What Happened in Nauvoo, Part 3: Polygamy

[See Part 1: Founding and Part 2: Flourishing] Any history of Nauvoo needs to give an account of the secret practice of polygamy between 1841 and 1846. In Nauvoo: A Place of Peace, a People of Promise, Glen Leonard does this in about twenty pages as part of Chapter 13, “Foes Within: The Church of the Seceders.”

So what do we know about polygamy as practiced in Nauvoo? We certainly know a lot more than the large majority of Mormons living in Nauvoo at the time. We know more than Emma knew. We know more than any outside observer knew. I will summarize what we now know, supported by quotations from Leonard’s book, then add a few concluding thoughts.

1. Joseph Smith’s idea of possibly practicing polygamy dates to 1831. This is now clearly stated in the present heading to D&C 132: “Although the revelation was recorded in 1843, it is evident fom the historical records that the doctrines and principles involved in this revelation had been known by the Prophet since 1831.” The 1831 context for the idea of practicing polygamy has been recognized for some time. Here’s a quotation from a popular biography of Joseph Smith by John Henry Evans, Joseph Smith: An American Prophet, published by Deseret Book in 1933: “Polygamy or, as the Mormons prefer to call it, ‘plural marriage,’ was first introduced among the Saints in Nauvoo, in 1841 — although the Prophet had had the idea in mind ever since 1831” (1966 printing, p. 271).

Here is Leonard’s description of how the idea of polygamy came to Joseph Smith.

While working on what has become known as the Joseph Smith Translation …, he pondered the meaning of the Old Testament marriage practices described in Genesis. He also sought to better understand the Savior’s comments to Sadducees that marriages contracted in this life without proper authority ended at death. Early in 1831, the Prophet asked the Lord for knowledge ….

That passage strikes me as one part history, one part psychobiography, and one part apologetics. Focusing on the history, it is clear Joseph’s interest in polygamy as a doctrine emerged from the JST project. It emerged from a doctrinal inquiry, not as a response to the problem of too many women and not enough husbands, not as a way to increase the community birth rate, and not as some sort of test of faith.

2. What exactly did Joseph know about polygamy in 1831? It’s unclear exactly what Joseph received by way of revelation in 1831. Leonard writes as if the substance of D&C 132 was made known to Joseph at that time. The details that Joseph shared with a few others in 1831 provide at least some idea of what he knew then: “In Missouri during July 1831, the Prophet first explained what he had learned about plural marriage to a few associates. At some future time, he said, the Lord might direct marriages similar to those practiced in righteousness by the ancient patriarchs” (p. 344).

3. It really got rolling in 1841. It is undisputed that Joseph Bates Noble performed a marriage of Joseph Smith to 26-year-old Louisa Beaman (Noble’s sister-in-law) on April 5, 1841. This initiated the practice of polygamy in Nauvoo. It is disputed whether there was an earlier plural marriage in Ohio (to Fannie Alger) or Far West (to Lucinda Harris). Those were either false starts or misunderstandings. It was the events in Nauvoo that really got things rolling. Why then and not earlier? “According to a number of recollections, Joseph Smith postponed his first involvement in plural marriage until commanded to do so by an angel” (p. 345). One never really knows what to make of late recollections.

4. So how did it work? “Between January 1842, when Theodore Turley became the second polygamist in Nauvoo, and June 1844, more than two dozen of Joseph’s confidants received sealing blessings with their first wives and then married additional wives” (p. 346). Theodore who? He seems like an odd choice for the first man to follow Joseph into the practice. “[Brigham] Young was the first of the Twelve to take a plural wife, in June 1842, followed soon afterward by Heber C. Kimball and Willard Richards. Others joined the limited marriage group one by one as invited to do so” (p. 346).

And who were those two dozen men who (by invitation) took plural wives before Joseph’s death in June 1844? Here’s a list drawn from the data presented in a 65-page chart in George D. Smith’s recent book Nauvoo Polygamy: James Adams, Ezra Taft Benson, Reynolds Cahoon, William Clayton, Joseph Wellington Coolidge, Howard Egan, William Felshaw, William Huntington, Orson Hyde, Benjamin Franklin Johnson, Joseph Kelting, Heber C. Kimball, Vinson Knight, George Miller, Isaac Morley, Joseph Bates Noble, John Edward Page, Parley P. Pratt, Willard Richards, Ebenezer Richardson, William Henry Harrison Sagers, Hyrum Smith, John Smith, Joseph Smith, William Smith, Erastus Snow, John Taylor, Theodore Turley, Lyman Wight, Edwin D. Wooley, Brigham Young, Lorenzo Young. The list is an interesting mix of names you are quite familiar with and people you have never heard of.

Some LDS leaders who were aware of the practice were not invited or were unwilling to participate.

Because Sidney Rigdon and William Law rejected plural marriage as inconsistent with previously revealed doctrine, these counselors in the First Presidency did not receive the covenants of eternal marriage. Nor did John C. Bennett, an assistant president, who distorted his limited knowledge of the doctrine to justify immoral behavior. He was excommunicated for his promiscuity. (p. 348)

These developments seem like easily anticipated problems which would undermine any long-term plan for the secret practice of polygamy. This raises the interesting question of whether Joseph had a long-term plan and what it was. The two generic options are (1) go public; or (2) terminate the practice. The debate over succession to leadership of the Church following Joseph’s death effectively committed the Church to the first option, but ironically most Church members who supported the Twelve did not know they were also supporting the continued practice of polygamy.

* * *

The public announcement of the Mormon practice of polygamy in 1852, after the body of the Church had relocated to Utah, marks the end of the secret practice of polygamy as initiated in Nauvoo and the start of fifty years of conflict with the federal government and its appointed officials over the public practice of polygamy. The three fateful decisions that brought the Church to that point were: (1) Joseph’s decision to initiate the secret practice of polygamy in Nauvoo in 1841; (2) the emergence of the Twelve rather than a leader or group opposed to the practice of polygamy to lead the main body of the Church in 1844; and (3) Brigham Young’s decision to publicly announce the practice in 1852.

Leonard doesn’t really give a summary or conclusion to his treatment of polygamy. He moves from that section of the chapter directly into the discussion of how dissenters opposed to the practice of polygamy created problems for Joseph and the Church, culminating in the attempt to publish the Nauvoo Expositor and, shortly thereafter, the arrest of Joseph and Hyrum and their detention in Carthage. Framing the account in this way suggests that opposition and polygamy are two halves of a single story and should be told together.

“Polygamy, dissent, martyrdom” is, in fact, a quick summary of Joseph’s final years in Nauvoo. But martyrdom was not the end of Nauvoo or the end of the book, which runs an additional 250 pages after the death of Joseph, including an excellent review of the succession question, continued conflict with non-Mormons in Illinois, the departure of the main body of the Saints in 1846, and the fall of Nauvoo. Well worth reading.

19 comments for “What Happened in Nauvoo, Part 3: Polygamy

  1. November 18, 2009 at 3:19 pm

    I think that your mentioning of apologetics is appropriate. The 1831 date is, I believe, not as clear cut. I also agree that the story of Nauvoo is impossible without polygamy.

  2. Jonathan Green
    November 18, 2009 at 4:04 pm

    Dave, I’ve really enjoyed this series. Thanks for continuing it.

  3. November 18, 2009 at 4:21 pm

    Being descended from the first wife of seven wives of a polygamist who fathered 63 children, this is a topic that I must one day explore – and fairly soon, because the decades are flying by. Thanks for the post.

  4. November 18, 2009 at 4:24 pm

    I appreciate your careful outlining — limiting — of what we know, in place of what is too often a gossipy account of “what everybody knows.”

  5. November 18, 2009 at 7:02 pm

    Oh, goodie. I get all warm and fuzzy when I see anything about polygamy.

    The public announcement of the Mormon practice of polygamy in 1852, after the body of the Church had relocated to Utah, marks the end of the secret practice of polygamy as initiated in Nauvoo…

    When you say “secret,” to you mean from society at large, or from the general church membership? I’m just seeing this whole mess of people who fight there way across the plains, to the middle of the nowhere desert — only to find they have no way to escape the the YFZ compound.

  6. November 18, 2009 at 7:53 pm

    The public announcement was to the general membership of the church as well as to the public at large. I am a direct descendent of a woman who was in a very early polygamous marriage in Nauvoo and went across the plains to Provo under the guise of being a single unwed mother.

  7. Religion in the Media
    November 18, 2009 at 7:53 pm

    Polygamy is innately destructive and immoral, whether it is under the guise of religion or not. The former is significantly more dangerous, justifying and safeguarding oppression in moral terms.

    Joseph Smith’s’ “revelation” and its aftermath in Nauvoo further proves that history repeats itself. Take the example of Muslims in post-colonial Africa: Under colonial rule the institution was simply a form of oppression, justified by years of religious practice. Once they reached independence polygamy became an arena for oppression. It became a status symbol and harmed a generation of each family it touched.
    See the film: Xala or the book: So Long a Letter.

    Moreover, it directly contradicts moral opposition to greed.

    Upon juxtaposition it appears to me that the situations are parallel. The secrecy and inclusion by invite made it a sort of rite, a symbol of a hierarchy that should not be held up to everyone else’s moral standard.

  8. November 18, 2009 at 7:55 pm

    The list of two dozen men above that participated in early polygamy misses Abraham Owen Smoot, the husband of my g-g-g-grandmother.

  9. November 18, 2009 at 8:17 pm

    djinn, the table in Smith’s book shows Abraham Owen Smoot as marrying his first wife, Margaret Thompson McMeans Adkinson, in 1838, but not taking his first plural wife, Sarah Gibbens, until sometime in 1845.

    Religion in the Media, from an anthropological perspective, polygamy is fairly widespread in human history. You’re free to voice your personal objections to polygamy, of course (hey, I’m no fan either), but calling it “innately destructive and immoral” would be hard to defend. Perhaps your opinion reflects a general distaste for religion or marriage rather than facts or statistics? By the way, the media doesn’t score very high on my list when it comes to getting facts right or forming sound arguments, so don’t think your handle carries much weight. The dumbest things I read are in the New York Times.

  10. Dan
    November 18, 2009 at 8:40 pm

    Why did Joseph feel the need to keep polygamy a secret? Has any author/biographer attempted to answer that question?

    “According to a number of recollections, Joseph Smith postponed his first involvement in plural marriage until commanded to do so by an angel” (p. 345).

    Is there any record of when an angel told him it was time to begin practicing polygamy? Is there any revelation on this? If this was truly a secret thing, how could there be a “number of recollections?” Who did he discuss this with? Who were the co-conspirators during the 1830s?

    When did the public (Mormon and non-Mormon) first know about polygamy, and if before leaving Illinois, did it have anything to do with Mormons being kicked out of the state?

  11. Dan
    November 18, 2009 at 8:41 pm


    The dumbest things I read are in the New York Times.

    Then you must not read much beyond the New York Times. :)

  12. November 18, 2009 at 10:11 pm

    Dan, the accounts of angelic directives are recollections recorded many years after by third parties, not by Joseph. Generally those types of sources (without other evidence) are not deemed sufficient to establish the events they are recounting. So I don’t think we really know what moved Joseph to make the decisions he did.

    I’m not sure that “co-conspirators” is the right term; there were a few people he had discussions with (as noted) as early as 1831.

    The public, in the broad sense, became aware of the Mormon practice of polygamy in 1852. Negative stories circulated by Nauvoo dissenters in 1843 and 1844 did generate opposition to the Mormons and they did get kicked out of Illinois, but there were other forces at work. My impression is that if there had been no polygamy in Nauvoo, there would still have been opposition to the Mormons.

    Dan, I think you’d really enjoy Van Wagoner’s Mormon Polygamy: A History (Signature, 1989).

  13. mjp
    November 18, 2009 at 10:29 pm

    The Nauvoo Expositor’s first and only issue published news of Joseph’s plural marraiges. In the City Council’s discussions of the need to “abate” the press, did Joseph continue to deny marriage or did he just let others, who didn’t know any better, carry the arguments.

    Since the destruction of the Expositor (becayse of its announcement of Joseph’s plural marriages) was such a big issue, especially after Joseph’s death and in light of the succession discussions, there must have been widespread speculation. It seems hard to believe so many faithful Nauvoo Mormons didn’t know (or at least suspect) what was going on.

  14. November 19, 2009 at 12:49 am

    Would Matt or Kaimi delete this and e-mail me? You all don’t have any contact information anyplace on the site…

  15. Dan
    November 19, 2009 at 7:41 am


    I don’t think “enjoy” is the right word. :)

  16. Jonathan Green
    November 19, 2009 at 9:35 am

    Nate, did you try mail to “[email protected]”? That should work.

  17. November 19, 2009 at 11:10 am

    Thanks a bunch, Jonathan.

  18. November 19, 2009 at 9:47 pm


    I suspect that what you mean by this comment,

    “The dumbest things I read are in the New York Times”

    if you refer to their news reporting, is that the New York Times reports facts and information that you would prefer not to know and that make you uncomfortable.

    If you refer to their commentary, then I suspect that it means that opinions are expressed on their editorial pages that you disagree with.

    Of course, opinions are also expressed there that you do agree with, because they manage to get the whole political spectrum in there.

  19. Cameron Nielsen
    November 20, 2009 at 1:23 am

    @18: In my experience the New York Times’ non-editorial pieces come in a wide variety of objectivity levels, from slightly conservative to extremely liberal. There is definite bias there, although I would hardly say it contains “the dumbest things” that I read.

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