Polygamy in the Name of God

Paul Kurtz

Nauvoo Polygamy: “. . . but we called it celestial marriage,” by George D. Smith (Salt Lake City, Utah: Signature Books, 2008, ISBN 1-56085-201-10) 728 pp. Cloth $39.95.


Many men are womanizers, addicted to ladies young and old, and some have pursued them with consummate skill. To propose to women in “the name of God” is a truly remarkable feat, but this is exactly how Joseph Smith, founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), operated—according to Nauvoo Polygamy, a fascinating book by George D. Smith. The Prophet, as Smith was known, wooed any woman who met his fancy and solicited her to enter into a “celestial marriage” with him. He said that it was approved by “revelation” and sanctioned by God. She would be “sealed” to him forever and this would guarantee her eternal life in Heaven, and he would, of course, satisfy his sexual predilections.

Smith (1805–1844) was the author of The Book of Mormon (1830), translated (he claimed) from Egyptian hieroglyphics. He alleged that this was based on golden plates, which he dug up after being visited by the angel Moroni near Palmyra, New York. It presents a fanciful tale of ancient Hebrew tribes that he claimed lived in North America in the sixth century b.c.e. Smith was considered by his followers to be a true prophet, because he received revelations from on high (all uncorroborated), including a visitation when he was sixteen by none other than Jesus Christ.

Smith was married to his first wife, Emma Hale, in 1830. She assisted him in the preparation of the Book of Mormon and stayed with him until the stormy, bitter end of his life. He began his career by using a peep-stone to locate “hidden treasures” in Native American burial mounds. Accused of deception, he was forced to leave Western New York. He fled his persecutors to Pennsylvania, then to Ohio and Missouri, and ended up in Nauvoo, Illinois, in 1839, a bustling new town on the Mississippi built in large part by people who had converted to his new religion of Mormonism.

Smith was a strikingly handsome man and a charismatic orator preaching everywhere in the name of God. In Nauvoo, his penchant for “plural marriages” blossomed. At the same time that he was busy creating a new religion, he pursued women with great passion.

Nauvoo Polygamy, a meticulously researched and well-documented book, shows that Smith began his philandering by proposing “celestial marriages” to several women. His first plural marriage was to Louisa Beaman, an unmarried twenty-six-year-old woman. Six months after this marriage, he courted two sisters, Zina and Presendia Huntington, whose parents converted to the LDS (Mormon) Church in 1835. The Prophet had known their daughters for several years and proposed to Zina in October 1841. Unfortunately, she had already married another man, a devout Mormon named Henry Jacobs. In spite of this, Joseph pursued Zina incessantly and asked her to marry him even though she was pregnant. Jacobs, though heartbroken, consented to the Prophet’s demand, and so Zina was sealed to Joseph in a bizarre polyandrous relationship (ménage-á-trois). Joseph sent Jacobs away on a mission shortly after the marriage so he could have Zina to himself. Zina said that she consented to the Prophet’s bidding when she heard that God had revealed the law of celestial marriage to Joseph and that she would be forever united with him in worlds to come. Next in line was Joseph’s marriage to her sister Presendia.

Two particularly outrageous celestial marriages involved Heber C. Kimball, who joined Smith early and remained loyal to him through thick and thin, through all the controversies and defections that would follow. Kimball thoroughly accepted celestial marriage. One day, Joseph demanded that Heber turn over his legal wife, Vilate, to Joseph, perhaps as a test of loyalty. This was no doubt a difficult decision, but incredibly Heber agreed to the request. Sometime later Joseph demanded Heber’s only daughter, fourteen-year-old Helen Mar Kimball. His disciple offered her without question, and he persuaded Helen to be sealed to Joseph. Joseph warned Heber that if he did not deliver her he would lose his position of apostle and be damned. Were such marriages in any sense “divinely revealed,” or did they simply express the lecherous desires of the Prophet and his quest for power, obedience, and sex?

All told and in short order, Smith married thirty-seven women after Emma. There may have been others, but the author only includes cases that could be documented. The women that Smith married ranged in age from fourteen to fifty-eight. Twenty-four of the women were unmarried; fourteen were married, many of them with children. At least three current husbands consented to the marriages.

Smith encouraged his colleagues in the Church’s leadership, who had settled in Nauvoo in the early 1840s, to adopt polygamy themselves. Many were at first reticent, but their appetites were apparently whetted and a large number of them accepted the religious imperative. Smith attempted to conceal from the public the fact that he practiced polygamy, but on July 12, 1843, as plural marriage gained devotees in Nauvoo, he dictated a new revelation from God. It was a “restoration of all things,” as in the days of Abraham when polygamy was practiced. He stated that “whosoever you seal on earth, shall be sealed . . . eternally in heaven” (section 132 of The Doctrine and Covenants). Men had an obligation to engage in multiple marriages; it was a commandment from the Lord that women should obey.

By now knowledge of the licentious behavior of the Mormons had spread widely outside the Church, and there was great concern regarding what was considered immoral conduct, especially since bigamy was illegal, and many young girls were ensnared. Meanwhile, Smith had raised a private army, and this also worried the citizenry. In 1844, he announced his candidacy for the presidency of the United States. He destroyed a printing press that had printed a new opposition newspaper, the Nauvoo Expositor. In its first issue, William Law, a disaffected member of the LDS Church, exposed Smith’s duplicity in advocating plural marriages. Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum were indicted. Among the charges were that he had committed an act of treason by raising a military force (of five thousand men) and violated freedom of the press. Smith and his brother turned themselves in and awaited trial in prison in Carthage. An unruly mob gathered, broke into the prison, and shot both men dead.

The martyrdom of Joseph Smith had a profound effect on the Mormons, who began looking for a new location far removed from Nauvoo. Governor Thomas Ford of Illinois said that he was glad that they were preparing to leave his state. He opined that the impression of the public was that the leading men of the LDS Church were “imposters and rogues” and that the others were “dupes and fools.” This eventually led to the long trek westward to Salt Lake City, Utah, under the leadership of Brigham Young.

After the death of Smith, polygamy became even more pronounced in the LDS Church. Indeed, Young openly practiced plural marriages. He had an estimated fifty-five wives. Heber Kimball amassed forty-four wives. Moreover, the two of them married seventeen of the widows of Joseph Smith. If we add Smith’s thirty-eight wives, the three of them married 137 times! Wife stealing and swapping was prevalent. Adultery be damned.

What a degrading situation for women, who had to submit to their husbands’ desires and rule. After the death of Smith, the women’s movement began in Seneca Falls in upstate New
York in 1848, demanding freedom from male domination and religious repression.

One topic that George D. Smith discusses in Nauvoo Polygamy is the denial by the Church of Latter-day Saints that its founder engaged in plural marriages. References have been expurgated from Smith’s diaries, letters, and the official History of the Church. There is no mention of Smith’s thirty-eight wives. Even today, Mormon leaders do not acknowledge the significance of “celestial marriage” in Smith’s personal life and theology.

Joseph’s first wife, Emma, denied that he was a polygamist, even though there is considerable evidence that she knew about it. She blamed Young for introducing the practice of plural marriages, and when he led thousands of Mormons westward to Utah, she, the Prophet’s children, mother, sisters, and brother refused to go; instead they remained in the Midwest. Some were involved in the breakaway Reorganized Church of Latter-Day Saints which formed in Independence, Missouri.

There is ample evidence of Smith’s tawdry moral behavior in the historical record—news stories, letters, and books about him written during his lifetime or after his death are presented in this book. This includes testimony from former leaders and confidants of Smith who resigned from the LDS Church, such as Oliver Cowdery, John C. Bennett, and William Law. Incidentally, Law also accused Smith of marrying some older women for their wealth. There is also firsthand testimony from women who Smith attempted to seduce or coerce into relationships, such as Nancy Rigdon and Martha Brotherton, who refused his proposal of celestial marriage and openly condemned him. The historical evidence is unmistakable regarding his conduct.

The problem of polygamy still overshadows the LDS Church today. A significant number of Mormons practiced polygamy in Smith’s time, and a very small number do so furtively today. It is estimated that approximately two hundred men in Nauvoo married some seven hundred women. By 1846, an upsurge of marriages occurred.

Young, when he became president of the Church, adopted plural marriages as the official policy of the LDS Church. He was the first leader to openly acknowledge it. Like Smith, he prophesied that the priesthood in the future would populate other planets. And he believed that having a bevy of compliant wives was the duty of a righteous man. He boasted that he could find more women who would choose him for a husband than choose a younger man. With polygamy, men “could avoid whores and fornication.” He insisted that women needed to be led by men. He justified this by reference to “the doctrine of polygamy by revelation.”

What Joseph Smith began as a secret rite of marriage grew rapidly and involved thousands of families in Utah, which became a haven for harems competing with Muhammad’s advocacy of polygamy in ancient Arabia. Indeed, Young sired fifty-five children and Kimball sixty-six! As the prevalence of polygamy in the Utah territory became apparent, the federal government strenuously opposed it. It became clear that if Utah was to be accepted as a state in the Union, it needed to prohibit polygamy.

Finally, in 1890, LDS Church President Wilford Woodruff issued a manifesto banning polygamy in the church. But it was apparently still practiced secretly; a second manifesto in 1904 by President Joseph F. Smith proclaimed that polygamy would no longer be accepted anywhere in the world and that polygamists would be excommunicated.

The history of the LDS Church in the nineteenth century is largely forgotten by the bulk of Mormons, who now number twelve million worldwide. Interestingly, the Mormon Church today is one of the most powerful institutions opposed to gay marriages; yet the misdeeds of its founder belies its record on the sanctity of marriage.

The origins of the three main religions of revelation derived from the books of Abraham—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—are hidden by the sands of time. Fortunately, in Mormonism we are close enough to the origins of the fourth Abrahamic religion of revelation so that an accurate account of its historical beginnings is available.

We should thank George D. Smith for Nauvoo Polygamy and Signature Books of Salt Lake City for publishing this and many other groundbreaking books in a courageous effort to redress the imbalance of the “official” version of church history. These works are significant for those who wish to understand whether religions of revelation were divinely inspired or rather a product of imperfect human beings with all of their failings, foibles, and frailties.

Paul Kurtz

Paul Kurtz is editor-in-chief of FREE INQUIRY and professor emeritus of philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo.


Nauvoo Polygamy: “. . . but we called it celestial marriage,” by George D. Smith (Salt Lake City, Utah: Signature Books, 2008, ISBN 1-56085-201-10) 728 pp. Cloth $39.95. Many men are womanizers, addicted to ladies young and old, and some have pursued them with consummate skill. To propose to women in “the name of God” …

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