Polygaga: Brian Hales on Joseph Smith’s “Bad Romance”

joseph-smith-head-and-shoulders-portrait-facing-rightSome time ago Brian Hales discussed his interest in Joseph Smith’s polygamy on the site “Mormon Scholars Testify.” At that time he detailed his intent behind the research that would eventually become volume 1 and 2 of his recent trilogy, Joseph Smith’s Polygamy. Said Hales:

“Throughout my studies, I encountered many questions about the origin of plural marriage. Many authors claimed that the Prophet Joseph Smith was a womanizer who adopted polygamy to expand his sexual license. Eventually I committed myself to discover the bedrock truth concerning Joseph Smith’s polygamy.”

A significant portion of the first volume of Hales’ trilogy is dedicated to disproving those claims of womanizing on the part of Joseph Smith, and of the use of polygamy as a justification for taking such sexual liberties. Hales first addresses challenges to Joseph Smith’s general reputation prior to and during the 1830s. He begins by dismissing any suggestion of indecency in Joseph Smith’s elopement with Emma Hale, who became his legal wife. He then identifies a mere six reports of sexual impropriety between 1820 and 1835.

Contesting the assertions of other authors such as Todd Compton (“A number of sources, both contemporary and recollected, provide evidence that polygamy was developed and practiced in the New York and Kirtland period”), Hales states that he has found no credible evidence to support this conclusion. In order to make this claim, Hales

  • dismisses as “improbable” an 1834 affidavit by Levi Lewis.
  • disagrees with Dan Vogel that an 1830 trial included a charge of improper conduct with Josiah Stowell’s daughters.
  • discounts a late account by William Bond of “improper intimacy” between Joseph and “a certain woman” in 1829 because of lack of corroborating evidence.
  • agrees with Bushman and Van Wagenen contra Fawn Brodie that Joseph’s attempted castration by a mob in 1832 does not suggest  sexual impropriety by the Prophet.
  • casts doubt on an account accusing Joseph of an illicit relationship with Vienna Jacques because of its late date and unknown provenance.

Hales writes that none of these accounts “rises above the credibility of sensationalized gossip,” and thus “no serious challenge to [Joseph Smith]’s reputation for personal morality exists for that period.”  It would have been better had he properly qualified this assertion at the outset, for of course he means none of these allegations except one: the accusation that Joseph Smith had an illicit sexual relationship with Fanny Alger. This event, which ostensibly poses “no serious challenge” to the Prophet’s reputation for personal morality, he will discuss in chapters 4-8. (4-8!!)

Hales’ next task is to answer those charges that between 1836 and 1842, the Prophet engaged in immoral behavior. This is more difficult, and involves discounting twelve charges of polygamy or sexual misconduct against Joseph, reportedly occurring before his first plural sealing to Louisa Beaman in 1841. Hales finds all these accusations lacking for different reasons — sometimes simply because “Joseph Smith directly denied [the] charges” (pp. 81-83).  Significantly, he argues, only one of these accusations is found “in print” before 1842, and are therefore doubtful.  I will leave the reader to decide if s/he agrees.

Hales puts significant energy and effort in his attempt to demonstrate that Joseph Smith did not suffer from a reputation of sexual misconduct before he entered into his first bona fide plural marriage. Hales seems to be trying to create a romanticized Joseph Smith: a prophet who was larger than life, who had a clean and unchanging view of marriage and sexuality that had been given to him by the Lord, and who never failed to strictly follow that revelation.

As one reads further along, it becomes clear that Hales walks a tightrope: on the one hand, he labors to be straightforward and thorough with the existing evidence; on the other, he works to maintain this idealized presentation of Joseph Smith. This sometimes leads to real surprises in the text; the author may first take a strong categorical position, yet later he may present evidence that seems to contradict the hard line that he has taken, and at that point he is forced to qualify his initial assessment.

One such example occurs in the chapters devoted to explaining Joseph’s relationship with Fanny Alger. A letter written by Oliver Cowdery in 1838 states: “…in every instance I did not fail to affirm that what I had said was strictly true. A dirty, nasty, filthy [affair] of his and Fanny Alger’s was talked over…” In some significant original research by Don Bradley, it was found that the word “affair” in the above quote was written on top of the word “scrape,” which latter word had been obscured. Hales expends a great deal of ink over this discovery, even reproducing an image of the offending word for the reader’s perusal. The word “scrape” is not in current use, and the word “affair” has acquired the almost exclusive meaning of extramarital sex, Hales explains. He and Bradley conclude that the letter itself stops short of an actual accusation of adultery. At this point, a reader is left with the impression that some other kind of scrape may have been intended.

Unfortunately for Hales’ argument, a later source in the same chapter of his book clarifies for us just what Cowdery intended. The minutes of the Far West High Council trial held against Cowdery contain an account by David W. Patten, who “went to Oliver Cowdery to enquire of him if a certain story was true respecting J. Smith’s committing adultery with a certain girl…he [Cowdery] then went on and gave a history of some circumstances respecting the adultery scrape (emphasis mine) stating that no doubt it was true.” This quotation reveals that indeed, Oliver Cowdery was unambiguously accusing Joseph of adultery, and that the word “scrape” in this instance was associated by all involved with Cowdery’s accusation of an affair between the Prophet and Alger. That in the Cowdery letter the original word “scrape” has been replaced by the word “affair” by a later scribe is certainly interesting, and it may be true that “affair” can refer to something besides a sexual relationship. But the High Council Minutes nowhere use the word “affair” to modify the word “scrape.” Rather, they use the word “adulterous,” and clarify that the “scrape” intended by Cowdery was “J. Smith’s committing adultery with a certain girl.”

Perhaps Bradley’s discussion of the Cowdery Letter would have been better presented as a footnote. Instead, it appears in Hales’ main text, as an argument that Cowdery was not accusing the Prophet of an “affair” with Fanny Alger.  Again, this initial strong statement by Hales must be qualified in light of the evidence which he later provides.

The additional fact that Hales takes three chapters to deal with accusations surrounding Joseph’s relationship with Fanny Alger takes some of the wind out of his sails where he insists in previous chapters that there were no charges of sexual impropriety against Joseph before 1841.

Chapter 11 of Volume 1 is titled: “Sexuality in Joseph Smith’s Plural Marriages.” As Hales puts it, “It is nearly impossible to mention polygamy without also addressing the issue of sexuality.” He begins the chapter by identifying Joseph’s public and scriptural teachings on the subject. In a summarization that seems somewhat over-reaching, he states that these revelations dictated that “sexual intercourse should only occur within the bounds of lawful heterosexual marriage.” Lustful desires are condemned as well.

Next, Hales deals with several statements describing Joseph as lusty in his speech (e.g., “Whenever I see a pretty woman, I have to pray for grace”). Hales gives reasons why each statement is “dubious.” The statement is third-hand or suspect because the author is a hostile source, or inconsistent with the way Joseph “would have acted.” Perhaps the source got the details of the setting wrong, or the source is anonymous, or Joseph later denied the allegation. Here Hales tries to clear the slate of any possibility that Joseph could have even used innuendo or spoken in any way that was not reverent or sensitive regarding sex or marriage. I wonder why it is so important for Hales to characterize Joseph in such a manner. Few men, prophets and popes included, live 44 years without making a remark that someone, somewhere, might consider inappropriate. Moreover, people were often shocked by Joseph’s improper language on other subjects.

Later in the chapter, Hales insists that Joseph’s relations with his plural wives were strictly in accordance with all scriptural teachings. He notes that some plural sealings had to do with raising up seed, and others were performed because all LDS women needed to be married to an eternal spouse. Hales finds evidence for sexual relations in only twelve of Joseph’s plural marriages. For all others, he assumes that because there is no evidence of sex, that none happened. Hales does not find the fact that the sealings were termed “marriages” enough to suggest that the spouses enjoyed conjugal relations.

One section of this chapter is subtitled: “Sexual Relations: An Apparent Rarity for Joseph Smith.” Even Hales must admit that it is impossible to accurately determine how often Joseph had relations with his plural wives. Nonetheless, he alleges that “sexual relations occurred infrequently, at best.”  What reason might Hales might have for making this assertion — what are the underlying assumptions here? Perhaps Hales supposes that Joseph Smith’s marrying multiple women is somehow rendered more moral if he did not have sex with some of them.

Brian Hales is correct that to dismiss Joseph Smith’s polygamy by attributing it to libido is too easy. But the evidence he provides suggests (to me, at least), that one might not wish to insist so vigorously that the Prophet’s behavior was beyond reproach. These are slippery things at the outset. One might believe that plural marriage was commanded by God, while retaining some degree of nuance when investigating Joseph Smith’s evolving practice of that principle. Further, it is sometimes easy to forget how we privilege our own perspectives: for instance, only from a deeply entrenched Mormon view does Joseph Smith’s marrying other men’s wives seem somehow better because the woman didn’t claim simultaneous conjugal rights with both her spouses.

Hales has stated that “for Latter-day Saints today, the scary part of Joseph Smith’s polygamy is not Joseph Smith, not his choices and behaviors. The scary part of Joseph Smith’s polygamy is simply polygamy, for he established it among his followers and lived it.” Such a view permeates his presentation in this history.  


Polygaga: Brian Hales on Joseph Smith’s “Bad Romance” — 18 Comments

  1. You may notice a more critical approach in this post on Brian Hales’ books than in my first review (see here). I still heartily recommend these books as essential to every Mormon studies collection. I’m just examining Brian’s claims more minutely here, and I hope to have some more discussion with those who have had the opportunity to peruse them by now!

    I heard that in his lecture yesterday in Orem, Brian recommended that the reader of his volumes start with the third one (on theology) first. I’m anxious to get to that one, too.

  2. Great review. I appreciated the detail.

    The “scrape” vs “affair” issue seems to be much ado about nothing.

  3. Cheryl,
    A good review in my opinion. You identified problems that Hales has in working from the perspective of a faithful believer and interpreting the evidence. I do wonder, mildly, why you stated “In a summarization that seems somewhat over-reaching,” without detailing whay you think that Hales is over-reaching. That part could either have been explained or the over-reaching left out.

    The situation with Fanny is a good case in point. I think that Hales missed it a bit on this one, going by your account, since I have not read the book. Hales would, in my estimation, rather have noted that Oliver was opposed to polygamy but was most certainly clued in on the practice because of his close relationship with Jospeh and the reception of related revelations. Richard LLoyd Anderson has commented on that, noting that Joseph had entrusted Oliver with many things that he did not share with the general public. It is generally understood that Oliver was opposed to polygamy and probably would have viewed any reported sealing to Fanny as adultery. There is not time and space enough here to cover that adequately.

    I hope that others who read the books will not dismiss anythingthat Brian says because of a pretty much declared believing bias, and will look at the evidence that he has assembled.


  4. Cheryl,

    One of the important functions of a review is to identify the reviewed work’s limitations and biases. In fulfillment of this function you correctly point out that Brian interprets the data of Joseph Smith’s polygamy from the vantage point of a believer in Mormonism and a firm admirer of Joseph Smith–i.e., from something of an apologetic standpoint, as he acknowledged in the discussion of your first-thoughts review.

    Another of the functions of a review is to explain the work’s value. Since the set in question dwarfs any previous work on the subject in its scope, presenting a compendium of all known relevant sources and introducing more new sources and findings than any previous work on the subject has ever done, I’m wondering if you are planning to follow up your two reviews on the set’s limitations with one explicating its value. From your two reviews thus far one would infer that you see the set having many problems and little positive value–something I’d be very surprised at if it’s your actual position.


  5. Glenn #3:
    re [Hales] begins the chapter by identifying Joseph’s public and scriptural teachings on the subject. In a summarization that seems somewhat over-reaching, states that these revelations dictated that “sexual intercourse should only occur within the bounds of lawful heterosexual marriage.”

    I used the word over-reaching because I am not sure that Joseph ever specifically taught that sexual intercourse should only occur within the bounds of lawful, heterosexual marriage. You may be able to recall an instance of this, either in his personal writings, or scripture that he brought forth. If so, point me to it, and I will stand corrected!

    I think that Hales makes the difference between the actual evidence and his interpretation of it fairly clear. Thus, his audience should be able to discuss and formulate their own opinions on the subject. I’m looking forward to seeing more readers’ reactions.

  6. Don #4:
    Thanks for your comment. You’ve done a prodigious amount of work on this project. I am really glad that Brian has given credit where credit is due. Some authors are less forthcoming when crediting those who have participated in researching their subject.

    I’m sorry that you have come away with the impression that I see little of value in the set. Of course, I have not yet finished volumes 2 and 3, and plan to write more. But I’ve already pointed out that the set “is a significant milestone as one of the first rigorous historical treatments of Joseph Smith’s polygamy from an apologetic standpoint.” I’ve said that “it is clearly the single greatest guide to available resources on the practice of polygamy in Joseph Smith’s Nauvoo,” and that “never before has so much information and evidence been gathered together in the same place.” I don’t mind repeating that I enjoy Brian’s writing style and the layout and organization of the books.

    I really do believe that your and Brian’s work “will without any doubt shape the arguments regarding the centrality of plural marriage in early Mormon theology, as well as arguments on precisely what that plural marriage means historically and theologically for Latter-day Saints…In future writing and conversation on the subject of Joseph Smith’s polygamy, the issues that Hales has set forth will demand first attention.” I think that “one of the biggest contributions Hales has made to this topic is that he has framed the way future Latter-day Saints are likely to think about and discuss Mormon polygamy – specifically Joseph Smith’s Nauvoo-era polygamy. There is little doubt that Brian has done a substantial work in laying out the major topics and giving the pertinent documentation.” This is a huge contribution, and cannot be overstated. Brian has laid out the problems and the issues, and you have uncovered the pertinent background with your research. Going forward, few historians will be able to discuss this subject intelligently without a thorough understanding of your work.

    Here’s my highest praise: “[Hales’] distinction between sealings for time only, sealings for eternity only, and sealings for time and eternity may prove to be a game-changer.” This is important. I don’t believe anyone has yet thoroughly discussed this aspect of Joseph’s polygamy, with adequate evidence. I’m not sure what I think of it yet, and I may have more to say about this specific topic as I read on in the volumes.

    Don, that is really about as glowing as I get. I’m much more of a critic than a cheerleader. But kudos to you and Brian for a first-rate production. I’m sure there will be many other positive reviews as people receive their copies in the weeks and months to come.

  7. Hello, Cheryl:

    I have really enjoyed your reviews so far on this set. Regarding Hales’ handling of evidence: as you probably know, I’m a monomaniac when it comes to things Masonic and Mormon, and so I personally noted that when identifying men who were Nauvoo polygamists, Brian failed to use Masonry to help corroborate questionable cases. A quick review of the evidence will demonstrate that with only one or two exceptions, –> every male Mormon polygamist in Nauvoo was also a member of the Lodge.<– Such men also likely belonged to one or more of the expressly Mormon "theocratic institutions." While such membership/participation does not guarantee that a man was also a polygamist, in questionable cases this can provide supporting evidence that the person "fit the profile" of the kinds of men most likely to be introduced to that principle.

    As for the Smith-Alger scrape — I think this is a difficult one to dance around. Anyone familiar with the so-called "Wood Scrape" understands that the word can mean something akin to "difficulty" or "mess" — and therefore "affair" in a non-sexual way. In Cowdery's letter, neither of these terms of themselves necessarily suggest sexual impropriety. Yet the broader context in which Cowdery's letter is situated suggests just what you say: this particular "scrape" included at its very heart an accusation by Cowdery of an illicit relationship between Smith and Alger, described in the High Council Minutes not merely as an "affair," but as "adultery."

    The other issue you mention that really stands out for me is the tarring and feathering of Rigdon and Smith by a mob, while the latter was staying at John Johnson's house. Certainly it is correct to suggest that this had everything to do with issues surrounding the attempt to implement Mormon Communitarianism as it affected John Johnson's family. Yet, it should not be lost on anyone that no one attempted to castrate Sidney Rigdon — the purported "main target" of this mob action. That specific treatment was reserved for Joseph Smith. While one might question the details presented by Brodie and her sources, castration was not the first punishment that comes to mind for being a Mormon Communist. This kind of punishment was generally reserved for those suspected of sexual impropriety. I believe one can dispute the particulars of the event as presented by Brodie, and yet understand the mob action to suggest sexual misconduct by Joseph Smith. Hales' argument would have been helped (IMO) had he provided other cases of attempted castration by a mob for non-sexual offenses.

    I also agree with you that everyone should own this set. I don't have to like all of Hales' conclusions to think that these books are worth owning!

  8. It should be noted that Mark Staker, who has probably dug into Kirtland (and Cowdery) sources more than anyone else, thinks that Cowdery’s use of “affair”/”scrape” is actually a reference to his botched handling of the Kirtland Safety Society, since it fits in with his larger complaints and issues during the period.

    I don’t know if I agree with that interpretation, but it is at least plausible.

  9. Marvelous review, Cheryl. I’m looking forward to your thoughts on the next volumes. I’m curious, does Hales touch on Emma’s perspective on this at all? I’m always struck by how Joseph-centric any discussion of early Mormon polygamy is. While this is understandable, I’m often left wondering what Emma and other women (or even men) thought of all this.

  10. Cheryl: Good post and good catch on the Far West Minutes of Cowdery’s excommunication trial. As you know, Cowdery essentially withdrew his claim regarding Joseph’s adultery in a letter written to the council. The charge was Complaint #2 of which Cowdery stated: “So far as relates to the other seven charges, I shall lay them carefully away, and take such a course with regard to them, as I may feel bound by my honor, to answer to my rising posterity.”

    In addition, we have the following:

    Apostle David Patten asked Cowdery if “a certain story was true respecting J. Smith’s committing adultery with a certain girl, when he turned on his heel and insinuated as though he was guilty; he then went on and gave a history of some circumstances respecting the adultery scrape stating that no doubt it was true. Also said that Joseph told him, he had confessed to Emma.” David Patten, Apostle, see Cannon and Cook, Far West Record, p. 167

    What is it to “insinuate” that he was guilty of adultery? Cowdery’s statement that “no doubt it was true” seems to be a conclusion and not something based on his personal knowledge. Oliver apparently stated that Joseph had “confessed” to Emma Smith — but what? Apparently not that he had committed adultery.

    Thomas Marsh stated in an affidavit: “I heard Oliver Cowdery say to Joseph Smith, Jr., while at George W. Harris’ house, in Far West, that he (Joseph) never confessed to him [adultery]. And O. Cowdery gave me to understand that Joseph Smith Jr. never acknowledged to him, that he [Smith] ever confessed to any one, that he [Smith] was guilty of the above crime [adultery].”

    – Affidavit of Thomas Marsh, Elder’s Journal, v. 1, July 1838, p. 45

    Sometime this kind of research is really frustrating because we are left with conjecture to try to piece together what the sources even mean.

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  12. I’ve been reading through volume 1 of this book, and have to say it is a fantastic, and important undertaking.

    Cheryl’s review does bring out what I see as actually one of the most important things Hales does – is to question assumptions, and even present reasonable doubt to what has become the de facto story surrounding Joseph and Plural Marriage since the days of Brodie.

    I’ve found that in most cases, when a far-reaching claim is presented on an important point, it is often on a point that Hales has already sufficiently covered enough to have mostly convinced me, and the far-reaching bit becomes a trivial or unnecessary bolster. To say it makes the point invalid is like those who say the removal of one or two historically problematic NT verses affirming a doctrine must therefore erase the many other clear statements of that principle in other texts.

    Hales dug deep into a messy job, and has done an admirable job of grappling with it. While, as I indicated above, I have found some of his interpretations of certain evidence reaching and different from my own, I don’t feel they generally significantly damage his overall theses.

    He’s challenged some of my previously held assumptions, and I’ve grateful for that. This is only as I’ve gone through 90% of Volume 1.

    I went into this expecting to be grateful for the references, but unpersuaded into any substantially new insights. I am indeed grateful for the references, but have been shown to be wrong in my assumption that there would be nothing to persuade me into changing my view or position on certain matters.

    This set is important, and should not (and will not) be ignored.

  13. David (#14): “This set is important, and should not (and will not) be ignored.”

    Yep. As Cheryl said, this set “will without any doubt shape the arguments regarding the centrality of plural marriage in early Mormon theology, as well as arguments on precisely what plural marriage means historically and theologically for Latter-day Saints… In future writing and conversation on the subject of Joseph Smith’s polygamy, the issues that Hales has set forth will demand first attention.”

    Not a fan of other things Brian has written, but this is one helluva followup. He goes for the hard sell, and does an admirable job.

    Cheryl’s observation that the discussion of “Eternity-only Marriages” is a game-changer is an understatement, and like you, David, I found myself persuaded that it might be true. 😉

  14. Damn, but you’re good Cheryl.

    Thanks for a great review.

    Moderator note: This comment has been to remove a negative personal comment about Brian. Let’s please keep the focus on ideas rather than on people.

  15. Glenn (#3) ” It is generally understood that Oliver was opposed to polygamy and probably would have viewed any reported sealing to Fanny as adultery.”

    The problem with your remark, Glenn, is that Joseph Smith’s scrape with Fanny Alger could not have been a sealing as generally understood by Latter-day Saints, because the sealing keys weren’t revealed until 1841.

    As noted by Brian Hales, Merina Smith and others, Alger is much later described by family members as being “sealed” to Joseph Smith. However, the date of the revelation of the sealing keys must qualify what is meant by “sealing” as it applies to the relationship between Joseph and Fanny prior to 1841.

  16. I appreciate this discussion because it deals with the evidence, not someone’s speculations. The scrape/affair issue is fascinating, but really not important. It is not a primary argument, except to give Don Bradley cudos for some impressive detective work. I believe the evidence for a plural marriage ceremony is quite believable. See http://josephsmithspolygamy.org/faq/fanny-alger-2/ Thanks! Brian