In his response to the CES Letter version 2.0, Jim Bennett writes:
… or threats that he (Joseph) was going to be slain by an angel with a drawn sword if the girls didn’t marry him.
You are conflating two stories into one in order to make Joseph look as seedy as possible. There was an angel with a drawn sword connected to plural marriage, but it’s a story with quite a different context than the one you’re suggesting. All the accounts of the sword-bearing angel come after Joseph’s lifetime in reminiscences of those close to him. In every one, the angel appeared due to Joseph’s reluctance to engage in plural marriage as a general principle, not because he had to marry any specific woman. Not one of the accounts of the angel has Joseph telling anyone, “If you don’t marry me, an angel will kill me.” If that happened, even once, it’d be very hard to imagine that a woman wouldn’t have mentioned it. None of them do.
I will demonstrate below that this response is misleading and inadequate.
“All the accounts … come after Joseph’s lifetime”
All the accounts of the sword-bearing angel come after Joseph’s lifetime in reminiscences of those close to him.
Virtually every account we have today of how polygamy was experienced by its practitioners was a reminiscence, and the only contemporary accounts of how proposals occurred were from those who rejected Smith (e.g., Martha Brotherton). The number of contemporary documents regarding Joseph Smith’s polygamy are few and they give us few details. We really can’t talk about polygamy without relying on late accounts, and the historiography of polygamy consists largely of discussing and weighing the merit of later sources.
Bennett himself frequently relies on the reminiscences of these women on other topics. For instance, the only way to argue that HMK was sealed for “eternity alone” is to rely on [one possible reading of] her 1881 autobiographical account, so it is a red herring to bring up the lateness of these statements unless there is some good reason to assume they were fabricated or greatly embellished.
Hales compiled all the statements regarding the angel story, and Don Bradley suggests there are, in fact, some contemporary clues that support the basic idea. In any case, we do not have good reasons to doubt these reminiscences, and many of those who reminisced were participants (i.e., many of these are first-hand accounts, even if they were delivered later in their life).
Reluctance, not because he had to marry any specific woman
In every one, the angel appeared due to Joseph’s reluctance to engage in plural marriage as a general principle, not because he had to marry any specific woman.
Bennett seems to be putting words in Runnells mouth because Runnells does not ever claim that “[the angel came] because he had to marry any specific woman.” Runnells said exactly this: “Some of these marriages to these women included … threats that he (Joseph) was going to be slain by an angel with a drawn sword if the girls didn’t marry him.”1 Runnells does not discuss causality, and his statement does not seem inconsistent with the historical record.
Not one account … “If you don’t marry me, an angel will kill me.”
Not one of the accounts of the angel has Joseph telling anyone, “If you don’t marry me, an angel will kill me.”
There are two accounts which imply contingency between Joseph telling them and the threat of death at the hands of the angel.
Bennett’s re-statement of the problem can be read with two kinds of emphases:
If you don’t marry me, an angel will kill me.
If you [or somebody at least] [won’t] marry me, an angel will kill me.
The second statement is consistent with Runnells’ words:
Some of these marriages to these women included … threats that he (Joseph) was going to be slain by an angel with a drawn sword if the girls didn’t marry him.
and well supported by the primary accounts.
Zina Huntington Jacobs Smith Young 1894 reminiscence
Zina Huntington Jacobs Smith Young recounted in 1894 (published in 1895) the manner in which Joseph relayed the angel story to her. Active LDS Historians Martha Bradley and Mary Woodward explain (pg 95):
In October 1841 [Zina was married and pregnant for about 7 months at this time] Smith sent Dimick with an unwelcome message to force Zina to a decision. “Joseph said, Tell Zina I have put it off and put it off until an angel with a drawn sword has stood before me and told me if I did not establish that principle [plurality of wives] and live it, I would lose my position and my life and the Church could progress no further.”2 But when Dimick came, Zina’s anguish had been resolved, and she was emotionally prepared to accept the sealing
Hales includes the same source in his treatment but with a slightly different preamble (I do not know why the quotations differ slightly in the preamble):
[Joseph] sent word to me by my brother, saying, ‘Tell Zina I put it off and put it off till an angel with a drawn sword stood by me and told me if I did not establish that principle upon the earth, I would lose my position and my life.’
Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner
In a letter to Emmeline B. Wells in the summer of 1905, Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner wrote (pg 36 here):
As for Sister Whitney Bishop Withneys wife I shall never forget her as it was at her house that the Prophet Joseph first told mea about his great vision Concerning me, he said I was the first woman God commanded him to take as a plural wife in 183 [sic] & he was very much frightened about [it] until the Angel appear[e]d to him three times. [I]t was in the early part of Feb. 1842
beforethat he was compelled to reveal it to me personally, by the Angel threatening him.
The reveal to Mary was associated with “the Angel threatening him.” In several other communications, Mary indicates the last visit was the visit where the angel appeared “with a drawn sword in his hand and told Joseph if he did not go into that principle, he would slay him.”
Were I to reword Runnells’ claim for strict historical accuracy, I would say this:
As they later recounted, Joseph related to multiple of his plural wives that an angel with a drawn sword threatened his life if he did not institute polygamy. In at least one instance (with the 7 month pregnant newly married Zina Hungington Jacobs), the message appears to have been delivered in a persuasive/coercive manner, “I have put it off and put it off until an angel with a drawn sword has stood before me and told me if I did not establish that principle [plurality of wives] and live it, I would lose my position and my life and the Church could progress no further.
Although we do not know if he used the information to encourage the other wives’ participation in a plural marriage as he did Zina, it is difficult to imagine how conveyance of such information in any setting would not promote feelings of urgency and compliance in those whom he confided in. ↩
Footnote 28 reads: As quoted by Zina D. H. Young, “Joseph, the Prophet His Life and Mission as Viewed by Intimate Acquaintances,” Salt Lake Herald Church and Farm Supplement, 12 January 1895,212. She made this statement at a memorial service commemorating Smith’s birthday, for many years a feature among those who had known him. This particular meeting was held 24 December 1894 at Salt Lake City Sixteenth Ward. Speakers included Robert T. Burton, Rachael Grant, Samuel H. B. Smith, Joseph F. Smith, Frederick Kesler, Zina D. H. Young, Lucy Walker Kimball, Bathsheba W. Smith, Walter Wilcox, Claudius V. Spencer, Angus M. Cannon, John Smith, Elizabeth Roundy, Edward Rushton, and Homer Duncan. See also Joseph Fielding Smith, ed., Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1954), 212. ↩