The Prophet With 40 Wives

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Laurie Goodstein traces how, over the past year, the Mormon church has quietly posted essays on its website that deal with some of the more controversial aspects of its history, from the ban on blacks in the priesthood to the origins of the Book of Mormon. These include four essays on polygamy, and one of the latest officially admits that Joseph Smith had up to 40 wives:

The essay on “plural marriage” in the early days of the Mormon movement in Ohio and Illinois says polygamy was commanded by God, revealed to Smith and accepted by him and his followers only very reluctantly. Abraham and other Old Testament patriarchs had multiple wives, and Smith preached that his church was the “restoration” of the early, true Christian church.

Most of Smith’s wives were between the ages of 20 and 40, the essay says, but he married Helen Mar Kimball, a daughter of two close friends, “several months before her 15th birthday.” A footnote says that according to “careful estimates,” Smith had 30 to 40 wives. The biggest bombshell for some in the essays is that Smith married women who were already married, some to men who were Smith’s friends and followers.

Marcotte applauds the attention given to the women involved:

The picture that accompanies Goodstein’s story—a statue of Smith gazing into the eyes of Emma, his first wife, that stands in the Temple Square in Salt Lake City—drives home how much the other 30-plus women in Smith’s life—including one who was just 14, and some who were still married to other men—have largely been ignored.

In that context, the lengthy essay posted at the Latter-day Saints website detailing Smith’s erratic history of coming up with varied reasons to marry more and more women feels surprisingly frank, particularly the details of how polygamy affected Emma, who married Smith before he had the revelation that God wanted him to be with all the ladies. “Plural marriage was difficult for all involved,” the essay reads. “For Joseph Smith’s wife Emma, it was an excruciating ordeal.” Indeed, quite a bit of emphasis is put on how confusing and miserable polygamy made many of its participants, including the men (though I remain skeptical that so many men would stick with the practice if it didn’t have some upsides).

Michael Peppard explains why this transparency is coming now:

Undoubtedly the past few years have been a “Mormon moment” in the United States. With high-profile public figures like Mitt Romney and Harry Reid, not to mention approximately fifteen members of Congress and counting, the previously persecuted religion has ascended to the upper tier of political power. Only Jews are more “overrepresented” in Congress, when measured as a ratio of seats to overall population (both religions claim about 1.7% of the population).

And with popular culture showing both fascination with and a kind of begrudging respect for Mormonism’s peculiarities—the Book of Mormon on Broadway; Big Love on HBO—the early 21st century is shaping up to be a period of mainstreaming for the LDS church. The “Information Age” catalyzed by the internet may also play a role.

And Elizabeth Dias looks ahead to the debates these admissions could start:

The Church may be talking about Smith’s marriages more openly, but the conversation will lead to topics far more complex than just polygamy. The disclosures raise deeper questions about how faith works. The essay explains that God sanctioned Smith’s polygamy for only a time. That prompts questions about who God is, how God acts, how humanity should respond to the divine, how divine revelation happens, and why it changes. That’s all on top of the particular revelation about polygamy itself. As the essay itself concludes, “The challenge of introducing a principle as controversial as plural marriage is almost impossible to overstate.”