On March 23, 2018, Stephen Smoot published an article entitled “Believing Women” Includes Believing Joseph Smith’s Plural Wives.
I have made a few minor changes (mostly cosmetic) but a few to point to slightly better or up-to-date resources
[comment by bwv549]
First of all, I agree with your main point (i.e., there is some hypocrisy involved in not taking the stories of JS’s wives at face value but doing so for other victims). My pushback (none of which would necessarily overturn your main point) runs along these lines:
Many of those who disagreed most about polygamy likely felt immense social pressure to not speak up/out about their experiences. For instance, we have almost no words on the matter from Nancy Marinda Johnson Hyde. Those who did speak out about polygamy likely felt immense social pressure to speak of it in favorable terms.
Since it is related to how women’s stories were received during the polygamy era, we probably shouldn’t neglect Martha Brotherton’s experience with polygamy and how she was treated after refusing to enter the institution. Her experience offers a window into the kind of choice the brides had that accepted polygamy (i.e., what kinds of consequences might befall someone who did not accept an offer of polygamy?).
We should remind ourselves that Brotherton’s affidavit is almost certainly factual, at the very least in its general outline.
Joseph Smith referred to her story as “lies”:
Pres’t. J. Smith spoke upon the subject of the stories respecting Elder Kimball and others, showing the folly and inconsistency of spending any time in conversing about such stories or hearkening to them, for there is no person that is acquainted with our principles would believe such lies, except Sharp the editor of the “Warsaw Signal.”
Then, Joseph Smith was primarily responsible for distributing affidavits against Bennett (see footnote #5) which included sound denunciations of Martha Brotherton’s affidavit from BY (“the affidavit…is a base falsehood”) and HCK (“the affidavit…is false and without foundation in truth”). They even enlisted Martha’s SIL and sister to tongue lash Martha in defense of the good names of the Brethren (“Martha Brotherton is a deliberate liar, and also a wilful inventor of lies”).
Finally, following in the footsteps of JS, BY, and HCK, Parley P. Pratt would also go on to defame Brotherton in the most vigorous terms for daring to suggest that these brothers were practicing polygamy.
The irony in all of this is that the only person who told the truth was Martha, and the later history/actions of everyone involved would vindicate Martha:
Most of your statements are later recollections that fail to capture the horror some of these women felt as it was playing out. Consider how HMK describes how she felt during the arrangement:
Just previous to my father’s starting upon his last mission but one, to the Eastern States, he taught me the principle [p. 1] of Celestial marriage, & having a great desire to be connected with the Prophet, Joseph, he offered me to him; this I afterwards learned from the Prophet’s own mouth. My father had but one Ewe Lamb, but willingly laid her upon the alter: how cruel this seamed to the mother whose heartstrings were already stretched untill they were ready to snap asunder, for he had taken Sarah Noon to wife & she thought she had made sufficient sacrafise, but the Lord required more. I will pass over the temptations which I had during the twenty four hours after my father introduced to me this principle & asked me if I would be sealed to Joseph, who came next morning & with my parents I heard him teach & explain the principle of [p. 1] Celestial marrage-after which he said to me, “If you will take this step, it will ensure your eternal salvation and exaltation & that of your father’s household & all of your kindred.
This promise was so great that I will-ingly gave myself to purchase so glorious a reward. None but God & his angels could see my mother’s bleeding heart—when Joseph asked her if she was willing, she replied “If Helen is willing I have nothing more to say.” She had witnessed the sufferings of others, who were older & who better understood the step they were taking, & to see her child, who had scarcely seen her fifteenth summer, following in the same thorny path, in her mind she saw the misery which was as sure to come as the sun was to rise and set; but it was all hidden from me.
Which feelings are more relevant when asking about potential abuse: the horror many of these women felt when being pressured to enter into these arrangements, or their later reflections after they have come to peace about the situation and when they are living in a society where defense of polygamy was socially rewarded and polygamy had become an ideological battleground of existential proportion?
Regardless of how participants may have felt about polygamy, many of Joseph Smith’s actions are ethically problematic. Later acceptance of polygamy does nothing to address the ethical problems with how Joseph enacted polygamy.
- Joseph [may have] had a second sealing performed to the Partridge sisters in order to hide the first sealings from Emma. Does it matter, ethically speaking, that the Partridge sisters were okay going along with this deception?
- Joseph’s 3rd proposal to Zina came when she was a 7 month preganant newlywed. Under what ethical system is it okay to proposition a 7 month pregnant newlywed for sealing? Her eventual acceptance that this was God’s will does nothing to absolve Smith. In that situation, there is immense pressure to generate spiritual experiences validating the proposal because, otherwise, the proposal is abominable and invalidates the woman’s entire worldview.
- Emma viewed Joseph’s relationship with Fanny as adulterous, suggesting that Joseph didn’t get adequate buy-in from Emma. This is ethically problematic.
- After the death of the Walker family’s mother, Joseph Smith volunteered to act as foster parent to the four oldest Walker children, encouraging the father to leave on a two year mission to the eastern states. While the father was away, he married the 17 year old, Lucy. Under these circumstances, she should not have been made to feel pressured into this situation, regardless of her later disposition towards polygamy.
See Five Key Facts for sources.
This is much more responsible critique that raises genuinely good points worth discussing.
Unfortunately I cannot do such right now since I am pressed for time and my polygamy library is some 3,000 kilometers away from me at the moment. (I can only go off of what I have online and on my hard drive until I retrieve my library next month.)
But thank you for adding a comment to this discussion that is actually constructive and engages with my central argument, and doesn’t just rehash Internet slogans.
BWV549 brings up some very good points. Stephen asked me to offer some observations.
Undoubtedly social pressures were important in Nauvoo and later in Utah in grooming female responses. Yet, seven of JS’s plural wives left the Church and they did not leave any criticisms. I think it is less plausible to believe that these women were so gullible that they would accept immoral activities veiled as religion. Their early and late comments treat polygamy as a religious practice.
I think BWV549’s discussion of Martha Brotherton is incomplete. JCB’s fingerprints are all over the affidavit. Yet, I believe many of the details are accurate. The campaign to discredit Martha did not come after she refused polygamy and left Nauvoo (going to St. Louis), it came months later after JCB helped her write the affidavit and publish it.
Bennett wrote in HISTORY OF THE SAINTS that JS would destroy the reputation of any woman who turned him down. This is not true. We have accounts from several women who spurned a plural proposal and the only reason we know about it is because they later wrote about it.
As in the case of Brotherton and also Sarah Pratt (and to a lesser extent Jane Law), JS aggressively defended himself, which included attacking claims he considered to be untrue (please see my trilogy vol. 1-2 for more discussion). I maintain if these women had stayed silent, JS would have stayed silent too.
Virtually all Nauvoo females did not like polygamy. Mary Isabella Hales Horne recalled: “The brethren and sisters were so averse to polygamy that it could hardly be mentioned.” Bathsheba B. Smith remembered: “We discussed it [polygamy]… that is, us young girls did, for I was a young girl then, and we talked a good deal about it, and some of us did not like it much.” Many other quotes could be recruited.
In my writings, I DO NOT defend polygamy. It is sexist and unfair. As observed by BWV549, it is unethical in many ways and in my opinion always will be for mortals. It is essentially impossible to practice it in the western world without being accused of unethical conduct.
JS was not perfect. D&C 132:56 admonishes Emma to forgive him for his trespasses. In my writings I DO defend Joseph Smith as an imperfect but worthy prophet.
Zina Huntington was according to her brothers, sealed to JS “for eternity” in a nonsexual sealing. Her legal husband remained true to JS as did she.
I believe Emma learned about time-and-eternity sealings (with sexuality) in the spring of 1843. She and Oliver Cowdery plainly believed the Fanny Alger relationship was adultery. However, the people Fanny told about the union considered it a plural marriage. The historical record contains contradictory evidences.
Since Lucy Walker’s father was away on a mission, the Prophet approached her brother, William Holmes Walker before proposing. William remembered that in the early 1840s, he rode to Nauvoo to visit his ailing mother: “In the spring of 1843, my father, being away on a mission, the Prophet asked my consent, for my sister Lucy in Marriage. I replied that if it was her choice: that if she entered into the Celestial order of marriage of her own free will and choice, I had no objection.”
While observers today may claim JS victimized Helen Mar Kimball, Lucy Walker, the Partridges, or other of his plural wives, their later statements indicate they would strongly disagree because they all continued to defend in his prophetic role. Perhaps observers today are more discerning, but I don’t think so.
Thank you for the thoughtful response, Brian. I respect your contributions to LDS scholarship, and, I think that in pursuit of truth the faithful perspective should be vigorously defended, and you’ve done an excellent job of defending that narrative given the available data.
I concede the point that the women who engaged in polygamy with JS viewed it as a religious practice. Minor pushback: Polygamy was viewed unfavorably by society at large, so leaving the institution and then calling attention to the fact that a person had engaged in polygamy would not have necessarily seemed wise, even if they had wanted to criticize the practice. Still, the point stands.
JCB’s fingerprints are all over the affidavit.
What, in Brotherton’s affidavit do you believe was influenced by Bennett? What aspects of her affidavit do you believe may be inaccurate? More importantly, do those innacuracies undermine the primary claim of the affidavit (i.e., she was propositioned by BY with the help of JS and told to keep it secret)? What prevented LDS leadership from correcting the inaccuracies specifically, rather than throwing Brotherton under the bus completely? Aren’t LDS priesthood leaders expected to reprove with sharpness (aka “precision”) per D&C 121.
it came months later after JCB helped her write the affidavit and publish it.
Joseph Smith and Hyrum both discredited Martha in GC (April, I think) before her affidavit was published (August, if I remember correctly). It was after rumors had spread, so this is a point of minor clarification. Your main point stands: the data suggest that women were not discredited publicly until their story became public.
Finally, are you okay that women were libelled by early LDS leaders for publicly sharing that they were propositioned? From Martha’s standpoint, she was clearly standing for truth and to be a voice of warning (i.e., “LDS leaders say they aren’t practicing polygamy, but they are! Beware.”).
I concede this point, although, in general, I have no interest in trying to defend Bennett’s claims (too many inaccuracies and wild exaggerations). I will note that a deeper examination of these spurned proposals hardly redeems the character of Joseph Smith (see Defending the Expositor part 2) and another analysis of the consequences women faced when attempting to reject a proposal is worth consideration (Defending the Expositor part 1).
As in the case of Brotherton and also Sarah Pratt (and to a lesser extent Jane Law), JS aggressively defended himself, which included attacking claims he considered to be untrue (please see my trilogy vol. 1-2 for more discussion).
I am happy to engage with any documentation that is publicly available. I’ve read most everything you have posted online and have spent a while digging in mormonpolygamydocuments, so I am comfortable suggesting that you have not directly addressed these problems yet:
- Joseph Smith’s conference talk denouncing Brotherton constitutes a lie (two claims were discussed, one likely an exaggeration and one of them was absolutely true; Joseph denounced the claims in totality and besmirched Brotherton in doing so).
- Joseph Smith encouraged the spreading of the affidavits against Bennett. These included multiple lies against Martha Brotherton’s statement, and Joseph Smith would have known those statements were false and misleading.
I maintain if these women had stayed silent, JS would have stayed silent too.
Do you believe that a woman deserves to be publicly called a liar if they accurately report a private proposition in order to shed light on a system of dishonesty (e.g., they say they aren’t doing polygamy but they are)? Even if they felt compelled by the circumstances initiated by the propositioner to promise that they would keep the proposition a secret?
Noted and agree.
Zina Huntington was according to her brothers, sealed to JS “for eternity” in a nonsexual sealing. Her legal husband remained true to JS as did she.
What impact did this sealing have on the relationship between Zina and Henry Jacobs? To whom will Zina’s children (2 from Henry and one from BY) belong in the eternities? What moral goods were brought about as a result of this sealing? What moral harms were experienced?
Perhaps more importantly, the pattern of sealings in the first 2 years (of which Zina was a part) could hardly be characterized as promoting anything other than plural marriage itself. See primary focus of early sealing ceremonies
So, in its first 2 years, the “sealing” was not focused on linking families together, but linking polygamous wives to priesthood leaders. (This changed in the spring of 1843, perhaps related to when PPP was introduced to the practice)
I’m aware that permission was granted by the older brother. I don’t think brotherly permission fully exculpates JS in his duties as foster parent. It’s hard to imagine anyone objectively analyzing JS’s conduct in this case and agreeing that this arrangement was in Lucy’s best interest (even if polygamy were a true principle). Again, the feelings Lucy had upon receiving this proposal are a good indicator of how ethically problematic this proposal was in its structure. JS may have executed it as a perfect gentleman, but it was the proposal itself, under those circumstances, that makes it ethically problematic.
Also, was JS equally concerned that the Walker brothers receive their sealing? [I researched this later. The answer is “no”, it does not appear that Joseph Smith was concerned about sealings for William Holmes Walker, at least]
This is a great point in defense of polygamy and JS. And, while I think it will hold much water for believing members, I think it does not go far enough because:
A) statements of these women about their initial experience, thoughts, and feelings are more germane to the question of undue influence than later acceptance of the practice. To restate, undue influence is more about power dynamics and the manner in which decisions are presented to participants hence statements detailing the proposition experience itself are more relevant than later statements showing support of polygamy (I concede these are still relevant, just less so, IMO).
B) We can point to other groups whose adherents fully bought into an ethically problematic system (e.g., scientology, heaven’s gate, Jonestown, Branch Davidians, FLDS, etc). Adherent acceptance of a practice does not necessarily mean it was ethical.
Thank you again for the discussion and for considering these points.
[Brian Hales did not respond to my response.]
[Transcript of Smoot’s original article]
“Believing Women” Includes Believing Joseph Smith’s Plural Wives
The recent news concerning Joseph L. Bishop, the former president of the Provo Missionary Training Center (1983–1986) who admitted to sexual misconduct with one sister missionary and is accused of attempted rape of another, has rightly outraged many. So “serious and deeply disturbing” are the allegations that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints issued an official statement addressing the matter. If in fact Bishop is guilty of what he is accused of (and there is more than just incidental evidence pointing to serious misconduct on his part), then he should be held accountable before a Church disciplinary council. (Due to the statute of limitations in this case, Bishop appears to be unaccountable before the law.)
One of the points many have raised in this case (and many others like it in the growing #MeToo movement) is how important it is to “believe women,” which means essentially “to discard the reflexive disbelief of those who complain — simply because they are women. ‘Believe women’ seeks presumption of innocence from ulterior motives.” Certainly one should not dismiss claims of sexual assault or other crimes just because they are coming from a woman. Nor should one be callous or needlessly skeptical if a woman comes forward with serious allegations just because she’s a woman. At the same time, however, due process for the accused is crucial in order to maintain the integrity of law enforcement and the judiciary. In cases of alleged rape or other forms of sexual violence where emotions understandably run high, it can at times be a very delicate balancing act in impartially dispensing justice based on cold hard evidence and reliable testimony while also attending to the emotional needs of the victim.
That all being said, ex- and otherwise disaffected Mormons with an axe to grind against the LDS Church have been quick to enlist the otherwise sensible “believe women” maxim for their own polemical gains. For instance, in response to the Church’s official statement on this sad affair, which factually related the detail that Bishop’s and his accuser’s accounts conflict with each other, a blogger at Feminist Mormon Housewives thunders: “How dare you signal that [the victim] is not reliable, that because her story differs from the story of her abuser, despite the existence of a tape where he confirms his misdeeds, it’s too complicated for you to figure out and is ‘out of your hands’.” Gina Colvin, another blogger who appears to never miss an opportunity to be critical of LDS Church leaders, insists that “the force and clarity of [Bishop’s] admission have nothing to do with the character or stability of the woman in question. Mormons,” she warns, “don’t you dare spin this to get another sexually abusive religious leader off the hook by making her wear the guilt for what he did.” John Dehlin, an excommunicate who has made himself a name by systematically attempting to undermine peoples’ faith in Mormonism through his podcasting, bemoans that the “victim is now being attacked via the [LDS] church’s PR machine,” by which he means the Deseret News because journalist Tad Walch reported the defence offered by Bishop’s son Greg on his father’s behalf.
In short, many of the Church’s online critics are upset because the Church and its members are (in their view, at least) blaming Bishop’s female victim and denying her any good faith or credit. The Church is guilty of enabling and defending sexual abusers by not believing women such as Bishop’s accuser when they come forward. All of this, of course, plays very well into their larger narrative that the LDS Church is irredeemably abusive, toxic, demeaning, oppressive, and degrading towards women. For these and other antagonists, the LDS Church’s misogyny and exploitation of women begins with Joseph Smith himself. Thus the righteously vindictive ex-Mormon bloggers at Zelph on the Shelf, who in an impressively fact-challenged and condescending “message to Mormons” inform their benighted Latter-day Saint readers that “Joseph Bishop preyed on a vulnerable sexual assault victim who he had authority over and told her nobody would believe her if she told. Joseph Smith preyed on vulnerable girls as young as 12 and told them the salvation of their whole families depended on them marrying him.” They insist that “sexism . . . [has] run rampant throughout [LDS Church] history and still [does].”
Since Zelph on the Shelf brings it up, I think it’s worth taking a quick look at what Joseph Smith’s wives actually had to say about their experience with plural marriage. For this exercise I am going to focus on surviving firsthand statements and testimony given by the wives themselves. Remember, it is of paramount importance to “believe women” when they retell incidents and details about their personal lives. So if we follow how disaffected ex-Mormons have appropriated this principle of “believe women,” then pursuant to the parameters they themselves have established, the following testimonies are beyond dispute, and disbelieving them or otherwise scrutinizing them is nothing less than misogynistic oppression.
Eliza R. Snow is one of Joseph Smith’s more prominent plural wives, given her impressive legacy and contributions to Mormon history. Towards the end of her life she reflected, “Plurality of wives is a great trial. If you want to sit in the courts of heaven, honor polygamy. Don’t suffer your lips to say ought even if you do not believe in it. When I entered it I had no anticipation of ever being acknowledged as a lawful wife. I believed in it because I felt the work was true and I longed to see a prophet. I feel proud that I ever embraced it” (spelling and grammar standardized).
Mary Elizabeth Rollins reported in multiple, lengthy autobiographical sketches that she was visited by an angel as she anguished through a faith crisis when confronted with a proposal by Joseph Smith to enter plural marriage. This visitation and her witnessing other proofs of Joseph’s prophetic ability convinced her to become a plural wife. At the close of her life she recounted additional visitations which reaffirmed her faith: “I want to say to you as I said before that Joseph said if I was faithful, I should see greater things than the angel. Since then I have seen other persons, three came together and stood before me just as the sun went down — Joseph, Hyrum and Heber C. Kimball. It was prophesied that I should see Joseph before I died. . . . It gave me more courage and hope than I ever had before.”
Helen Mar Kimball was fourteen years old when she was sealed to Joseph Smith. (As of yet there is no evidence that their sealing involved sexual behaviour.) One of Helen’s great trials in being sealed to the Prophet at such a young age was her effectively being deprived of a typical romantic and social life for a young woman. Despite her trial of faith, however, Helen would go on to be a fierce advocate for plural marriage, publishing at least two book-length defences of such. In her 1884 volume Why We Practice Plural Marriage, Helen urged polygamist Church members to withstand “the fierce prejudice and old, stereotyped opinions of those who are either too narrow-minded to receive any more or afraid to follow even their honest convictions for fear of the public lash.” She acknowledged that practicing polygamy for her and others “required courage, and a great amount of it, too, to stand and contend against the prejudices and customs of the age,” but nevertheless roused her readers with reassurance of a “courageous and daring spirit that possesses those who will take upon themselves this cross, and endure all that is put upon them, to be numbered with the ones who are so highly honored by the Almighty” (p. 53).
Zina Diantha Huntington was sealed to Joseph Smith in 1841. As with other early Mormon polygamists, accepting plural marriage was a trial of faith for her. She once penned that practicing polygamy was “a greater sacrifice than to give my life for I never anticipated again to be looked upon as an honorable woman” (spelling and grammar standardized). Although her faith was tried, in 1895 she affirmed, “I received a testimony for myself from the Lord of this work, and that Joseph Smith was a Prophet of God before I ever saw him, while I resided in the state of New York, given in answer to prayer. I knew him in his lifetime, and know him to have been a great, true man, and a servant of God. . . . I wish to bear my testimony to the principle of celestial marriage, that it is true.”
Presendia Lathrop Huntington joined her sister Zina in plural marriage in 1841. One contemporary remembered her for being “familiarly associated with the Prophet and his teachings.” According to this source, “She knew Joseph to be a man of God, and she had received many manifestations in proof of this.” This is confirmed by Presendia’s own testimony, such as her 1880 letter to fellow plural wife Mary Elizabeth Rollins wherein she expressed longing for a celestial reunion with her husband and family. “Won’t it be a happy time for us if we can gain the place where Joseph and our loved ones mingle?” She died never “hav[ing] doubted the truth of this great work, revealed in these, the last days.”
Emily Dow Partridge “has one of the best documented of all of Joseph Smith’s plural marriages.” The documentary record for Emily includes an articulate 1899 letter in which she revealed her most personal feelings about her experience practicing polygamy. “Did Joseph Smith, the Prophet claim to have a revelation on polygamy, or plural marriage? … It is a positive fact that he did so claim, and teach, and also practice. I am a living witness of the same. With me it is neither guess work on or hearsay. I had it from his own mouth. To us, it was the word of the Lord. I accepted the pure and sacred principle, and was married, or sealed, to him, as his wife, for time and all eternity.”
Lucy Walker was not only another plural wife to Joseph Smith but also left valuable recollections “of several declarations of Joseph Smith regarding plural marriage.” When she wasn’t reporting others’ views on polygamy, she was leaving her own, such as this statement made in 1905: “When the Prophet Joseph Smith first mentioned the principle of plural marriage to me I felt indignant and so expressed myself to him, because my feelings and education were averse to anything [of that] nature. But he assured me that this doctrine had been revealed to him of the Lord, and that I was entitled to receive a testimony of its divine origin for myself. He counselled me to pray to the Lord, which I did, and thereupon received from him a powerful and irresistible testimony of the truthfulness and divinity of plural marriage, which testimony has abided with me ever since.”
Looking at the collective testimonies of these and other women, one source observes that “although most of the wives left no written record” of their experience with Joseph Smith, “the historical record is [nevertheless] striking for the lack of criticism found among those who had once been Joseph Smith’s plural wives.” This includes the fourteen women who were sealed to Joseph Smith while legally married to a living husband. “No credible accounts from any of the fourteen wives exist wherein they complained about it, even though many complaints about polygamy [in general] are recorded.” These women gave clear, succinct testimony concerning their experiences with Joseph Smith and plural marriage. A number of these women, in fact, reported divine encounters which prompted them to accept his difficult proposal for a plural union. Yes, it was a major trial for them (as it was for Joseph’s first wife Emma). Yes, some rejected Joseph Smith’s proposals. Yes, there remains uncertainty and doubt about the precise nature of some of these women’s relationship with Joseph Smith. Yes, there are completely understandable feelings of unease that linger even a century after the abandonment of plural marriage. But “to assume that Joseph Smith could have callously transgressed his own teachings without disillusioning followers like Brigham Young, John Taylor, Eliza R. Snow, Zina Huntington, and many others is problematic. Most of Joseph’s closest followers were too perceptive to be bamboozled and too religious to become accomplices in a deliberate deception.”1
So for any ex-Mormon to ignore or brush aside these women’s testimonies; to accuse these women of being gullible, manipulatable, or impressionable; to say they were duped by a conniving sexual predator, being too stupid to realize they were being taken in; to deny them their privilege to tell their own story; to invalidate their experience; to silence their voices; to reduce their faith to psychosis or superstition; to scoff at their sincere religious convictions; to posthumously gaslight these strong women by recasting them as little more than helpless victims; to caricature them as being paralyzed by cognitive dissonance; to dispute their intelligence; to besmirch their moral fortitude; to be dogmatically skeptical of their sincerity; or to negate their agency and identity as autonomous women (sexually and otherwise) is to commit gross violence to factual history and is the absolute pinnacle of hypocrisy.
If Gina Colvin and John Dehlin and Zelph on the Shelf want us to “believe women,” or “discard reflexive disbelief” and “seek presumption of innocence from ulterior motives,” that must include believing the intelligent, strong women who made great sacrifices and demonstrated great faith by practicing plural marriage. That must include believing their testimonies concerning Joseph Smith and the religion in which they made their lifelong spiritual home. Otherwise, these professed moral gatekeepers and adversaries of the oppressive patriarchy are guilty of perpetuating precisely the same sexist misogyny they feign to loathe.
(table) (for JTP copy, see images/Chap-33-Table-3.jpg)
- Brian C. Hales, Joseph Smith’s Polygamy: History and Theology (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2013), 390.