Smith's Revelation on Polygamy

Polygamy's origins are unclear. What is known is that in 1843, Joseph Smith dictated the revelation authorizing polygamy, claiming God had commanded his people to live in plural marriages and thereby progress to the highest level of heaven.

Sarah Barringer Gordon
Sarah Barringer Gordon, a constitutional law and history professor at the University of Pennsylvania, is the author of The Mormon Question: Polygamy and Constitutional Conflict in 19th Century America.

The religious basis of plural marriage came through a revelation to Joseph Smith that was written down in 1843. Although it's clear that the pieces were in place earlier, it was written down in the year 1843. The commandment was the reinstitution, if you will, the restoration of patriarchal marriage. In this sense, the Saints understood themselves to have been commanded by God to recreate the marital order of the patriarchs of the Old Testament. They were reliving the sacred years of the Bible by practicing plural or celestial marriage. ...

There have always been questions whether or not this revelation was convenient -- that it arrived at a time when Smith really needed it because his own peccadilloes were becoming more and more public -- and thus, whether or not this revelation was a fraud. It's clear that this practice did begin years before this revelation was written down. It's not clear that the regularization of the practice was available to Smith well before 1943. In other words, Smith was going through an intense, a passionate and an incredibly creative period in which he instituted all of the basic rituals and structures of the Mormon faith. This was a time when revelations came at him helter-skelter, where he almost didn't know what to do with what was coming in his direction.

Ken Verdoia
Ken Verdoia is a Utah historian and has made several documentaries about the Mormons.

In Nauvoo, suddenly there is a rush of new revelations. Two of the key ones: baptism of the dead; Joseph Smith reveals that ... Latter-day Saints can baptize dead members to bring them in to their family, to ensure life everlasting in the great beyond, in the great veil. The second principle revealed: celestial marriage; that, consistent with teachings in the Old Testament, that certain special individuals are called to practice plural marriage.

This is brought up under great and hazy circumstance. In one manifestation it's Joseph Smith emerging from a period of seclusion, bringing forth this long-considered and long-debated issue of celestial marriage because of divine revelation. There is the competing view point that Joseph Smith was caught in the arms of another woman by his wife and that, on the spot, he announced, "This is the manifestation of celestial marriage; I am taking this other woman also as my wife," much to Emma Smith's great disappointment.

To give you an idea of the impact of celestial marriage -- or plural marriage, what we call polygamy sometimes -- Joseph Smith turns to Brigham Young and said, "Brigham, you are being called to enter into this practice," and Brigham's initial reaction is: "No, I cannot. Ask me to do anything. Ask me to sacrifice my wealth, my fortune. Ask me to be away from my family. But don't ask me to do this."

Joseph Smith continually reintroduces the subject to Brigham Young month after month after month. And finally Brigham Young is watching a funeral entourage pass down the main street of Nauvoo, and he finally acknowledges: "I will accept this principle. And it's the first time in my life that I desire the grave. I wish I were dead rather than have to do this." But Brigham Young, once committed, [is] all the way in, ... and soon Brigham Young is noting in his journal "M.E." -- "married for eternity" -- page after page after page.

Kathleen Flake
Kathleen Flake is a religious historian and author of The Politics of American Religious Identity: The Seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle.

There's two kinds of messiness in the beginning of polygamy. One is simply the historical record and account. We don't have an explanation of it, really. We're still trying to figure out what went on between 1831 and 1844, when Smith died. The other kind of messiness is the moral messiness, and it partakes in that larger problem of Smith as a personality and the "prophet puzzle" that some people refer to. There's no question that he acted immorally within a certain frame of what morality is.

The question arises, did Smith lie to his wife? Probably so. The record seems, if you look at the dates and the marriages, if he didn't lie he certainly withheld; he certainly obscured; he certainly answered plain questions with misdirection. But we don't have enough of the dialogue to know exactly what went on between him and his wife. We do know that he had marriages that she didn't know about, and that they were women that lived under her roof, and they were her friends. ...

[And what about Joseph Smith's motivations?]

A variety of motivations inform all our conduct. Do I think Smith's revelations on polygamy can be reduced to his sex drive? No, I don't, no more than I think the Book of Mormon can be reduced to treasure hunting. It's a much more complex picture than that.

So you conclude, as many do, that this was experienced by Joseph Smith as a true revelation, another one of his revelations influenced by who he was? Is that fair?

... Polygamy makes everyone struggle with the question of Smith as a prophet, so that's an interesting dynamic for me actually, because one typically thinks -- superficially one thinks of religion as providing answers, and Smith provides as many questions as he does answers. And that's true for the insider -- possibly a little more so for the outsider -- because to take Smith seriously raises even more questions. If you can say it is sex drive, if you can say it's treasure hunting, if you can say it's lack of education or if you can say it's megalomania, which was [Joseph Smith biographer] Fawn Brodie's [view], if you can say that, then he becomes a lot simpler. And maybe the explanation is that simple.

But I think he is a complex enough character that you need to struggle a little further than either of those -- that he's God's puppet, he did nothing but what God wanted him to do, or that he was a charlatan pretender. Those two fail to illuminate this very complex figure.