Joseph Smith’s Teenage Plural Wives
As a 2014 article on the official website of the LDS Church acknowledged, Joseph Smith took between thirty and forty women as “plural wives,” including a number of teenagers. The LDS.org article briefly discusses in particular Joseph Smith’s sealing to Helen Mar Kimball, who was only 14 years old at the time. Another plural wife not mentioned in the article, Nancy Maria Winchester, was probably also 14, though close to turning 15, at the time of her sealing.1 The young ages of these girls, especially Helen, have often been cited as a particularly troubling aspect of Joseph’s polygamy. The LDS article offers a two-pronged defense on this issue: it argues that it was not socially unacceptable in Joseph’s day for 14-year-old girls to get married, and it argues that Joseph married Helen “for eternity only” and therefore did not have sexual relations with her.2
Mormons make somewhat of a fair point when they argue that one should not judge the propriety of Joseph’s marrying young teenage girls by the standards or norms of the twenty-first century. It is quite true that American women (and men) married at younger ages two centuries ago than they do today. Eight of Joseph’s plural wives were aged 16 to 19,3 and young women marrying at such ages was quite common and acceptable in the first half of the nineteenth century throughout most if not all of the United States. It is probably unfair to criticize these marriages simply on the basis of the age of the wives, though their ages are of significance in context, as shall be explained.
The two 14-year-old girls were barely old enough to be legally married. LDS author Brian Hales quotes the 1842 Nauvoo City Council ordinance, which itself was simply quoting Illinois state law: “All male persons over the age of seventeen years, and females over the age of fourteen years, may contract and be joined in marriage, provided, in all cases where either party is a minor, the consent of parents or guardians be first had.”4 Depending on how one looks at the matter, this fact either vindicates Joseph or reflects poorly on him. It clears him of the accusation that he committed statutory rape or anything of that nature, but it supports the accusation that he was taking wives of extremely young, albeit legal, age. The fact that two of his plural wives were 14 (or in one case perhaps barely 15) exacerbates the offensiveness of these unions, particularly since he was 37 years old at the time.
Hales indirectly admits the problem when he comments that “with the exception of the two fourteen-year-olds (Helen Mar Kimball and Nancy M. Winchester), the ages of these women were not necessarily eyebrow-raising.”5 His comment is an indirect admission that the ages of Helen and Nancy when they were given to Joseph as wives would have raised some eyebrows.
It should also be understood that what bothers many people today about these particular unions is not merely the girls’ ages in the abstract but the fact of their extreme youth in the context of Joseph’s polygamy and the way in which he persuaded them to agree to become his wives. A particularly offensive aspect of the matter is Joseph’s telling the girls that their sealing to him would ensure their full salvation and that of their families. It is difficult not to see this means of persuasion as anything other than the spiritual manipulation of impressionable young girls.
Joseph’s Sexual Relations with His Teenage Wives
The second point on which the LDS.org article offers a defense is the matter of Joseph having sexual relations with such young women. According to the article, “Helen Mar Kimball spoke of her sealing to Joseph as being ‘for eternity alone,’ suggesting that the relationship did not involve sexual relations.” This is one of the most blatant misrepresentations of the facts in the article. The article refers to Helen’s autobiography, in which she included a poem with the following lines:
I thought through this life my time will be my own
The step I now am taking’s for eternity alone….
The words “I thought” (note the past tense verb) indicate that what Helen was saying was that when she agreed to her plural marriage to Joseph Smith, she had naively thought that it was “for eternity alone,” but that turned out not to be the case.6 Hales, who quotes the poem at length, acknowledges, “It is obvious that Helen’s sealing was for both time and eternity,” and gives additional support for this conclusion.7
The fact that Helen Mar Kimball was sealed to Joseph for time as well as for eternity does not prove that he had sexual relations with her, but it shows that he intended to do so. Hales emphasizes that she “was not called to testify in the 1892 Temple Lot trial” by the LDS Church, which called on other plural wives of Joseph Smith to testify that he had in fact practiced plural marriage (disputed by the Temple Lot sect). Hales argues strongly that their failure to summon Helen to testify is best explained by the fact that Joseph’s marriage to her had not been consummated.8 This is a plausible explanation, but it might also be that her age at the time of the union would have been an embarrassment. In addition, her report that she initially thought the marriage was “for eternity” only and afterward found out that it was also “for time” implies that Joseph somehow let her know that he expected to have conjugal relations with her. The simplest scenario is that he approached her for that purpose. Thus, although it cannot be proved that Joseph had sexual relations with Helen, it seems likely that he either did so or at least made known to her his intention to do so. The same conclusion seems warranted in the case of Nancy Winchester, about whose relationship with Joseph little specific is known.
What is reasonably clear is that Joseph engaged in sexual activity with many of his plural wives and would presumably have done so eventually with Helen and Nancy as well. We can be reasonably sure about this because the evidence shows that Joseph probably had sexual relations with all or nearly all of his other eight teenage plural wives (the ones ages 16 to 19, again counting Fanny Alger). Hales acknowledges this was the case with at least six and possibly seven of them,9 and the one he does not include, the 16-year-old Flora Ann Woodworth, was almost certainly understood as having been sealed “for time” as well as for eternity.10 Given that Joseph claimed he was restoring the polygamy practiced in the Old Testament—which of course had sexual activity as an essential element—it really does not make much sense to claim that Joseph took teenage plural wives without intending to have sexual relations with them. Thus, it seems fair and reasonable to conclude that Joseph regarded all of his teenage plural wives, including the two 14-year-old girls, as wives in the full sense, including the right and potential for sexual relationships.
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.
1. Nancy turned 15 on August 10, 1843. The date of her sealing to Joseph is unknown but could not have been any later than November 1843. More likely she was married before July. See Todd Compton, In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1997), 606; Brian C. Hales, Joseph Smith’s Polygamy, 3 vols. (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2013), 2:298 n. 97; Craig L. Foster, David Keller, and Gregory L. Smith, “The Age of Joseph Smith’s Plural Wives in Social and Demographic Context,” in The Persistence of Polygamy: Joseph Smith and the Origins of Mormon Polygamy (Independence, MO: John Whitmer Books, 2010), ed. Newell G. Bringhurst and Craig L. Foster, 154 (152-83).
3. According to the table in Foster, Keller, and Smith, “Age of Joseph Smith’s Plural Wives,” 154 (and counting Fanny Alger).
4. Quoted in Hales, Joseph Smith’s Polygamy, 2:291 (emphasis added). “Over the age of fourteen years” applied to anyone who had passed his or her fourteenth birthday.
5. Ibid., 2:289.
6. So Compton, In Sacred Loneliness, 500.
7. Hales, Joseph Smith’s Polygamy, 2:295.
8. Ibid., 2:297-98.
9. Ibid., 1:285-87.
10. One indication of the sexual or at least potential sexual nature of the relationship is the fact that Emma was very angry over it. See ibid., 2:104-108.