What Do We Know About Mormon Leader Joseph Smith's Wives?

11/26/2014 11:41 am ET | Updated Nov 26, 2014
Stephen Saks via Getty Images

After officially acknowledging earlier this month that founder Joseph Smith had multiple wives, some of them as young as 14, officials at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are now facing two important questions.

Who were these women, and what are their stories?

Smith was already married when he began to set his sights on other women. His first wife, Emma, had wed the handsome, charismatic religious leader in 1827 with the firm belief that it would be a traditional relationship. Emma suffered multiple miscarriages during her life and lost several children after they were born. When her husband began to practice polygamy, she may have felt like something of a failure, according to Jana Riess, a Mormon blogger for Religion News Service.

"Imagine what it would have felt like to be her, and see her husband apparently abandoning her to be with others who might be able to bear him children," said Riess.

Church officials could not provide The Huffington Post with a comprehensive list of Smith's wives. But historians have been able to learn quite a lot about the women by piecing together information from diaries and family histories.

The church’s public affairs department directed HuffPost to Todd Compton, a Mormon researcher whose 1997 book In Sacred Loneliness compiles a list of 33 well-documented wives of Joseph Smith -- although the total number is likely as high as 40.

Emma was allegedly disturbed by the doctrine on polygamy, which Joseph claims he received through divine revelation. Her stance put the prophet in the position of having to choose between God’s will and his wife’s. As Joseph would later tell it, it wasn’t until an angel appeared to him, brandishing a sword and threatening destruction, that the prophet finally agreed to obey the commandment fully.

Being married to the founder of the LDS church was considered a tremendous honor during the early days of Mormonism. Members believed that civil marriages conducted on earth were only “for a time” and would not continue after death. By contrast, temple marriages performed by the priesthood were “sealed” for all eternity.

Many of Smith’s wives may have been willing participants, Compton told The Huffington Post. Some were romantically smitten, while others were attracted by Smith’s intellect. Some women may have wanted to give their own families a better chance at salvation by establishing a link to Smith for eternity. But the question of consent among Smith’s teenage wives is more problematic -- even though it was common for women to marry young during that period in American history.

The majority of Smith’s wives -- 11 out of the 33 documented by Compton -- were between the ages of 14 and 20 when they wed the prophet. About 55 percent were single at the time of marriage and were not allowed to enter civil marriages until Joseph Smith’s death. Another 33 percent were already in civil marriages to other men when they were sealed to the prophet. Although he may not have been intimate with his youngest bride or with the older ones, studies indicate that Smith had sex with at least some of his plural wives.

Today, most LDS authorities attempt to ascribe heavenly motivations for Smith’s polygamy. Critics, on the other hand, say he practiced polygamy for purely sexual purposes.

Riess suggests that Smith’s behavior most likely had elements of both -- that it was a mixture of the sacred and the profane.

“It’s important to understand the significance of what he was trying to do,” Riess told HuffPost. “He was linking the whole human family, from the time of Adam and Eve to the present [...] to link all people together in a kinship network that would go beyond the grave.”

The news about Smith reportedly came as no surprise to many women within the American LDS church. But, Riess said, they were troubled by Smith’s relationships with young and married woman.

The “devil was in the details,” she said.

joseph smith mormon
Joseph Smith.

An official LDS website says that Smith’s plural wives "risked reputation and self-respect" for being involved in a practice that was so foreign to American culture at the time.

"As Church members," LDS spokeswoman Kristen Howey told HuffPost in an email, "we have great respect for the devotion of early Church members, who often made significant sacrifices for the gospel they loved."

Riess says it’s time for the church to give Joseph Smith’s wives a name and a voice.

“It’s very important to have these conversations and recover these women from history,” Riess told HuffPost. “Some of these women were obscure because they wanted to be obscure, but some were obscured because they were de-emphasized by the church.”

Compton also hopes that Mormons will begin to honor these women as heroes -- in church museums, church magazines and reports by conservative scholars.

“If Joseph Smith married these women, they are part of his life. They shouldn’t just be ignored because they are plural wives,” Compton told HuffPost. “We should honor that polygamous background in our history and in Joseph Smith’s history.”

1. Emma Smith
joseph smith wives

Emma Smith married Joseph on Jan. 18, 1827. She was 22 years old, swept up in love, and decided to tie the knot without receiving her father's permission. Emma moved to Manchester, New York to start a new life with Joseph and his parents. She followed Joseph as he journeyed west to find a safe place to practice Mormonism, and suffered alongside him as they were persecuted by critics.

Joseph's polygamy was an “excruciating ordeal” for Emma, according to the church. Although she initially gave him the go-ahead to pursue multiple marriages, she soon realized that her husband's actions were too painful for her to bear. She spoke out against the practice often, using the women's arm of the church, the Relief Society, to try to dispel rumors of her husband's polygamy. She was highly sensitive whenever Joseph began paying attention to younger women, Compton suggests, although the prophet tried hard to hide the relationships from her.

Subsequent generations of Mormons would paint Emma Smith as a disobedient figure. But today, she is remembered as a leading figure in the church's history. Riess said she hopes the recent acknowledgement of Joseph's polygamy will lead to greater appreciation of Emma.

“If anything comes out of this, I hope it is that Mormons have more compassion and love for Emma Smith and all that she suffered,” said Riess. “She was doing the best she could under terrible circumstances.”

2. Fanny Alger, age 16, single
Scholars disagree about whether Smith's relationship with Fanny Alger was a marriage or merely an affair. However, the LDS church cites Fanny as Smith's first plural wife, noting that the pair married in Kirtland, Ohio in the mid-1830s, when Smith would have been about 30 himself. Fanny lived in the Smiths' house with Emma, which caused much tension. Compton says that Emma eventually turned Fanny out of the house in the middle of the night. Fanny later married Solomon Custer, who was not a member of the LDS church.

3. Lucinda Pendleton, around age 37, married
Pendleton was married to a man named George Washington Harris and living in Missouri when Joseph and Emma Smith moved into the settlement. The Smiths stayed with the Harrises for about two months, and Compton writes that the marriage may have taken place at that time.

4. Louisa Beaman, age 26, single
Beaman came from a family of early converts to Mormonism. Smith married Beaman on April 5, 1841, after being interested in her for several years. She was reportedly disguised as a man during the secretive ceremony. Joseph Bates Noble, an early convert who conducted the marriage, testified later that the pair spent a night together following the wedding. After Smith's death, Beaman married the Mormon leader Brigham Young.

5. Zina Diantha Huntington, age 20, married
Huntington was married to an LDS member named Henry Jacobs. It was initially difficult for her to come to terms with the teaching on polygamy.

“I made a greater sacrifice than to give my life,” she said, “for I never anticipated again to be looked upon as an honorable woman.”

But she later came to accept the practice.

“I searched the scripture & by humble prayer to my Heavenly Father I obtained a testimony for myself,” she wrote.

She later left Jacobs to become one of Young's plural wives.

Huntington spent 21 years traveling throughout Utah to form Relief Societies, or Mormon Women’s Fellowships. She eventually became the third general president of the organization.

nauvoo
Illustration showing Mormons traveling on foot, horseback and wagon after they were driven out of Nauvoo, Illinois, 1846. They are shown crossing the ice of the Mississippi River.

6. Prescendia Lathrop Huntington, age 31, married
Prescendia was introduced to Mormonism by Zina, her younger sister. She shared Zina's charisma and reportedly had a gift for speaking in tongues. According to Emmeline Wells, the fifth president of the Relief Society, Prescendia willingly entered into marriage with Smith in 1841.

"She knew Joseph to be a man of God," Wells wrote, according to Compton's book. She accepted the marriage as a "sacred and holy confirmation."

Prescendia later left her husband to become a plural wife to another early Mormon leader.

7. Agnes Moulton Coolbrith, age 33, widowed
Smith married Coolbirth because she was a widow of his own brother -- a practice that Smith believed was part of the restoration of Biblical times. She later left the heavily Mormon community of Nauvoo, Illinois and resettled in Los Angeles.

8 & 9. Sylvia Sessions, age 23, married, and Patty Bartlett, age 47, married
Bartlett and Sessions were a mother-daughter pair who were both sealed to Joseph Smith. They were known for giving charity to the needy. Bartlett was renowned for her skills as a midwife and is said to have delivered nearly 4,000 babies in her lifetime. Sessions later claimed that Smith was the father of her daughter, whom she named Josephine.

10. Mary Elizabeth Rollins, age 23, married
Rollins met Joseph Smith as a young teenager, years before their sealing. The first time she saw him, she wrote about how blue his eyes appeared and how intently he looked at her before giving her a blessing. Mary continued to dream about becoming his wife, until Smith officially proposed to her in 1842. She was hesitant at first, since she already had a husband, but decided to go forward with the marriage after receiving a vision. Although her first husband was not a member of the LDS church, Mary never left him.

11. Marinda Nancy Johnson, age 27, married
Marinda first met Joseph when she was just 15. They were sealed years later -- reportedly while her first husband, Orson Hyde, was away on a religious mission.

12. Elizabeth Davis, age 50-51, married
As a senior wife, Davis helped Smith court and communicate with other plural wives. She was an important part of the Relief Society and a close friend of Emma Smith.

13. Sarah Kingsley, age 53-54, married
Emma Smith chose Kingsley as the first counselor of the Relief Society. She was known as a devout woman and an excellent public speaker. After her sealing to Joseph, she continued to live with her non-Mormon husband John Cleveland.

14 & 15. Delcena Johnson, age 37-38, widowed, and Almera Woodard Johnson, age 30, single
Delcena and Almera were sisters who were both sealed to Smith. Delcena was the widow of a close follower of the prophet. Smith used their brother Benjamin as an intermediary to introduce Almera to the idea of becoming a plural wife. Benjamin's writings tell of at least two times that Almera and the prophet shared a room.

16. Eliza Snow, age 38, single
As the second general president of the Relief Society, Snow traveled throughout Utah Territory to spread the LDS message. She also introduced younger women to the practice of polygamy, Compton writes. She was a highly educated woman and a poet, who by the time of her death had written about 500 poems. Some can be found in today’s LDS church hymnal.

Snow was baptized into the faith in 1835 and moved to Kirtland, Ohio, to work with Joseph Smith.

“During this time she developed a deep love for the Prophet and a fervent testimony of his divine calling. She was sealed to the Prophet on June 29, 1842,” the LDS church tells us.

After Smith’s death, Eliza became a plural wife of Brigham Young.

nauvoo
Illustration showing the exterior of the Mormon Temple at Nauvoo, Illinois, 1846.

17. Sarah Ann Whitney, age 17, single
Sarah's parents were at first unwilling to allow their daughter to enter a plural marriage, but relented after they received a vision that promised great blessings. Smith later instructed Sarah to civilly marry another man "for a time" in order to hide the polygamous marriage.

18. Martha McBride, age 37, widowed
McBride was the widow of a close follower of Smith's. After the prophet's death, Martha kept a locket of his hair with her throughout her life.

19. Ruth Vose, age 33, married
Vose was known for her generosity and charity, Compton writes. She married Smith in 1843, but continued to live with her first husband.

20. Flora Ann Woodworth, age 16, single
Flora was one of Smith's younger wives. The sealing likely occurred without Emma's consent, Compton reports, and it may have happened on the same day he married Emily Partridge.

21 & 22. Emily Dow Partridge, age 19, single, and Eliza Maria Partridge, age 22, single
Emily and Eliza were sisters who worked as live-in maids in Joseph Smith’s house before the prophet proposed to them, according to Compton. The younger sister, Emily, reportedly revealed that she had “roomed” with the prophet the night after the marriage and admitted that she had had “carnal intercourse” with him. Her sister Eliza was sealed to Smith four days later.

Emma eventually forced them to leave, unable to bear the pain of having Joseph's plural wives living in her house. Joseph allegedly shook their hands and told them there was nothing he could do. The prophet wanted to keep his polygamy a secret and stay on Emma's good side.

23. Lucy Walker, age 17, single
Smith proposed to Lucy soon after splitting up her family -- her father was sent on a mission, and her siblings had been separated. Lucy was emotionally frail, since her mother had just died. She wrote that Smith's proposal came as a "thunderbolt" to her. She suffered through great “inner turmoil," at the time, according to a church account:

“Every feeling of my soul revolted against it,” she wrote. Yet, after several restless nights on her knees in prayer, she found relief as her room “filled with a holy influence” akin to “brilliant sunshine.” She said, “My soul was filled with a calm sweet peace that I never knew,” and “supreme happiness took possession of my whole being.”

24 & 25. Sarah Lawrence, age 17, single, and Maria Lawrence, age 19, single
Sarah and Maria, sisters, moved into the Smith household after losing their father. The prophet's opponents tried to use these particular marriages to prosecute Smith for adultery -- a charge that he denied. After Smith's death, the sisters were sealed to Brigham Young for a time.

nauvoo
A group of Mormon pioneers, all of them over 80 years of age, visit the old Brigham Young homestead in Nauvoo, Illinois on July 22, 1947.

26. Helen Mar Kimball, age 14, single
Helen was quite possibly the youngest of Smith’s wives. She was the teenage daughter of the prophet’s loyal friends Heber and Vilate Kimball.

“Marriage at such an age, inappropriate by today’s standards, was legal in that era, and some women married in their mid-teens,” the LDS church writes about Helen’s marriage. The church also suggests that this particular marriage didn’t involve sexual relations. Compton agrees, adding that if the marriage was ever consummated, it was most likely when Helen was older.

But that doesn't mean Helen was completely happy about the prospect. Her father wanted her to marry Smith so that the families would be eternally linked and assured of salvation. Heber reportedly gave Helen 24 hours to consider whether or not to be sealed to Smith.

But it seems the teenager had begun to develop feelings for men closer to her own age -- particularly a young man, six years her elder, named Horace Whitney.

Helen expressed her anguish in poems and diary entries, Compton reports. She wrote that her father had offered her to Smith like a sacrificial lamb.

... But pitying angels wept.

They saw my youthful friends grow shy and cold.

And poisonous darts from sland’rous tongues were hurled,

Untutor’d heart in thy gen’rous sacrafise,

Thou dids’t not weigh the cost nor know the bitter price;

Thy happy dreams all o’er thou’st doom’d also to be

Bar’d out from social scenes by this thy destiny,

And o’er thy sad’nd mem’ries of sweet departed joys

Thy sicken’d heart will brood and imagine future woes,

And like a fetter’d bird with wild and longing heart,

Thou’lt dayly pine for freedom and murmor at thy lot;

Although Helen initially viewed plural marriage as “improper and unnatural,” she eventually placed her trust in her father and her faith. It was one of the “severest” trials of her life, the LDS church says.

After Smith's death, Helen went on to marry Horace Whitney and have several children with him.

27. Hannah Ells, age 29-30, single
Ells was a seamstress who made dresses for the ladies of Nauvoo. She likely became Smith's plural wife in 1843. She was reportedly a good friend of Eliza Snow.

28. Elvira Annie Cowles, age 29, married
Emma Smith appointed Cowles as a treasurer of the Relief Society in 1842. Cowles had been a maid and a nanny in the Smith household. Her first husband was a loyal disciple of Smith's. She later became a talented weaver. Her daughters also married polygamously.

29. Rhoda Richards, age 58, single
Richards was reportedly the sister of a favored apostle. Since she was an older plural wife, there was no romantic involvement between Richards and Smith, Compton writes. She was later married for a time to Brigham Young.

30. Desdemona Fullmer, age 32-33, single
Fullmer was a devout woman who received visions and dreamed of angels throughout her life. Like many of Joseph's wives, she lived in his home before he proposed to her. The union apparently made Emma angry and jealous.

31. Olive G. Frost, age 27-28, single
Frost was a prayerful woman and the sister-in-law of an apostle of Joseph Smith. According to her sister, she "never opposed" Smith's proposal about plural marriage. When Smith was killed, Frost was deeply and publicly upset. She was later joined to Brigham Young for a time.

32. Melissa Lott, age 19, single
Lott would later say in an affidavit that she had been Joseph Smith's wife "in very deed," meaning they may have had a sexual relationship. She lived in the Smith household as a maid.

33. Nancy M. Winchester, around age 14, single
Nancy was one of Smith's youngest wives, marrying him at age 14 or 15. She later married Heber Kimball, the father of Helen Mar Kimball, a few months after Smith's death, when she was 16.

34. Fanny Young, age 56, widowed
Young was one of Smith’s older wives. She was a sister of Brigham Young, the favored apostle who would later take on a leadership role in the church and marry a number of Smith's widows. Helen Mar Whitney remembered "Aunty Fanny" as a "true Saint" who was beloved by both young and old.

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