Brides Among the Beehives

In the Reuters interview with Elder Christofferson, the interviewer asks, “There is historical evidence that suggests Joseph Smith took a 14-year-old bride, Helen Mar Kimball, when he was 38 years old. In today’s terms, that would make him a pedophile. Does this bother you or other LDS church members?” Elder Christofferson replies, “It would depend on what all the facts were and the context. In those days, of course, was that it was not so uncommon in the society of the time.”

Just how factually accurate is this defense?

I often hear it proffered with examples from family. People will say, “my Mormon great-great-grandmother also married when she was fourteen,” and so forth, as evidence of the widespread acceptability of such unions.

Those kinds of examples don’t seem to be much of a defense, though, to the underlying concern. After all, if the underlying concern is that Mormon leaders created an aberrant society where underage marriage was the norm, then citation to one’s own Mormon great-great-grandmother seems to be a brief for the prosecution, not the defense.

In addition, I wonder about this defense, because (as some of my co-bloggers note), the “it was normal at the time” argument relating to young brides is sometimes used in the context of other polygamy apologias (such as “it was all about the widows”) which are not factually accurate. This makes me wonder whether “it was normal at the time” is equally ungrounded in fact.

It seems to me that the best evidence for this argument would be statistics. I’ve looked a little, but can’t really find much. If it’s really true that some significant percentage of women married at age fourteen (or fifteen, or sixteen) during that era, and that can be shown statistically, I’d be interested in seeing those numbers.

In the alternative, anecdotal evidence could be used to support the argument. As noted earlier, I don’t think that anecdotal evidence of young bridal age among Mormons is particularly helpful. But anecdotal evidence of young bridal age among respectable, non-Mormon society, during the time period around Joseph Smith’s life, would seem to be highly relevant.

I’m aware of one good example. Chief Justice John Marshall, one of the great Supreme Court justices, the architect of Marbury v. Madison, began courting Mary Willis Ambler (Polly) when she was thirteen and he was twenty-four. They married when she was sixteen, and he was twenty-seven. (See Jean Edward Smith, John Marshall: Definer of a Nation, 70-86.)

Are there other good examples? Can this statement be rebutted by saying, “no, here are several respectable non-Mormon figures who married at that age?” (And if so, who are those figures?) Or is it possible (or likely) that this is another popular, but factually inaccurate defense?

86 comments for “Brides Among the Beehives

  1. lurkmeister
    June 13, 2007 at 5:59 pm

    I would say his defense is completely accurate. He wasn\’t saying 14 year-old brides back then were a common thing, just not so uncommon as they are today. True, no?

  2. June 13, 2007 at 6:02 pm

    See Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “By the Shores of Silver Lake,” chapter 6, The Black Ponies, for an example that readers in the 1950’s apparently didn’t find too shocking (a thirteen year old acquaintance of Laura’s cousin gets married).

  3. cameron
    June 13, 2007 at 6:02 pm

    Are we applying our values and judgments to people of the past? Sure we today may see it being sick but maybe they did not. I would be more interested in learning what people the people back then thought about those marriages generally and not stereotypically speaking. Then again different cultures have different ideas and social practices even today that we in the western world may see as ridiculous. My 2 cents

  4. Kaimi Wenger
    June 13, 2007 at 6:14 pm


    Actually, I’m asking a factual question, not making a value judgment. I’ve pointed to a specific factual assertion, and I’m wondering if there is evidence as to whether it’s an accurate factual assertion. That’s pretty much the extent of this post.

  5. Kaimi Wenger
    June 13, 2007 at 6:16 pm


    Well, there’s the rub. I don’t know whether or not it’s true (even in the limited form Elder Christofferson makes) — and I’m curious. That’s why I’m asking if our readers know of anecdotal (non-Mormon) cases, or statistics that would indicate one way or the other.

  6. SLO Sapo
    June 13, 2007 at 6:19 pm

    My non-Mormon paternal grandmother married in 1911 at age thirteen. Our family\’s a little rough around the edges, though, so I can\’t vouch for any respectibility here.

  7. DKL
    June 13, 2007 at 6:20 pm

    I understand that in West Virginia and Kentucky, grown men marry 14 year olds to this very day.

  8. ronito
    June 13, 2007 at 6:22 pm

    I recently was reading a few history books on England and they had the minimum age set to 12 for girls and 14 for boys for a good long time. However, just like today not many people get married at the age of 16 (which is the minimum age in a lot of states) most people didn’t get married at that age.

    Further when they did get married it was usual for the man to be a few years the girl’s elder, but generally not much over ten years. Certainly over twenty years older would not have been considered the status quo. I doubt that it would’ve been looked down upon, given women’s status back then, but I couldn’t find any ready examples in my, admittedly very focused in a small section of history, reading.

  9. TMD
    June 13, 2007 at 6:30 pm

    One of my great grandfathers was as old as his wife’s parents, and she could not have been more than 17 when they were married around 1889. They were Irish Catholics, living in WV.

  10. June 13, 2007 at 6:36 pm

    Wouldn’t 14 year olds be Mia Maids today? (Sort of ruins the alliteration…)

  11. Kaimi Wenger
    June 13, 2007 at 6:37 pm

    Hmm — per Wikipedia, Loretta Lynn married at age 13.

  12. June 13, 2007 at 6:46 pm

    I wonder whether any of the folk doing name extraction from various records sources from the 1700 and 1800s might provide some data from the records they’re working on. I’ll quiz my parents the next time we talk. I think they’ve been doing some of that work from Scandanavian records…

  13. June 13, 2007 at 6:51 pm

    In all my genealogical research for my own family and others, I can point to only a single example of a 14-year-old bride in what I would consider respectable society, a full century before Joseph Smith: Martha Arms, 1729-1802, married Othniel Taylor in 1743 (he was 24); lived her whole life in Franklin Co., Massachusetts; 13 children, including Othniel, Jr., a Rev War general.

    For 15-year-old brides — she was three weeks shy of her 16th birthday — I can offer Sarah Clementine Day, 1873-1946, married Lewis Moulton Hall in 1889 (he was 28, and her second cousin); lived in Lowndes Co., Alabama until long after her marriage; 12 children. I’ve told of her conversion to Mormonism here.

    16-year-old brides are common enough in my non-Mormon American pedigree as not to be worth the effort of tallying.

    Marriage age for brides has been as low as 12 in many states in earlier times, I discover by googling. That doesn’t mean that such marriages were common, or even generally acceptable. I’m guessing that just like the very early marriages legal today, they’re most often permitted for special circumstances like pregnancy. If, as DKL suggests, young brides are not unknown in some parts of American society today, such marriages are socially suspect — why else would references to child brides in the rural South be considered funny in stand-up comedy routines?

  14. June 13, 2007 at 7:05 pm

    According to my husband, 14-year-olds getting married isn’t unusual in Idaho today. Or when he was growing up there 20 years ago.

    My mother got married in 1954 when she was 16.

  15. June 13, 2007 at 7:08 pm

    Below is something I posted to another list a month ago about Augusta, Virgina. The usual warnings about sample sizes and perhaps geographic idiosyncrasies apply:

    A county that I trace my genealogy to has a list of marriage records from between 1854 and 1920. Many of the entries list the ages of each couple. My non-Mormon ancestress there may have been 14 when she married in 1851 and in 1852 had her first child.

    I wanted to compare the stats to Joseph Smith’s plural wives ages. I find that Joseph compares favorably to males aged 35-37 in marrying woman older than himself. I am using numbers from FARMS Review, but if I were to use Compton’s extra 4, 3 of those were also older than JS. The wives’ age profile compares favorably with men the same age as Joseph, it is bunk that men that age married women their own age, and it is also bunk that they never married teenagers.

    I start with overall stats and then narrow them down to compare with Joseph better.

    1854-1920 (420 count)
    wife’s age
    Mean = 23.1
    Std = 6.2
    wife’s age breakdown
    Teen = 27.9%
    15 0.9524%
    16 5.7143%
    17 4.5238%
    18 9.0476%
    19 7.6190%

    For Men 35-37
    younger wives 12/14 86%
    ave wife age 25.1
    Age diff for Men 35-37 w/younger wife
    Ave = 12.75
    Max = 22

    For Men 30-40
    younger wives 68/75 91%
    ave wife age 25.7
    Age diff for Men 30-40 w/younger wife
    Ave = 9.02
    Max = 22

    Joseph Smith (FR, estimated)
    Mean = 27.9
    Std = 11.2
    Teen = 31%
    14 3.45%
    15 0%
    16 6.9%
    17 6.9%
    18 3.45%
    19 10.34%
    Younger 24/29 83%
    Younger wives’ ave age diff = 12.3

  16. Greg Call
    June 13, 2007 at 7:08 pm

    Jerry Lee Lewis was 23 when he married his 13-year-old second cousin, and it was a big deal.

  17. Kristine
    June 13, 2007 at 7:11 pm

    Kaimi, 14-year-olds are Mia Maids, not Beehives! Obviously, you have no idea what you’re talking about :)

  18. Mary B
    June 13, 2007 at 7:21 pm

    Ninteeth century Scandinavian marriage ages were high. Tradition in most areas required that men have their own home and land before marrying. Many men worked for years in other towns or overseas to earn money to buy a farm before returning home to marry their patient fiances in their late twenties or early thirties. Comparing nineteenth century Illinois customs to nineteenth century Scandinavian customs is like comparing apples to oranges.
    However, comparing those Scandinavian statistics with second and third generation Scandinavian immigrants in Wisconsin and Minnesota might be very interesting…..
    Another bit of trivia, in the nineteenth century Eastern European marriage age averages were 10 years younger than those in England and France.

  19. Téa
    June 13, 2007 at 7:23 pm

    Kaimi, about that title…d’oh!

    Leave it Geoff J and Kristine to beat me to it!

    I can also echo DKL’s statement about Kentucky. My cousins there were married with babies before they could legally drive. I also have a half-uncle whose marriages haven’t gone beyond Laurel age. Sadly (?) a girl would be in a YW age group for longer than these unions lasted.

    Can’t attribute it to being LDS, though, as I’m a convert.

  20. Bill MacKinnon
    June 13, 2007 at 7:24 pm

    Kaimi is asking for statistical data to test the assertion, and so far it’s not been forthcoming…just anecdotal information. I can’t add much more than that either, and so would join the parade by mentioning that in the late winter of 1856-57 — influenced by the pro-marriage emphasis of the LDS Reformation in Utah and anxieties over the deterioration of Mormon-federal relations that was to become the Utah War — Bishop Aaron Johnson of Springville took four plural wifes. As I recall, one of these was 14, another was in her 70s, and the other two were somewhere in-between those extremes in age. Members of the Johnson family wrote a play about this event in the late 20th century in which tensions within the family over the marriages were described, but my impression is that this may well have been a case of a later generation seeing the event through their own perspective rather than that of Bishop Johnson and his contemporaries.
    Another anecdotal case of the same period — this involving a non-Mormon man and one not necessarily with marriage in mind — took place in April 1855. In this case U.S. Army Capt. Rufus Ingalls — quartermaster of the Steptoe Expedition — attempted to take 13 (almost 14)-year-old RachellNowell with him to California as the army was leaving following a very disruptive winter in Salt Lake City and Rush Valley. Ingalls was arrested and indicted for “abducting an underage female child,” whom Ingalls returned to her mother. He was prosecuted by a legal team comprised of Albert Carrington, editor of the “Deseret News,” and Hosea Stout, judge advocate of the Nauvoo Legion; Ingalls’ defense attorney was Almon W. Babbitt, Utah’s delegate in Congress. After a few days of sparring, the case was dropped with Ingalls paying a very large bill for court costs. Within weeks he was involved in an altercation near Carson Valley over this case with unarmed Apostle Orson Hyde, on whom Ingalls drew a pistol and may have killed absent the intervention of Col. Steptoe. What were the community’s attitudes about Ingalls and why? Hard to tell. Apparently by the late 1860s Brigham Young was not carrying a grudge, as he received Ingalls cordially during his next visit to SLC — this time as the U.S. Army’s quartermaster general wearing two stars. In the early 1870s BY asked Ingalls to serve as mentor for his West Point cadet-son, Willard Young.
    I think that Elder Christofferson’s response about the importance of time and circumstances was a pretty good one.

  21. June 13, 2007 at 7:26 pm

    As the mother of a girl who turned 14 yesterday, I can swear to the fact that they are NOT Mia Maid. They are “way, totally, Mia Maids.”

  22. Kristine
    June 13, 2007 at 7:34 pm

    Hey, quit picking on the South. The median age at first marriage in Kentucky for the years 2000-2003 was 25, just slightly lower than the national average. Utah is among the states with the youngest median age of first marriage, as well.

  23. Kaimi Wenger
    June 13, 2007 at 7:50 pm

    Yep, those danged Southerners.

    Ya know, I hear that it’s even worse in Tennessee. Particularly among Swedish immigrant families. And most of all among groups named after weird foot diseases . . .

  24. June 13, 2007 at 7:53 pm

    So if God told Joseph to marry this girl, you’re going to be uncomfortable with that if it turns out that it was outside the norm for the time? If so, I’d suggest you don’t read scriptures, because you’ll find prophets doing all kinds of things outside the norm, including killing people.

  25. ronito
    June 13, 2007 at 7:55 pm

    I think the problems comes in whether or not God actually told him to.

  26. Kaimi Wenger
    June 13, 2007 at 7:56 pm


    Take a look at my comment #4; or look at the original post. I’ve said nothing about discomfort with actions outside of societal norms. I’ve asked a limited question about the factual accuracy of a particular factual statement. That’s all. Your further inferences are entirely your own.

  27. DKL
    June 13, 2007 at 7:59 pm

    How old was Jesus when he married his first wife?

  28. John Williams
    June 13, 2007 at 8:06 pm

    How old was Mary Magdelene when Jesus married her?

  29. Melanie
    June 13, 2007 at 8:25 pm

    My brother’s mother-in-law married at 17 in the late 60’s. When her husband got transferred to Hill AFB in Utah, everyone at her high school thought she was LDS.

  30. June 13, 2007 at 8:31 pm

    25 — That’s a problem that should have been explored by pretty much anybody interested in it by now.

    26 — I see that you’re not claiming being uncomfortable with this based on societal norms. I’m a little bit wondering what the point is, then. What use is the answer, whatever the answer might be?

  31. June 13, 2007 at 9:04 pm

    How old was Jesus when he married his first wife?

    Well since one must be married to be fully exalted he married her before coming to earth…

  32. TMD
    June 13, 2007 at 9:14 pm

    It just occurred to me that no male linear ancestor on my father’s side has taken a bride less than 9 years younger than him since before the potato famine (in Ireland). I’m currently in my mid-20’s now…and I thought the singles ward was where I’d find my bride. Am I ever in the wrong place!

  33. John Williams
    June 13, 2007 at 9:22 pm

    TMD, please watch your step or you’ll end up arrested.

  34. Bookslinger
    June 13, 2007 at 10:35 pm

    DKL, Kentucky used to be 18 without parental consent, and 14 with parental consent. It’s now 18 without, and 16 with parental consent.

    For all the states see,

    Note for Utah, it is 18/16, but goes down to 14 if there is both parental consent and court approval, (and get this) or a previous marriage!

    I once had a roommate from India, whose father was 25, and mother was 14 when they were married. His mother was still 14 when he was born.

  35. Kevin Barney
    June 13, 2007 at 10:41 pm

    It might be instructive to compare the arguments regarding Muhammad’s marriage to his very young wife, Aisha.

  36. paula
    June 13, 2007 at 10:43 pm

    I don’t remember the name of the study, and so this is not exactly definitive either, but marriage age in the US actually dropped for awhile around WWII, then slowly climbed back up. It was higher in the 1800s. I do a lot of genealogical research for myself, and others, and out of the 4500 or so people in my own database, the youngest age of marriage is 16, for one girl, in pioneer Arizona. (She died in childbirth less than a year later.) The earlier comment about Scandinavia is accurate. I’ve looked at literally hundreds of early 19th century English records, and don’t remember one where the bride was 14. It was much earlier in English history where that was acceptable. My guess would be that frontier marriage ages were probably younger than among the folks back east, so perhaps 14 could be considered acceptable among folks living on the frontier, but I think any implication that it was ok or common has to be rejected. The average age of menarche ( onset of puberty) has declined in the last century or so, and 14 would have been somewhat young to even be menstruating at that time. I don’t have good sources for that either, but here’s the first link I found from google:
    Actually here’s one article from Old Sturbridge Village, giving average age at first marriage for women at 20-27 years old.

  37. June 13, 2007 at 11:45 pm

    I’ve been doing genealogy actively for 11 years now and have researched ancestors in 18th and 19th century america extensively. I can’t easily find specific examples at this time but I’ve run across more than a few fourteen year olds getting married in the 18th century. Also in 17th century England.
    However, in the 19th century, most of the women in my ancestry married between age seventeen and eighteen. I have never run across anyone marrying younger than age sixteen in the 19th century in my family lines (non LDS by the way, grandma converted). But I personally know many genealogists (also non LDS) who have fourteen year olds marrying in their lines in the 19th century. I don’t think it was unheard of.
    My thoughts on the why’s of young marriage back then can be found Here

  38. paula
    June 13, 2007 at 11:59 pm

    I’m not sure if the link will take you to the right section or not, but here’s a google book search about a parish study in England showing average age of brides and grooms in the 1700s– in their early 20s. It’s not the few outliers that would make a 14 year bride acceptable– it’s the norms of the society. I do think that very young marriages were probably more common in the south, and along the frontier– just from census forms I’ve looked at, where age of first marriage was stated. But I dont’ think a case can be made that it was a normal, middle-class thing to do:

  39. paula
    June 14, 2007 at 12:20 am

    I just was playing with the statistics feature on my family history software. There are more marriages under 16 than I thought– a total of 7 where the bride was under 16. However, all of those marriages were early 1700s, or before, and all are from ancestral file, and not yet verified by me. Ancestral File is not a source that one should accept without verification. When I searched for people who were married at age 16, then the Mormons started to pop up. All seven 16 year old brides were LDS, in Utah, in the 1860s and 1870s. I hadn’t realized there were so many until tonight. Non of the non LDS ancestors at that time were married until after age 18. The stats don’t tell me how many marriages I have listed in the database, but the exact number of people is 4572, and the minimum number of generations back from me is 6 in all lines, and some go much further. The average age of marriage for the whole database is 26 for males, and 23 for females. (And the highest number of marriages is 7 :) ) (Highest number of children for one person is 30. Yes sir, I am a Mormon, sir. )

  40. anonymous
    June 14, 2007 at 12:48 am

    And didn’t 24 year old Elvis Presley fall in love with 14 year old Priscilla? I don’t think they married until a few years later, but that’s another famous figure (not necessarily respectable…) for your stats.

  41. Sara R
    June 14, 2007 at 12:51 am

    FWIW, I have a 3rd great aunt in my genealogy who married in 1857 at age 13. I’m not sure of their religion; they may have been RLDS. The marriage was in Jackson County, Missouri. I have no idea whether or not they were respectable.

    My great grandmother married in 1918 3 days after her 15th birthday. Pretty sure she wasn’t what you could call respectable.

  42. Matt Evans
    June 14, 2007 at 12:57 am

    My non-Mormon paternal grandmother married at age 15. Grandpa was 26. She was intelligent and incredible.

  43. LRC
    June 14, 2007 at 1:04 am

    Todd Compton did a small amount of research on marital ages in response to critiques of his book on Joseph Smith’s wives (In Sacred Loneliness). He concluded that Helen’s age of 14 was unusually young for her time and place. Here’s the relevant portion of his response, along with the footnote source information:

    “Anderson and Faulring suggest that Helen was ‘approaching eligibility.’ Here, they should have included documentation to support the idea that marriage at fourteen was ‘approaching eligibility.’ Actually, marriages even two years later, at the age of sixteen, occurred occasionally but infrequently in Helen Mar’s culture. If we take a random sample of the marriage ages of the women in my book who married before they were sealed to Joseph Smith, we have the following: Lucinda Pendleton, 18. Zina Huntington, 20. Presendia Huntington, 16. Agnes Coolbrith, 27. Patty Bartlett, 17. Sylvia Sessions, 19. Mary Rollins, 17. Marinda Johnson, 18, Elizabeth Davis, 20, Sarah Kingsley, 19, Delcena Johnson, 22, Martha McBride, 21, Ruth Vose, 33, Elvira Cowles, 29, Fanny Young, 18.

    “Thus, girls marrying at fourteen, even fifteen, was very much out of the ordinary. Sixteen was comparatively rare, but not unheard of. So Helen was quite far from usual ages of eligibility, seventeen or eighteen.[40]

    [40] See Jack Larkin, The Reshaping of Everyday Life, 1790-1840 (New York: Harper & Row, 1988), 63; Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England, 1650-1750 (NY: Oxford University Press, 1980), 6; Nancy F. Cott, ‘Young Women in the Second Great Awakening in New England,’ Feminist Studies 3 (1975): 16. Larkin writes, ‘American women began to marry in their late teens; around different parts of the United States the average age of marriage varied from nineteen to twenty-three.’ ”

    For the quote in context, see here:

  44. Meg
    June 14, 2007 at 1:28 am

    If I remember correctly from an anthropology class, the average age of menarche has decreased dramatically in the last 150 years. While the average girl today reaches sexual maturity around 12 years old, the average at which a young woman reached sexual maturity in Joseph Smith’s time was something like 16 years old (I’ll search for some actual numbers). I find it hard to believe that in a society where an overwhelming majority of 14 year olds were not sexually mature it was very acceptable to marry at that age. In fact, this probably means we ought to find it even more repugnant, not less.

    I think it is possible that attitude toward the proper age for marriage in the nineteenth century had a lot to do with the point a woman sexually matured – making 16-17 the low end of normal. This seems consistent with the limited statistical information presented so far.

  45. ed johnson
    June 14, 2007 at 1:41 am

    What we need here is some data.

    I just downloaded a sample from the 1850 census (from IPUMS), and I’ve just started looking at it.

    The data includes a variable about whether the person was married within the past 12 months. (However, the “low frequency of affirmative responses indicates that this variable was underreported.”) Still, we can compare responses for young women at different ages.

    Here are the results for white women in the ” East North Central Div” that includes Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana, and Illinois. The “Pct” column tells what percentage at each age reported that they had been married within the previous 12 months, and the “Freq” column tells how many women there were in this group.

    Age | Pct Freq.
    10 | 0 641
    11 | 0 530
    12 | 0 596
    13 | 0 504
    14 | .17985612 556
    15 | 0 475
    16 | 1.1472275 523
    17 | 4.496788 467
    18 | 6.0546875 512
    19 | 3.9473684 380
    20 | 5.7654076 503
    21 | 5.8981233 373
    22 | 3.4562212 434
    23 | 4.2606516 399
    24 | 2.9154519 343
    25 | 1.5 400

    As can be seen, only a very small fraction of woman younger than 16 reports being married during the previous year (actually only a single woman in the sample). The most common age to report a marriage is 18, but 18 year olds were only around 5 times more likely to report a marriage than 16 year olds. And of course, some of these 16 year olds might have been married before they turned sixteen.

    For the New England region, the marriage ages appear to be a tad older:

    Age | Pct. Freq.
    10 | 0 287
    11 | 0 247
    12 | 0 291
    13 | 0 265
    14 | 0 298
    15 | 0 272
    16 | .30864198 324
    17 | 1.8181818 330
    18 | 3.6923077 325
    19 | 4.8387097 310
    20 | 2.3121387 346
    21 | 4.5081967 244
    22 | 4.9844237 321
    23 | 2.6315789 266
    24 | 3.0418251 263
    25 | 2.3178808 302

    This analysis is pretty rough and I did it pretty quickly, but at least it’s based on some actual data. It would probably be better to look at a better reported marriage variable, but I haven’t found one that is easy to use. (There doesn’t appear to be a simple “marrital status” type variable.) It looks like anybody can register and download this data.

  46. ed johnson
    June 14, 2007 at 1:47 am

    Sorry about the tables, they looked somewhat better when in the comment edit window. Does anybody know how to make decent tables in a comment in html?

  47. Matt
    June 14, 2007 at 1:49 am

    The question posed to Elder Christofferson assumed there was a sexual aspect to Joseph Smith\’s marriage to Helen Mar Kimball. If I remember correctly, Compton said there was no clear evidence either way on this point, and Kimball herself declined to elaborate on their relationship when she was asked about it later in her own life. Does anybody know anything about this?

    If my recollection of what Compton said is accurate, it seems that Elder Christofferson missed an opportunity to challenge the premise underlying the question (i.e. that Joseph was a pedophile simply because he married her).

  48. m&m
    June 14, 2007 at 1:56 am

    I think it is possible that attitude toward the proper age for marriage in the nineteenth century had a lot to do with the point a woman sexually matured – making 16-17 the low end of normal.

    Even that would be pedophilia in our world, though. If a study like Kaimi has suggested is ever done, I hope it looks for trends of marrying teenagers that would be underage for us, not just for “Beehives.”

  49. Kaimi Wenger
    June 14, 2007 at 2:12 am


    Those numbers are great — exactly the sort of thing I was hoping that someone would post.

    And, um, they don’t support the defense very well, do they? It looks like anything under 16 was very rare in both sets of numbers you present, and 16 was still quite uncommon.

    Thanks for locating this information.

  50. Patata Brava
    June 14, 2007 at 2:14 am

    I know that someone will correct me if I am wrong, but I remember in Rough Stone Rolling that Bushman said that no one can prove that Joseph had any other children except by Emma. Which is interesting in itself because apparently Emma was pregnant how many times? Off the top of my head I’ll say eight. It would therefore surprise me that Joseph (if he was having relations) that there wouldn’t be a lot of people claiming ancestry, but not through Emma.

  51. Dave
    June 14, 2007 at 2:17 am

    I wonder how often 37 yr. old men married 58 yr. old women in the 19th century? I guess that is not as exciting because it is harder to imagine what MIGHT have occurred between them and we can’t be so scandalized.

  52. Dave
    June 14, 2007 at 2:22 am

    Maybe it’s possible the Lord commanded Joseph to be sealed to various women (including quite an age range) without worrying about the reactions of people in the 21st century.

  53. Kaimi Wenger
    June 14, 2007 at 2:46 am

    Sure, Dave. It’s entirely possible. There are any number of potential responses to criticisms of Joseph Smith’s marriage to Helen Mar Kimball (or any other particular marriage), and there are a number of different ways that different members reconcile this with their own views of Joseph Smith. This post isn’t meant to be an all-purpose analysis of Joseph Smith’s motives in marrying Helen, or of the overall propriety of polygamous marriages, or anything along such broad lines.

    I asked a pretty simple factual question in the post, because a factual assertion was made in the interview, and because I was curious about the veracity of that assertion.

    So far, the best answer seems to come from Ed, in comment 45, with census numbers that seem to suggest that the argument that such marriages were normal at the time, or not uncommon, is factually inaccurate. However, if other data is available, please feel free to post it in comments.

  54. Dave
    June 14, 2007 at 2:57 am

    Thanks Kaimi. I should have looked closer at the original question. I was just thinking that although it apparently was unusual even in that time period to be married so young, it may have seemed a least a bit more normal for the Kimballs since Helen’s mother Vilate was only 16 when she got married to Heber (and that was the complete deal–moving in together, having children etc.). Since Helen was almost 15 that may have not seemed so strange. Of course I know that she was still quite reluctant and that Heber apparently really wanted his family to be eternally tied to Joseph’s so he strongly encouraged the sealing. At any rate I doubt that Elder Christofferson was thinking in the same vein that I am so this probably really isn’t much help at all. :)

  55. ed johnson
    June 14, 2007 at 4:10 am

    I looked at this a little more, and there really does not appear to be a good marrital status variable in 1850, and the “married within the last year” variable (MARRINYR) appears to be incomplete. But there is another variable (SPRULE) that tells you if the person was able to be matched up with another person in the household who appears to have been their spouse. Tabulating the data for females for the regions “New England,” “Mid Atlantic” and “East North Central” gives the following percentages of females who apparently had no spouse in the household:

    Age Percent with no “spouse” link recorded in household
    12 100.0
    13 99.9
    14 99.4
    15 98.4
    16 96.7
    17 91.0
    18 86.5
    19 79.2
    20 68.2
    21 58.1
    22 53.3
    23 46.3
    24 36.0
    25 37.2

    So it appears from these data that fourteen year old wives weren’t unknown, but were pretty rare. Sixteen or seventeen year old spouses wives much less rare, but it wasn’t until age 23 that half the women had a spouse at home.

    (I would speculate that many of the young teen marriages in the census resulted from pre-marital pregnancies. Of course, Joseph Smith’s case was strange in other regards: his “marriage” to Helen was secret, he was already married, he was much older, and he publicly denied the whole thing.)

    You can also do online web queries of the census data at IPUMS if you want to replicate these numbers or play with them:

    It appears you can also do “web queries” of the census data at IPUMS if you want to tabulate this data yourself:

  56. June 14, 2007 at 5:27 am

    I found an interesting data set for a 19th century population in Canada that is used in a lot of journal articles on genetics and birth rates. It has 3290 woman that were born between 1850 and 1879. These were as, I understand it, 98% Catholic. Their mean marriage age was 21.6 with a standard deviation of 4.2 and the mean age at first birth was 22.8+/-4.3 yrs. The marriage range was between 14-41 and births ranged between 15-44. Marriage curves usually have heavier tails for older ages which bias the mean to be older than the median. If it was more of a Gaussian distribution it would mean that 17% were getting married at 17 and younger. I found a plot in a paper on the distribution by age,

    See figure 1:

    I zoomed in and took careful measurements.

    marriage age | % | cumulative%
    14 0.6% 0.6%
    15 2.3% 2.9%
    16 5.1% 8.0%
    17 7.8% 15.8%
    18 10.3% 26.1%
    19 12.0% 38.1%

    1st birth age | % | cumulative %
    15 1.0% 1.0%
    16 2.5% 3.5%
    17 5.6% 9.1%
    18 8.6% 17.7%
    19 11.0% 28.7%

    But back to Joseph Smith’s profile (and this time I will include Emma this time)

    14 3.3% 3.3%
    15 0% 3.3%
    16 6.7% 10.0%
    17 6.7% 16.7%
    18 3.3% 20.0%
    19 10.0% 30.0%

    I might be on to something here comparing an ethnic, homogeneously religious, colony to Mormon marital practice. A contemporary cohort in Manti (sample size 395) between 1852-1869 had a mean marriage age of 21.07 with 6% married by 16 and 57% cumulative at 20. (Daynes p. 95). Manti’s mean age for that cohort is slightly higher the frontier west before 1900 which was estimated at 20.5 (Daynes p. 97). However the Mormon Reformation years were partly responsible for Manti’s pre-1852 cohort dipping to a mean marriage age of 18.57.

  57. RayB
    June 14, 2007 at 6:50 am

    My Danish great-grandmother married a Danish man in Brigham City who was about 40, already had a wife and children. I always knew she was young when she married this man because my mother told me she was about the same age as the oldest kids from the first marriage, but I later discovered she was not yet 14. My question about these young brides is, how many of them married these older men out of romantic love and their own free will, or how many of them were forced into these relationships against their will? I know this does not contribute anything factual or statistical to your question, but you’ve opened a door on a question we have long ignored.

  58. June 14, 2007 at 7:32 am

    I don’t know that I trust the ipums site. If I look at the whole country and filter in all woman that checked the married in the last year box and then decompose that list into ages, I get the following breakdown.

    Total = 97243

    as a % of the Total

    13-.1% 14-.3% 15-1.14% 16-3.2% 17-8.0% 18-11.4% 19-11.7% 20+ – 64%

  59. June 14, 2007 at 9:41 am

    For my personal experience with large age difference in marriage, there is a post I wrote marking the twentieth anniversary of my mother’s death.

  60. Ironic
    June 14, 2007 at 10:34 am

    I think the more profitable line of questioning on this topic would be consider the reporter’s accusation that Joseph Smith would be considered a pedophile today. Is that accurate? What do we mean when we say pedophile? If Helen Mar Kimball and her parents both agreed to the marriage, and the marriage was legal at the time, then does it still “count” as pedophilia? If a 35 year old married a consenting younger bride who was of legal marriageable age today with her parents permission, would anyone call this pedophilia?

    I think what we have to recognize is that the reporter is playing a little fast and loose with his terms and attempting to be controversial. Elder Christofferson’s defense seems completely justified, given the context of the interview.

  61. bbell
    June 14, 2007 at 10:51 am

    I personally know two couples who were married when the bride was 13-14.

    Both couples are Cherokee from Oklahoma.

    The youngest seen in my genealogy is 16

  62. LRC
    June 14, 2007 at 12:00 pm

    re 60
    Ask Warren Jeffs and his cohorts.

  63. June 14, 2007 at 12:13 pm

    Edgar Allen Poe married his 13yo cousin.

    Dh’s non-LDS GGma was 14 when she got married (in Alabama), had her first baby at 15, and then had a baby every other year until she was 45.

    In the 80’s I worked in a restaurant with a 17yo who had been common-law married (with her parents’ blessing) since 13 to a man 30 years her senior (this in rural N. Idaho).

  64. ronito
    June 14, 2007 at 12:44 pm

    60. They might not call it pedophilia but they’d definetly call it creepy at best.

  65. Dave
    June 14, 2007 at 1:20 pm

    Is comparing Joseph’s sealing to Helen with conventional marriages to 14 yr. olds really accurate? Joseph fathered 10 children with Emma and Helen had 11 children with her husband that she married a few years after Joseph’s death. What really was going on here?

  66. christopher johnson
    June 14, 2007 at 1:26 pm

    re #60
    Assuming that marriage has a component of sexual attraction, then legally this would be broadly called pedophilia. Medically it would be called ephebophilia if JS were primarily or exclusively attracted to adolescents. That doesn’t seem to be the case, however, since JS had older wives. So really, the behavior wouldn’t have a special name that I know of.

  67. Dan Richards
    June 14, 2007 at 1:29 pm

    Gandhi married (and, according to his autobiography, consummated the marriage) when he and his wife were both 13.

  68. manaen
    June 14, 2007 at 1:29 pm

    For some reason, a school teacher of mine in the early 1960’s read to our class the legal ages for marriage in various states. I remember my surprise at how many had 13 or 14 as the minimum age for marriage, even in states like NY and PA. I believe there was a wave of increasing the minimum ages about a decade later. Regardless of actual marriage rates at different ages, the various state legislatures had agreed to codify their acceptance of young marriages. Does anyone have a source for minimum legal ages in various states in Jos. Smith’s time?

  69. June 14, 2007 at 1:31 pm

    57 — Marriage based in romantic love has never been a universal standard. Among the wealthy and powerful, marriage was a diplomatic exercise, tying together families and dynasties. Among the lower classes, marriage was what you did to show you were an adult, and your selection wasn’t commonly all that great. Brigham specifically taught against the idea of marriage based in romantic love with the idea of marriage as a duty and obligation, and that’s the way he practiced it.

    Marriage did not necessarily mean sex in this setting either. Brigham did not have sex with all of his wives. A friend of mine is descended from one of his ex-wives who divorced him to marry a younger man so she could have a family of her own — in Brigham’s house, she was essentially a nanny.

    This is a good place to start checking over our assumptions to see how many of them apply to this situation. Some of them don’t.

  70. bbell
    June 14, 2007 at 1:33 pm

    Dynastic sealing was what was going on here.

    The Kimballs thru Helen got themselves sealed to the Smiths. That is why the parents were so supportive of the whole arrangement. There is an old discarded doctrine called “the law of adoption” where it was considered an advantage in the celestial kingdom to be sealed to a prominent PH Leader. I believe it was Woodruff who ended the “Law of Adoption” when he decided to be sealed to his deceased parents.

    J Stapely can provide a more detailed explanation. I invite him to do so.

  71. Time Fortimer
    June 14, 2007 at 1:43 pm

    The problem here is that plurl marriage, in any era, is sociologically unusual. Measuring a plural marriage by the yardstick of standard marriage mores of the time is a bit of an apples/oranges deal. Monogamous marriage to a 14-year old at the time was likely legal, albeit uncommon. Polygamous marriage to anyone of any age was neither legal nor common. Calling Joseph a “pedophile” seems like someone is straining at gnats and swallowing camels.

  72. Dave
    June 14, 2007 at 1:59 pm

    #s 70 and 71 – Amen.

  73. Nathaniel Scott Cannon
    June 14, 2007 at 2:51 pm

    While it is clearly an apples/oranges case, as per Time’s response, isn’t it still historically relevant to understand just how unusual this arrangement may have been? I think it’s very enlightening to understand how many early church members struggled with polygamy, and if marrying a 14 year old (for whatever reason, bbell) was either normal or taboo it would shed light on how it affected the people surrounding Joseph at the time, as well as his own struggles with where “The Kingdom” was heading.

    I would be very interested if anyone could follow up bbell’s post #70 regarding the “Law of Adoption” and how this may have played into some of the earlier polygamous marriages. I’ve only barely caught on to this concept by reading between the lines in old discourses and piecing together doctrines that were still in the formative stages during and following Joseph’s life. References anyone?


  74. June 14, 2007 at 2:59 pm

    Marriage at 14 is permissible (with parental or judicial consent) at 14 in Canada and Mexico, as well as New York, Texas, and New Hampshire (at 13). Interestingly many countries put the age of consent (to have sexual relations) below the age for marriage. In Canada, Austria, Germany, Italy and Portugal at age 14. This means you can sleep with your boyfriend at 14, but not marry him.

    Even here in America the partners of most teens who have babies at 14 are not prosecuted (especially if they are relatively close in age), and yet in most states they cannot marry the father.

    It seems to me that allowing marriage at 14 would recognize that some young men and women – whether we like it or not – begin the procreation process around that age.

    I\’d personally prefer my 13 year old daughter to say \”lets wait a few months til we can get married\” (and hopefully get wise in the meantime), than her and a boyfriend considering waiting 5 years to be unreasonably long.

    FYI – my daughter doesn\’t have a boyfriend, and I hope she doesn\’t til she is 18, but I have know a few \’good\’ Church girls pregnant at 15-17.

  75. manaen
    June 14, 2007 at 3:09 pm

    70 & 71 re: Calling Joseph a “pedophile” seems like someone is straining at gnats and swallowing camels.

    The Evangelists that I’ve seen sling this pejorative actually are piling on: they reject both plural and young marriages.

    As for why we continued to practice plural marriage when it was against the law of the land, I believe we based our practice on our belief that such laws were an unconstitutional restriction of religious freedom. If that didn’t work, we always had the loophole in,

    “We believe that the commission of crime should be punished according to the nature of the offense; that murder, treason, robbery, theft, and the breach of the general peace, in all respects, should be punished according to their criminality and their tendency to evil among men, by the laws of that government in which the offense is committed; and for the public peace and tranquility all men should step forward and use their ability in bringing offenders against good laws to punishment.” (D&C 134:8)

  76. June 14, 2007 at 8:08 pm

    My in-laws. Both were raised in families of 12 children each. Both in rural Oklahoma. They married, standing at the base of the preachers bed, one night after a date. She was 14, he was 21. When my father in law died, they had been married 51 years. I ask my m-i-l what made her do it. She said the escape. She would have her own path to blaze, and would no longer be responsible for helping to raise her younger siblings. It was her choice then and she said if the circumstances were the same today, she’d make the same choice again. They raised two sons, born ten years apart.

  77. Kaimi Wenger
    June 14, 2007 at 8:19 pm

    Ohh, I forgot one obvious one:

    Steve Evans married Sumer when she was 13, and he was 37. (Or was it 38?)

  78. Commenter
    June 17, 2007 at 12:48 am

    I thought that the second half of the answer was more interesting than the times-have-changed defense:

    “Now whatever questions might arise — as to whether he erred or stumbled in a certain matter — throughout his life he wasn’t perfect. We don’t claim perfection in the human being. I don’t know what he was responsible to before — God I don’t know frankly. But as to his prophetic calling, his prophetic mission and what he achieved in that goal, I’m convinced of that. So the fruits of what he accomplished I think are evident.”

    There’s almost a suggestion there that Joseph Smith may have “stumbled” in some serious matter. I know that we have never claimed that Joseph Smith was perfect, but it seems like a strange concept to bring up in the context of plural marriage to a teen bride.

    Actually, I rather applaud Elder Christofferson for being so straightforward.

  79. June 17, 2007 at 6:32 pm

    On the “Law of Adoption,” see the Ensign, July 1979 (Well worth reading even if you’re not interested in the Law of Adoption.)

    and Irving, Gordon. “The Law of Adoption: One Phase of the Development of the Mormon Concept of Salvation, 1830-1900.” BYU Studies 14, no. 3 (Spring 1974): 291-314.

  80. wgg
    June 18, 2007 at 12:41 am

    I know that you didn’t want any information on Church members.

    But I found it interesting to check out my great, great grandfather, Archibald Gardner, Mormon pioneer and contemporary of Brigham Young. He had 11 wives and 55 children. He was a prominent businessman and engineer as well as serving as a bishop of a 600 person ward in West Jordon Utah, for 32 years. His wives’ ages at time of marriage ranged from 14 to 36. 7 were teenagers, 1 was 20, and 3 were around age 30.

    The 14 year old married Archibald when he was 34 and they had 19 children together. 2 were age 15 at age of marriage and he was 42 and 52 at the time of these marriages.

    So, at least compared to Archibald Gardner Joseph Smith does not seem too out of line. This may not help the Baptists, but it helps me.

    Also at the time that Archibald married my great great grandmother, Mary Ann Bradford (age 17), he also married her 36 year old widowed mother (at Brigham Young’s strong encouragement).

    A more detailed bio of Archibald can be found in Wikipedia.

  81. jf
    June 19, 2007 at 6:52 pm

    Child brides were common in Appalachia into the 1930s and 1940s:

  82. Suzanne A.
    June 19, 2007 at 8:02 pm

    Commenter wrote, “Actually, I rather applaud Elder Christofferson for being so straightforward.”

    I don’t believe Helen Mar would applaud what he said.

    p.s. Céline Dion and René Angélil’s have a 26-year age difference. Céline was 12 years old when music promoter Rene Angelil (they later married after his second divorce) took the reins of her career.

  83. annegb
    June 21, 2007 at 6:48 am

    I do not believe for one minute that Joseph Smith had sex with a 14 year old girl. Not for one minute. I do not care what somebody wrote in their journal 150 years ago. No bad word way.

  84. Beyond Belief
    April 4, 2008 at 9:56 pm

    So basically if i understand right because of lack of information. Because Joseph Smith didn\’t keep a record and she wouldn\’t disclose we don\’t know if they had sexual relations. And anyways even if they did we shouldn\’t judge because it was a different time when it wasn\’t uncommon. And it was a union under the law of adoption which was an important doctrine for this marriage, but no longer applies or is important after Woodruff recieves a revelation. Well lets face it there is no evidence they did or didn\’t have sex, but marriage and getting parental consent is an indicator, but we can\’t do tests now and Joseph wanted it all kept very quiet so God only knows. The law of adoption thing seems to be the way Joseph convinced the parents. In terms of this will bind you and your family to me which will ensure you salvation. If you don\’t ? Well the insinuation is that you won\’t be saved. And if you look at the way Helen describes it in her writings of being sealed to a prophet which was so important not only important to her salvation but that of her family. The whole family\’s salvation was on this 14yr olds shoulders. This practise however isn\’t important for our salvation and neither is polygamy for that matter. Her not being allowed to parties could be read that she had sex with the prophet and he didn\’t want her telling anyone or becoming too friendly with a boy her own age. Jealousy. Just one interpretation. From all the statistics I\’ve seen including the FAIR WIKI it was not common for a 14yr old to marry a 37yr old (or for either ages to marry). So I would say Christofferson should have said he didn\’t know rather than say it was one way when really it wasn\’t. Anyway let\’s argue that it was common. It could be common in some countries for parents who receive a certain dowry to marry their children 14yr olds to people as old as late 30s. If he gets the parents consent it might be legal and acceptable in the culture and we don\’t know that he will do anything sexual with her. Even if he does it\’s legal. However isn\’t there a moral obligation? Ok Joseph Smith didn\’t give the parents money, but eternal salvation is worth all your money and possessions isn\’t it? What about avoiding appearances of evil? Or the fruits that came from it? Even without a sexual relationship FLDS and Warren Jeffs are in a time when it is illegal to marry a 14yr old and those women can be heard and speak out rather than being silenced so that we don\’t know either way. I wonder if open honest debate in Joseph Smith\’s time instead of destroying the newspaper that was going to reveal his lifestyle would mean he would have lived? If honest open discussion could have avoided his death. Or maybe it would have shown how out of step a relationship with a 14yr old with a 38yr old as at that time? Then there comes the question did God tell him to marry her?? If he did then maybe Jeffs is on the right path. How many people would want to believe in that God? And surely Child Abuse with the parents and childrens consent is then permittable. Brigham Young at 44 married a 15yr old. They had children and sex. This was a very uncommon practise at the time, but maybe not among Mormons. Maybe this explains the Church\’s unhelpful stance when it comes to abuse. I think the general, denial then acceptance, looking for excuses that don\’t add up (live the surplus of women in the early days or it was common at that time myth) I think accepting that Joseph Smith did some amazing things and some things that were quite plainly abhorent. I think if people imagined their 14 yr old daughter with someone they know who is 38 or 15yr old with someone who is 44yrs old in the case of Brigham Young (who definitely had sex with her as they had children). If they just closed their eyes and imagined it I think something within them would let them know it\’s not a case of the culture (You can go to cultures today that find it acceptable if you want to!) but is there a moral code that exists, is there a law of God of what is right or wrong? And if so what is it when it comes to age differences? It might be legal to marry a 16 yr old when you are 45 in one country. Does that mean God agrees to that and views it as proper? What if that girls family was in trouble and he offered to get them out of it? Does that play a factor in it being morally right, a kind of social blackmail. I personally view it in those terms and If you view it as acceptable for Joseph Smith then it is for Warren Jeffs. Because when following God as learned in the early days of this church, it is ok to break the law when obeying a higher law. It\’s ok to lie to the membership of the church and those outside of it if it promotes the ends and good name of the church (google Lying for the Lord). Just like the quote above that I view as being completely unfounded and there hasn\’t been any evidence shown here that really supports it. Many of Warren Jeffs followers would probably argue that he is justified because he had consent. How he got that consent or whether in the open it would be permitted instead of being hidden is unknown. I think Joseph\’s \”revelation\” that his name would be had for good and bad was because he did some good things and some very bad things. One cannot say that anyone who believes the Adam-God Doctrine is not going to heaven when Brigham Young not only believed it it but placed it in the temple in the Lecture at the Veil. And one cannot excommunicate all child abusers and then condone their actions. Whether Brigham Young or Joseph Smith their actions were morally wrong and an abuse of ecclesiastical authority and anyone who disagrees is more than welcome to continue the legacy. I suppose what it all comes down to is a letter of the law and spirit of the law situation. You may argue permissible under the letter, but the spirit says that anyone who hurts the little ones it would be better a milestone was placed around their necks and they were dropped in the sea. Whether our ancestors relationships with girls younger then was wrong does not determine our worth and the decisions we make for ourselves today. One thing the Book of Mormon teaches you don\’t have to cling to traditions of your fathers you can experience God for yourself instead of clinging to someone who claimed they did.

  85. Beyond Belief
    April 4, 2008 at 10:11 pm

    I didn’t realize how long that was in the box :)

  86. lionheart
    August 7, 2008 at 7:14 pm

    ew a 14 year old bride when you are 38? GROSS.

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