Joseph Smith’s Polyandrous Plural Marriages
By far the most shocking aspect of Joseph Smith’s polygamy is the fact that a dozen or more of his plural wives were legally married to other men for at least part of the time. The LDS Church has now officially acknowledged in an article on its website that “Joseph Smith was sealed to a number of women who were already married.” A footnote estimates that there were twelve to fourteen of these plural wives, whose husbands were still alive and legally wed to them when they were sealed to Joseph.1
This issue merits careful and even-handed consideration. Our goal here is neither to sensationalize nor to sanitize the facts, but to understand what happened in as fair-minded a way as possible.
The term often used to describe the situation of Joseph Smith’s marital relationships with other men’s wives is polyandry, which the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines as “the state or practice of having more than one husband or male mate at one time.” Joseph’s claiming as plural wives women with living legal husbands qualifies as polyandry by most definitions, regardless of any specific circumstances or behaviors that might have been involved.
Brian Hales, one of the leading Mormon scholars on polygamy, argues for a twofold classification of “ceremonial polyandry,” in which a woman is legally married to one man but ceremonially married to another, and “sexual polyandry,” in which a woman has “sexual relations with both husbands during the same time period.” By his reasoning, even if a woman’s legal marriage was superseded by her religious marriage to a second man, that would not constitute “polyandry.” Thus, for him the only question becomes whether Joseph “was engaging in sexual activity with other men’s wives during the same time period when those women were also experiencing connubial relations with their legal husbands.”2 This is a rather strict definition of polyandry, but the semantic debate should not be allowed to cloud the issue. When scholars refer to Joseph’s “polyandry,” what they mean is that he claimed as wives (in the usual, physical sense) women who were legally married to other men. It does not matter whether the wives were continuing sexual relations with their legal husbands during the same time period that they were claimed by Joseph as his wives.
Did Joseph Have Sex with Married Women?
The accusation that Joseph had sexual relations with other men’s wives is not new. As Hales documents, this accusation was made in 1842, at the height of Joseph’s practice of polygamy, by former close associate John C. Bennett, though Hales argues vigorously that Bennett was not a credible or reliable witness.3 One need not appeal to Bennett’s testimony at all, however, to judge it likely that Joseph had sexual relations with at least some of his married plural wives.
Three pious-sounding explanations are offered in the LDS.org article for Joseph’s sealings to married women: (1) to form “eternal bonds” across families; (2) to comply with the requirement to practice plural marriage without actually having sexual relations with the women; and (3) to give women whose husbands were not faithful Mormons the promise of celestial blessings. (It appears that no more than three or four of the husbands were non-Mormons at the time.4) The article in effect concedes that these explanations are guesses at best. The point of these guesses is to suggest that whatever the real reason was, there is no basis for thinking that Joseph had sexual relations with any of the married women. However, the evidence shows that Joseph probably had sexual relations with at least several of those married women. This article will highlight the evidence pertaining to three of Joseph’s polyandrous wives.
Zina Diantha Huntington Jacobs
Joseph’s first polyandrous wife was Zina Diantha Huntington Jacobs (1821-1901). In August 1839 Zina and most of her family were taken into Joseph and Emma’s home for about three weeks after Zina’s mother died of malaria. While there, Zina met Henry Jacobs, whom she would later marry. The following summer (1840) her father William Huntington married Lydia Partridge, the mother of Eliza and Emily Partridge, and most of the Huntingtons moved into the Partridge house, while Zina moved into her brother Dimick’s house.5 On March 7, 1841, Henry and Zina were married by John C. Bennett, who at the time was the mayor of Nauvoo. However, Joseph, who evidently had talked to Zina about her becoming his wife even before she married Jacobs, told them that it was still the Lord’s will that she be Joseph’s wife. She relented a few months later and was sealed to Joseph in a ceremony that she later dated as taking place on October 27, 1841.
In her autobiography, Zina commented on her decision, “I made a greater sacrifice than to give my life, for I never anticipated again to be looked upon as an honorable woman by those I dearly loved.”6 It makes no sense that she would be concerned that those closest to her might think her not an honorable woman if all she had done was agreed to be “sealed” to Joseph Smith “for eternity.” The “sacrifice” clearly implied that the union with Joseph was at least intended to include sexual relations.
Joseph Smith sent Henry away on at least four missions over the next two and a half years. These missions kept him away from home for varying periods of time ranging from a couple of weeks to five months.7 In all he was away from home for roughly ten months out of the thirty-two months that Zina was Joseph’s plural wife.
When Zina was questioned in 1898 by John Wight of the Reorganized LDS Church about her being married to Joseph at the same time as to Henry Jacobs, she responded, “What right have you to ask such questions? I was sealed to Joseph for eternity.” She also claimed that she had been married to Henry “but the marriage was unhappy and we parted,” implying that the sealing to Joseph took place only after her separation from Henry. However, this is known to be false, since her sealing to Joseph took place only a few months after her marriage to Henry, and since she remained Henry’s legal wife and bore him a son a few years later.8 In short, Zina was legally married to Henry and the two of them “had never stopped living together as husband and wife” throughout the time that she was also Joseph’s plural wife.9 It thus would appear that Zina’s responses were less than fully truthful, no doubt because admitting to polyandry would have been embarrassing to her and dishonoring to the Prophet. Zina’s story only became more shocking after Joseph’s death, because a couple of months later Brigham Young took her for his plural wife as well, later having a child with her.10 Since Zina had been sealed to Joseph, obviously her sealing to Brigham could not have been to secure her exaltation.
Less than two months after Zina was sealed to Joseph, her sister Presendia Lathrop Huntington (1810-1890) was also sealed to Joseph (Dec. 11, 1841). This was the first of three pairs of sisters sealed to Joseph as plural wives. Presendia was also married, to Norman Buell. When Presendia was sealed to Joseph, she and her husband lived about thirty miles south of Nauvoo, and “Presendia was able to make frequent trips to Nauvoo.”11 She made those visits no doubt in part because of her sister living there and in part because she, unlike her husband Norman, was a devout Mormon. Once she was sealed to Joseph, seeing him likely became a more significant factor in the visits. No specific information about her relationship with Joseph is available, but presumably it was comparable to her sister Zina’s relationship with him.
Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner
Another of Joseph’s polyandrous wives was Mary Elizabeth Rollins (born 1818), who had married Adam Lightner in 1835 (the two had ten children and remained married until his death in 1885). Mary gave a signed statement in 1902 affirming that in February 1842 Brigham Young had sealed her to Joseph “for time and all eternity.”12 This statement indicates that Mary’s relationship with Joseph was one in which sexual activity would have been considered (by LDS standards) proper.
Sylvia Sessions Lyon
Arguably the clearest instance of Joseph’s polyandry was his relationship with Sylvia Sessions Lyon, who had married Windsor Lyon (Joseph himself officiating) in 1838. Adding to the offense of this relationship is the fact that Joseph was also sealed to Sylvia’s mother Patty Bartlett Sessions. In the case of Patty, who was 47, it is plausible that the relationship was not sexual, but even so claiming as one’s wives a mother and her daughter is especially troubling (and unbiblical, see Lev. 18:17). One might reasonably speculate that Joseph persuaded Patty to become one of his plural wives in order to make it easier to persuade Sylvia to do likewise.
In a deathbed confession in 1882, Sylvia told her daughter Josephine, who had been born in 1844, that Joseph Smith was her father: “She told me then that I was the daughter of the Prophet Joseph Smith, she having been sealed to the Prophet at the time her husband Mr. Lyon was out of fellowship with the Church.” Josephine did not make her mother’s statement public knowledge until more than three decades later in 1915, no doubt due to its embarrassing nature. Josephine’s first name is obviously consistent with her being the daughter of Joseph Smith. That she was in fact his biological offspring is now widely acknowledged.13
Sylvia’s sealing to Joseph is usually dated in February 1842, but Hales has shown rather convincingly that the sealing probably took place a year later.14 Josephine’s account of her mother’s deathbed confession explicitly states that Sylvia was sealed to Joseph when her legal husband Windsor Lyon “was out of fellowship with the church,” and the date of his excommunication is known to have been in November 1842. Evidently, then, Joseph was sealed to Sylvia in early 1843, which fits with the fact that their daughter Josephine was conceived in about May 1843 and born in February 1844.
The fact that Windsor Lyon had been excommunicated did not mean, of course, that he had also stopped being Sylvia’s husband. Hales argues that Windsor and Sylvia separated shortly after his excommunication—that he moved to Iowa City while she chose to stay behind in Nauvoo. Even if this were true, it would mean at most that the couple had been separated briefly (perhaps only a few weeks) when Joseph was sealed to Sylvia. However, the reference on which Hales is relying at this point comes from 1945, more than 110 years after the fact, and Hales is vague as to the date that Windsor Lyon moved to Iowa City.15 Compton provides specific details showing that Windsor continued to reside in Nauvoo until the summer of 1846. Moreover, Windsor was on friendly terms with Joseph right up to the end of Joseph’s life, since he actually lent Joseph $500 (a large sum then) in February 1843, apparently the very month that his wife Sylvia was sealed to Joseph!16 Windsor “was called as a witness” to testify on Joseph’s behalf the day before he was killed at the Carthage jail (June 27, 1844), and rejoined the LDS Church in early 1846, shortly before he and Sylvia moved to Iowa City.17
These facts contradict Hales’s claim that Sylvia’s marriage to Windsor had de facto ended in late 1842, leaving her morally (if not quite legally) free to remarry. To the contrary, Windsor and Sylvia remained married and living in the same house throughout the time she was sealed to Joseph as a plural wife, and Windsor continued in good, friendly relations with the Mormons (even with Joseph himself) and even rejoined the LDS Church before his death in 1849.
Thus, Joseph and Sylvia conceived the child Josephine Lyon while Sylvia was still living as Windsor Lyon’s wife. Windsor had been excommunicated for less than three months when Sylvia was sealed to Joseph, and only about six months when they conceived Josephine. Throughout that period of time, Windsor and Sylvia continued to live in the same house as husband and wife. By any and all definitions, Sylvia was a polyandrous wife.
“Did the Prophet Joseph Want Every Man’s Wife He Asked For?”
The attitude of faithful, devout Mormons in the nineteenth century was that of unqualified compliance with Joseph Smith. That attitude is exemplified in a sermon given by Jedediah Grant in 1854 in the Salt Lake City Tabernacle:
When the family organization was revealed from heaven—the patriarchal order of God, and Joseph began, on the right and on the left, to add to his family, what a quaking there was in Israel. Says one brother to another, “Joseph says all covenants are done away, and none are binding but the new covenants; now suppose Joseph should come and say he wanted your wife, what would you say to that?” “I would tell him to go to hell.” This was the spirit of many in the early days of this Church….
If Joseph had a right to dictate me in relation to salvation, in relation to a hereafter, he had a right to dictate me in relation to all my earthly affairs….
What would a man of God say, who felt aright, when Joseph asked him for his money? He would say, “Yes, and I wish I had more to help to build up the kingdom of God.” Or if he came and said, “I want your wife?” “O yes,” he would say, “here she is, there are plenty more.”
…Did the Lord actually want Abraham to kill Isaac? Did the Prophet Joseph want every man’s wife he asked for? He did not, but in that thing was the grand thread of the Priesthood developed. The grand object in view was to try the people of God, to see what was in them. If such a man of God should come to me and say, “I want your gold and silver, or your wives,” I should say, “Here they are, I wish I had more to give you, take all I have got.” A man who has got the Spirit of God, and the light of eternity in him, has no trouble about such matters.18
It is not much of a defense of Joseph Smith’s polyandry to argue that he did not really “want every man’s wife he asked for.” The fact is that he wanted, and got, quite a few men’s wives. Hales tries to negate the significance of Grant’s statement by arguing that there is no historical evidence that Joseph ever actually demanded other men give up their wives to him.19 Given Joseph’s secrecy in the matter, however, perhaps Grant knew something the historical record does not reveal or at least that it does not substantiate to Hales’s satisfaction. What the historical evidence does make clear, in any case, is that Joseph claimed as his wives a dozen or more women who had living, legal husbands, and that he had sexual relations with at least several of them. The Bible is explicit that such polyandrous relationships are adultery:
For the married woman is bound by law to her husband while he is living; but if her husband dies, she is released from the law concerning the husband. So then, if while her husband is living she is joined to another man, she shall be called an adulteress; but if her husband dies, she is free from the law, so that she is not an adulteress though she is joined to another man. (Romans 7:2-3 NASB, emphasis added).
The word of God in the Bible clearly states that what Joseph Smith practiced was adultery. Now, Christians are sinners saved by grace, and Christian men have been succumbing to temptation and committing adultery for two thousand years. However, Joseph claimed that his adultery was really sacred marriage commanded by God. It is simply not possible for a true prophet of God, acting in his capacity as God’s prophet, to claim that God commanded him to do something that is in reality adultery. Thus, Joseph’s multiple adulterous relationships, practiced under the cloak of prophetic authority, unmistakably mark him as a false prophet—what Jesus called a wolf in sheep’s clothing:
Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits (Matthew 7:15-20 ESV).
If ever a situation merited Jesus’ description of a false prophet as a wolf in sheep’s clothing, it would be Joseph Smith’s polyandrous marriages.
For in-depth treatment of some of the issues discussed here, see also the following articles:
And see further our main page on Polygamy, from which you can find still other articles.
2. Brian C. Hales, Joseph Smith’s Polygamy, 3 vols. (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2013), 1:308-309.
3. Ibid., 1:310-14, 515-93.
4. Todd Compton, In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1997), 84.
5. Ibid., 78-79.
6. Zina Young, in her autobiography or “Biographical Sketch,” quoted in Compton, In Sacred Loneliness, 81; Hales, Joseph Smith’s Polygamy, 1:254 (spelling has been regularized here).
7. Compton, In Sacred Loneliness, 82.
8. Hales, Joseph Smith’s Polygamy, 1:255.
9. Compton, In Sacred Loneliness, 83.
10. Ibid., 83-84, 113.
11. Ibid., 122.
12. Hales, Joseph Smith’s Polygamy, 1:265.
13. Ibid., 1:349-54.
14. Ibid., 1:354-64.
15. Ibid., 1:361.
16. Compton, In Sacred Loneliness, 181-82.
17. Ibid., 183-85.
18. Journal of Discourses, 2:13-14.
19. Hales, Joseph Smith’s Polygamy, 1:305.