Joseph Smith made many public denials that he was practicing polygamy (see Hales’s analysis and my analysis). In an effort to exonerate him, some take him at his word and claim that polygamy (with an emphasis on marriage during time) was a later invention of Brigham Young and other LDS leadership.1
However, some contemporary evidence exists that Joseph Smith practiced polygamy.
Oliver Cowdery wrote a letter to his brother discussing Joseph’s “scrape” with Fanny Alger:
Charge prefered against O[liver] Cowdery before the high Council in Far West Mo.— by Elder Seymour Brounson [Brunson], To the Bishop and Council of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, [p. 29] I do hereby prefer the following Charges against Oliver Cowdery, which consists of nine in number. … 2nd For seeking to destroy the Character of Pres. Joseph Smith Jr by falsly insinuating that he was guilty of adultery &c. …
mormonpolygamydocuments.org, a site of polygamy related documents hosted by Brian Hales, discusses the provenance of Joseph C. Kingsbury’s copy of D&C 132.
Sarah Ann Whitney documents
A trio of primary documents, all signed or in Joseph Smith’s hand, implicate him in plural marriage with Sarah Ann Whitney. The three documents together are difficult to explain outside the context of a plural marriage.
- Blessing to Sarah Ann Whitney [in Joseph Smith’s hand] Sarah turned 18 the day before.
- Deed to Sarah Ann Whitney [signed by Joseph Smith] Sarah was 17 years old at the time of this deed.
- Letter to the Whitneys [in Joseph Smith’s hand] Sarah was 17 years old at the time.
Letter from Jedediah M. Grant to Joseph Smith
A letter from Jedediah M. Grant to Joseph Smith in August of 1843 implies an invitation from Joseph Smith to Susan Conrad to accept—and also encodes news of Hyrum Smith’s acceptance of—the doctrine of plural marriage.
See William V. Smith’s article in Dialogue Winter 2016 which includes a transcript of the letter.
Martha Brotherton’s affidavit (potential antagonistic bias)
Joseph and Hyrum Smith denied rumors of a proposal to Martha Brotherton in the April 6, 1842 general conference.
After Bennett left Nauvoo, he solicited an affidavit from Brotherton. Martha Brotherton’s affidavit runs somewhat counter to many of the claims Bennett was making in his book and is fairly consistent with later testimony evidence of both the rationale advanced and the modus operandi for proposals that came from Latter-day Saint participants.3
Buckeye’s laments (antagonistic bias)
An insider to Nauvoo polygamy wrote two exposés on Joseph Smith’s polygamy in the Warsaw Message and then Warsaw Signal (same paper, just a change of names). Bergera discusses the articles here.
Later non-LDS testimony corroborating key events
Leonard Soby was at the August 12, 1843 High Council meeting where polygamy was introduced. Given that his rejection of the revelation led to his excommunication, his testimony seems especially relevant because he cannot be said to be biased by any possible later LDS conspiracy.
- Hemlock Knots debates
- Gospel Tangents: Examining Polygamy Skeptics Claims with Mark Tensemeyer
- Joseph Smith and Polygamy (John Hamer walks through the evidence that Joseph Smith practiced polygamy)
- Year of Polygamy: Joseph Didn’t Fight Polygamy
A few notable examples of those suggesting that Joseph either did not practice polygamy or only very reluctantly practiced it, which typically involves a conspiracy theory led by Brigham Young and the Brighamite branch of the Church:
- Beyond the Mormon Binary published a four part essay (part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4)
- The Price’s, RLDS researchers, published several volumes arguing that JS fought polygamy (e.g., volume 2)
- The site Hemlock Knots contains a detailed timeline of polygamy documents and is meant to allow visitors to weigh the raw, historical data as to whether JS practiced polygamy.
Joseph Smith Papers editors provide the following footnote after Cowdery’s charge that Smith was guilty of adultery:
Testimony from George W. Harris, David W. Patten, and Thomas B. Marsh confirmed that Cowdery had made such insinuations about JS’s relationship in Kirtland with a young woman named Fanny Alger. At the trial, JS stated that as Cowdery “had been his bosom friend, therefore he intrusted him with many things”—apparently confirming the reality of a confidential relationship with Alger. JS then “gave a history respecting the girl business.” This history may have regarded the origins of the Mormon practice of polygamy. Revelation claimed by JS sanctioning the polygyny practiced by Old Testament patriarchs was evidently related to JS’s 1831 work on revision of the Bible. Kirtland Mormons, including Alger’s family, viewed the relationship as an early plural marriage. Nevertheless, an estranged Cowdery insisted on characterizing the relationship as “a dirty, nasty, filthy affair of his and Fanny Alger’s.” (Minute Book 2, 12 Apr. 1838.Bachman, “Ohio Origins of the Revelation on Eternal Marriage”; Compton, In Sacred Loneliness, 27. Oliver Cowdery, Far West, MO, to Warren Cowdery, [Kirtland, OH], 21 Jan. 1838, in Cowdery, Letterbook, 80–83; see also Parkin, “Conflict at Kirtland,” 128–135.)
Comprehensive Works Cited: Minute Book 2 / “The Conference Minutes and Record Book of Christ’s Church of Latter Day Saints,” 1838, 1842, 1844. CHL. Also available at josephsmithpapers.org.
Bachman, Danel W. “New Light on an Old Hypothesis: The Ohio Origins of the Revelation on Eternal Marriage.” Journal of Mormon History 5 (1978): 19–32.
Compton, Todd. In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith. Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2001.
Cowdery, Oliver. Letterbook, 1833–1838. Henry E. Huntington Library, San Marino, CA.
Parkin, Max H. “Conflict at Kirtland: A Study of the Nature and Causes of External and Internal Conflict of the Mormons in Ohio between 1830 and 1838.” Master’s thesis, Brigham Young University, 1966.