that interest as polygamy and transform it into a religious obligation. Joseph Smith did this, in part, through his fascination with ancient Egypt derived from Napoleon’s conquest of that country just a few years before Smith was born in 1805. Napoleon’s discoveries in Egypt helped to inspire the language of Smith’s revelations and doctrines.
In 1799, Napoleon entered Egypt by way of the Nile. Following Egypt’s centuries of foreign occupation, he found long-lost artifacts that for years thereafter consumed public attention. Enigmatic hieroglyphics and images enchanted Europeans and Americans alike, who decorated homes and museums with them and designed Egyptian-inspired articles of high fashion. Towns named Cairo and Memphis sprang up along the Mississippi downstream from the Mormon city of Nauvoo, Illinois. It took the linguist Jean-Francois Champollion (1795–1832) a lifetime to decipher the hieroglyphic scripts inscribed on the Rosetta Stone and to rediscover an ancient culture lost for millennia.
Some thirty years after Napoleon unearthed the mysterious glyphs—as Champollion and others were hard at work decoding their lost meaning—the young Mormon prophet founded a religion based, in part, on his own translations of ancient Egyptian. While the early hieroglyphs were still indecipherable to most of the world, Smith told New York publisher James Arlington Bennett:
The fact is, that by the power of God, I translated the Book of Mormon from hieroglyphics, the knowledge of which was lost to the world, in which wonderful event I stood alone, an unlearned youth, to combat the worldly wisdom and multiplied ignorance of eighteen centuries, with a new revelation, which would open the eyes of more than eight hundred millions of people. . . . God is my right hand man.
Smith announced finding gold plates buried in a hill, ancient records written in “reformed Egyptian,” which he published in 1830 as the Book of Mormon. This book explained the presence of “Indians” in the Americas, ascribing to them migrant Hebrew ancestors, cousins of the Ten Lost Tribes. Then, twelve years later, Smith published a variant of Genesis titled the Book of Abraham, which he “translated” from papyrus funeral scrolls purchased along with Egyptian mummies in 1835. In opening up an ancient Middle Eastern culture, Napoleon had helped to provide the mystery language of a new religion.
It was in the Book of Mormon that the idea of plural marriage first appeared among the Latter-day Saints, ironically, in the context of a forbidden practice among sixth-century B.C.E. American tribes whose history was chronicled in the book. However, a man’s right to a “plurality of wives” would soon become Mormon doctrine and validate Joseph’s desire to take in plural marriage the young Sarah Ann Whitney, among others. Using Old Testament polygamy as a primal model, Smith’s Church of Christ (renamed the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1838) revived the practice from the ancient Hebrew patriarchs. Smith reintroduced plural marriage to a modern band of religious followers on the American frontier, presumably to prepare them for the “end of days” and Jesus’s second coming.
Mormons were on the run from one town or state to the next for their first ten years. Repeatedly expelled by their neighbors, Latter-day Saints moved from New York to Ohio and then to Missouri during the 1830s, the homes of friends or converts along the way offering temporary refuge. Smith became acquainted with the young daughters of the families with whom he stayed. Several of these were among the women he would marry a decade later. In Illinois in the early 1840s, he married girls as young as fourteen. He also made wedding vows with women in their forties and fifties. Some of the women Smith courted for plural marriage already had husbands and children. Smith’s wives became members of an inner circle: his polygamous family formed a network, a way to tie the church’s faithful closer to him and to each other, with the promise of belonging to an elite hierarchy that would prevail as gods into the afterlife. Beyond a quest for female companionship and intimacy, plural marriage formed a labyrinth of social relationships for successive worlds.
Smith not only persuaded most of the women he courted to accept the conditions of plurality that extended to other spouses, but he also convinced about thirty of his male followers and their wives to expand their own families. (Ironically, Smith was less successful in converting his own civil wife to his new teaching.) Smith initiated plural marriage over the last three years of his life; he died after his arrest for ordering the destruction of the local dissident press that had publicized the secret marriages. Over the next year and a half, before the church migrated westward toward the Rocky Mountains and as the majority of Latter-day Saints embraced Brigham Young’s leadership, plural marriages multiplied. The entire practice during the Nauvoo period, which lasted from 1841 to 1846, involved about two hundred husbands and seven hundred wives. These two hundred men eventually married a total of over 1,100 women, including those who moved on to Utah.
Whether Joseph’s legal first wife, Emma Hale, ever fully accepted any of her husband’s other wives remains a mystery. She was aware of at least five of her co-wives, whom she subsequently expelled from her household, yet Emma told her own children that the rumored wives did not exist. Joseph’s own family—his mother, legal wife, and children—chose not to join the polygamous mainstream of the Latter-day Saint church. The rest of the founding Smith family remained in the Midwest, free of polygamy, in a new Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (RLDS—later the Community of Christ) established in 1853 and by 1860 presided over by Joseph III, Joseph and Emma’s oldest surviving son.
From the earliest whisperings of extramarital liaisons in the 1830s to records of officially authorized plural marriages beginning in 1841 in Nauvoo, Mormon authorities tended to downplay reports of these polygamous events as “anti-Mormon” rumor. However, an 1852 announcement in Utah led to a period of open plural marriages. Then, beginning in 1890, the LDS church, for reasons of survival and statehood, suspended official permission for new plural marriages.
After rescinding the practice under U.S. governmental pressure, Mormon leaders tried to distance the church from its polygamous roots and, as with the RLDS Church, now avoid any association with the practice. Thus both LDS communities, original and reorganized, join in their mutual disavowal of this once-celestial doctrine. Yet the memory of Mormon polygamy is kept alive by contemporary “fundamentalist” ex-Mormon societies (mostly in the American intermountain West), whose membership numbers approximately thirty-seven thousand. Their current experience conveys a sense of what public outrage might have been like in Illinois in the early- to mid-1840s.
Although Smith’s wives are not identified as such in official LDS Church history, plural marriage left an indelible mark. American history is stamped with this early frontier experiment. In spite of official efforts to withdraw from plural marriage, the practice, articulated by Smith even before he founded his church in 1830, has occupied the Mormon consciousness for more than a century and a half. The primary characteristic that those outside of Latter-day Saints typically recall, besides abstinence from coffee, tea, alcohol, and tobacco, is that Mormon men have, or at one time had, multiple wives. Although Smith once granted as “favors” permission to certain men to marry more than one woman, these favors are rarely mentioned today in official Mormon circles. Traces remain: Mormon widowers may be “sealed for time and eternity” to new wives in LDS temples worldwide, thus effectively rendering them polygamists in heaven after death.
The evidence of this early clandestine practice is found in diaries, letters, reminiscences, marriage records, and affidavits of those who lived in Nauvoo during the 1840s. These records constitute a secret chronicle, or addendum, to a carefully prepared official history.
The story begins with Joseph Smith as a teenager in New York State during his courtship of and elopement with Emma Hale, soon followed by the Book of Mormon’s mention of plural wives, then Joseph’s own concurrent marriages, which brought him personal tragedy and the expulsion of his young church community from the established United States. A review of the archival records of the “celestial” or plural marriages of Smith’s adherents, who transplanted this way of life from the Midwest to the Great Salt Lake Valley, recreates the events central to this long-denied and mostly forgotten practice.
Finally, centuries-old “latter-day” millennialists who sought to restore the biblical model of a polygamous society as they anticipated the end of the world identify Joseph’s marital innovations within a larger historical context. Three hundred years before the Mormons, fervent Anabaptists in Münster, Germany, also introduced such a biblical model. Consider to what extent Anabaptist influence in colonial America conveyed the experience of their radical offshoots to New World millennialists. Discussion of natural law and polygamy to solve European social ills came to America, where Cochranites, Perfectionists, and Mormons each sought in their own way to create a utopian society.
The legacy of centuries of marital debate and practice can be found in contemporary millennial societies of Mormon separatists, which continue to practice male-centered plural marriage. This examination of celestial marriage concludes with the ambivalence that mainstream Mormons presently exhibit toward a practice required of their grandparents: on one hand, it is their honored history and many of them would not be here without it; on the other hand, practicing polygamy today warrants excommunication. Amidst these crosscurrents, eyewitness accounts of the silent inception of Nauvoo celestial marriage in the 1840s are still being rediscovered.