CESNUR - Centro Studi sulle Nuove Religioni diretto da Massimo Introvigne


Historical Overview of the Origin of Mormon Polygamy

by H. Michael Marquardt
A paper presented at The 2009 CESNUR Conference, Salt Lake City, Utah, June 11-13, 2009

I would like to present a brief historical overview of the origin of Mormon polygamy. In Latter-day Saint practice there was a gradual development in the custom of marriage. For the first ten years of its existence the Church upheld the practice of one man being married to one wife. This position was published in the first edition of the Doctrine and Covenants printed in the State of Ohio. The article indicated that a marriage should be solemnized in public and stated the position clearly: "we believe, that one man should have one wife; and one woman, but one husband."

The Latter-day Saint version of having more than one wife was taught and practiced in Nauvoo, Illinois. Nauvoo was located on the east side of the Mississippi River. Many questions still remain unanswered because of the secret nature of the practice. When unauthorized discussions of marriage beliefs were made public those involved denied the practice.

The religious ceremony of celestial marriage included the possibility of widowed, married, or single women being sealed in a priesthood rite to founding prophet Joseph Smith. The promise was, if faithful, they would enter the celestial kingdom of heaven with themselves, their families, and be associated with Smith for eternity. This was known as spiritual wifery, celestial or heavenly marriage, plural marriage, or the principle.

Joseph Bates Noble recalled that he heard about plural marriage in 1840:

in the fall of the year A.D. 1840 Joseph Smith taught him [Noble] the principle of Celestial marriage or a "plurality of wives", and that the said Joseph Smith declaired [declared] that he had received a Revelation from God on the subject, and that the Angel of the Lord had commanded him, (Joseph Smith) to move forward in the said order of marriage[1]

The first recognized sealing in Nauvoo was that of Louisa Beaman to Joseph Smith by Joseph Noble in 1841. Women were secretly married (or in LDS language sealed by the priesthood) to Smith or other men without courtship. Many of the young single women because of their commitment in a plural relationship would not be able to marry a man near their own age.

At a meeting of the ladies' Relief Society an Epistle was read concerning several men who made unorthodox advances on women using in their approach the name of Joseph Smith to justify their behavior:

for we do not want any one to believe any thing as coming from us, contrary to the old established morals & virtues & scriptural laws, regulating the habits, customs & conduct of society; . . . Let this Epistle be had as a private matter in your Society, and then we shall learn whether you are good masons.[2]

Whatever Joseph Smith's reasoning for celestial marriage he knew Emma, his wife of fifteen years, would not approve of having women sealed to her husband. The priesthood ordinance was withheld from her for two years. While in her short-lived conversion to the principle Emma did consent to some sealings in 1843.

Those sealed to Smith were not publicly known as plural wives. For example, they did not go with him to public meetings or social activities. They had no legal status as wives of Joseph Smith. There were also married women sealed to Smith but there is no indication how these sealings related to this life or in eternity.

Only a limited number of Church members knew about the command to practice polygamy and there were some honest denials. The Millennial Star, a Church periodical published in England, not knowing the private teachings in Nauvoo, wrote:

But, for the information of those who may be assailed by those foolish tales about the two wives, we would say that no such principle ever existed among the Latter-day Saints, and never will; this is well known to all who are acquainted with our books, the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants; and also all our periodicals are very strict and explicit on that subject, indeed far more so than the Bible.[3]

In July 1843 Joseph Smith responded to a request from his brother Hyrum to write something on the topic. Joseph dictated a revelation that was directed in part to Emma. The document approved men having many wives and concubines. Concubines would have a lesser status than a wife. "I reveal unto you a new and an everlasting covenant; and if ye abide not that covenant, then are ye damned." The revelation stated that if a man marry a wife for time and all eternity, sealed by proper authority, and abide in the covenant they shall in the afterlife be gods.

The revelation admonished Emma Smith to receive those women given to her husband Joseph. Emma's response was "she did not believe a word of it and appeared very rebellious."[4] As priesthood approved marriages developed eternal sealings were only part of the new and everlasting covenant which included men being able to marry additional wives. This revelatory document was not presented to a Church conference at Nauvoo.

Nine years later in 1852, here in the Salt Lake City, at a special conference, the 1843 revelation, was read to the Saints. In 1876 it was added to a new edition of the Doctrine and Covenants and is still printed in that scriptural book.

This brief overview of the origin of Mormonism's practice of polygamy concludes that the practice was introduced by prophet-president Joseph Smith. Its belief is an important part of Mormon history and relates to the question of marriage that continues with us today. Thank you.

Historical Overview of the Origin of Mormon Polygamy

by H. Michael Marquardt


1830  Book of Mormon published: condemns multiple wives and concubines; man to have one wife supported

Church of Christ organized in New York (April 6)

1831 Revelation on law of the Church, "Thou shalt love thy wife with all thy heart, and shalt cleave unto her and none else" (February 9)

Revelatory message supporting a man having one wife (March)

1835 Article on Marriage adopted by General Assembly, included in first edition of the Doctrine and Covenants. Mentioned marriage should be solemnized in public; "we believe, that one man should have one wife; and one woman, but one husband" (August 17)

1840 Joseph Smith says he was commanded by an angel to have more than one wife

1841 Smith sealed to Louisa Beaman by Joseph B. Noble (April 5)

1842 Revelation to marry Sarah Ann Whitney (July 27)

1843 Emma Smith gives Emily and Eliza Partridge to husband as plural wives.

Revelation given on justification of having many wives and concubines (July 12)

1844    Death of Joseph and Hyrum Smith (June 27)

1847 First Presidency established with Brigham Young sustained as president (Dec. 27)

1852 Revelation of July 12, 1843 read at Church conference (Aug. 29)

1862 Congress: Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act (July 1)

1869 transcontinental railroad completed (May 10)

1874 Congress: Poland Act

1875 George Reynolds Case; U.S. Supreme Court Upheld (1879)

1876 Article on Marriage omitted in new edition of Doctrine and Covenants; July 1843 revelation becomes section 132

H. Michael Marquardt is an independent historian and research consultant. He is the compiler of Early Patriarchal Blessings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City: Smith-Pettit Foundation, 2007); author of The Four Gospels According to Joseph Smith (Longwood, Florida: Xulon Press, 2007); The Rise of Mormonism: 1816-1844 (Xulon Press, 2005) and The Joseph Smith Revelations: Text and Commentary (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1999). He is webmaster for “Mormon Central”, "Mormon Origins" and "Family and Church History." Currently the inventory of the H. Michael Marquardt Papers housed in the Manuscripts Division at the J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, contains 386 archival boxes; a register is available on-line. He and his wife Dorothy live in Sandy, Utah, and are the parents of five children.

[1] Affidavit of Joseph B. Noble, June 26, 1869, Joseph F. Smith Affidavit Book 1:38, original in LDS Church History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah. See also Andrew Jenson, "Plural Marriage," Historical Record 6 (May 1887):221, Salt Lake City.

[2] A Book of Records, Containing the proceedings of The Female Relief Society of Nauvoo, 86-88, LDS Church History Library, emphasis retained. The epistle was recorded at the end of the September 28, 1842 meeting.

[3] "Apostacy," Millennial Star 3 (Aug. 1842):74, Liverpool, England.

[4] William Clayton Journal, entry for July 12, 1843, LDS First Presidency Collection, Salt Lake City.