“I had not been married scarcely five minutes, and made one proclamation of the Gospel, before it was reported that I had seven wives.”
—Joseph Smith (LDS History of the Church 6:411 , 26 May 1844 )
173 years ago today, Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum were murdered in captivity. It doesn’t really feel like something that should be celebrated, but it’s quite curious the amount of discussion regarding Joseph’s alleged polygamy that I’ve seen on facebook over the last few days. Normally, one wouldn’t associate his murder with the practice of polygamy, but there were enough accusations going on at the time regarding a behavior that Joseph adamantly denied, it’s not easily dismissed. For those that don’t have roots tied to the LDS church, polygamy probably doesn’t mean much, but for those of us that belong a church founded by Joseph Smith, and succeeded by Brigham Young, polygamy is a big part of our history.
There is so much that I have NOT read about polygamy as practiced by the LDS church into the 1900s, so my thoughts and conclusions are somewhat fluid. I will say though, given the implications of the practice and the history put forth, I’m not all that comfortable with the available conclusions to be drawn.
Possibility #1: Joseph Smith practiced polygamy (as we currently understand the definition of the word).
If this is the case, as the LDS church has claimed, then Joseph spent his entire life lying about being engaged in the practice. If you weren’t aware, Joseph denied ever taking more than 1 wife, and reiterated this claim all the way up to a month before he was murdered. If he practiced it, then he was lied on many occasions about not practicing it. Lying for the Lord? Is that a thing? If he did take more than 1 wife, we get to grapple with the idea that he had dozens of wives, one as young as 14 years old, and taking others men’s wives as his own (a practice called polyandry).
“What a thing it is for a man to be accused of committing adultery, and having seven wives, when I can only find one. I am the same man, and as innocent as I was fourteen years ago; and I can prove them all perjurers.
—Joseph Smith (LDS History of the Church 6:411, May 26, 1844 ) Spoken just 1 month before he was killed
Possibility #2: Joseph didn’t practice polygamy. His claims to having only 1 wife, Emma, throughout his life would be true, and others that followed after his death were not honest in their accounts. If he didn’t practice it, then many lied, including those closest to him. If he didn’t practice it, documents, journals, and spoken accounts were edited and doctored after Joseph died (yes there is evidence of this).
In either of these 2 possibilities, someone or multiple someones lied. This cannot be denied. And, at least one of these persons was a past president of the LDS church.
Though I haven’t read all the accounts and evidence, I’m inclined to think that something entirely different was going on. I don’t think he was collecting wives. I don’t believe he was marrying girls and other men’s wives. I think there was something bigger and more fantastic going on. Something we don’t really address or even understand. This certainly flies in the face of the traditional narrative put forth since Joseph’s death, and I readily acknowledge the difficulty of not only trying to prove this, but also really even adopting this as a legitimate view. But, there’s something in me though, that isn’t ready to convict the man as a liar and a creep. The history is just too suspect.
edit: I’m posting a link to a paper I think is one of the better documents I’ve read that questions the traditional narrative in favor of Joseph only being married to Emma. Not a smoking gun, but compelling nonetheless. I did not write it.