Living the Gospel

Hey everyone, so if you’ve watched some of the other videos we’ve done on polygamy, you know that this is a topic that I struggle with, as do many modern Latter-day Saints. It’s messy history, and it’s hard to separate fact from fiction sometimes. And if I’m going to struggle with this topic, I want to make sure that I’m struggling with the facts. So with that goal in mind—we know that Joseph Smith had multiple wives at the same time. But did some of Joseph’s wives have multiple husbands? Let’s see what we can find out. 

Alright, so the fact is that when it comes to this topic … there aren’t a lot of facts to go off of. A good portion of what we’ll talk about today is debated and based on very little evidence. But here’s the deal: Joseph Smith had approximately 35 plural wives. Of these 35, approximately 14 of these women had legal husbands while also being sealed to Joseph. Of these 14 other husbands, 4 were non-members, 9 were seemingly active members, and 1 was an inactive member. What the heck is going on here? 

I don’t have all the answers, but here are some things to keep in mind as you come to your own conclusions: In these early years, there were different types of plural marriages. Some marriages were to be in effect for “time” or mortal life only. Some were for time and eternity — they would be in effect throughout this life and into the afterlife. And some marriages were for eternity only, meaning they would only take effect after this life had ended.

The evidence (as mentioned earlier) is admittedly not as complete as we’d like, but it seems to suggest that (with a couple of special cases which we’ll talk about) these sealings to already-married women were for eternity only. In other words, these women were married for time or life to one husband, and then after death, their marriage to Joseph would take effect. 

Until then, they lived with their legal husbands and carried on with life as usual. “… there is no unambiguous evidence indicating that Joseph ever treated these women as wives or sexual partners.” A plurality of husbands would have been even more controversial than a plurality of wives, yet, nobody involved at the time seems to have raised any concerns about polyandry, including critics. Why? Probably because it was understood that eternity-only marriages were not multiple traditional marriages at the same time but consecutive marriages — one beginning as another ended.

But we still have to grapple with the question: why did these relationships exist? The Church’s gospel topics essay on this subject outlines 3 potential reasons that I’m going to paraphrase. First: these sealings may have simply been a way to link individuals and families together for the afterlife. We talked a little bit about this in the episode we did about Helen Mar Kimball. 

Second: Joseph’s first wife, Emma, understandably struggled immensely with plural marriage. These sealings to married women may have been Joseph’s attempt to obey the command he’d received to enter into plural marriage, but in a way that wouldn’t require him to live with or be intimate with these women, thus hopefully minimizing Emma’s pain.

Third: Latter-day Saints believe that eternal marriage is a requirement for exaltation (which is a term we talk more about in this video). Some of these women were not eligible for an eternal marriage because their spouse was either inactive in the Church or not a member at all. Being sealed to Joseph for eternity would have remedied that situation. In the case of Ruth Sayers, it appears that her nonmember husband, Edward, actually insisted that she be sealed to Joseph.

Now, there are a couple of special cases I alluded to earlier that we need to talk about: Joseph’s marriage to Sarah Ann Whitney occurred in July 1842 and was for both time and eternity. She did not have another husband at this time, but nine months later, Joseph approached the young widower, Joseph Kingsbury, and asked him to marry Sarah. Kingsbury later wrote, “… I agreed to stand by Sarah Ann Whitney as though I was supposed to be her husband & pretended marriage for the purpose of shielding them from the enemy.” For more on what that pretended marriage probably looked like, pause and read this quote. So, yes, Sarah had two husbands, but for what it’s worth, Kingsbury was a front husband who likely lived with Sarah as a friend.

Joseph did not yet want the public to know about plural marriage. The reality is that publicly practicing polygamy would have surely meant severe backlash not just for Joseph but for the already-persecuted Saints in general. So, he had a choice to make, and he chose to select his words very carefully and, frankly, to be less than publicly forthright about the practice. And for more details on that, go read this article

The other relationship we need to mention was between Joseph Smith and Mary Heron. Mary’s legal husband was John Snider. There is one shred of evidence from Mary’s son-in-law in 1850 suggesting that an intimate relationship existed between Joseph and Mary, which has led to the assumption that she was probably one of his plural wives. But because we know practically nothing about this case, different people come to different conclusions about it. You can pause and read about some of those options now. In any case, she and her family continued to believe Joseph was a prophet and stuck with the Church. That said, due to the lack of evidence, I tend to withhold judgment on this one, but we’ll see if additional information turns up in the future.

Now, some people claim that Joseph sent men on missions in order to marry their wives. The historical data tells another story, but we’ll talk more about that in a future video, so hang onto your questions until then. In the meantime—resources for today’s topic: Read the gospel topics essays. Then, if you want to go deeper, I strongly recommend you check out Brian Hales’ research. You can jump on his website right now and go through and learn about these 14 relationships one by one, look at the evidence available for each of them, and come to your own conclusions. I’m under no illusion that this history is just full of butterflies and rainbows. It’s not. It’s difficult stuff. In 1866 then-apostle Amasa Lyman said,

We obeyed [the command to practice plural marriage] the best we knew how, and, no doubt, made many crooked paths in our ignorance.” But here’s the thing: We can’t mess anything up so bad that Jesus can’t fix it. If anyone (women or men) felt gyped out of or into a relationship as the Saints struggled to understand and apply the commandment they’d received — if injustice occurred — I believe Jesus can (and will) make it right. Check out the resources in the YouTube description for more on this topic, and have a great day!


Learning More:

  • Gospel Topics essay: “Plural Marriage in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” via the Church website:
  • Gospel Topics essay: “Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo,” via the Church’s website:
  • Gospel Topics essay: “Plural Marriage and Families in Early Utah,” via the Church’s website:
  • Gospel Topics essay: “The Manifesto and the End of Plural Marriage,” via the Church’s website:
  • “Joseph Smith’s Sexual Polyandry and the Emperor’s New Clothes: On Closer Inspection, What Do We Find?” by Brian Hales (FAIR 2012):
  • “‘Denying the Undeniable’: Examining Early Mormon Polygamy Renunciations,” via Brian Hales:
  • “The Prophet Secretly Teaches Polygamy,” via Brian Hales:
  • “Did Joseph Smith send Apostle Orson Hyde on a mission so that he could secretly marry his wife Marinda while he was gone?” via FAIR:
  • 1859 claim that Joseph sent 3 men on missions and married their wives (patently false): Research from FAIR debunking this:
  • “Polyandry: Women married to more than one husband” via FAIR:
  • Mary Heron short biography, via Brian Hales:
  • “Mary Heron: Evidence of Sexuality,” via Brian Hales:
  • “Using Science to Answer Questions About Latter-day Saint History: The Case of Josephine Lyon’s Paternity,” by Ugo Perego, BYU Studies: 

Explore More Articles and Videos