How could Joseph Smith’s polyandrous
marriages be explained?
Note: LDS Answers encourages civil, constructive, online discussion examining the important issues involving the life of the Prophet Joseph Smith. Due to the sacred nature of the topics discussed in this article, all irreverent or disrespectful comments will not be approved. Thank you for understanding. For those who are antagonistic to the mission of the Prophet Joseph Smith, please, do yourself a favor and leave this subject alone.
Many Latter-day Saints are aware that the Prophet Joseph Smith practiced plural marriage. However, many are surprised, even shocked, to learn that eleven (according to current research) of his wives were already married to other men.
In other words, Joseph Smith practiced what the world calls “polyandry”.
A common misconception concerning Joseph Smith’s polyandry is that he participated in only one or two such unusual unions. In fact, fully one-third of his plural wives, eleven of them, were married civilly to other men when he married them. If one superimposes a chronological perspective, one sees that of Smith’s first twelve wives, nine were polyandrous. So in this early period polyandry was the norm, not the anomaly…
Polyandry might be easier to understand if one viewed these marriages to Smith as a sort of de facto divorce with the first husband. However, none of these women divorced their ‘first husbands’ while Smith was alive and all of them continued to live with their civil spouses while married to Smith…
In the eleven certain polyandrous marriages, only three of the husbands were non-Mormon (Lightner, Sayers, and Cleveland) and only one was disaffected (Buell). All other husbands were in good standing in the church at the time Joseph married their wives. 1
When viewed in the light of the Biblical record and the premortal life, the issue is more easily resolved.
We are not proposing that the following two explanations are the only answers surrounding the issue of “polyandry”. Instead, these two perspectives are “pieces” to the puzzle of understanding the Kingdom of God.
Before beginning, please note that the following article deals with subject matter that is extremely sacred. These subjects should not be spoken of without the utmost reverence. We mention them here because of concerns that have been raised with Joseph Smith. We feel that these concerns need to be addressed and answered.
Joseph Smith & the Bible
Many of the controversial issues surrounding the Prophet Joseph Smith and his life can be clarified by turning to the Bible. We must remember that the Prophet Joseph Smith was a restorer. His mission was to restore the sacred principles, doctrines, ordinances and power that existed in the Primitive Church, as was had among the righteous Israelites and as was possessed by the ancient antediluvian Patriarchs. As we sing in one of our hymns,
The Lord is extending the Saints’ understanding,
Restoring their judges and all as at first.
The knowledge and power of God are expanding;
The veil o’er the earth is beginning to burst. 2
To understand Joseph Smith, you must understand the Bible. He reverenced the Bible, interpreted the parts that were meant to be literal literally and strove to restore “all as at first”. Very few men and women today, who identify themselves as “Christian”, interpret the Bible literally. Joseph Smith on the other hand, operated from a Biblical worldview.
He then took up the Bible. “I believe,” said he, “in this sacred volume. In it the ‘Mormon’ faith is to be found. We teach nothing but what the Bible teaches. We believe nothing, but what is to be found in this book. I believe in the fall of man, as recorded in the Bible; . . . In the Bible a rule of conduct is laid down for him; in the Old and New Testaments the law by which he is to be governed, may be found. If he violates that law, he is to be punished for the deeds done in the body. 3
Joseph Smith was the greatest advocate of the Bible. His successor and personal friend, Brigham Young, later taught:
We take this book, the Bible, which I expect to see voted out of the so-called Christian world very soon, they are coming to it as fast as possible, I say we take this book for our guide, for our rule of action; we take it as the foundation of our faith. It points the way to salvation like a fingerboard pointing to a city, or a map which designates the locality of mountains, rivers, or the latitude and longitude of any place on the surface of the earth that we desire to find, and we have no better sense than to believe it; hence, I say that the Latter-day Saints have the most natural faith and belief of any people on the face of the earth. 4
Take up the Bible, compare the religion of the Latter-day Saints with it, and see if it will stand the test. 5
The disagreement between “Mormons” and some claiming to be “mainstream” Christians, in my opinion, typically centers on LDS theology being too literalistic in its interpretation of the Bible. Let us accept the challenge of President Brigham Young and “take up the Bible” and compare Joseph Smith to this standard. Will his engagement in polyandry “stand the test”?
Polyandry in the New Testament
When we peruse the pages of sacred writ, we discover another “polyandrous” marriage from over two millennia ago. President Brigham Young commented:
The man Joseph, the husband of Mary, did not, that we know of, have more than one wife, but Mary the wife of Joseph had another husband. On this account infidels have called the Savior a bastard. This is merely a human opinion upon one of the inscrutable doings of the Almighty. That very babe that was cradled in the manger, was begotten, not by Joseph, the husband of Mary, but by another Being. Do you inquire by whom? He was begotten by God our heavenly, father. 6
While many modernists would balk at this literal interpretation of the Bible, a clear, unbiased reading of the New Testament Gospels reveals that no scripture contradicts this interpretation. On the contrary, there are several verses conveying that Jesus Christ was the literal, begotten Son of God.
Luke 1:31-32, 35
31 And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS.
32 He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: . . .
35 And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.
Jesus answered them . . . Say ye of him, whom the Father hath sanctified, and sent into the world, Thou blasphemest; because I said, I am the Son of God? If I do not the works of my Father, believe me not.
And he said unto them, How is it that ye sought me? wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business?
And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.
And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-jona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven.
1 John 5:9-10
If we receive the witness of men, the witness of God is greater: for this is the witness of God which he hath testified of his Son.
He that believeth on the Son of God hath the witness in himself: he that believeth not God hath made him a liar; because he believeth not the record that God gave of his Son.
Leaders of the Church have similarly testified that Jesus Christ is the literal Son of God.
Scriptures embodying the ordinary signification—literally that of Parent—are too numerous and specific to require citation. The purport of these scriptures is to the effect that God the Eternal Father, whom we designate by the exalted name-title “Elohim,” is the literal Parent of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and of the spirits of the human race. Elohim is the Father in every sense in which Jesus Christ is so designated, and distinctively He is the Father of spirits….
Jesus Christ is the Son of Elohim both as spiritual and bodily offspring; that is to say, Elohim is literally the Father of the spirit of Jesus Christ and also of the body in which Jesus Christ performed His mission in the flesh, and which body died on the cross and was afterward taken up by the process of resurrection, and is now the immortalized tabernacle of the eternal spirit of our Lord and Savior. No extended explanation of the title “Son of God” as applied to Jesus Christ appears necessary. 7
The Latter-day Saints unite with the people of every creed and tongue and race in the general commemoration of the day observed throughout Christendom as the anniversary of the God-Man’s earthly birth. … We bow to Him as the veritable Son of the living God in the fullest sense of the hallowed term. As Mary was His saintly mother, so the Mighty God was His everlasting and literal Father. He was “the only begotten” of Deity, in the flesh, to die that man may live. This we once more affirm and declare as a glorious truth and a fundamental of “Mormon” faith. 8
While brother Joseph was referring to the provinces of God, I was led to reflect that there is no act, no principle, no power belonging to the Deity that is purely philosophical. The birth of the Saviour was as natural as are the births of our children; it was the result of natural action. He partook of flesh and blood – was begotten of his Father, as we were of our fathers. 9
Joseph F. Smith:
Now, we are told in scriptures that Jesus Christ is the only begotten Son of God in the flesh. Well, now for the benefit of the older ones, how are children begotten? I answer just as Jesus Christ was begotten of the flesh… Jesus is the only person who had our Heavenly Father as the father of his body. 10
Joseph Fielding Smith:
Jesus was not the son of any mortal man. His biological father was God, the Father. As Son of God, Jesus represents the Father and acts as his agent in all things. 11
Ezra Taft Benson:
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints proclaims that Jesus Christ is the Son of God in the most literal sense. The body in which He performed His mission in the flesh was sired by that same Holy Being we worship as God, our Eternal Father. Jesus was not the son of Joseph, nor was He begotten by the Holy Ghost. He is the Son of the Eternal Father. 12
Bruce R. McConkie:
As far as this life is concerned, [Jesus] was born of Mary and of Elohim; he came here as an offspring of that Holy Man who is literally our Father in heaven. He was born in mortality in the literal and full sense as the Son of God. He is the Son of his Father in the same sense that all mortals are the sons and daughters of their fathers. 13
Mary, perhaps the greatest woman to live on this earth, was married to two men at the same time, God the Father and Joseph. Her marriage to Joseph was for time, while her marriage with the Father was an unbreakable union that spanned into eternity.
27 Dec, 1886 – Sarah M. Granger Kimball, counselor in Relief Society General Presidency teaches from the pulpit that “her brother Lafayette Granger and the late Bishop George Miller in conversation once with the prophet Joseph Smith were told by him that when Mary the mother of Jesus was on her way to the hill country she was met by God the Father and the Angel Gabriel and the latter performed the marriage between Father (God) and Mary. 14
Joseph Smith is the witness of Jesus Christ. We are not surprised that his life contains elements paralleling the Son of God. Joseph Smith’s involvement in polyandry is a witness for his prophetic calling, not against.
Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner was married to Adam Lightner when Joseph Smith approached her to become his plural wife. Mary Elizabeth remembered:
In 1834, [Joseph] was commanded to take me for a wife. I was a thousand miles from him. He got afraid. The angel came to him three times, the last time with a drawn sword and threatened his life. I did not believe. If God told him so, why did he not come and tell me? The angel told him I should have a witness. An angel came to me – it went through me like lightning – I was afraid. Joseph Said he came with more revelation and knowledge than Joseph ever dare reveal. (Brigham Young sealed me to him, for time and all eternity – Feb. 1842.) Joseph said I was his before I came here and he said all the Devils in Hell should never get me from him. 15
One of the purposes of these marriages was to restore families to their proper order as existed before this life. Mary Elizabeth also remarked:
. . . Joseph made known to me that God had commanded him in July, 1834, to take me for a wife. But he had not dared to make it known to me, for when he received the revelation, I was in Missouri and when he did see me, I was married. But he was again commanded to fulfill the first revelation or suffer condemnation, for I was created for him before the foundation of the earth was laid. 16
These statements should cause us to pause, to humble ourselves and realize that perhaps there is far more to the premortal life than we presently understand. 17 Did the very same sociality that exists here, exist there? A careful study of Church doctrine, the teachings of inspired Presidents of the Church and scripture reveals that the premortal life is more like this life than perhaps we have realized. President Joseph Fielding Smith and other Brethren on numerous occasions have taught that the premortal existence extended for “eons of time”. Mary Elizabeth understood that she was “created for [Joseph Smith]” and “was his before [she] came here”. This companionship existed for “eons of time”. 18 It seems logical that the Lord had the right to re-establish this union that existed for “eons of time” but had been mistakenly interrupted because of mortal foibles. We don’t know what “eons of time” is, but it could be millions of years, if not more. We, the authors, do not know. Imagine forcing someone to stay in the wrong relationship from a mistake made in ignorance, during mortality. This would be the true injustice. The issues that seem so difficult to deal with in this life can often be easily explained by an understanding of the premortal existence.
Also consider the following statement by Joseph Smith, recorded in the journal of Joseph Lee Robinson.
We also heard him [Joseph Smith] say that God had revealed unto him that any man who ever committed adultery in either of his probations that that man could never be raised to the highest exaltation in the Celestial Glory and that he felt anxious with regard to himself and he inquired of the Lord and the Lord told him that he, Joseph, had never committed adultery.
This saying of the Prophet astonished me very much. It opened up to me a very wide field of reflection. The idea that we had passed through probation prior to this and that we must have been married and given in marriage in those probations or there would be no propriety in making such an assertion and that there were several exaltations in the Celestial Kingdom of our God, the highest we supposed to be the Godhead and we conclude that there are several grades of exaltations in servants to the Gods. Be this as it may, this is what he said. We will know the truth of the matter some day. 19.
As Brother Robinson said, “we will know the truth of the matter some day”. There is much concerning the premortal life that is yet to be revealed. Joseph Smith was not able to reveal all or even a small fraction of that he knew.
Shortly following the Prophet Joseph Smith’s martyrdom, Brigham Young was given a vision wherein he asked the Prophet:
Brother Joseph, the brethren you know well better than I do; you raised them up, and brought the Priesthood to us. The brethren have a great anxiety to understand the law of adoption or sealing principles; and if you have a word of counsel for me I should be glad to receive it.
The Prophet responded:
“Tell the people to humble and faithful, and be sure to keep the spirit of the Lord and it will lead them right. . . . Be sure to tell the people to keep the Spirit of the Lord; and if they will, they will find themselves just as they were organized by our Father in Heaven before they came into the world. Our Father in Heaven organized the human family, but they are all disorganized and in great confusion.”
Joseph then showed me the pattern, how they were in the beginning. 20
The following account from May 1843 reveals that Joseph Smith knew far more concerning the spirit world, the family, mortality, the premortal life and salvation than we understand today.
On May 23, 1843, I listened to a discourse preached in the Nauvoo temple, which was then only partially finished. Brother Joseph was talking on the pre-existence of our spirits, and our relations to God in the spirit world, and our standing in the family circle of our Father. Now I am telling the truth, and I remember that while thus talking he suddenly turned around to the Apostles sitting on the stand and said in effect:
“Brethren, if I were to tell you all I know of the kingdom of God, I do know that you would rise up and kill me.”
Brother Brigham arose and said, “Don’t tell me anything that I can’t bear, for I don’t want to apostatize.” Brother Joseph, addressing the Apostles, then said: “The weight of this kingdom has been as a millstone around my neck, but I am going to roll it off on your shoulders, and then the kingdom of God will go on.” There were eleven of the Apostles present at this time. Among them I saw Parley Pratt, Orson Pratt, Willard Richards, Geo. A. Smith, Brigham Young and John Taylor. I don’t remember the others. 21
Could it be that in our 21st century arrogance, in our modernist repulsion to Joseph Smith’s actions, we have missed understanding who we were, who we are and who we can become? We would submit that one day we will discover that Joseph Smith’s greatest “crimes” are in reality a powerful testimony to the greatness of his character and understanding.
- Compton, Todd. In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith. Salt Lake City: Signature, 1997. 15-16 ↩
- The Spirit of God, LDS Hymnal, #2 ↩
- Joseph Smith, Sermon delivered at Washington, D.C. on February 5, 1840, reported by Matthew L. Davis, member of the U.S. House of Representatives ↩
- Young, Brigham. Journal of Discourses. 13:236 ↩
- Young, Brigham. Journal of Discourses. 16:46 ↩
- Young, Brigham. Journal of Discourses. 11:268 ↩
- First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. The Father and the Son: A Doctrinal Exposition by The First Presidency and the Twelve. June 1916; see also Clark, James R. Messages of the First Presidency. Vol. 5. Salt Lake City, UT: Bookcraft, 26-27 ↩
- Christmas pastoral epistle, December 19, 1914; see also Deseret News, December 19, 1914; see also Clark, James R. Messages of the First Presidency. Vol. 4. Salt Lake City, UT: Bookcraft, 318-319 ↩
- Young, Brigham. Journal of Discourses. 8:115 ↩
- Smith, Joseph F. Family Home Evening Manual. 1972. 125-126 ↩
- Smith, Joseph Fielding. The Restoration of All Things. 61 ↩
- Benson, Ezra Taft. Come Unto Christ. 4; see also The Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson, 7 ↩
- McConkie, Bruce R. The Mortal Messiah. 1:330 ↩
- Quinn, D. Michael. The Mormon Hierarchy: Extensions of Power. Salt Lake City: Signature, 1997. 786 ↩
- Lightner, Mary Elizabeth Rollins. “Statement” signed Feb. 8, 1902, Vesta Crawford Papers, MS 125, bx1 fd 11. Original owned by Mrs. Nell Osborne, SLC (courtesy Juanita Brooks). See also Juanita Brooks Papers, USHS, MSB103, bx16, fd 13; BYU special collections, Ms 1132. ↩
- Lightner, Mary Elizabeth Rollins. “Mary Elizabeth Rollins,” copy of holograph in Susa Young Gates Papers, USHS box 14, fd 4. ↩
- JST Revelation 12, Alma 13:3 ↩
- Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation 1:37; Elder Bruce R. McConkie, The Mortal
Messiah, 4 vols. , 1:21-23, see also 3:470; Howard W. Hunter, The Teachings of Howard W. Hunter, p. 12 ↩
- Robinson, Joseph Lee. Journal. LDS Church Archives, retrospective entry, without date ↩
- Young, Brigham. Manuscript History of Brigham Young, also from Unpublished Revelations of the Prophets and Presidents of the Church pg. 106 ↩
- Horne, Robert. Reminiscences of the Church in Nauvoo. Latter-Day Saints’ Millennial Star, Vol. 55, No. 36, Sept. 4, 1893. 585 ↩