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Was Polygamy, in the Nineteenth Century, Started by the

FLDS Church, or the LDS Church?

Donna Morley

During the early 1830s, Emma Smith was beginning to have some strong suspicions that her husband, Joseph (Mormon prophet) might be involved in infidelity. While these were only suspicions, Oliver Cowdery (one of the three “witnesses” to the Book of Mormon) had proof of Smith’s adultery and confronted him on it. Smith denied to Cowdery that he was in any such activity. Cowdery would be excommunicated from the Mormon church on several counts including, “by falsely insinuating that he [Smith] was guilty of adultery.” 1

Emma’s suspicions were confirmed when she caught Joseph and 19-year-old Eliza Partridge locked in a room upstairs together. Emma had hired Eliza to take care of their newborn. 2 Joseph admitted to his personal secretary, William Clayton, that if he took Eliza and Emily Partridge (twin sisters) as wives, he knew that Emma “would pitch on him and obtain a divorce and leave him.”3 But, Joseph added that “he would not relinquish anything.”4 And he didn’t. He would eventually marry the sisters in March, 1843 (without Emma’s knowledge).

In the meantime, Smith shared to his friend John Bennett his dilemma and the trouble he was having with Emma. He wondered what he should do, and Bennett replied, “This is very simple. Get a revelation that polygamy is right, and all your troubles will be at an end.”5

The Revelation

Joseph didn’t waste any time. In 1843 he sat down and wrote a command from the Lord that Emma would be destroyed if she didn’t “receive all those that have been given unto my servant Joseph.” If she didn’t obey this command, not only would the Lord destroy her, but the Lord will bless Joseph and multiply him with “wives and children and crowns of eternal lives in the eternal worlds” (see the Mormon scripture Doctrine & Covenants 132:52, 54, 56, 61-62).

In this same command, Emma was told to forgive Joseph’s trespasses if she wanted to be forgiven (D&C 132:56). She was then told that the Lord would justify Joseph: “If he have ten virgins given unto him by this law [the law of priesthood], he cannot commit adultery, for they belong to him, and they are given unto him; therefore is he justified (D&C 132:61-62).

Interestingly, Martin Harris affirmed Joseph had practiced polygamy as early as 1838–five years before Joseph received his revelation.”6 But after receiving the supposed revelation in 1843, Joseph no longer had to keep his affairs from his wife or the public. And, he made this plural-wife doctrine available to all Mormon men under the condition that they get permission from their first wife. Doctrine and Covenants says that the first wife must give consent before her husband can take another wife. The second wife also had to be a virgin and not married to any other man. If the first wife consented then the man would not be committing adultery (D&C 132:61).

It isn’t know if Joseph sought permission from Emma for each of his many wives, but it is known that Joseph didn’t just marry virgins. He married other men’s wives. 7 We have documentation of at least some of the women Joseph married (there may have been more 8): Eighteen of Joseph’s wives were single when he married them and had never been married previously. Another four were widows. But the remaining 11 women were already married to other men, cohabiting with their legal husbands when Smith married them.9

In addition, 11 of Smith’s wives were 14 to 20 years old when they married him. Nine wives were 21 to 30 years old. Eight of his wives were between the ages of 31 to 40. Two wives were between 41-50, and three wives were between 51 to 60 years of age. 10 After Smith’s death, many more women married him by “proxy,” sealed to him for eternity. And for the record, Smith had at least on acknowledged polygamous child named Josephine. The child’s mother was Sylvia Sessions Lyon.11

The Extent

Many Mormons today have no idea how widespread polygamy was. For instance, Mormon singer Donny Osmond believes that “only a relatively small number of church members did so [practiced polygamy] prior to the late 1800s when the Church decreed the practice unacceptable.”12 However, polygamy was an accepted practice, and it wasn’t restricted to a mere few. Let’s take a look at what a few of the church prophets and leaders said.


First Prophet and President Joseph Smith said in 1843: “....God...gave me this revelation and commandment on celestial and plural marriage and the same God commanded me to obey it. He said to me that unless I accepted it and introduced it, and practiced it, I, together with my people, would be damned and cut off from this time hence forth....But we have got to observe it. It is an eternal principle and was given by way of commandment and not by way of instruction.”10

Second Prophet and President Brigham Young said in 1865: “...the whole question, therefore, narrows itself to this in the ‘Mormon’ mind. Polygamy was revealed by God, or the entire fabric of their faith is false. To ask them to give up such an item of belief is to ask them to relinquish the whole, to acknowledge their Priesthood a lie, their ordinances a deception, and all they have toiled for, lived for, bled for, prayed for, or hoped for, a miserable failure and a waste of life.”11

Third Prophet and President John Taylor said in 1880: “The United States says we cannot marry more than one wife. God says different...when adulterers and libertines pass a law forbidding polygamy, the Saints cannot obey it....”11

On September 27, 1886 Taylor gave this revelation: “Thus saith the Lord...I have not revoked this law [plural wives doctrine] nor will I for it is everlasting & (sic) those who will enter into my glory must obey the conditions thereof, even so Amen.”13

These statements raise some important questions. Did God really use these men, especially Joseph Smith? God’s Word says that “holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Ghost” (2 Peter 1:21, emphasis added). Only holy men (although not sinless) would be used of God to write His Word. Because of this fact alone, Mormons must question whether Doctrine & Covenants is truly the revelations of Jesus Christ.

According to the Bible (especially since the New Testament was written) men are to have only one living wife (1 Corinthians 7:2; Titus 1:6). Because the Bible contradicts Doctrine & Covenants Mormons must question the validity of one or the other. They can’t both be right.

If our Mormon friend still believes the Lord gave Joseph Smith and other Mormon prophets a revelation on plural marriage, we can ask this: Why would the prophets (such as Taylor in 1886) say the plural wives doctrine was everlasting, and then some short years later (1890), deny having anything to do with such a doctrine? In 1869, fourth prophet and president Wilford Woodruff said, “If we were to do away with polygamy...we must do away with prophets and Apostles, with revelation and the gifts and graces of the Gospel, and finally give up our religion altogether.”14

He changed his tune when he wrote an “Official Declaration,” also referred to as The Manifesto (found at the end of Doctrine and Covenants). Woodruff wrote:

Press dispatches having been sent for political purposes...allege that plural marriages are still being solemnized...that...the leaders of the Church have taught, encouraged and urged the continuance of the practice of polygamy–I, therefore, as President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, do hereby, in the most solemn manner declared that these charges are false. We are not teaching polygamy or plural marriage, nor permitting any person to enter into its practice....I now publicly declare that my advice to the Latter-day Saints is to refrain from contracting any marriage forbidden by the law of the land.15

President Lorenzo Snow affirmed Wilford Woodruff’s statements and that he was “the only man on the earth at the present time who holds the keys of the sealing ordinacnes, we consider him fully authorized by virtue of his position to issue the Manifest...which is dated September 24, 1890.”16


Yet, the U.S. Senate’s Committee on Privileges and Elections submitted a report in which it stated, “A sufficient number of specific instances of the taking of plural wives since the manifesto of 1890, so called, have been shown by the testimony as having taken among officials of the Mormon church to demonstrate the fact that the leaders in this church, the first presidency and the twelve apostles, connive at the practice of taking plural wives and have done so ever since the manifesto was issued.”17

The Response

A Mormon woman, we’ll call “Marjorie,” discovered that the Mormon church first defended polygamy, then said they would stop it. Yet while the church leaders condemned followers who were still in polygamous relationships, some remained polygamous in secret.18 Marjorie may not have known that the Mormon leadership even considered the idea of secret concubines, wherein men and women could live together in secret. 19 After discovering this apparent hypocrisy, Marjorie became concerned about other revelations that Joseph proclaimed in Doctrine and Covenants.

But not all Mormons will respond as Marjorie did. There are some who still defend this past church doctrine. Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought tells us one of the reasons Mormons defend the plural-wives doctrine:


Many Latter-day Saints–especially those that have polygamous ancestors–take pride in the faithful men and women who practiced plural marriage long ago. Even though LDS men take just one legal wife today, many devout Mormons still believe in the “principle” and may be sealed to more than one woman for eternity. The Mormon church’s present doctrine of celestial marriage–which includes the promise of plural marriage in the afterlife, and the current pracitce of plural marriage among Fundamentalist Mormons, are the legacies of Joseph Smith’s revelation sanctioning Nauvoo polygamy as “new and everlasting covenant.”20

Other Mormons defend Smith’s revelation for another reason. For instance, a while ago I asked Pat, a Mormon friend, “Why is it that the Mormon church accepts Joseph’s polygamy and that of other church leaders, but condemns it for everyone else?”

After thinking about the question for a moment, Pat replied, “Well, it was a command from God during a very special time only. It was the same command that God gave the prophets in the Old Testament. Also, Joseph was concerned about the widows and the older single women who didn’t have a man to protect them. These were the type of women he married. He really had a good heart for doing this.”

Surprised at the answer, I said, “But God was against plural marriage in the Old Testament. Only because of the hardness of man’s heart He did allow it [see Genesis 16:4-7]. There were also consequences because of polygamy,

such as jealousy.”

I later shared with Pat (after doing some homework) what the Bible had to say (see the verses in the box).

Leviticus 18:18,20; 20:14 tells us that God forbids a man, which included the prophets of the Old Testament, to marry “a woman in addition to her sister...while she is alive (18:18). Neither was he to marry “a woman and her mother” (20:14). Neither was he to “have intercourse with your neighbor’s wife, to be defiled with her” (18:20).

After sharing with Pat the Leviticus verses, I told her, “You can’t defend Joseph Smith’s polygamy. He and other Mormon men went completely against the laws of Leviticus. Joseph Smith, for instance, married five pairs of sisters;21 he married a mother and her daughter;22 and he took other men’s wives (which included Joseph demanding the wives of all 12 Mormon apostles).”23

I then gently added, “I know you want to think the best of Joseph Smith. I wish I could, too. But if the Mormon church is about truth, as you say it is, we must look at the truth regarding Smith’s life. He didn’t just marry widows and older single women, as you’ve been told. He married pubescent girls, others in their late teens; women in their twenties and thirties, and only a few in their fifties and sixties. Most of these women had never been married or were already married. Few were widows.”

Pat was at a loss for words and simply said, “Interesting.”

So, the question must be answered, “was polygamy started by the FLDS Church or the LDS church? The answer is, clearly the Mormon (LDS) church. Talk to any FLDS person and they will proudly tell you they are the “true” Mormon, for they obey the Mormon scriptures, which includes all that is written in Doctrine and Covenants.


1. Joseph Smith, History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, 7 vols. (Salt Lake City, UT: Desert Book Co., 1978), 3:16, April 11, 1838.

2. Richard S. Van Wagoner, Mormon Polygamy: A History (Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books, 1992), 79.

3. William Clayton diary, August 16, 1843, in George D. Smith, ed., An Intimate Chronicle: The Journals of William Clayton (Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books in association with Smith Research Associates, 1995), 117.

4. Ibid.

5. Dr. W. Wyle, Joseph Smith the Prophet: His Family and His Friends (Salt Lake City, UT: Triune Publishing Co., 1886), 62.

6. Dan Vogel, ed., Early Mormon Documents, (Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books, 1998), 2:348.

7. W. Wyle, 70.

8. For a list of 36 wives with marriage dates, refer to Fawn Brodie, No Man Knows My History, 335-36. For a list of 84 women who were either married to Joseph Smith and/or sealed to him as his wife for eternity, refer to Jerald and Sandra Tanner, Joseph Smith and Polygamy (Salt Lake City, UT: Utah Lighthouse Ministry), 41-47.

9. Tod Compton, In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books, 2001), 15.

10. Ibid., 11.

11. The child was born on February 8, 1844. The mother was legally married to Windsor P. Lyon–cited in D. Michael Quinn’s The Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power (Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books in association with Smith Research Associates, 1994), 642, Appendix 7. One contemporary Mormon woman of Joseph Smith’s said, “You hear often that Joseph Smith had no polygamous offspring. The reason of this is very simple. Abortion was practiced on a large scale in Nauvoo. Dr. John C. Bennett, the evil genius of Joseph, brought this abomination into a scientific system. He showed to my husband and me the instruments with which he used to ‘operate for Joseph.’ There was a house in Nauvoo, ‘right across the flat’...a kind of hospital. They sent the women there, when they showed signs of celestial consequences. Abortion was practiced regularly in this house” (emphasis in original). W. Wyle, 59.

12. Donny Osmond, Life Is Just What You Make It (New York, Hyperion, 1999), 13.

13. Contributor, 5:259; quoted in Ogden Kraut’s The Church and the Gospel (Salt Lake City, UT: Pioneer Press, 1993), 186.

14. Millennial Star, Voume 27:673; quoted in Kraut, 186-187.

40. Salt Lake City Tribune, January 6, 1880; quoted in Kraut, 187.

15. Revelation given by John Taylor, dated September 27, 1886; photocopy of the original appears in 1886 Revelation–A Revelation of the Lord to John Taylor. Published by the “Fundamentalists,” quoted in Tanner and Tanner, Mormonism: Shadown or Reality? 242.

15. Journal of Discourses, 13:166.

16. Doctrine and Covenants, 13:166.

17. Ibid.

18. Reed Smoot Case, 4:476-82, quoted in Tanner and Tanner, Mormonism: Shadow or Reality? 256-257.

19. For example, in 1896 Mormon apostle Abraham H. Cannon took a plural wife by the name of Lillian Hamlin. President Joseph F. Smithy performed the ceremony and “obtained the acquiescence of President Woodruff [who wrote the manifesto], on the plea that it wasn’t an ordinary case of polygamy but merely a fulfillment of the biblical instruction that a man should take his dead brother’s wife...” Daily Journal of Abraham H. Cannon, April 5, 1894, Volume 18, 70; quoted in Tanner and Tanner, Mormonism: Shadow or Reality? 244-A.

20. According to the Tanners, the “apostle Abraham H. Cannon’s journal not only reveals that the Mormon leaders approved of polygamy after the manifesto [Officeial Declaration], but it shows they were considering the idea of a secret system of concubinage: George Qu. Cannon said, “I believe in concubinage, or some plan whereby men and women can live together under sacred ordinances and vows until they can be married...such a condition would have to be kept secret....” President Snow said, “I have no doubt but concubinage will yet be practiced in this church...when the nations are troubled good women will come here for safety and blessing, and men will accept them as concubines.” President Woodruff (author of the manifesto) said, “If men enter into some practice of this character to raise a righteous posterity, they will be justified in it...” Daily Journal of Abraham H. Cannon, April 5, 1894, Volume 18, 70; quoted in Tanner and Tanner, Mormonism Shadow or Reality? 244-B.

21. Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought (Salt Lake City, UT: Dialogue Foundation, 1994), Volume 27, No. 1, Spring 1994, 36.

22. The sisters that Joseph married were Prescindia (m. 1838) and Zina Huntington (m. Oct. 27, 1841), Delcena (m. before June 1842) and Almera Johnson (m. April 1843), Eliza and Emily Partridge (m. March 1843). Cited in Fawn Brodie’s, No Man Knows My History (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1945, 1971), 335-36.

23. Joseph Smith married Patty Sessions (age 47 and wife of David Sessions) on March 9, 1842. Smith married Patty’s daughter Sylvia (age 25-26?, around 1843-44). Brodie, 335-36.

24. W. Wyle, 71.

© 2003 Donna Morley

Excerpts taken from Donna Morley’s book

A Christian Woman’s Guide to Understanding Mormonism

(Eugene Oregon, Harvest House Publishers, 2003), 73-79