Once upon a time, no one except critics wanted to talk about LDS polygamy. But TV shows, court cases, and four Gospel Topics essays on the subject — which run to 32 pages of material when I printed them out — have changed the game. Now everyone is talking about polygamy. The current LDS position, however, is still as murky and convoluted as ever. Historical explanations, doctrinal justifications, and even simple factual descriptions of LDS polygamy remain controversial (see earlier posts at T&S, BCC, JI, M-Star, FMH, and most recently Kiwi Mormon). To this expanding conversation on polygamy, add the new aggressiveness some bishops are showing to threaten or initiate discipline based on posts or comments on Facebook or blogs (see here for a recent example) and it is clear we have a problem. This is particularly true given that the average bishop really doesn’t know much about the history and practice of LDS polygamy, and half of what he does know is wrong. So it’s a good time to review a few sources.
Which brings me to B. Carmon Hardy’s Doing the Works of Abraham: Mormon Polygamy: Its Origin, Practice, and Demise (2007), part of the Kingdom in the West series published by Arthur H. Clark. The book is a collection of source documents, each introduced and explained by the author. Let’s look at three documents from the first chapter that address the origin of LDS polygamy (or plural marriage, as the Church generally refers to it):
- An 1861 letter from W. W. Phelps to Brigham Young recounting an alleged 1831 Joseph Smith revelation on polygamy.
- The revelation on plural marriage (our D&C 132), recorded in 1843.
- William Clayton’s notarized 1886 statement giving details of how the 1843 revelation was recorded, copied, and transported to Utah, where it was eventually published in 1852.
An Early Revelation?
It is well established that Joseph Smith was aware of polygamy and the possibility of practicing it in the early 1830s. As noted in the current introduction to D&C 132, “Although the revelation was recorded in 1843, evidence indicates that some of the principles involved in this revelation were known by the Prophet as early as 1831.” A letter written by W. W. Phelps to Brigham Young in 1861 recounts what Hardy describes as “an early revelation allegedly given in Missouri [that] told Mormon Elders to marry among the Indians, a directive subsequently interpreted as condoning plural relationships” (p. 34-35). Phelps relates the substance of a revelation dated July 17, 1831, delivered by Joseph Smith to a group of LDS elders “over the boundary, west of Jackson Co., Missouri” (p. 36). In his letter, Phelps relates the revelation verbatim, in enumerated verses, concluding with:
Verily I say unto you, that the wisdom of man in his fallen state, knoweth not the purposes and the privileges of my Holy priesthood, but ye shall know, when ye receive a fullness by reason of the anointing: For it is my will, that in time, ye should take unto you wives of the Lamanites and Nephites, that their posterity may become white, delightsome and just; for even now their females are more Virtuous than the Gentiles … even so: Amen. (p. 37; ellipsis in original.)
Phelps closes his letter by relating a later 1834 conversation with Joseph posing the natural question how those married men addressed in the revelation could take Indian wives. Phelps gives Joseph’s response as, “In the same manner that Abraham took Hagar and Keturah; and Jacob took Rachel, Bilhah and Zilpah, by revelation: the saints of the Lord are always directed by revelation” (p. 37). Joseph’s 1831 revelation (as related by Phelps) is not a revelation that was ever canonized or published. But the date corresponds with what the Church now acknowledges in the D&C 132 introduction as the period when Joseph developed ideas about the modern practice of polygamy. The scenario described in the letter corresponds to how Joseph delivered new doctrinal concepts in the early Church, and the context — relating polygamy to Book of Mormon and North American Indians — seems right for 1831.
Fast forward to Nauvoo in 1842: Joseph has commenced his private practice of polygamy and extended the practice to a few close associates. The current introduction to Section 132 describes a “Revelation given through Joseph Smith the Prophet, at Nauvoo, Illinois, recorded July 12, 1843.” The text of the revelation printed at pages 61-66 of Hardy’s volume is from the Joseph Kingsbury transcription, one of two early manuscripts in the LDS archives (the other is a copy made by Willard Richards). I’m guessing most readers are familiar with the text. Here is the first verse from the Kingsbury transcription, as presented by Hardy:
Verily thus saith the Lord, unto you, my Servant Joseph, that inasmuch as you have enquired of my hand to know and understand wherein! [sic] I the Lord justified my Servants, Abraham Isaac and Jacob; as also, Moses, David and Solomon, my Servants, as touching the principle and doctrin of their having many Wives and Concubines: Behold! (p. 61; bracketed insertion in original.)
Even just this first verse raises interesting points. First, the biblical record does not clearly show either Moses or Isaac to be polygamists. Second, we don’t hear much about concubines in later commentary or practice. The revelation distinguishes them from wives but appears to include them in its description of the practice to be restored. As expressed later in the text: “Abraham received Concubines, and they bare him children …. David also received many Wives and Concubines …” (p. 64; ellipses added). I know better than to speculate further on the topic of concubines, so I will simply note that I know of no example in the literature of a Mormon plural wife self-identifying as a concubine or being so identified by a third party.
What William Clayton Said
William Clayton recorded the original text of the 1843 revelation as it was dictated by Joseph Smith. We no longer have Clayton’s transcription, but his account of the reception and transmission of the text provides important context. Hardy includes a long excerpt from Clayton’s 1886 notarized statement about the revelation and the early LDS practice of plural marriage. Clayton recounts:
Hyrum very urgently requested Joseph to write the revelation by means of the Urim and Thummim, but Joseph, in reply said he did not need to, for he knew the revelation perfectly from beginning to end. Joseph and Hyrum then sat down, and Joseph commenced to dictate the revelation on Celestial Marriage, and I wrote it, sentence by sentence, as he dictated. After the whole was written, Joseph asked me to read it through, slowly and carefully, which I did and he pronounced it correct. He then remarked that there was much more that he could write, on the same subject, but what was written was sufficient for the present. (p. 59)
Clayton states that Joseph Kingsbury made his copy of the Clayton text the following day and that two or three days later Joseph allowed Emma to take and then destroy the original document (the one Clayton had recorded). But Clayton states: “The copy made by Joseph C. Kingsbury is a true and correct copy of the original in every respect. This copy was carefully preserved by Bishop Whitney, and but few knew of its existence until the temporary location of the Camp of Israel at Winter Quarters, on the Missouri River, in 1846” (p. 60).
Just a few quick thoughts. First, the accounts by Phelps and Clayton are later statements made by Utah Mormons eager to trace the doctrine and practice of polygamy back to Joseph Smith. Their strong statements, such as Clayton’s assurance that the Kingsbury transcription is “a true and correct copy of the original in every respect,” must be weighed accordingly. Second, it is easy to see why the story about the Kingsbury manuscript — a secret copy of a secret revelation, not published until almost ten years later, in Utah — and its attribution of the text of the revelation to Joseph Smith was rejected by Midwest Mormons, those who did not follow Brigham Young to Utah and who largely rejected the practice of polygamy.
What about the Gospel Topics essay “Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo“? Regarding origins, the essay states: “The revelation on plural marriage was not written down until 1843, but its early verses suggest that part of it emerged from Joseph Smith’s study of the Old Testament in 1831.” That’s about it. Regarding the text and transmission of the 1843 revelation, the essay merely states: “In the summer of 1843, Joseph Smith dictated the revelation on marriage, a lengthy and complex text ….”
Somewhat surprisingly, the essay does not actually tell the reader that the 1843 revelation was only circulated to a rather small group of Latter-day Saints in Nauvoo. Reading a paragraph like the following, you would think everyone in town had a copy and talked about it with their neighbors:
In the summer of 1843, Joseph Smith dictated the revelation on marriage, a lengthy and complex text containing both glorious promises and stern warnings, some directed at Emma. The revelation instructed women and men that they must obey God’s law and commands in order to receive the fulness of His glory.
Not that I’m complaining — the essays are a big step forward and have both legitimized and accelerated the current discussion of polygamy. But there is more to the story. There is always more to the story.