Plural Marriage

Sensationalism and Realities of Early Latter-day Saint Polygamy

Below is an essay I wrote for a research assignment analyzing primary sources in my first semester of graduate school at Sam Houston State University. I chose personal statements, newspapers, and Latter-day Saint scripture as the basis of my research on the topic of an early controversial practice among the Latter-day Saints. This was also my final assignment under professor Dr. Terry Bilhartz, who recently passed away as the semester came to an end. He had a passion for religious history, and he was a great teacher. I also discovered that he authored history books I used to use while taking community college classes in San Antonio several years ago. He will be missed.

Scott Thormaehlen
HIS 5378
Professor Dr. Terry Bilhartz
December 7, 2014

Sensationalism and Realities of Early Latter-day Saint Polygamy


A recent article on early Latter-day Saint polygamy released by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) caught the attention of mainstream news outlets, such as the New York Times. The sensationalism revolved around the religious marriages of the church’s founder Joseph Smith to not only 40 women, but also to then 14-year-old Helen Mar Kimball, which the Church published on its website,, under the topic Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo. The New York Times article revealed frustration amongst some Latter-day Saints, including blogger Emily Jensen who said, “This is not the church I grew up with, this is not the Joseph Smith I love”.
[1] Some of the contents in the Church’s publication left many wondering if this information was intentionally hidden from its membership. The source of frustration from the information revealed, though new to many, existed all along in the background of Church theology and history.


 What is revealed is a practical, biblically defensible doctrine–an exception within the Church of Jesus Christ, not the rule.

While Latter-day Saints have been long stigmatized with polygamy, it was practiced by mostly first and second-generation Saints and came to end in most of their lifetimes. Although some actors might have abused it, the institution provided good homes in times of need and fostered the increase in church population. In the process, it stirred passions against the Church’s critics – driven by sensationalism – who possessed a base understanding of frontier Mormon life. These observers pressed Congress and their fellow U.S. citizens to pass judgment on and to regulate the constitutional freedoms of religious conscience exercised by the Saints. Scripture, newspaper reports, and personal journal entries presented in this essay captured the attitudes and responses to this controversy on both sides of the issue. To understand the reactions of early Saints and their critics, it is necessary to consider the context and experiences of those in the early 1800s and life on the frontier. This essay argues that beyond all the media sensationalism, what is revealed is a practical, biblically defensible doctrine–an exception within the Church of Jesus Christ, not the rule.


First, to understand the Church of Jesus Christ is to understand what is often termed the “Second Great Awakening,” or an era of religious fervor that swept the former colonies and fostered the development of a host of new sects of Christianity in the early nineteenth century. Post-revolutionary American religion existed on a terrain that provided a clean slate for religious believers. The dominant brands of Christianity in early American history, before these new sects emerged, comprised primarily of the Catholic Church and the several Protestant sects, such as the Methodists, Anglicans, Lutherans, and Evangelicals. In American Originals: Homemade Varieties of Christianity, Paul Conkin composed brief histories of these new Christian innovations.

The religious groups and movements Conkin explored are the: Christians, Disciples of Christ, Unitarians, Universalists, Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Latter-day Saints, Christian Scientists, Pentecostals, Unity, and Holiness. Many who took advantage of their religious freedoms cast fresh eyes and dug deep into scripture and interpreted doctrines without fear of prosecution, imprisonment, or banishment. Determined to restore primitive Christianity to its original form, these movements repudiated “creeds and doctrines worked out by the great councils, and a wide range of nonscriptural innovations in worship”.[2]

Not satisfied with the dogma and hierarchy of the Methodist Church, for example, men like James O’Kelly, Elias Smith, and Barton Stone separated themselves and preferred to be called simply, Christians. In one such example, Elias Smith published several complaints against a dominant doctrine of his day–infant baptism–in his A Sermon on Baptism. Elias, who had no relation to the Church’s founder Joseph Smith, owned and operated a newspaper in New England. The premise of his sermon demanded that only believers–those who are able to submit to God–should receive baptism, not infants. Smith further pointed out many New Testament examples that ministers of his day did not follow. He preached that any tradition not expressly written in the New Testament text should be rejected.[3]

Secondly, among many who sought to restore Christianity to its primitive roots, the prophet Joseph Smith created a unique institution that was doctrinally heavy, whereas Evangelicals were light on doctrine. In the century prior, Evangelical innovator and former theater student, George Whitefield pioneered the personal conversion experience and appealed to passion, rather than dogma. Historian Harry S. Stout described Whitefield’s approach as one that “showed no interest in theology. Instead of doctrine, he explored the feelings of New Birth and through his exploration invited hearers to experience it for themselves. Imagination was central to his presentation of feelings.”[4] This divide between dogmatic religious groups and those who were light on doctrine did not mix well when defenders of polygamy crossed paths with those who criticized the practice. A clean slate for religious thinkers allowed the reintroduction of ancient Biblical teachings into the conversation while challenging supposed orthodox practices that were accepted at face value. This clash of ideas culminated in the conflict between Latter-day Saints and their critics.

A New Revelation – D&C 132

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Latter-day Saint scripture published in 1830, before the prophet Joseph Smith established the church, inserted the first comments on plural marriage. The Book of Mormon described plural marriage as the exception, not the rule. In the book of Jacob, a Book of Mormon prophet, the second chapter and thirtieth verse stated that “I will, saith the Lord of Hosts, raise seed unto me, I will command my people; otherwise they shall hearken unto these things.” “These things” Jacob described in verse twenty-seven are that “any man among you have save it be one wife; and concubines he shall have none.”

Instead of Joseph Smith writing in the fashion of Elias, who cited specific Bible verses to defend his arguments, Joseph wrote his revelations as much longer and descriptive revelations with themes based on the Biblical teaching. In 1852, the New York Daily Tribune inserted an extract from the 132nd section of the Church’s Doctrine and Covenants, which detailed the necessity of the priesthood given to Joseph Smith by God. This priesthood power bound or sealed covenants, such as marriage, on earth and in heaven. The Bible explained this power given to those with the priesthood, like Peter in the Gospel of Matthew 18:18, that “whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” This interpretation fit with the prophetic call and attitudes of both Joseph Smith and those who sustained his high office to develop the practice that they believed to be consistent with what they discovered in scripture. The Tribune’s extract introduced their audience and New Yorkers to a new marriage covenant – similar to early restoration thinker Elias Smith’s repudiation of infant baptism – which transformed the traditional Christian marriage vows of “till death do you part” to “for all eternity.”

The Tribune introduced polygamy to its audience as the “most repugnant” aspect of Latter-day Saint belief, reflecting the dissemination and circulation of an attitude of sensationalism or bias that the Tribune editors relied on to capture their audience in 1852.[5] Neither the editors nor their audience lived to view the practice from the perspective of a persecuted people who lived on the frontier and who were forced to flee to their mountain refuge. Such dramatic reports illustrated the negative attitude toward polygamy as feelings over time-honored traditions were challenged, and naturally this contributed to exaggeration, resistance, and or bigotry, while those involved defended their peculiar practice.

Defenders of polygamy

Lucy Walker Kimball was among the defenders of polygamy. In A Statement of Mrs. L.W. Kimball, Lucy described her early life as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Her statement detailed her introduction to the prophet Joseph Smith at a time when her family fled persecution, in what she called “wholesale slaughter at Haun’s Mill,” after settling in Nauvoo, Illinois.[6] Her account described her family’s desperate situation, their search for refuge, and the subsequent deaths of her mother and sister. Her father became sick and the prophet suggested he find a better climate to heal and return after two years. When her brother married and moved on, this left the remaining siblings and Lucy at the Smith home, whom the prophet “sought an interview” with in order to discuss polygamy.[7]

The prophet conveyed to Lucy that God had commanded him to take another wife and that she was the woman. She described her initial feelings and that the prophet “felt her sorrow” and “saw how unhappy [she] was.”[8] The prophet then predicted the saints would soon settle in the Rocky Mountains and that the principle of plural marriage “will yet be believed in and practiced by the righteous” and that he had “no flattering words to offer” other than it being a commandment from God.[9] Lucy “stood fearless before him and looked him in the eye” and said, “although you are a prophet of God you could not induce me to take a step of so great importance unless I know that God approved my course.”[10] Demanding that God make his will known to her, one morning she felt a “heavenly influence,” “received a powerful and irresistible testimony of the truth of plural marriage,” and learned that the prophet’s first wife, Emma, consented.[11]

After the death of Joseph Smith, Lucy married Heber C. Kimball, who was also married to other wives. Regardless of her marriage to Smith and his subsequent death, the fact that she remarried into another polygamist arrangement proved Smith’s previous prediction. Surely, had the option been available to her after the prophet’s death, she could have reconsidered an arrangement more suitable to her. Jealousy was not an issue, Lucy described, and the “sisters” found solace in their belief because they believed they did it “not for any world aggrandizement, not for the gratification of the flesh” but “accepted it to obey a command of God.”[12] Additionally, the conditions of a polygamist home are portrayed by Lucy as loving and an atmosphere of sisterhood. These conditions allowed the women and Heber to “learn self control, self denial,” which brought “out the nobler traits of our fallen natures,” and provided “a grand opportunity to improve ourselves.”[13] Her statement provided a window into the history of how some early Latter-day Saints, the relatively few that were involved with the practice, viewed themselves, the Bible, and their faith on a terrain that religious freedom fostered.

Another account for the defense of polygamy, which might surprise modern Latter-day Saints, came from the 14-year-old wife of Joseph Smith, Helen Mar Kimball, the daughter of Heber C. Kimball. Helen was sealed to Joseph Smith in a spiritual “eternal marriage” in 1843 with the consent of her father, the year before the prophet was killed. No children came from this union, and Helen continued to live with her parents. In her later years, she wrote Why We Practice Plural Marriage, published in 1884. Much like the home Heber C. Kimball provided for his wives, Helen wrote that her father “died a wealthy man” and all his wives “were provided with a good home.” Helen, finding herself once again in a polygamist arraignment, spoke of her second husband’s attitudes about plural marriage, who she married after the prophet was killed, and described that had they not been the “the purest” and driven “by religious principle,” she would have succumbed to jealousy. Though women like Lucy and Helen enjoyed a clear conscience in their defenses and the benefits they reported, the freedom to continue the practice developed into a matter of federal jurisdiction.

Constitutional Protection?

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Helen’s pamphlet also addressed the critics of plural marriage “who hold it up as a “foul stain that pollutes the very soil where it exists”” and to “those who are striving to convert our children from the faith and principles so plainly set forth in their own Bible.”
[14] She continued her criticism of “Christians” who quote the Bible “as His sacred oracles, and yet wish to take away the civil and religious rights of a people whose belief and practice are confirmed by that very book.”[15] Her attitude expressed worry that many supposed Christians practiced “all manner of licentiousness but are screened from the laws which they themselves or their own kind administers, may possess themselves of our hard-earned homes in these mountain fastnesses.”[16] The issue of plural marriage evolved into a battle of religious liberties, and the statehood of the Territory of Utah hung in the balance.

An extract published from then LDS apostle Orson Pratt’s monthly periodical, The Seer, in 1852 by the New York Daily Tribune, echoed the gravity of the struggle to maintain religious freedoms. The Church assigned Pratt to assist the saints living in the Washington D.C. area, and his monthly periodical served as a medium to convey the beliefs of the church to his local audience and those across the ocean. The Tribune also included portions of Pratt’s condemnations of the United States for allowing the past persecutions, sufferings, and injustices of the saints before they fled westward. In The Seer, Pratt defended polygamy on the grounds of constitutional rights. He stated “we doubt very much whether any State or Territory has the constitutional right to pass laws prohibiting the plurality doctrine in cases where it is practiced by religious societies as a matter of conscience.”[17] The Constitution of the United States grants “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

In 1875, the Church-owned and operated Deseret News published an article that circulated in the Montanian, established in Virginia City, Montana. This publication outlined the Church’s defense of the practice against the president of the United States for speaking out against it to Congress. The statement flatly denied that polygamy was a “crime against decency and morality,” “an unnatural vice,” and stated that it “should not be punished as a crime.”[18] It continued and simply describe it as “a wholly religious institution” and that “Congress has not the shadow of a right to interfere with polygamy in Utah.” Interestingly, the statement admitted that “Congress, however, has the power to make laws authorizing or forbidding” civil versions of the marriage, but the Church-owned newspaper made the distinction that “it has no such authority concerning polygamic religious marriage.”[19]

Regardless of the many examples of polygamy in the Bible, the religious liberties provided in the U.S. Constitution, and the defense of polygamy from Latter-day Saint participants, some Americans disapproved and pressed the government to ban the practice. The National League for the Suppression of Polygamy of Cleveland, Ohio wrote a statement in 1883 that urged “every city, town, and school district in the United States asking Congress to submit to the Legislatures of the various States an amendment to the Constitution prohibiting polygamy.”[20] The group characterized the practice as “a stain” or a “disgrace to us and to the civilized world.”[21] Frustrated that Congress did not share interest in this matter, this group took it upon themselves to “throttle the evil in the best manner possible and rid the country of a curse.”[22] This fervor and the eventual legislation to ban polygamy illustrated that the constitutional protections of religious belief and conscience won in the Revolutionary War were subject to the will of the masses.

Plural Marriage – the exception, not the rule

By 1865 the prophet Brigham Young and the saints began to feel the pressure and attitudes of their former fellow-citizens as emigration and other realities brought Utahans in closer contact with the nation at large. The Dedham Gazette of Dedham, Massachusetts, published a story from a Mr. Bowles, editor of the Springville Republican. Mr. Bowles journeyed westward towards the Pacific and stopped in Utah to note the material progress of the Latter-day Saints. Bowles praised the “morality and industry that have been organized in this remote spot in our continent,” yet he is disgusted with polygamy.[23] The visitor suggested that while Latter-day Saints practiced polygamy in “the mildest form possible,” he concluded that it ends with the “degradation of woman…she becomes simply the servant and serf.”[24] Interestingly, he recognized that “Mormonism is not necessarily polygamy.” He noted that there is more to the faith that originated without it and hoped that time would come when a new revelation would end it.

In conversation with Young, who welcomed the idea of a new revelation to end the practice, he recognized that the practice was not “an essential practice in the church, but only a privilege and a duty under special command of God.

With innovations such as the telegraph, the railroad, and emigration, Latter-day Saints and Young understood the implications. Fortunately for the Saints, most of the adherents did not practice plural marriage, and according to Bowles “not one fourth, perhaps one eight, practice it.”[25] In conversation with Young, who welcomed the idea of a new revelation to end the practice, he recognized that the practice was not “an essential practice in the church, but only a privilege and a duty under special command of God.”[26] Young continued to defend the Biblical authority but acknowledged that it had been abused and that some entered into it against his will.

Speaking in terms of demographics, when asked about the fact that in the world the sexes were divided equally, and that if men took more than one wife, this would undoubtedly leave many men without the option to marry, Young replied that “there was always a considerable proportion of the men who would never marry, who were bachelors from choice.”[27] This general statement of demographics by Mr. Bowles took for granted that in the lifetimes of Joseph Smith and the early Latter-day Saints, who endured persecution on the American frontier, that all Latter-day Saint women had an equal number of suitors at their beckon call ready to wed in the Church’s temple for time and eternity. Unfortunately, the scant historical data that survived by this generation cannot tell the whole story of the inner workings of courtship and relationships among the Saints.

In fact a more controversial point that the LDS Church acknowledged in Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo were the religious sealings of Joseph Smith and women who were already married to men they remained with despite their husbands’ disbelief in the Church. These symbolic unions allowed these women the opportunity to receive the highest blessings, or to at least express to God their willingness to obey his commandments and receive these temple ordinances, despite their unbelieving husband’s unwillingness. Whether these unions intended to separate non-believing husbands from their believing wives in the next life and seal them to Joseph Smith, “the precise nature of these relationships in the next life is not known, and many family relationships will be sorted out in the life to come.”[28] These details demonstrated a complex picture of frontier courtship mingled with a new form of the marriage covenant, one that was the exception in cases commanded by God for his purposes, and one that was only the rule if commanded.

Demographic issues in the mid 1800s

The frontier life for early Saints was unique in its own way, but they were not alone in their challenges with courtship that are foreign to modern sensibilities. Life in early Texas and other areas following the Civil War demonstrated equally troubling trials. Speaking of the plight of marriage and relationships in Texas during the mid 1800s, historian Robert Wuthnow recounted, “It was a “hard-swearing, rough society,” he observed, “where women were so scarce they had to marry in self-defense”.[29] After the Civil War ended many women expressed the bitter challenge they faced for a normal life. In 1864, an eighteen-year-old, unmarried woman from Buckingham County, Virginia sent a letter to the editor of the Southern Literary Messenger. The author identified herself as H. R. The editor called the anonymous letter writer, Hattie, and quoted her suffering as a “chill feeling of despair” as a result of the Civil War.[30] In her letter, Hattie wrote, 

“The reflection has been brought to my mind with great force that after this war is closed, how vast a difference there will be in the numbers of males and females.

Having made up my mind not to be an old maid, and having only a moderate fortune and less beauty. I fear I shall find it rather difficult to accomplish my wishes.”[31]

Social historians of the Civil War agreed that Hattie’s fears “were well grounded in demographic realities. Nearly 620,000 men were killed in the war, a number approximately equal to the deaths in all other American wars from the Revolution to the Korean War combined.”[32] Further examples described “that the reduced population of young men “demographically deprived” southern women of husbands” and “that the loss of such a large proportion of the South’s male population undermined the region’s established pattern of family formation.”[33] These examples and those of early Latter-day Saints polygamists testify of the complexity of life away from “civilization” or normal times. Indeed, the 1800s were a time of war, exploration, and contention between religious values that tested the new nation.


The doctrine described in the 132nd section of Doctrine and Covenants, the histories and defenses from polygamist wives, and the statements by Brigham Young demonstrated a complex picture of the development of a doctrine that challenged the assumptions of Christian marriage. Their defenses harkened to the days of Elias Smith and other religious thinkers who challenged the dominant structures and orthodoxies of their time.

Thus, through the practice of plural marriage viewed from the lens of both the Bible and the Restored Church of Jesus Christ, while monogamy remained the rule, early Saints believed God expressed his will through the practice and in their circumstances. These sources, not that of the sideline critic who offers demographic generalizations without taking into account certain frontier realities, might better reconcile the sensibilities of contemporary Saints with their pioneer ancestors. Historical inquiry confirms that though one might feel church leaders purposefully hid information from them, especially when sensationalism trumped the unknown realities, Sunday school is not a favorable place to find the details of inner workings of early Latter-day Saint polygamy.

Additional commentary:

In chapter 4 of ‘Day of Defense,’ I demonstrated the Biblical defense of plural marriage. I found it interesting that this article from the Baptist Press News, in response to the Church’s release of the essays on early polygamy, attempted to teach the Saints about the Biblical perspective.

For more information on early polygamy I recommend this article:



[1] Goodstein, “It’s Official: Mormon Founder Had Up to 40 Wives,” New York Times.

[2] Paul K. Conkin, American Originals: Homemade Varieties of Christianity, (Chapel Hill, North Carolina: The University of North Carolina Press, 1997) 2.

[3] Elias Smith, A Sermon on Baptism, 1802.

[4] Harry S. Stout, The Divine Dramatist: George Whitefield and the Rise of Modern Evangelicalism, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991) 39.

[5] “Mormonism,” New York Daily Tribune, December 29, 1852, 6.

[6] Walker, A Statement by L.W. Walker, 1.

[7] Ibid., 10.

[8] Ibid, 11.

[9] Ibid., 12.

[10] Ibid., 12.

[11] Ibid., 13.

[12] Ibid., 14.

[13] Ibid., 16.

[14] Whitney, Helen Mar Kimball. Why We Practice Polygamy: By a “Mormon” Wife and Mother”, (Salt Lake City, UT: Juvenile Instructor Office, 1884) 3.

[15] Ibid., 3.

[16] Ibid., 4.

[17] “Mormonism,” New York Daily Tribune, December 29, 1852, 6.

[18] “Polygamy, Montanian, December 23, 1875, 2.

[19] Ibid., 2.

[20] “Mormon Polygamy,” New York Observer, November 29, 1883, 387.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] “Polygamy,” Dedham Gazette, August 19, 1865, 1.

[24] Ibid., 1.

[25] Ibid., 1.

[26] Ibid., 1.

[27] Ibid., 1.

[28] The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo,

[29] Robert Wuthnow, Rough Country: How Texas Became America’s Most Powerful Bible-Belt State, (Princeton University Press, 2014) 20.

[30] David J. Hacker, Libra Hilde, and James Holland Jones, “The Effect of the Civil War on Southern Marriage Patterns”, in The Journal of southern history 76.1 (2010) U.S. National Institutes of Health’s National Library of Medicine.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid.



Primary Sources 

Kimball, Lucy Walker. Statement of Mrs. L. W. Kimball. J. Willard Marriot Library Manuscript Division, University of Utah. Salt Lake City, UT. March 3, 1905. Accessed December 1, 2014.

“Mormonism,” New York Tribune, December 29, 1852, Pg, 6. Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University. Accessed December 1, 2014. Accessed December 4, 2014.

“Mormon Polygamy,” New York Observer, November 29, 1883, Pg, 387. Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University. Provo, UT. Accessed December 1, 2014.

“Polygamy,” Dedham Gazette, August 19, 1865, 1. Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University. Provo, UT. Accessed December 1, 2014

“Polygamy, Montanian. December 23, 1875. Pg 2. Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University. Provo, UT. Accessed December 1, 2014.

Smith, Elias. A Sermon on Baptism, Preached at Nortwood, July 12, 1802. Portsmouth, [N.H.], Peirces, 1802, 24pp. MWA copy. Early American Imprints, 1639-1819. Accessed December 6, 2014.

Whitney, Helen Mar Kimball. Why We Practice Polygamy: By a “Mormon” Wife and Mother. Salt Lake City, UT: Juvenile Instructor Office, 1884. In “A Collection of American History in Memory of Charles Elliot Perkins of Burlington Iowa. Harvard College Library, Charles Elliot Perkins Memorial Collection. July 1, 1914. Accessed December 2, 2014.


Secondary Sources

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint. Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo. Accessed December, 4, 2014.

Conkin, Paul K. American Originals: Homemade Varieties of Christianity. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1997. 

Goodstein, Laura. “It’s Official: Mormon Founder Had Up to 40 Wives.” New York Times, November 10, 2014. Accessed December 4, 2014.

Hacker, J. David, Libra Hilde, and James Holland Jones. “The Effect of the Civil War on Southern Marriage Patterns.” U.S. National Institutes of Health’s National Library of Medicine. The Journal of southern history 76.1 (2010): 39–70. Accessed December 18, 2014.

Stout, Harry S. The Divine Dramatist: George Whitefield and the Rise of Modern Evangelicalism. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. Grand Rapids, MI. 1991. 

Wuthnow, Robert. Rough Country: How Texas Became America’s Most Powerful Bible-Belt State. Princeton University Press, 2014.

Scott Thormaehlen received his Master’s in History in 2016 and taught U.S. History in the Lone Star College system in Houston, Texas and for Alvin Community College. His writings have appeared in Accuracy in Academiathe Journal of Multidisciplinary Studies at Sam Houston State UniversityLDS LivingMeridian Magazineand East Texas History – a project by Sam Houston State University.

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