In what is undoubtedly the most controversial of his teachings, Joseph Smith introduced the practice of “celestial marriage” (or polygamy) to Mormonism. The Mormons were one of several millenarian religious sects that were challenging Victorian-era familial and sexual norms during the Second Great Awakening. In New Hampshire, Jacob Cochran’s Society of Free Brethren and Sisters practiced a form of polygamy termed “spiritual wifery,” and John Humphrey Noyes’ Oneida Community in New York experimented with a form of group marriage termed “complex marriage.” These fringe experiments, however, were deplorable to the majority of Americans. Even celibate societies such as the Shakers and the Harmonists were considered radical departures from Christian family life. Smith introduced the “new and everlasting covenant” confidentially to a select group of leaders in 1842. Evidence suggests that Smith likely began practicing polygamy in Ohio during the early 1830s with his first polygamous relationship being with Fanny Alger, a former housemaid of the Smith’s; however, his first recorded plural marriage occurred in Nauvoo on April 5, 1841, to Louisa Beaman. Over the following two years, Smith entered into plural marriages with between thirty to forty women who ranged in age from fourteen (Helen Mar Kimball and Nancy Winchester) to fifty-eight (Rhoda Richards). While the majority were single women, fourteen of Smith’s wives were concurrently married to legal spouses (polyandry); some involved marriages to both mother and daughter (Patty and Sylvia Sessions); and others involved pairs of sisters (Emily and Eliza Partridge and Sarah and Maria Lawrence). Little is known about the exact nature of Smith’s polygamous relationships; however, it appears likely that at least half were consummated. There is ongoing debate among scholars over whether Smith’s polyandrous arrangements and marriages to young girls were also consummated. As of yet, DNA testing has not confirmed any offspring of Smith apart from those with Emma.
Some scholars point to Smith’s apparent reluctance to begin the practice as evidence that he sincerely felt called by God, rather than acted on his own volition. Others, however, have long-inferred that sexual desire was his primary motivation. A theological emphasis on dynastic salvation was at least equally motivating; that is, eternal exaltation within interconnected (or “sealed”) family groups. Far from egalitarian, celestial marriage (also referred to as the “patriarchal order”) placed men at the head of eternal family groups and gave them responsibility for the salvation of their wives. For many of the women who entered into polygamous marriages, acceptance of the principle was more a matter of eternal salvation than temporal care.
During the Nauvoo period, the majority of polygamous wives married and lived in secret, often unknown even to each other. Although Emma may have suspected her husband’s clandestine relationships, she was likely unaware of the many women he had been sealed to; and Smith himself publicly denied being involved with the practice. Smith attempted to persuade Emma to accept the principle of celestial marriage in 1843, possibly even withholding her endowment until she agreed to permit additional marriages. Perhaps thinking celestial marriages to be “eternal-only” arrangements, Emma consented to the marriage of her husband to four of their housemaids, the Partridge and Lawrence sisters; a decision she quickly regretted. Likely in response to Emma’s resistance towards polygamy, Hyrum persuaded his brother to dictate a revelation regarding God’s sanctioning of the practice. This revelation (canonized thirty years later as D&C 132) explained the principles of celestial marriage and chastised Emma for her reluctance to accept it, warning of her destruction if she did not acquiesce. Emma reportedly rejected Hyrum’s presentation of the revelation and became increasingly embittered against the practice. Still acting as president of the Nauvoo Female Relief Society, she quietly began campaigning against polygamy, which may have contributed to the suspension of the women’s organization in March 1844. Following Smith’s death, polygamy continued to surge in Nauvoo. By 1846, 196 men and 521 women had entered into plural marriages in a town nearing 13,000 residents.
Gospel Topics Essay: “Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo.”