Some 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.