One of the Gospel Topics essays on polygamy produced by the church indicates that Joseph Smith married young women, one of “who[m] was sealed to Joseph several months before her 15th birthday.” I talked to polygamy expert Dr. Brian Hales about these sealings. What does he have to say about this?
Brian: There are two 14-year-olds. The other 14-year-old was Nancy Maria Winchester. We don’t know anything about that relationship, when it happened. She may have been 15; my bet is she was 14. Helen Mar Kimball is the one 14-year-old. For several reasons I don’t believe that relationship was consummated, but Joseph gets accused of all kinds of crazy things. People even call him a pedophile.
Now a pedophile is someone who’s interested in children under 11, which would not apply to Joseph in the wildest of rumors, but he was sealed to probably two 14-year-olds, and a 16-year-old.
Brian indicated that these were non sexual marriages, and he discusses Helen some more.
We can piece together from what Helen wrote, the sealing occurred, and after the sealing, Helen continued to go to dances and balls and socialize for the next several months until at one point Joseph stepped in and said, Look. We don’t want her doing this anymore.
Later Helen said that she hated polygamy. She wrote this down early on. This was one of the early writings before she wrote her books defending it. But the reason why she hated polygamy was not because of her own relationship with it, but because of how it affected her mother. I argue that if she were having conjugal relations with Joseph and finding that to be undesirable, she might have actually used her relationship with Joseph as a reason for hating polygamy.
I asked Brian why she wasn’t sealed as a wife rather than as a child under the Law of Adoption.
Do you know there were no adoptions performed during Joseph’s lifetime. The only adoptions that we have any record of occurred in the Nauvoo Temple and they occurred around, depending on your definition of an adoption, there’s 205 or something. A lot of these, I use the word adoption to mean a child is sealed to parents who they are not biologically related.
What do you think of these marriages? Do you agree that these sealings were likely non-sexual?
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When we talk about Mormon polygamy, we usually mean polygyny—where a man has more than 1 wife. The opposite of that is polyandry, where a woman can have more than 1 husband. Did you know that Joseph was sealed to women who were already married? In this episode, Dr. Brian Hales talks about several of these instances. We’ll talk in detail about one of these women, Sylvia Session Lyon. She gave birth to a girl named daughter, Josephine, and Josephine’s mother said she was the child of Joseph. They did a DNA test to see if Josephine was the daughter of Joseph or Windsor.
I theorized that the marriage between Joseph Smith and Sylvia Sessions Lyon did include sexual relations in that plural marriage, and I had some theories as how that might have unfolded. When the DNA evidence came back—and part of the theory was that Joseph was the father of Josephine [daughter of Sylvia Sessions Lyon.] That’s an important point. But when the DNA evidence came back that Windsor Lyon was the father, it required me to re-write things. I’ll be honest with you. It wasn’t what I expected, but it was what I had hoped.
Brian now believes that there were no sexual relations between Joseph and any of these 11-14 polyandrous marriages.
Brian: Why the women chose Joseph over their legal husbands, sometimes these men were active Latter-day Saints, we don’t know. It seems odd. But it’s not as odd as them practicing actual sexual polyandry without anybody ever talking about it or finding that to be controversial.
GT: Ok, so your opinion is of all the eleven polyandrous marriages, where a woman could have two husbands essentially, none of them involved sexual relations.
GT: That’s your opinion. Ok. So let’s talk a little bit about…
Brian: Rick, let me interrupt though. If people go to my books, they’re going to be confused because I used the word eleven. The twelfth polyandrous marriage on the chart is Sarah Ann Whitney to Joseph C. Kingsbury, which was a front marriage. Everybody involved with that realized that she was sealed to Joseph but apparently there was some legal issues going on, so Joseph asked Kingsbury to have a legal marriage but not consummate the marriage. Everybody agrees that was the relationship. That’s number twelve.
Number thirteen is Lucinda Pendleton who we just know nothing about, and the fourteenth one is to Mary Herron who we have one attestation that connects her to Joseph sexually but we don’t know any of the details. If somebody goes to my chart, there’s actually fourteen women on that but eleven of them we believe were eternity-only, two are undocumented so just take your guess, and then we have this pretend marriage with Sarah Ann, so fourteen in total.
He theorizes that this was Joseph’s attempt to satisfy the angel with a flaming sword. Joseph was completing these sealings in order to fulfill the angel’s command and also placate Emma. We also address the rumor that Joseph sent men on missions so he could marry their wives.
Brian nods: The problem is we have two sealing dates for Joseph and Marinda. The other date is from an affidavit Marinda signed that is well after Orson Hyde returning from Palestine. Even the one that appears to be a case where Joseph might have sent him on a mission, then he waits a year—it doesn’t make sense. A year later we have Joseph being sealed to Marinda, but again we have a second date. The second date is a signed affidavit which we probably would consider to be more reliable than something that was just scrawled on a page in Joseph’s journal, not in his handwriting but in I think Thomas Bullock’s [handwriting.] Again that story is false, yet it’s a sound bite. It’s all over the internet. We’ve got to kill it. It’s wrong. It’s false. Joseph did not send men on missions and so he could marry their wives according to any reliable documentation.
Why do you think that Joseph was sealed to other men’s wives? Were you aware that most of these men were ok with Joseph being sealed to their wives? Do you think that made it easier for them to consent because there were no sexual relations (no sexual polyandry)? Why would God command Joseph to do this?
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We know that in the Bible, many prophets practiced polygamy. However, modern Christians and Jews mostly condemn the practice. What are Joseph’s theological justifications for polygamy? Dr. Brian Hales tells us,
The easiest one is part of the restitution of all things, and if somebody asks you, “Why did Joseph do it?” The easy answer is, he was a prophet-restorer, and the old prophets did it, and he restored it. That’s not entirely nuanced, and some would say it’s even correct. I think it is generally.
The second one is it was a trial. This is the one I couldn’t remember. It presented a special trial. The Lord does do that. It gives different people at different times different kinds of trials.
A third one was to—it was the one I had talked a great deal about. It allowed all men and women to enter into a marriage, even if this is a plural wife, and then the [fourth] one is the one we started with, multiply and replenish the earth.
Of course on earth, polygamy is not fair. It’s unequal. You could say it’s sexist if you want, on earth. But I don’t think that we know anything about eternal marriage, and we certainly don’t know anything about eternal plural marriage. So to assume that that’s a bad thing, that it victimizes women, and to assume that women should fear that is to fear unknown things. God has promised us everlasting joy, a fullness of joy. His plan is a plan of happiness.