How Big is Joseph Smith Polygamy Denialism in the Church? Insights from the B.H. Roberts Foundation’s Current and Former Latter-day Saint Survey

Stephen Cranney and Josh Coates

This is one of a series of posts discussing results from a recent survey of current and former Latter-day Saints conducted by the BH Roberts Foundation. The technical details are in the full methodology report here

The people who do believe that Joseph Smith did not practice polygamy fall into two camps. The first is those who simply do not know. Presumably because the practice wasn’t public until Brigham Young’s day, and because the Nauvoo practice is much more sparsely documented, Brigham Young, and not Joseph Smith, became the icon of polygamy. Although people more familiar with official Church history (or even a careful reading of D&C 132) would have also known about Joseph Smith’s plural wives, anecdotally there are cases of people simply not being aware because the emphasis was always on the better documented Utah-era polygamy. (And although the 20th century Church did not emphasize Joseph’s plural marriages, the Church did not hide it; and in the late 19th century it went out of its way to gather invaluable primary source, first-hand evidence of his plural marriages and publicize them in order to stick it to the RLDS during the Temple Lot trial.)

And so while the Church is publishing more content on Joseph Smith’s plural marriages (and there’s just more content available now overall, with perhaps the summum of this being Brian Hales’ and Don Bradley’s excellent multi-volume work and website on primary source documents about Joseph Smith’s polygamy), in principle there might be somebody somewhere to whom this information has not percolated to yet.

The other group are people who know about the historical consensus, but simply reject it. This is an eclectic, interesting group, including members and former members who believe that Brigham Young started polygamy contrary to Gods’ wishes, and believe that D&C 132 wasn’t written by Joseph Smith. Our understanding (please correct us if we’re wrong) that the folks that put together the movie that argued that Willard Richards and John Taylor killed Joseph and Hyrum fall into this camp, as well as at least some of the “Snufferites”, and very traditional-looking, active LDS wives and mothers.

But just how big is “Joseph Smith polygamy denialism”™ among the rank and file? 

Our results from the survey show that it’s negligible: in the year 2023 nearly all members know that Joseph Smith practiced polygamy. We asked for a response to the statement “Joseph Smith practiced plural marriage” with response options from strongly disagree to strongly agree.

The denialists are certainly an interesting group, but we do not find any evidence that they have a lot of sway. People who overtly disagree with the idea that Joseph Smith practiced polygamy are in the single digits. 

Similarly, we also do not find any evidence that there is widespread ignorance of Joseph Smith’s polygamy in 2023. If there was in the past because of the emphasis on Brigham Young’s polygamy, that problem has now been more or less corrected (with a few holdouts). 

However, the “neither agree nor disagree” group may evince some ambiguity or lack of clarity on the part of some. We’re not quite sure what the difference in this context is between agreeing or strongly agreeing. Is agreeing simply from people being predisposed towards a middle option? Or do they harbor some doubts? Whatever the case, variation on this variable was not correlated with any other belief or practice variable, so it does not appear that conservatives or liberals are more likely to choose the “strongly disagree” option, and it’s probably some artifact of how one answers a question like that in a survey (maybe we should have just made it a dichotomous yes/no). 

16 comments for “How Big is Joseph Smith Polygamy Denialism in the Church? Insights from the B.H. Roberts Foundation’s Current and Former Latter-day Saint Survey

  1. I think the not knowing about Joseph’s polygamy, or even that polygamy was *ever* practiced by any Mormon might be a bigger problem among non English speaking members that the church even knows. My son went to Brazil for his mission, and he met some members who were angry as Hades that they were never told anything at all about any polygamy until they got online and started translating the Church information from English to Portuguese. He was there in the 90s and had the bishop and stake president from his area come to him, angry about what they had just found on line after 10 and 20 years of membership. The church doesn’t “hide” polygamy, but they very very carefully leave it out of conference talks, lesson manuals, and missionary discussions. That isn’t hiding it, but it also is not being honest about it. My poor son had no idea how to explain to them that yes what they found on line about church history was totally true and still explain to them how they had been good active member for years, always paid attention to everything the church put out, only to get the shock of their lives by translating some uncorrelated church history stuff on the internet. The stake president who had been a member longest was very angry and justifiably felt that he had been lied to starting with the missionaries who taught him and all 20 years of his membership. He was strongly thinking about leaving the church. Personally, I have seen lesson books that carefully mentioned an interaction of Brigham with “his wife,” and it sure sounded to me from what the book said like he only had one wife. No mention at all that it was wife #30 odd, and he was in his 50s and she was a teenaged mother who was too young to know how to handle a child throwing food on the floor. It was deceptive on purpose about the fact that Brigham Young had so many “wives”.

    And to call Joseph Smith’s affairs marriages is deceptive. They were not “wives” in any sense of the word except that he had a sham ceremony that was religious but not legal and had sex with them. He did not live with them, support them, or even publicly acknowledge them. That is not a wife, but an affair. Joseph Smith was a serial adulterer. Brigham at least had a semi legal (he lived in a US territory and so it was legal only because he said it was) ceremony, he openly acknowledged them, and sometimes even supported them and his 56 children. Often he just financially abandoned them to support themselves and his children.

    Sorry, Stephen, but you know opening any discussion on polygamy is opening a huge can of worms. But the way the wives of Joseph Smith were treated, it was adultery, not polygamy and I am one of those people who say Joseph kinda sorta practiced polygamy. Mostly I would just call it adultery, because I don’t think it was ever sanctioned by God. So, I wanted to answer your question as to why some people only partly agree. It isn’t that we don’t know about the women he seduced. It is that we just can’t call his affairs “marriages”. See, a lot of women just don’t accept that God was behind polygamy, so they find ways to explain how Joseph was not a fallen prophet or maybe Brigham not a lecherous old man who told a bunch of lies about Joseph and got women to lie for him. Me, I haven’t come to a firm conclusion about it, so still “unsure”. It just looks like we have to throw Joseph or Brigham under the buss, or throw God under the buss. Not a good set of choices. Which do you recommend?

  2. Was there a period when the Church downplayed polygamy? Absolutely. But any good faith discussion of it needs to at least acknowledge that period is over. Go read the 2021 Come Follow Me lessons on D&C 132 and Official Declaration 1. Go read Revelations in Context (“Mercy Thompson and the Revelation on Marriage”). Go read Saints.

    As for calling Joseph Smith’s marriages affairs, let’s just say his wives would strongly object. If Joseph Smith wanted to have affairs, he could have had affairs without all the complications of plural marriage. Given that he had no children with anyone but Emma, while sex was part of some (not all) of his plural marriages, there doesn’t seem to have been a lot of it.

    As for Joseph being a fallen prophet, while he was practicing polygamy he revealed eternal marriage, salvation for the dead via proxy ordinances, and the temple endowment where both women and men receive the fullness of the priesthood. He also organized the Relief Society. Those are precious doctrines to me, and I’m not willing to throw them under the bus. So I’m not going to defend all of Joseph Smith’s conduct in Nauvoo (I will point out we’ve been told in no uncertain terms not to judge) but I think it’s pretty clear the Lord was still willing to work with him and through him. That gives me some hope the Lord will work with and through me.

  3. A couple of things:

    1. To people who oppose polygamy but still accept Joseph as a prophet, “strongly” agreeing with the statement can feel like an endorsement of the polygamy itself. “Agree” standing alone feels sufficient to affirm the historical facts. Better wording would go something like “Did Joseph Smith practice plural marriage?” with the options being “Definitely”, “Probably”, “Not certain”, “Probably not”, and “Definitely not”.

    2. You mention the first hand testimony used in the Temple Lot case. I think you should acknowledge that some deniers believe that said testimony was either coerced or constituted willful perjury in support of the Church’s legal position. Not a particularly faith-promoting take but apparently preferable to accepting that Joseph really had sex with anyone but Emma.

  4. RLD, like I said, my son was in Brazil in the 90. And I went inactive to defend myself from sexism, so, not hearing the current lessons. And sorry, but I don’t appologize for what I said, because for a time, the church did fail to be honest about polygamy. And I do not respect lying by omission. So, while as a man you may not have to judge, as I woman, I do because it is my eternal future you are willing to throw under the bus to defend the prophet status of prophets in our church history. Your eternal future is pretty clear, but I would rather go to the terrestrial than live in a harem, thank you very much. And do we have 1 Mother in Heaven or a harem of mothers? Are women equal or not? Polygamy by definition is not. So, you can keep your form of denial about polygamy being down right evil, and I’ll keep my questions about who I have to throw under the bus, thank you very much for what I have already heard 3,000 times. Your male perspective doesn’t help. There are lots of things that Joseph Smith revealed that I like. But my eternal marriage is worthless if it really means I am head wife in a harem. Do you honestly not get it?

  5. @Last Lemming: That’s a good point, we maybe should have used more probabilistic options instead of doing the Likert scale thing. That’s interesting about the Temple Lot case, I didn’t know that!

    @Anna: Sure, I think most of us can agree that it would be in the Church’s interest to work knowledge about those types of things into Church materials, both English and internationally, and I think the Church is doing this more. However, I also understand not leading the 1st discussion with a discussion about JS’ polygamy because 1) again, until very recently we had very little documentation about it and didn’t quite know what exactly they were relationally speaking in many cases, and 2) objectively speaking with everything to emphasize in the gospel that doesn’t make it very high on the list.

  6. As Anna calls out here, can of worms.

    I find the data quite interesting. Thank you for sharing.

    I have a question: @Stephen C’s comment says “1) again, until very recently we had very little documentation about it and didn’t quite know what exactly they were relationally speaking in many cases…” Who is the ‘we’ in this instance? If it’s the institution, where did the documentation come from? It was my understanding that the institution had the documentation but didn’t share it publicly. This seems to suggest that the information was held by someone else and only recently provided to the institution, who in turn used it to draft the church essays. Can you clarify?

    Another question: In a recent post, some commenters were placing the blame for not knowing the full polygamy story on the members claiming they just forgot or were not diligent in attending seminary for example. I’m curious how they would place blame here on adult converts in developing countries where their childhood remembrance and seminary attendance isn’t at play.

  7. @ Chadwick: Sorry to ruin a good Dan Brown plot line, but no, I doubt anything in the First Presidency vault has anything to do with Joseph Smith’s wives. The fact is that that it’s hard to gather up and analyze all the primary source materials for something as sketchily documented as Nauvoo-era polygamy. So sure, it was available if you knew to go to Box 20 in the Yadda yada collection in Church archives and knew how to read 19th century handwriting, but it wasn’t really organized until Todd Compton’s In Sacred Loneliness, and since then more and more secondary analysis has been done, and lately the actual primary sources have been put online and elsewhere for people to access directly. That’s what I meant by “until very recently,” although maybe I should have said “relatively” recently given that ISL is about 30 years old by now, but still, a lot of the latest on, for example, him not having children with Emma, has really only come out in the past couple of years.

    And sure, the Church probably would have done well to work something about Nauvoo-era polygamy into foreign language materials (although I suspect that they’re doing that now) if that’s what you’re trying to get at.

  8. I met the church in 1983 in Spain. I obtained my testimony in 1984. Being a minor I had to wait a few months to be baptized. The missionaries gave me a book of Doctrine and Covenants that I read with pleasure. It includes section 132, and the OD2, the manifesto. If there was a stake president in the church for years without knowing anything about plural marriage in the church, what books was he reading? Doctrine and Covenants no, obviously. I am afraid that it is difficult to deny Joseph Smith’s unions with other women… and it is true that it is difficult to call these unions marriages… On the other hand, the churches that deny the plural marriages of JS are the same ones that deny the endowment ceremony, baptism for the dead, temples, celestial marriages, etc. With all due respect, whether you like the teachings or not, the only church that is with JS in everything – the good, the bad and the inexplicable- is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

    And this deserves some consideration.

  9. @ Anna,
    You went inactive, but nothing stops you from getting current lesson materials. They’re widely available and easy to find. It sounds like your impression of what’s being taught in church is outdated by some years, because I’ve had this exact discussion in Sunday School three years ago when we were going through the D&C, and as mentioned above, there are multiple newer sources for that information from the Church itself.
    Also, as a woman, I can’t say that I am super worried about questions such as Joseph Smith’s polygamy when I haven’t even managed to get married yet. I come from a blended family, so we certainly have questions about what that’s going to look like, and whether polygamy will be part of our eternity. But I honestly feel that if questions about what the future looks like aren’t helping me live in line with the relationships I want, most notably with Jesus Christ, then perhaps those questions can wait to be answered.
    I’ve done a fair amount of research on my own, and while the whole period is deeply confusing, I still believe that Joseph and Brigham were true prophets who were fallible mortals, and that my covenants with Christ are what I want to base my life on, which covenants are only available through His Church.
    Honestly, if you look at ancient prophets, a bunch of them were not particularly good people; God still called them to follow Him, and they changed because of Him.
    @ Last Lemming,
    I have to agree that the original question was worded poorly, but the OP’s point remains.

  10. I grew up on the Wasatch Front in the 1990s. Active, attended four years of seminary. Parents never mentioned Joseph Smith’s polygamy (even though one of my mother’s ancestors was one of his wives). Never heard about it in church. Popular church media at the time included movies about Joseph and Emma, stressing their relationship while not mentioning or even hinting at his polygamy. In seminary, a student once asked “What’s the deal with Joseph Smith and polygamy?” and my teacher responded “There’s a lot of anti-Mormon stuff out there.” As someone who took my church leaders and seminary teachers seriously, then, the idea that Joseph Smith was practicing polygamy was an anti-Mormon lie.

    It wasn’t until after my mission that I discovered that Joseph Smith was, in fact, a polygamist. I’m glad the church has started talking more about it. For a lot of faithful members, it’s a difficult concept. I still have several friends who have accepted that he was married to many women but who refuse to believe the marriages were ever consumated.

  11. Oh, I’m very open to the idea that back in the day you could be a faithful member much if anything about JS polygamy (hence my qualifiers in the OP: “in the year 2023”…). But again, I think a lot of members and leaders genuinely didn’t know what to make of it in the absence of organized data.

  12. I enjoy reading all the views here on what is probably the biggest issue in our history. I have not done a deep dive into the subject. The little I have studied tho…there is for sure a difference between marriage (play house together) and being sealed (a religious ordinance that hitched a members eternal wagon to JS, male or female, married or single) We cannot look at every “JS married X” in the same light. Throw in the Law of Adoptions and it gets even more confusing. There is also something for sure different as to how JS and BY lived this principle. (kids/no kids) The current leaders in my day seem to just not want to talk about it.

    To the sisters that are not fans of the “harem in heaven” program. You cant just be mad at JS and the church, you would also have to be mad at the biblical era leaders and then ultimately God for allowing/wanting this if the scriptures are factual. They may not be.

    Anna – my fav church history quote is very close to how you feel…”I would rather go to hell as a virtuous woman then to heaven as a whore”. I dont claim to know what the heck we will or will not be asked to do as married members in the next life that really want to live with God for eternity but I do know, what ever it is, I will be ok with it when He looks me in the eye and asks me to do it. (after a couple questions answered) Heck I will even clean the temple then too! :)

    Claudio- Great insight! Probably an unintended consequence of telling the members to read the BoM all the time and not other scriptures!

  13. Interestingly, for me, I didn’t really know much about Joseph Smith practicing plural marriage himself until I was in the MTC as a 19 year old. There was some reference to him being sealed to Eliza R. Snow in the Spanish For Missionaries manual of all places. Since then I have read more about it and did a paper in one of my religion classes at BYU on Emma Smith and learned more about her experience with it all.

  14. I think Don Bradley is one of the best sources of information on Nauvoo era polygamy. A lot of his information is freely available in interviews with him on YouTube. It seems from his information, JS avoided being sealed to anyone that he might be accused of having sex with. e.g. other men’s wives, who were already pregnant. The medical advice in the day was that you should not be having sex with a pregnant women. The idea behind sealings in those days was, in some ways, quite different to today.

  15. As a student in seminary from 1976-1978 those who suggested or discussed the idea of polygamy were considered to be enemies of the church and the very idea laughable.
    Only as a teacher of D and C seminary as a newly married woman did I begin to intuit that this was a reality. I wanted to kill myself and no-one was willing to discuss this at any level. As a convert I had a testimony.
    Cut to my son hearing of polygamy during seminary from a non member friend and reacting as if this was preposterous. I sat with him and attempted to explain the inexplicable, but that was the beginning of the end for him. it has been devastating and I have no way forward.
    How do we communicate the facts to our kids in a way that is in any way explicable I wonder? They no longer trust in their parents as times have changed.

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