As a personality of the nineteenth century, Joseph Smith stands out as extraordinary. While many writers have been critical of him and his teachings, most historians are impressed with at least some of his accomplishments, even if they believe he was a charlatan. He organized a new religion, published a 500 page book of scripture, dictated over a hundred revelations, founded a city, built a temple, and produced a remarkable theological framework that both expanded and contradicted Christian thinking of the era.
Of all of Joseph Smith teachings and practices, none has been more controversial than plural marriage. The historical record plainly indicates that the Prophet married women polygamously and authorized other men to do likewise.
Over the decades since his 1844 death, many writers have made bold assertions concerning Joseph Smith's plural marriage practices, labeling him as licentious and a womanizer. It appears this assessment is based upon an interpretation of selected historical evidences, all of which reflect significant credibility problems. Other manuscript documents provide contradictory historical data that seriously challenge this view and should not be ignored.
This website is designed to provide an in-depth review of pertinent manuscripts and documents, including records derived from both anti-Mormon and sympathetic sources. Through this evaluation, readers will be better qualified to understand Joseph Smith's polygamy.
In the years between 1842 and 1899, several individuals compiled lists of Joseph Smith's known plural wives. Each of the compilers possessed his own reasons for assembling the names and all lists appear to be incomplete. In the 1950s, researcher Stanley Ivins made the first attempt to compile a comprehensive anthology. He was followed by nearly a dozen other researchers who assembled their own catalogues.
Perhaps the most commonly asked question regarding Joseph Smith's plural marriages is whether sexual relations were included. The Prophet taught that one reason for polygamy was "to multiply and replenish the earth" (D&C 132:63). Hence, the presence of conjugality in some of the relationships is not surprising.
Possibly the most controversial question surrounding Joseph Smith's polygamy is: "What motivated him to teach and practice plural marriage?" The most common answer advanced by critics is simply, he wanted to expand his sexual opportunities. This naturalistic and somewhat cynical view has been proclaimed in the vast majority of publications that have addressed the topic.
The assessment of both the cynic and the naturalist, that Joseph Smith was a womanizer, is not unexpected. It would be illogical for a person who did not believe him to be a genuine prophet to conclude otherwise. Richard L. Bushman, author of Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005) observed: “Polygamy is an interesting thing because it serves as a Rorschach test. People project onto Joseph Smith and polygamists their own sense about human nature.”
Despite its huge popularity, the cynical view has many problems.
Joseph Smith identified three reasons explaining why the practice of plural marriage in the early 1840s should be embraced by members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Over the decades since Joseph Smith's death, several other explanations for the practice of plural marriage have been promoted by Church apologists.
Since polygamy was first introduced in Nauvoo, Illinois in 1841, numerous accusations against Joseph Smith have been charged by anti-Mormons. An anti-Mormon writer once affirmed his opinion to me that Joseph Smith's polygamy was "surrounded by a bodyguard of lies." I agree that much misinformation and many falsehoods have been advanced concerning the Prophet's plural marriages. Readers are left to determine whether the reported "lies" are camouflaging his alleged licentiousness (as the antagonist author implied) or creating a caricature that hides the true historical Joseph.
Several controversies have arisen concerning Joseph Smith's polygamy:
Recently the FLDS Church members and other "Mormon fundamentalists" have claimed ties to Joseph Smith's polygamy, asserting that the practice of plural marriage is required today. My research demonstrates many core differences between the Prophet's teachings and those of the "fundamentalists" regarding polygamy Foremost among them is the question whether Joseph taught the plural marriage was required for exaltation.
Joseph Smith's polygamy was tightly controlled by "one" man who held priesthood authority necessary to perform the marriages. He plainly taught that plural marriages performed without the the authorization of the "one" man were "not valid neither of force" (D&C 132:18).
Hopefully the the historical data available on this website will assist all writers, whether anti-Mormon or LDS apologetic, and everyone in between, to portray Joseph Smith and his plural marriages more accurately.
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