Title: Joseph Smith’s Polygamy: Toward a Better Understanding
Authors: Brian C. Hales and Laura H. Hales
Publisher: Greg Kofford Books
Year Published: 2015
Number of Pages: 204
Reviewed by: Cheryl L. Bruno
Too Much Monkey Business: Reconstructing Joseph Smith’s Polygamy
Quoting a familiar nonsense rhyme, Samuel W. Taylor described the condition of post-Manifesto Mormons with regard to the once-crucial principle of plural marriage:
Yesterday upon the stair,
I met a man who wasn’t there.
He wasn’t there again today,
I wish that man would go away.
Although Brian C. Hales and, more recently his wife Laura H. Hales cannot make the issue of Mormon polygamy disappear, they have done everything in their power to make it more palatable for faithful members of the Church.
An endorsement of the authors’ most recent book, Joseph Smith’s Polygamy: Toward a Better Understanding, declares that “nothing has brought greater clarity, enlightenment, and, particularly for believing Saints, spiritual reassurance, than has the work of researcher Brian Hales.” If the aim is spiritual reassurance, this book is certainly a grand effort to fit the bill. In less than 200 pages of prose, the Haleses re-envision Joseph Smith’s grand design for celestial plural marriage to fit modern sensibilities and put to rest the general LDS reader’s apprehensions about Mormon polygamy.
Responding to some of the criticism Brian received from the more comprehensive first three volumes of the Joseph Smith’s Polygamy series, he and his wife draw together all of the frayed threads of history and theology into a cohesive form. The weaving in this volume is tighter than in the others; the standard objections and discomfort with polygamy are covered with a warm and comfortable blanket which will satisfy all but the rabid polygamist…or discriminating historian.
For the Benefit of Mr. Kite: The Haleses on the High-Wire
In this short, readable volume, the authors submit their best performance to date. The pertinent issues are fluently conveyed, using significant historical evidence. Each chapter is written in straightforward language with a high degree of explanatory power. The view of Mormon polygamy presented in this book is comprehensive: it provides an understanding of plural marriage which is consistent from its earliest beginnings in 1830 through the early Utah church unto the present day. Finally, the standpoint put forward in this book is fresh and innovative. Ideas are presented here that readers will not have heard before. If correct, this interpretation makes sense of things that seem to be otherwise inexplicable.
However, the Haleses’ attempt to address what they call “the polygamy puzzle” remains flawed. The use of a puzzle metaphor for Mormon plural marriage provides a clue as to what the reader will find in the ensuing pages. Their book is less a historically sound assessment of “Joseph Smith’s polygamy,” than an attempt to bolster a rationale that “solves” the inconsistencies of early Mormon plural marriage in light of the official position of the modern LDS church. Their high-flying acrobatics will be well received by those whose cultural mindsets engender a distaste for the principle. They will provide relief to those who wish to maintain their association with the church led by Thomas S. Monson while remaining unwilling to practice what was introduced by their founder Joseph Smith and taught by early authorities to be essential to exaltation.
I am happy to recognize the pioneering effort of the authors to garner the historical documents and lay out a faithful theological explanation for a principle that has not been easily discussed or understood in the past. Because many people will discuss the strengths of this book, I will spend my time pointing out some of the more apparent weaknesses. This review will focus on the introduction and first two chapters of the book. These draft an interpretation of early Mormon polygamy which the authors will use to rehabilitate the reputation of Joseph Smith and revise the doctrines implicit in his early practices and teachings.
Nowhere Man: Is an Accurate Understanding of Joseph Smith’s Polygamy Possible?
Several obstacles bar the way of a clear understanding of Joseph Smith’s teachings and practice of plural marriage. The authors begin by remarking upon the paucity of sources generated by Joseph Smith. In point of fact, there are no surviving records of polygamy generated by Smith himself. Even the provenance of D&C 132 is historically questionable. The Haleses, however, admit 132 into evidence as the “one known document by Joseph Smith specifically discussing the subject” (p. xiv). They are then able to largely limit their discussion to this document and their interpretation thereof, without taking into account other dictated records by Joseph (like the Nancy Rigdon letter) or contemporary reactions to his teachings (as in the William Clayton journal). In a technique that Brian frequently employs in the previous three volumes of this set, the authors discount such evidence in the following manner:
no contemporary records of his teachings have been found except for a few entries in the journal of his clerk William Clayton (p. xiv, emphasis added).
This language leaves an impression upon the mind of the reader that is incorrect. If there is one idiosyncrasy which bothers me about Brian Hales’s writing it is this. He often insists that there is no evidence for certain conclusions (except for the evidence he wishes to discount). This technique tends to plant in the mind the lack of support for certain ideas and encourage disregard for salient evidence that we do have.
The Haleses estimate that 98% of the available evidence dealing with Joseph Smith’s polygamy falls into the category of later recollections. Though sometimes contradictory, these records are highly believable. Many of the statements come from Joseph’s own wives and other people who were personally taught by the Prophet. Brian and Laura mention three sets of testimonies which were collected from Nauvoo polygamists: the Joseph F. Smith affidavits, including fifteen from Joseph Smith’s plural wives; the Andrew Jenson narratives; and testimonies in the Temple Lot case. In the latter, the LDS Church “provided support to the Church of Christ, saying that if they could prove that plural marriage was part of the church led by Joseph Smith, then the RLDS Church could not be the true successor,” and thus was not the rightful owner of the Temple Lot property in Independence, Missouri (p. xv).
Fixing a Hole: Supplying Rationalizations for Polygamy
Interestingly, since the modern Church does not currently perform polygamous marriages, they find themselves in a similar position to that held by the RLDS Church in 1891. In order to retain their claim as the “true successor” of the Church, a rationale must be found which both admits the polygamous history of the Church, and yet justifies the current abandonment of that same practice. As faithful Latter-day Saints, the Haleses seem anxious to present such a reconstruction. As an historian, I am less concerned with the consistency issue than I am with accurately depicting the past.
Don’t Ever Change: Arguments for an Amalgamated Polygamy Theology
The book undertakes to provide “Joseph Smith’s teachings regarding the theological basis for the practice” of plural marriage. Providing the Prophet’s rationale behind polygamy, the Haleses argue, will assist a reader to “contextualize its early practice.” This is the promise of the book, but the authors cannot possibly deliver, because they are hobbled by a modern Mormon theology fundamentally at odds with Smith’s own stated rationale. Nowhere is that “hobbling” more apparent than in the Hales’ premise that “plural marriage was a small component in the much grander theology of eternal marriage and exaltation that [Joseph Smith] taught” (p. 1, emphasis in original).
Unfortunately for the Haleses, the “grander theology” they describe largely represents later innovations in Mormon tradition, and not the theological view attributed to Joseph Smith by his contemporaries, both friendly and critical.
Chapters 1 and 2 of this volume revisit four “theological reasons for the establishment of plural marriage” which the authors have drawn from their reading of D&C 132. They are the following:
- As part of the “restitution of all things”
- To provide a customized trial for the Saints at that time and place
- “Multiplying and replenishing the earth”
- To allow all worthy women to be sealed to an eternal husband “for their exaltation in the eternal worlds” (p. 2)
It is not so much that I disagree that these principles were part of Joseph Smith’s theology in restoring plural marriage. But the way that the authors limit and interpret them is drastically different from how they were understood by those to whom Joseph taught the principle personally. The understanding of D&C 132 presented here is distorted by the apologetic reading given.
Strawberry Fields Forever: the Restoration of an Ancient Law
Joseph taught “the necessity to restore the ancient marital order of polygamy” (p. 2) by the early 1830’s. In the Kirtland temple, the necessary keys and powers of the priesthood to legitimize such unions were given. Thereafter, the authors state, “Joseph Smith taught…that some Church members would need to marry polygamously as a partial fulfillment of the New Testament prophecy.” (p. 3, emphasis added) The Haleses teach that at times plural marriage is not permitted, at times it is permitted, and at times it is commanded. They allow only two instances in religious history when plural marriage was commanded by the Lord: in the case of Abraham taking Hagar to wife, and “among [select] Latter-day Saints between the 1840s and 1890” (p. 17).
Neither Joseph Smith nor any of the early Church leaders qualified the principle in this way. Not everyone would be called or able to live the principle, they allowed, but these would relinquish the opportunity to receive a fullness of exaltation. Benjamin F. Johnson’s recollection of a sermon given by Smith made it clear that the biblical “parable of the talents” was to be applied to plural marriage. Joseph “showed plainly that to him that hath shall be given more, and from him that had but one should be taken that he seemed to have, and given to him who had ten.” Though the Prophet told Johnson “no one but you will understand” the sermon’s message, it was apparently a concept which was deciphered by others. On Wednesday, February 7, 1844, a Warsaw newspaper published a satirical poem about Joseph Smith titled “Buckeye’s Lamentation for Want of More Wives.” Historian Gary James Bergera established that the piece “demonstrated an insider’s awareness of Nauvoo’s most secret goings-on,” and that “the value of Buckeye’s poetry lies not in its creative expression but in its accurate, albeit sensationalized, parallels to historical facts.”
In the 104-line poem, “Buckeye” laments that he will not be saved in heaven because he only has “one lone wife.” His leader, “Beardless Joe” Smith, teaches that salvation depends on the number of wives a man has. In heaven, husbands of plural wives will “reign like mighty Gods, / creating worlds so fair; / at least a world for every wife / that you take with you there.” Men who do not embrace a plurality of wives “will find a bitter fate:”
The one or two that he may have,
He’d be deprived of then;
And they’ll be given as talents were
To him who has got ten.
In an 1873 discourse, Brigham Young referenced Joseph Smith’s plural marriage revelation, explaining the doctrine in similar terms. “The people of God,” he said, “have been commanded to take more wives.” If a man married only one wife, when he got to the celestial kingdom “he will not find himself in possession of any wife at all.”
In a statement written shortly after the turn of the century, Benjamin Johnson repeated the teaching of Smith’s earlier sermon that because plural marriage was a commandment of God, and a requirement for a fullness of exaltation, those men who had “but one talent,” or wife, would lose it in favor of he who had ten, “which item of doctrine seems to be now differently construed.” Johnson’s statement shows that by 1903, thirteen years after the Manifesto, the teachings of Joseph Smith on plural marriage had already begun to transmogrify. Only following the Manifesto did Church leaders begin to endorse a form of eternal marriage that included monogamy.
Joseph Smith seems to have taught that no man could ever receive a fullness of exaltation in the celestial kingdom unless they lived patriarchal marriage. This idea was unqualified, independent of whether men had been taught the law or not. This is why the principle had to be restored in the dispensation of the fullness of times. William Clayton wrote that Joseph authorized him to send for a sister from England to be his plural wife, informing him
that the doctrine of plural and celestial marriage is the most holy and important doctrine ever revealed to man on the earth, and that without obedience to that principle no man can ever attain to the fullness of exaltation in celestial glory.
This outlook does not seem to make sense in the modern Church. Latter-day Saints are no longer commanded or even permitted to live plural marriage. Do they then forfeit exaltation in the highest degree of the Celestial Kingdom? A church of continuing revelation may justifiably interpret the doctrine differently for today’s Mormons. However, one may not read this interpretation back on to the early teachings and practices of Joseph Smith with any kind of historical integrity. From what we can see from the historical record, he taught his followers that a restoration of plurality of wives was important precisely because a man could not be exalted in the highest degree without living that principle. It would be inconsistent to Joseph Smith’s theology and to his concept of a “dispensation of the fullness of times” that an eternal principle of the gospel would be “restored” for only a short time, and lost again after a mere 50 years.
The Long and Winding Road: A Trial of Faith for the Saints
A second reason provided by the authors’ reading of D&C 132 is that plural marriage “brought customized trials to practicing Latter-day Saints, providing opportunities for spiritual growth” (p. 3). Indeed, John Taylor averred “it was one of the greatest crosses that ever was taken up by any set of men since the world stood.” Taylor insisted that the revelation was “binding upon his servants.” Nevertheless, as the authors state, “this trial was mercifully withdrawn with the issuance of the 1890 Manifesto by President Wilford Woodruff” (p. 4). It is important to reiterate that the withdrawal of plural marriage by President Woodruff reflects a change in doctrine, and should not be used, as the authors do, to suggest that plurality was intended to be temporary in Joseph Smith’s theology. Before issuing the Manifesto, Woodruff taught that plural marriage was
the only law ordained by the Gods of eternity that would exalt immortal beings to kingdoms, thrones, principalities, powers and dominions, and heirs of God and joint heirs with Jesus Christ to a fullness of celestial glory. I say, the God of Israel knowing these things, commanded Joseph Smith, the prophet, and the Latter-day Saints, to obey this law, “or you shall be damned.”
John Taylor bore his witness that Joseph Smith told him and others that if the principle of plural marriage was not entered into, “this kingdom could not proceed…it would be taken from us and given to others.”
Why Don’t we do it in the Road?: The Eternal Importance of Reproduction
According to the authors, reason number three for the practice of plural marriage was “to multiply and replenish the earth” (p. 4). D&C 132 specifically states that plural wives are given “to multiply and replenish the earth, according to my commandment…that they may bear the souls of men” (D&C 132:63). The authors also note that this is the “only reason mentioned in the Book of Mormon wherein polygamy might be acceptable” (p. 5). In this book of scripture, the Lord reserves the right to command the practice of polygamy in order to “raise up seed” to him. (Jacob 2:30) Nonetheless, the authors do not find this to be a primary, compelling, or “eternally consequential” reason for the practice. In this, they miss the importance that Smith placed upon the “continuation of the seeds.” They lightly dismiss Joseph Smith’s theology on this matter despite their inclusion of an important quotation by Helen Mar Kimball, one of Joseph’s plural wives:
It was revealed to him [Joseph Smith] that there were thousands of spirits, yet unborn, who were anxiously waiting for the privilege of coming down to take tabernacles of flesh, that their glory might be complete. (p. 5, emphasis added).
Brigham Young agreed that the revelation authorizing plural marriage “was for the express purpose of providing a channel for the organization of tabernacles, for those spirits to occupy who have been reserved to come forth in the kingdom of God” (p. 5).
D&C 132 does not limit reproduction to this life only. It expounds upon the Abrahamic covenant, promising a continuation of the seeds “both in the world and out of the world,” pointing out the eternal nature of the promises given in patriarchal marriage (D&C 132:12). Those who abide in the covenant of plural marriage become gods, whose glory consists of a fullness and continuation of the seeds and endless posterity forever.
If one is to come to a better understanding of “Joseph Smith’s theology” on patriarchal marriage, one must recognize the emphasis that is placed on its connection with plurality and the Abrahamic covenant promising endless posterity. The student of D&C 132 is told to “do the works of Abraham.”
An understanding of this theology was perpetuated by early Nauvoo polygamists, who were taught privately and personally by the Prophet Joseph and became the leaders of the Church following his death. Orson Pratt, spokesman for Mormon polygamy after it was publicly authorized in Utah in 1852, included the entire text of the revelation which became D&C 132 in his periodical “The Seer.” He titled it: “Celestial Marriage: A Revelation on the Patriarchal Order of Matrimony, or Plurality of Wives.”
He and early Saints equated the terms “celestial marriage,” and “patriarchal order of matrimony,” with plural marriage. While testifying in the Temple Lot case, Wilford Woodruff attributed this teaching to Joseph Smith:
I said in my direct examination that the patriarchal order of marriage was taught by Joseph Smith in Nauvoo…I know that Joseph Smith taught it to certain individuals, but he did not teach it openly to the church…Joseph Smith taught us privately.
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band: Allowing Single Women to be Sealed for Eternity
In this book, Brian Hales reiterates his understanding of the most “significantly important” reason for establishing plural marriage. He believes that it allows a surfeit of worthy women who are unable to be sealed to an eternal husband the opportunity for exaltation. “It is not plurality itself that provides exaltation,” the book proclaims, “it is eternal marriage; plurality simply allows all worthy women to access it” (p. 7). Were this necessary, one wonders why we don’t simply seal all the extra women to Jesus!
Further, D&C 132 states that men are also beneficiaries of blessings by their participation in plural marriage, as it is the declared mechanism by which the promises made to Abraham concerning the perpetuation of the seeds is obtained.
Chapter 2 in the book devotes much ink to promoting the principle of what I have termed “celestial monogamy.” Reconciling the modern practice of eternal marriage sealings with no plurality necessary, the Haleses attempt to attribute such a theology to Joseph Smith.
The authors recognize that D&C 132 was given as a response to Joseph Smith’s specific question about polygamy. But they believe that the Lord’s answer came in a roundabout way. He began, they say, by revealing the “new and everlasting covenant” of celestial monogamy. “At this point,” they admit, “it is unclear how the ‘new and everlasting covenant’ and ‘law’ are related to the original question” (p. 8).
The authors continue to read several passages as if they referred to an eternal sealing only, without the element of plurality. These explications fall flat, because the writers ignore what Joseph and his contemporaries understood as “my law,” and “my covenant.” A close reading of the temple marriage covenant as it remains to the current day reveals a dependence upon plurality in marriage sealings. The couple covenants to keep all of the laws, rites, and ordinances pertaining to the “Holy Order of Matrimony in the New and Everlasting Covenant.” Within this promise lie vestiges of earlier practices that the church has abandoned. Hales insists that those who “did not abide my law” (D&C 132:17) and thus forfeit eternal glory are individuals who are not sealed by priesthood authority (p. 11). This is a redefinition that could not have occurred while Joseph Smith was alive, and did not form part of his marriage theology.
One can attempt to read the priesthood law mentioned in 132 as eternal monogamy, but it is inconsistent because in several places in the revelations the law is defined as plurality.
Orson Spencer, member of the Council of Fifty and Anointed Quorum, defended plural marriage in 1853. He wrote that the only marriages of perpetual duration were those of the patriarchal order, the “only order practiced in the celestial heavens.”
Helter Skelter: The Conundrum of the Faithful Mormon
The title of the book, Joseph Smith’s Polygamy, is a misnomer. In modern LDS thought, righteous monogamous couples can be exalted to the highest degree without the necessity of living plural marriage. However, this notion cannot easily be attributed to Joseph Smith’s theology. Contemporaneous writings which describe polygamy in Nauvoo consistently report that a man who refuses to take plural wives will lose the one that he has, and thus his place as a god in the hereafter. The extant historical evidence supports the idea that plural marriage as taught in D&C 132 is the “law” without which the Patriarchs could not have been justified, and the principle without which faithful Saints cannot be exalted.
This review has centered on the first 20 pages of the Haleses’ book, and there are many problems which remain. I intend to address these at a later time. I find unfounded speculation in the authors’ treatment of the Kirtland period, the Nauvoo period, and their characterization of John Bennett as well as that of Emma Smith. Perhaps the weakest portion of the book is the biographical sketches of Joseph’s plural wives, comprising over 1/3 of the total material. The authors construct these sketches in a way that conforms to their doctrinal misconceptions, filling in the evidentiary gaps with their own theological speculations.
Keep Your Hands off my Baby: Unfounded Conclusions
For example, in discussing Elvira Cowles’ marriage to Joseph Smith, the authors quote her daughter’s testimony that “I heard my mother testify that she was indeed the Prophet’s plural wife in life and lived with him as such during his lifetime.” They then note that Elvira was living with her legal husband, Jonathan, at the time, and speculate that sexual relations outside of this marriage would have been considered adultery. “Therefore,” the Haleses conclude, “it is likely her daughter’s reminiscence was in error” (p.121)
Laura and Brian Hales seek to contribute to a greater understanding of Mormon polygamy by tying loose threads into a neat package. Brian serves as a guide through treacherous terrain, while Laura deserves special commendation for putting so much material into a concise and readable form. Brian’s polygamy theology appeals to those who yearn to reconcile early Mormonism’s distinctive doctrine with the less radical Church of the twenty-first century. But perhaps this just isn’t possible. Given Smith’s aims, purposes and proclivities, his theology must be studied on its own merits, without forcing it into a modern paradigm. This would be as difficult and as unnecessary as finding a sensible, comprehensive, and unified message in the Beatles’ song “I am the Walrus.”
 To the credit of the authors, they have been very open with the historical records they have uncovered. On their website, josephsmithspolygamy.org, they have made available the pertinent sources that have been found to date, and one can often gain important context by returning to the original source in its complete form.
 “Unfortunately, some authors have portrayed sexual reproduction—to “multiply and replenish the earth”—as the primary reason for plural marriage. While it was one of several reasons revealed for the restoration of polygamy, it is not the most important. The fourth reason, which is discussed in the next chapter, is eternally consequential and, therefore, vastly more significant.” (5)
 The Haleses teach that “we need not assume that doing the righteous ‘works of Abraham’ involves being obedient to the exact same commandments.” They note that “Abraham’s being a polygamist was hardly his defining characteristic,” and that he did other good works that we can emulate. However, the context of the passage speaks directly to how Abraham is justified in practicing polygamy. Verse 32 reads: “Go ye, therefore, and do the works of Abraham; enter ye into my law and ye shall be saved.” The following verse reiterates that those who do not enter into “my law” cannot receive the promises made to Abraham. Verse 34 then clarifies that this law specifically refers to polygamy. Although the authors admit that when directed to Emma Smith, the term “my law” refers to plural marriage, they use the term inconsistently. It is important to emphasize that “my law” refers to the patriarchal law of plural marriage each of the 32 times it is repeated throughout the revelation: it is “the law which justified my servants” in marrying plural wives.