The dominant scholarly position1 is that Joseph Smith was married/sealed to between 30 and 40 women. While many of his plural wives gave first-hand accounts that they had sexual relations with Joseph Smith, scholars debate whether sexual relations extended to wives who were already married to other husbands and the youngest teenagers (particularly 14 year old Helen Mar Kimball). Regardless, since Joseph had many children with Emma, the question naturally arises: if Joseph Smith was practicing polygamy with so many women and sexual relations were part of some or all of them, why did Joseph not produce offspring with these other women?
Below are possible solutions to the above stated problem. Given that the practice of polygamy in the early LDS Church was extremely secretive and participants were likely highly motivated to conceal evidence of sexual relations, it is unlikely that a single solution will ever be well-corroborated, but individually or collectively the following provide plausible reasons for the discrepancy between progeny with Emma and lack of progeny with other wives/sealants.
Joseph may not have engaged in sexual relations with some of his wives.
While this is hotly contested among scholars of Mormonism, Brian Hales suggests that unions for “eternity alone” (e.g., with the youngest Helen Mar Kimball and relationships with women who were already legally married to other husbands) may not have included a sexual component.
The pattern of conception of Joseph’s children with Emma suggests his ability to control impregnation generally.
Joseph had eight children with Emma. D. Michael Quinn points out in Early Mormonism and the Magic World View that “all of Smith’s children were conceived in either February or September” corresponding to what Quinn suggests was a belief that in these months sexual generation was governed by Smith’s ruling planet Jupiter.2
His apparent ability to control the month of conception for all eight children with his first wife Emma suggests that he was capable of controlling impregnation generally.3
Joseph was likely not having much sex with his plural wives in comparison to Emma.
- Some of his wives were kicked out of his home by Emma (Fanny Alger, Eliza Partridge, Emily Partridge) thus likely terminating any potential sexual relationships with these women.
- Emma was a limiting factor in access to Joseph (Emily Partridge stated: “Emma knew that we were married to him, but she never allowed us to live with him” and the letter to Sarah Ann Whitney: “the only thing to be careful of; is to find out when Emma [Smith] comes then you cannot be safe, but when she is not here, there is the most perfect safty”)
- Since polygamy was not widely acknowledged, Joseph had to keep liasons secretive in general, and this was described as difficult (e.g., Sarah Ann Whitney letter: “only be careful to escape observation, as much as possible”)
- Emily Partridge testified that she slept in the same bed with Joseph “Only one night” although her testimony seems to indicate sexual intercourse on some other occasions.
An examination of his marriage timeline suggests that, at times, he was marrying one or more new plural wives every few weeks. It is difficult to imagine anyone having sustained sexual relationships with any given wife under such circumstances.
Brian Hales wrote:
An important consideration is the phenomenon of diminishing returns. After a certain point, the addition of new plural wives did not necessarily increase Joseph’s opportunity for additional sexual encounters with each plural wife. Such a dynamic would, inevitably, have curtailed chances for conception on the part of his plural wives.
Various birth control methods, including withdrawal, may have been used.
Abortion was somewhat common in that era and surgical abortion not illegal in Illinois at the time. A known practitioner of abortion was in Joseph Smith’s close inner circle in Nauvoo for some time.
Lauren MacIvor Thompson summarized the data on abortion in that era:
Abortions were also readily included in the universe of Civil War era birth control. Though the practice was never without controversy, abortion was legal in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries until the moment of “quickening,” when the pregnant woman could feel fetal movement. While exact statistics are difficult to calculate, we do know that abortion rates rose steadily between 1830-1860, to one in five pregnancies. The most common means included the women’s ingestion of abortifacient drugs, as well as abortions performed with surgical instruments by trained practitioners (who weren’t always physicians).
Illinois was the first state to criminalize prequickening abortion in 1827, but this statue only outlawed “potional” (injesting substances) abortion (see pg 1784 of Criminal Abortion Revisited by Samuel Buell).
Smith may have used John C. Bennett’s services or he or someone in Nauvoo perhaps learned to perform abortions from him (see Hale’s LDS apologetic/scholarly perspective here). According to Hyrum Smith’s affidavit, several females testified under oath that “he would give them medicine to produce abortions, providing they should become pregnant.” Sarah Pratt claimed Bennett practiced abortion on some of Joseph Smith’s plural wives, but most LDS scholars discount her testimony due to possible exaggeration and inconsistencies in it. It is important to note that Bennett was only around Joseph Smith for some of the time he was engaged in plural marriage, but as explained above, abortions were not always conducted by physicians, and it’s possible Bennett trained others in the practice before his departure.
Some LDS scholars also discount the abortion hypothesis because, they say, it would make Joseph look hypocritical since he taught that celestial marriage was for the purpose of raising up seed. However, given his sealing to a 7 month pregnant woman, Zina Diantha Huntington Jacobs, it is reasonable to suggest that raising up seed was not always an immediate concern in his practice of polygamy.
All possible descendants have not yet been tested for paternity.
Ugo Perego, the main geneticist responsible for testing Joseph Smith’s progeny,4 in a private communication in 2022 answered my question “Has every possible candidate for a Joseph Smith descendant been tested for paternity yet?”:
“Hi. Not all the potential candidates have been tested. Some died in infancy and we don’t know where they are buried. I tested the one Don Bradley is talking about and it was negative as well. So, the true answer is that out of all those that I was able to test, they were all negative. …”
For the polyandrous unions, Joseph may have been competing for fertilization with an existing married partner
For some of Smith’s polyandrous marriages, the paternity of his children was unclear to the mother. For instance, Sylvia Sessions told her daughter Josephine that she was sired by Joseph Smith, but it turns out she was not fathered by Smith. This strongly indicates that Sessions was sleeping with Smith and her legal husband in close temporal proximity.
For the polyandrous unions, if a woman is already pregnant, then she cannot become pregnant again.
For instance, Zina Huntington Jacobs was 7 months pregnant when she was sealed to Joseph Smith. If they consummated their sealing at that time, then she could not have become pregnant.
Until/unless progeny via a polygamous reliationship is discovered, it is difficult to know with absolute certainty that Joseph Smith was having sex with anyone except Emma. Still, as discussed above, a variety of possibilities exist to help potentially account for Joseph Smith not impregnating his plural wives. Regardless of direct DNA evidence from progeny, significant first-hand testimony exists that Joseph did have sex with many of his wives. In addition, other early practioners of polygamy—who were introduced to the practice by Joseph Smith—were impregnating their wives (e.g., Brigham Young), so we have good reason to believe that Joseph’s polygamy was not practiced in radically different terms (i.e., completely asexual).
The dominant scholarly position is that Joseph Smith was married/sealed to at least 33 women. The position is acknowledged in the LDS Church’s essay Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo which includes a footnote to Brian Hales’ work and notes “Careful estimates put the number between 30 and 40.” Besides Brian Hales, other scholars who conclude that Smith was married/sealed to upwards of 30 women include Todd Compton and George D. Smith. Despite broad scholarly consensus, some have argued that Joseph Smith did not practice polygamy. See this footnote in my short compilation of Contemporary evidence that Joseph Smith practiced polygamy for examples of the arguments advanced. ↩
In a facebook communication, Blake Ostler expressed skepticism in Quinn’s analysis: “Michael Quinn needs to look again at conception dates again. Moreover, he failed to account for premature births - -check it out.” I have not yet re-analyzed Quinn’s assessment. ↩
See Ugo Perego’s 2019 article Resolving a 150-year-old paternity case in Mormon history using DTC autosomal DNA testing of distant relatives. ↩