To many Latter-day Saints, Joseph Smith’s sealing to fourteen-year-old Helen Mar Kimball in 1843 is one of the most “troublesome” aspects of early LDS Church history. Discovering this fact has shocked many Latter-day Saints, leading to confusion and inner conflict.
Who was Helen Mar Kimball?
Helen Mar Kimball was the daughter of the Prophet Joseph’s steadfast and loyal friend, Heber C. Kimball. According to the Prophet Joseph Smith:
Of the Twelve Apostles chosen in Kirtland, and ordained under the hands of Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer and myself, there have been but two but what have lifted their heel against me-namely Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball. (May 28, 1843)1
Helen Mar Kimball’s sealing to the Prophet Joseph Smith was first proposed by her father. Helen recorded:
. . . he [Heber C. Kimball] taught me the principle of Celestial marriage, and having a great desire to be connected with the Prophet Joseph, he offered me to him; this I afterwards learned from the Prophet’s own mouth. My father had but one lamb, but willingly laid her upon the alter . . .2
Many struggle to reconcile Joseph Smith being a man of integrity and virtue with the fact that Helen Mar Kimball was fourteen at the time of her marriage. The Prophet Joseph was 37 years old at the time. Is this a “stain” upon the Prophet’s character? Should we be embarrassed or even apologetic for this action?
One of the most difficult, and often forgotten, aspects of correctly interpreting history is endeavoring to remember the culture and context surrounding an event. Can we truly understand Joseph Smith while 21st century political correctness and modern tradition distort our interpretation? Have we paused to ask: “Is it truth or only cultural paradigm that causes repulsion with Helen’s ‘underage marriage’?”
It is a documented fact that in the past so-called “under age marriages” were often the norm. Several historians and authors have documented the prevalence of teen and even pre-teen brides in the last millennia. Historian Margaret Wade Labarge noted:
It needs to be remembered that many Medieval widows were not old, Important heiresses were often married between the ages of 5 and 10 and might find themselves widowed while still in their teens.3
Researchers Richard Wortley and Stephen Smallbone also commented on the Medieval age.
In Medieval and early modern European societies, the age of marriage remained low, with documented cases of brides as young as seven years, although marriages were typically not consummated until the girl reached puberty (Bullough 2004).4
An example of teen brides during the Renaissance can be seen in the female protagonist of the famous Shakespearean tragedy, Romeo and Juliet. Juliet is only thirteen years old when she secretly marries Romeo. Wortley and Smallbone comment:
Shakespeare’s Juliet was just 13, and there is no hint in the play that this was considered to be exceptional.5
I’ve heard many criticize Joseph Smith for his marriage to Helen Mar Kimball, but I’ve never heard a public outcry demanding a cancellation of theatrical performances of Romeo and Juliet. Numerous film adaptations, musical compositions, ballet productions and educational study courses are consumed without a second thought. Do we have a double standard?
Wortley and Smallbone traced the history of teen marriages across the Atlantic, from the Old World to the New.
The situation was similar on the other side of the Atlantic; Bullough reports the case in 1689 of a nine-year-old bride in Virginia. At the start of the nineteenth century in England, it was legal to have sex with a 10 year-old girl.6
For hundreds and thousands of years, teen marriage was not shocking. However, this historical record proves nothing more than the fact that our cultural ideology regarding the proper age for marriage is an anomaly when compared to the past. The real question is, “Regardless of what has or has not been culturally acceptable, is this right?” To answer this question, I turn to two of the greatest heroines in recorded history: Mary, the mother of the Son of God and Rebekah, the mother of Jacob or Israel.
Mary, mother of the Son of God
Many do not realize that according to some ancient texts, Mary may have been betrothed to Joseph when she was about the same age as Helen Mar Kimball when Helen was married to Joseph Smith. The Gospel of James (also referred to as the Infancy Gospel of James or the Protoevangelium of James), recounts the story of Mary’s upbringing. While this text is considered “apologetic” material and it’s authorship likely occurred no earlier than the 2nd century, this apocryphal text reveals insights into Jewish culture and the “acceptable” age for marriage. This account claims Mary was consecrated to the Lord and served in the Temple. When she reached the age of twelve years old, she was betrothed to Joseph.
And when she was twelve years old there was held a council of the priests, saying: Behold, Mary has reached the age of twelve years in the temple of the Lord. What then shall we do with her, lest perchance she defile the sanctuary of the Lord? . . . And the priest said to Joseph, You have been chosen by lot to take into your keeping the virgin of the Lord. But Joseph refused, saying: I have children, and I am an old man, and she is a young girl. I am afraid lest I become a laughing-stock to the sons of Israel. And the priest said to Joseph: Fear the Lord your God, and remember what the Lord did to Dathan, and Abiram, and Korah; how the earth opened, and they were swallowed up on account of their contradiction. And now fear, O Joseph, lest the same things happen in your house. And Joseph was afraid, and took her into his keeping.
According to this “Gnostic gospel”, Mary was two years younger than Helen Mar Kimball at the time of her sealing and Joseph, her betrothed, was an “old man”. Whether or not the account is accurate, the story reveals the customary age for marriage in the ancient past.The apocryphal text History of Joseph the Carpenter (likely dating to the late 7th or early 7th centuries) is believed to have been based on material from the Gospel of James. It similarly recounts:
Now when righteous Joseph became a widower, my mother Mary, blessed, holy, and pure, was already twelve years old. For her parents offered her in the temple when she was three years of age, and she remained in the temple of the Lord nine years. Then when the priests saw that the virgin, holy and God-fearing, was growing up, they spoke to each other, saying: Let us search out a man, righteous and pious, to whom Mary may be entrusted until the time of her marriage; lest, if she remain in the temple, it happen to her as is wont to happen to women, and lest on that account we sin, and God be angry with us.
Therefore they immediately sent out, and assembled twelve old men of the tribe of Judah. And they wrote down the names of the twelve tribes of Israel. And the lot fell upon the pious old man, righteous Joseph. Then the priests answered, and said to my blessed mother: Go with Joseph, and be with him till the time of your marriage. Righteous Joseph therefore received my mother, and led her away to his own house. And Mary found James the Less in his father’s house, broken-hearted and sad on account of the loss of his mother, and she brought him up. Hence Mary was called the mother of James. Luke 24:10 Thereafter Joseph left her at home, and went away to the shop where he wrought at his trade of a carpenter. And after the holy virgin had spent two years in his house her age was exactly fourteen years, including the time at which he received her.
Jewish culture allowed women to embrace the opportunities that came with adulthood and motherhood at a far earlier age. One author sources the Talmud stating:
B. Sanh while arguing that a young girl should not be married to an old man or to an infant son, urges that daughters should be married when they reach puberty, and the same position is taken with respect to sons.7
The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew (“pseudo” because scholars do not believe it was written by Matthew, the early apostle) places Mary’s age at fourteen years old.
Now it came to pass, when she was fourteen years old, . . . Abiathar the high priest rose, and mounted on a higher step, that he might be seen and heard by all the people; and when great silence had been obtained, he said: Hear me, O sons of Israel, and receive my words into your ears. Ever since this temple was built by Solomon, there have been in it virgins, the daughters of kings and the daughters of prophets, and of high priests and priests; and they were great, and worthy of admiration. But when they came to the proper age they were given in marriage, and followed the course of their mothers before them, and were pleasing to God. . . .
. . . all the people congratulated the old man [Joseph], saying: You have been made blessed in your old age, O father Joseph, seeing that God has shown you to be fit to receive Mary. And the priests having said to him, Take her, because of all the tribe of Judah you alone hast been chosen by God; Joseph began bashfully to address them, saying: I am an old man, and have children; why do you hand over to me this infant, who is younger than my grandsons? Then Abiathar the high priest said to him: Remember, Joseph, how Dathan and Abiron and Core perished, because they despised the will of God. So will it happen to you, if you despise this which is commanded you by God.
In this text, Mary’s age is referred to as the “proper age” and it is noted that she must follow “the course of their mothers before them”. The Gospel of the Nativity of Mary, a recast of the Pseudo-Matthew, also speaks of Mary’s “advancing age”.
Now the virgin of the Lord, with advancing age, also made progress in virtue . . . She came, therefore, to her fourteenth year, and not only could they devise against her no evil, nor anything worthy of blame, but all good men who knew her judged her life and conversation worthy of admiration. Then the chief priest publicly announced that the virgins who were publicly placed in the temple, and had arrived at this time of life, should return home and seek to be married, according to the custom of the nation, and the maturity of their age.8
Notice that Mary’s age is referred to as “advancing age” and that it was time for her to be married “according to the custom of the nation, and the maturity of [her] age.” Could the repulsion felt by many modernists when hearing of Helen Mar Whitney’s sealing at fourteen be merely a matter of cultural tradition and convention?
Rebekah, mother of the House of Israel
According to another apocryphal work, the Book of Jasher, Rebekah, the mother of Jacob or Israel (the revered father of the Twelve Tribes or House of Israel) was only ten years of age when she forsook her homeland to become the wife of the birthright son, Isaac.
And Eliezer related to them all his concerns, and that he was Abraham’s servant . . .
And they all blessed the Lord who brought this thing about, and they gave him Rebecca, the daughter of Bethuel, for a wife for Isaac.
And the young woman was of very comely appearance, she was a virgin, and Rebecca was ten years old in those days. (Book of Jasher, 24:38-40.)
If we are going to question the legitimacy of Joseph Smith’s young wives, we would also need to question the purity of these Biblical marriages. While I agree that such convention or practice would not be wise today, we should not condemn the Prophet Joseph Smith or consider this event in Church History damaging to faith when it merely parallels the mother of the House of Israel and the mother of the Son of God.
Helen Mar Kimball was sealed to the Prophet Joseph Smith in May 1843. The historical record is not clear whether the marriage was consummated at that time or at any time prior to the Prophet Joseph’s death. Marriages were performed for eternity, not merely for time. Consider the following pioneer account of the sealing of Mosiah Hancock at eleven years of age and a young woman named Mary.
Although I was very young, I was on guard many a night, and gladly did I hail with many of the Saints, the completion of the temple. On about January 10, 1846, I was privileged to go in the temple and receive my washings and anointings. I was sealed to a lovely young girl named Mary, who was about my age, but it was with the understanding that we were not to live together as man and wife until we were 16 years of age. The reason that some were sealed so young was because we knew that we would have to go West and wait many a long time for another temple.9
This account shows that it was not unheard of for marriages to be performed that would not be consummated or fully recognized until the participants reached an appropriate age.
Helen’s feelings regarding plural marriage
It should be acknowledged that Helen Mar Kimball initially held reservations to the practice of plural marriage. However, later in her life she became a staunch defender. Her story and journey of discovery will be detailed in an upcoming article, Did one of the Prophet Joseph’s wives, Helen Mar Kimball despise polygamy?.
- “History, 1838–1856, volume D-1 [1 August 1842–1 July 1843],” p. 1563, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed January 21, 2019, https://josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/history-1838-1856-volume-d-1-1-august-1842-1-july-1843/206
- Typescript and copy of holograph reproduced in Jeni Broberg Holzapfel and Richard Neitzel Holzapfel, eds. “Religious Studies Center.” A Woman’s View: Helen Mar Whitney’s Reminiscences of Early Church History | Religious Studies Center. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Jan. 2017. 482–87.
- Labarge, Margaret Wade. A Medieval Miscellany. Ottawa: Carleton UP, 1997. Print. 52.
- ABC-CLIO. “Internet Child Pornography.” Internet Child Pornography by Richard Wortley and Stephen Smallbone – Praeger. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Jan. 2017. 10.
- McArthur, Harvey. Celibacy in Judaism at the Time of Christian Beginnings. Andrews University Seminary Studies, Summer 1987, Vol. 25, No. 2. 167.
- Cowper, B. Harris. The Apocryphal Gospels and Other Documents Relating to the History of Christ. London: F. Norgate, 1881. Print. 91-92
- “Autobiography of Mosiah Hancock (1834-1907).” Autobiography of Mosiah Hancock (1834-1907). N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Jan. 2017.