Updated: Sep 2, 2021
In 1841, the idea of spiritual wifery was being openly promoted by John C. Bennett but was in the cultural water with respect to earlier groups who practiced spiritual wifery and other sexual practices. It was likely first exposed to LDS Church through apostles like Brigham Young, Samuel Smith, and Orson Pratt who were missioning in New England in the early 1830’s. Similar to other doctrines of the LDS Church, polygamy was a product of the early 19th Century more than any original idea from Smith.
“Spiritual wifery,” the phrase first used, was understood as an implicit excuse by holy men to have sexual relations with any women, if it was kept secret, and the couple consented. It had been circulated among the Cochranites in Maine decades earlier, as well as other sexually licentious ideas from the Shakers, the Oneida Community, and other 19th Century groups prior to Joseph's secret reveal on his ideas to insiders on the subject beginning in 1842. Joseph, on the other hand, seems focused on revealing esoteric ideas of celestial sealing and other ceremonies to select insiders. How much was his “celestial marriage” different from “spiritual wifery?” Was it only an authority differential or something starker? What would his insiders think when they first heard of the idea whether from Joseph himself, or through rumors? Is it possible that secrecy itself helped evolve the notion into something different? This could help explain what people would think when they heard about the idea of celestial marriage, how these other ideas would inform their thoughts on the subject, whether in advocacy or detraction, and how they would interpret it, whether to embrace an exaggerated idea, or to recoil in horror, apart from any original idea proposed by Joseph Smith.
The answer to this question of evolution through secrecy is highly likely. The first open and contemporary accusations of "spiritual wifery" by Joseph Smith came from John C. Bennett after he was found fomenting the practice, was excommunicated, and therefor published his book, The History of the Saints, an Expose of Joe Smith and the Mormons. It was a slanderous tome, easily debunked, but uncovered a festering wound that got under Joseph’s skin. It was this exposé that caused Joseph Smith to crusade against spiritual wifery and later, being accused of extreme hypocrisy by his followers and detractors, as his own similar practices and ideas slowly dripped out over the next four years. While not as lecherous as Bennett, his lies, sexual deviancy, gaslighting of women, and treatment of his wife, rise to similar levels as he is seen in the 21st Century ex-Mormon narrative. Else-wise, he is cast as a prophet twisting in the wind to hide the purest of doctrinal pearls. Those are the two stories we are given in the binary.
Yet there are other narratives of this dichotomy, some of which are just as plausible.
It's possible when his insiders were exposed to whatever he was secretly teaching, his ideas evolved through misinterpretation and cultural drift in the community to practice a variation thereof, through any interactions with Bennett, and earlier with the Cochranites and other 19th Century-based sex cults, believing what they were doing would or could have been blessed by Joseph. It would not be hard to do, given that the secret teaching was purportedly called "Celestial Marriage" and the rights of civil marriage came with sexual intercourse . . . and that sexual license would have been very tempting. It could also be justified by the Biblical narratives of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, held in great reverence among Mormons and Christians in general. They, along with Moses, practiced polygamy and Levirate marriage. It would not be hard to reach such conclusions, enter such unions, believing what you were doing was right, and approved of, by the prophet. For a while, it wouldn't be easy to see the difference between a personal practice interpreted through secret and rumor, coming from Joseph Smith, and the dastardly deeds of John C. Bennett.
The problem was that Joseph Smith wasn’t simply downplaying polygamy in dulcet hushes. He was leading the charge against it, with excommunications, civil trails, affidavits, and crusades! A close follower who got caught up in their own practices may try to influence Joseph, publishing supporting documents such as Udney Jacob’s The Peacemaker, and place your belief at the feet of the prophet, hoping he would come around. Indeed, it seems that both Brigham Young and Lorenzo Snow got revelations on polygamy while missioning in England getting their skis ahead of them since polygamy was supposedly revealed by Joseph to them in 1843, AFTER the English missions. They may have been trying to nudge Joseph into their way of thinking, spring-boarding off his esoteric teachings on sealings.
If Joseph uncovered close followers exercising this sort of behavior, it could have spurred him to greater lengths to repudiate the doctrine in public, as it was being preached in private by individuals he couldn't yet identify. Perhaps he could have simply excommunicated them if he knew whodunit. By the Nauvoo period, however, it may not have been that easy. With power increasingly being shifted toward the Quorum of the Twelve, he may have felt embattled and losing control over his church, despite any pretense of unity in public. In Joseph's mind, "Celestial Marriage," and "spiritual wifery" could have been wildly opposing principles, not simply a parsing of language or authority. Thus, Joseph’s crusade could have been real, not simply a way to cover tracks, or to compartmentalize, or to keep cats in the bags. The lengths at which he went to repudiate "spiritual wifery" would indicate this possibility. If William Marks testimony is to be taken at face value, this was the likely narrative.
If he was simply trying to cover his tracks, there are easier ways to do this without having to invent a new doctrine that would undermine your new religion’s doctrinal foundation. And if you were going to expose it, a careful parsing of language would have been a way to go, easing people into the practice. Yet we see no parsing. He never minces words. In his very own ardent words, he’s not a polygamist and he condemns polygamy.
Is he lying or is he defining?
Well, definitions are part of the problem here.
The Ever-Changing IDEA of Polygamy The Church repudiated the term, "polygamy" or earlier, "spiritual wifery" until Orson Pratt published the Seer in 1853. Then the term was embraced with gusto as a "cat being let out of the bag! The terms, "Celestial Marriage," or "Plural Marriage," became equated together so that by the 1850's. "Celestial Marriage" was now synonymous with "Polygamy." Later, when the Manifesto was passed in 1890 to start dismantling polygamy, and then the Second Manifesto in 1904, the Church returned to disusing the term, "Polygamy," for the term, "Celestial Marriage," since they could interchange the two without getting into too much trouble. Finally, in the 1930's, in what is sometimes known as the Third Manifesto, J. Reuben Clarke defined "Celestial Marriage" only in terms on ONE marriage, in the temple, the term the Church uses today. It could not be polygamous in any way. This was done to distance the Church from the growing influence of new fundamentalist heresies who were disabusing Church authority, who were using the "Celestial Marriage" term to equate to polygamy. Today, Mormon fundamentalist sects still use the term, "Celestial Marriage" as synonymous with "Polygamy." Often when people argue over this history, they are playing with terms not defined and can easily be adjusted to their own internal definitions. The term “celestial marriage” has run through so many definitions as to make it difficult to use at all. We should be careful at all drawing connections with this term from 1840 to 1930. It is not clear at all that they were synonymous in 1843.
Aside from semantics, practices and beliefs also changed over time. What we call "Celestial Marriage" in the LDS Church, how has it changed in terms of doctrine, understanding, practice, or implementation? In seeing this, we can get a clearer idea of whether it underwent a radical change upon the death of Joseph Smith, opening the possibility that we have misinterpreted the secret practices of Nauvoo.
From all records collected on Nauvoo polygamy, and from the new practices we see almost immediately after Joseph's death, we can draw a line between practices and see some stark differences.
To draw a plainer line, the changes happened almost overnight. In 1844, celestial marriage was a closely guarded secret, with attempts to retaliate against leakers, gossips, and accusers, being a prime motivation for the destruction of a printing press. By 1845, it was an open secret among Latter-day Saints. William Smith, the prophet’s oft-maligned and off-the-reservation younger brother, part of Brigham’s Quroum, admitted in public that he was practicing “spiritual wifery” in 1845, along with those in his Quorum. He used the contemporary term, not the more elevated, “celestial marriage,” or the common “polygamy.” LDS apologists indicate that the language shift had not yet happened, or that William was a Bennett accolade and practicing a non-approved form. William disputes that in later testimony, that his position was no different than others in his quorum, but that he had repented of the practice. After his 1845 reveal, among other tiffs with Brigham Young, he was essential persona non grata and ended up outside of the LDS system, run out of town by the “whistling and whittling brigades.” However, William isn’t all that easy to discredit anymore, owing to a newer and more nuanced view of his history. He’s a compelling counter-narrative witness worth exploring.
That same year, the amount of plural marriages skyrocketed, as did the children. Brigham and Heber C. Kimball split all of Joseph's "wives" among themselves in mostly a Levirate fashion, and in these instances, they were married for time only (another innovation) instead of being sealed for eternity. Their interpretation of sealing had drifted. Before, a woman could be sealed to her husband along with Joseph Smith. Now, as Helen Marr Kimball would find out, a sealed widow to the prophet made it difficult to be sealed to anyone else. The nature of these sealings weren't even clear until they were posthumously sealed to Joseph Smith in 1846 in the Nauvoo temple attic as eternal wives, almost as if the first one didn't count. Soon, sex and children came. The rest of the Twelve followed suit into polygamy if they hadn't already. The idea of virginity became important and critical to the new order of polygamy, and new household structures began taking shape. Before, it seemed to be more of a dynastic quality that attracted Joseph Smith to enter his celestial unions, and the practical aspects were completely absent. Previously married women were allowed into the ceremonies. Now the Twelve brought forth the “Law of Sarah” meaning the first wife needed to approve of all subsequent relations, which Joseph purportedly violated and countless of his followers did for years. They also ensured that new wives must be virgins, unless they were Levirite.
When one considers the speed of change that took place with regards to polygamy, along with the relaxing of the secrecy, the one variable that seems to be the lynch pin for change was . . . Joseph Smith’s death. The Mormons were still living in hostile country where the secrets were ostensibly instituted to protect the Church. The threats from Carthage and Warsaw were still ever present. Polygamy/bigamy was still a crime, although not as serious as purported. So, either Brigham felt that the need for secrecy was a bad idea in 1845 and was moving to open up the practice, he had a firmer hand with malcontents so he didn't need to adopt Joseph’s combative tone, or he wasn't worried about the intense secrecy since the clash of marriage styles had been won upon the death of Joseph, Brigham favoring the style Joseph "fought against." Either way, Brigham felt more secure to start living his version of it more openly. And then he and his brethren began making lots of babies.
The dominant narrative tends to assume a more seamless transition, but as we can see, we need to be very cautious of that interpretation. Like temple ceremonies and other Nauvoo inventions, there is much missing in translation in the forensic documentation. We are constantly relying upon the good faith and testimony of successors for any indication of continuity.
One of the often-used retorts to any inventions or modifications by Brigham Young is that several early post-martyrdom offshoots also practiced polygamy. The oft-scoffed idea that it was Brigham’s invention seems to lack credibility in their eyes because the Cutler-ite breakoff, the Wight-ite breakoff, and eventually even the Strang-ites practiced polygamy. These breakoffs had no love for Brigham Young. While true, what part of Brigham did they despise? His polygamy or his personality, authority claims, and actions? Both Lyman White and Alpheus Cutler were united early on in late 1844. Any breakoff after that would have had the doctrinal cake already baked in the split, including Brighamite polygamy. Elsewhere, the polygamy of Strang could have been products of the era or considerations after the rumors drifted and mutated. Certainly, sexual polygamy or “spiritual wifery” was in the water, independent of Joseph Smith. Indeed, this entire narrative precludes this understanding. It’s no more useful to blame Joseph Smith for James Strang’s polygamy than Brigham Young’s. It’s just as useful to blame Abraham, Moses, or Jacob Cochran.
If people want to study Joseph's intentions for celestial marriage "sealings," it may be helpful to study his original doctrinal concepts of sealing, and his understandings of Elijah's return. Moroni's charge of "sealing the hearts of the children to the fathers, and the hearts of the fathers to the children" from Malachi may have influenced his ordinances. Knowing this was part of Moroni's charge, it would have weighed heavily upon Joseph's mind to grasp a system for doing such a thing since the beginning. Who was a "father?" What would it mean to be "sealed?" What role do the Lectures on Faith and the King Follett Discourse play on helping flesh out those ideas? Was Joseph privately doing something that only he truly understood but was attempting to teach in public in a way to slowly expose his ideas? There are all sorts of mysteries here to explore. Joseph Smith exulted before his death:
“You don't know me; you never knew my heart. No man knows my history. I cannot tell it: I shall never undertake it. I don't blame anyone for not believing my history.”
Indeed, perhaps not only did no man know his history, they may not have even understood his doctrine.
We take it for granted thinking that we know what Moroni meant because of LDS Mormonism’s interpretation that charge as temple work for the dead. However, the sealing of the unbroken chain of families from father to son, back to Adam, was largely an invention of Wilford Woodruff in the 1890's. Before that, people were sealed to men who were considered "saved," and had their "calling and election sure," and it's possible that the sealings performed by Joseph Smith were meant to solve this charge by Moroni. It would have been an act of salvation, not a temporal system to spread seed. If Joseph felt he was "saved," then perhaps he felt that if he sealed himself to other women, and those women were sealed to their other husbands, or to their parents, who were also sealed, he could drag a few people with him into heaven in this world or the next. This idea was once called in the Church “the Law of Adoption” and has since been quietly put away.
The only quasi-evidence we have of Joseph's concept of polygamy is D&C Section 132. We know through RLDS sources that there was "a" revelation in 1843. It was read by Hyrum Smith to the Nauvoo High Council in 1844 according to James Allred and appears to have been poised to become public before the martyrdom. However, that section was not presented until the Saints were safely in Utah in 1852. Hyrum himself repudiates it's meaning in his response to the Nauvoo Expositor, relating how any discussion of polygamy in the revelation related to "former times." Some witnesses state that it was the same document they had heard earlier. Others, like Emma Smith, recall never hearing of it before. Interestingly, the language and flavor of the document in some areas seem to be more closely aligned to Brigham Young's writing style than Joseph Smith's. It's possible some parts were altered or changed over 8 years, just enough to make it seem like the same document to coincide with eight-year memories, but with a new interpretation of some things. There was precedent for that. In 1835, parts of the D&C were changed to reflect offices and priesthood authority in earlier D&C sections but were absent in the 1833 edition of the Book of Commandments. It would not be unheard of for a later rendition to be adjusted to be more in line with the new order of things. To hear Section 20, for example, from earlier extant manuscripts, the core ideas are the same, but one could easily misremember the second rendition for the first unless they were extremely observant about where the offices of the Priesthood were inserted. It's for this reason Section 132’s verity is problematic. It's not reliable as prima facia evidence from Joseph Smith, despite witnesses to the contrary. Sections 130 and 131 have similar challenges.
We compare this vision of marriage with that preached by Orson Pratt's Seer pamphlet in 1953, which went even further, arguing among other things, that polygamy was a solution to keep holy men from committing fornication, a stop-gap measure to ensure that lusts from those in the high seats would have an appropriate channel for their sexual desires, so they could go on being holy men of God. Or contrast Brigham Young, who argued that a man could collect wives from other men if he had more keys (and Brigham Young had the most keys). Then you have Heber C Kimball, who demanded that the missionaries bring all the women home and not marry the prettiest ones first, so that the Brethren would get a “fair shake.”
It's apparent there were stark ideas with respect to polygamy that changed over time even up through the 1860’s. The harem-like collection of women by LDS leaders, and the treatment of some of their wives, show us that often they were seen as property, even as livestock, and they went in and out of the families of these early Mormon giants. Polygamy definitions continued to change after the 1850’s. Brigham Young took a very hard line on polygamy after he arrived in Utah. When it was apparent in the 1850's that not all the wives liked polygamy, Brigham would talk about "setting them free." This meant that the women could divorce and leave their husbands easily. They could simply walk away. However, it's never that easy when you are economically tied to someone. Living in the harsh environment of the early Mountain West, the prospects of walking into the desert would seem dire. Furthermore, if your marriage disaffection was on par with a disaffection of faith, you could risk your life, as Blood Atonement was being preached and covertly practiced upon apostates by some acting on their own, and possibly using Church secret police. The divorce rate in Deseret was moderate among polygamists for this reason. By 1857, polygamy reached a fever pitch during the Mormon Reformation with “celestial marriage” being offered at every opportunity, the greater portion going to leaders who were wealthier and higher up in the hierarchy. When a woman did leave, or dissent, consequences could follow. Some of those consequences would be noted by soldiers’ journals meeting fleeing ex-wives attempting to escape Deseret into the arms of the marching Johnston’s Army in 1857. Some of them had just recently arrived by handcart but were so appalled at what they found in Utah that they felt the need to flee again.
Many people do not know that Brigham Young appears to have wearied of his polygamy experiment by the 1860's. For being such a holy and high principle, the effects of the principle had born very poor fruit. And Brigham Young was above all, pragmatic. As noted before, the divorce rate had skyrocketed, and women were largely unhappy in their circumstances. Brigham also seemed besieged by his own household at times, some of his wives leaving him and going on writing tours to expose him. He also wanted statehood, and the recently passed anti-polygamy legislation (Morrill anti-bigamy act of 1862) ensured that statehood would be a pipe dream while the Saints were living polygamy. He made some tepid statements toying with abandoning polygamy for statehood, go so far as stating that if it were required of the Saints to live in celibacy or as Quakers to fulfill God's command, they should do so. One may wonder had he lived to the implementation of the Edmunds Act in 1882, would he have abandoned the Principle at that point without putting up much fight?
While this is all speculation, we do know John Taylor's feelings on the subject when he took over in 1877 upon the death of Brigham Young. His was an attitude of "from my cold, dead hands." He seemed willing to sacrifice all, including the Church, to obey what he thought was God's will. Indeed, by dying in hiding, he seems to have sacrificed a bit of himself for his beliefs. While his zealotry was misguided, Taylor's beliefs were what catapulted polygamy as the capstone doctrine for the Church at the time and was the hotbed fire that ignited later fundamentalism. His belief was that the Church and Polygamy were synonymous, that living polygamy was required for exaltation, to the point where he forced all existing Apostles to take multiple wives. Brigham Young gave similar statements, but he dithered. There was no equivocation from Taylor. You were either all in, or you were damned. Because of earlier secrets, this led later fundamentalists to decree that Taylor had produced a secret revelation in 1886 that would give some cover to continue practicing polygamy if the Church was forced to abandon it. Yet this also violated the principles laid out by the Savior in the Book of Mormon considering the Doctrine of Christ. Polygamy is NOT a requirement of salvation (defined here as exaltation). Section 132 assigns "Celestial Marriage" as part of the New and Everlasting Covenant of the Gospel, yet in other areas of scripture, that Covenant is defined as something else: Following the direct dictates of the Savior to yourself once you get past the "strait and narrow gate." through baptism. Indeed, even if "Celestial Marriage" is true in some sense, where a man and woman are sealed together (which does have some scriptural base), then it would be an effect of living the New and Everlasting Covenant, not necessarily the cause. But so is caring for the poor and living a saintly life. Yet by the 1880's this had been conflated astronomically by John Taylor to mean ONLY 1880’s Mormon polygamy and the unalterable wearing of the 1880's garment. Curiously, there is no example of commanded polygamy in scripture. Some believe the conflation of the "Principle" was motivated by political pressures and persecution in a way to save polygamy by tying it to the foundation of Mormonism, thereby strengthening its court cases at the Federal level . . . not revelation. It seems while that may have been the origin of the elevation, by the time of its demise, it was cosmic.
As we can see, polygamy changed in its definitions, importance, practice, and theology wildly from the 1840’s to 1880’s. It’s easy to note that it was ever evolving and it’s difficult to pin the down the genesis of certain practices. Efforts to explain current practices and ideas with former leaders would make the changes easier to implement, as if they were foundational, but there’s little evidence that Taylor’s polygamy of the 1880’s was anything like Joseph’s of the 1840’s. It’s quite possible it simply morphed from an allegorical religious ceremony to THE keystone doctrine of pragmatic practice that insured theological salvation as it was passed along from prophet to prophet, all the way trying to bake in the changes as if they were present from the start in order to give them more legitimacy.
The Battle over the Narrative, where to start the debate Aside from the definition changes of plural marriage and polygamy, the story of how polygamy was introduced also began to shift as soon as it was revealed to the public in 1852. Stories started coming forth in the Journal of Discourses and talks from the Church leadership giving stories from Joseph Smith that were not available while he was alive. We get most of those stories, however, courtesy of William Clayton, Joseph's personal scribe, an English convert loyal to Brigham Young. Clayton's journals, among other late entries into the
polygamy narrative, are essential to understand Nauvoo polygamy. While sold as contemporary by historians, they are only contemporary in terms of when they are said to have been written, but the rollout of these journals are late, with the earliest references being in the 1850’s History of the Church, which Clayton personally edited. His entries have Joseph hiding wives and trysts from Emma Smith, making her an enemy, a jealous and almost violent creature who burned Section 132 in the fireplace, poisoning Joseph, and pushing Eliza R Snow down the stairs. We also have Joseph seemingly nagging and manipulating women into marrying him, all thanks to Clayton. Later affidavits from Zina Huntington and others have Joseph being threatened by "an angel with a flaming sword" if he did not relent to polygamy, and Joseph passing along that explicit threat to other women who refused to marry him. But those could have been derivative of Clayton. Clayton gives reports of him similarly pressuring them with their salvation, or simply using his high status as prophet to help the women understand that is was the right thing to do.
Clayton's integrity has some challenges. He seems to have been involved in “spiritual wifery” rituals in England, three years before Joseph revealed polygamy to Clayton. His English journals have reactions and scribbles as if he's trying to hide something. If there is a conspiracy, Clayton had information in his personal journal that puts him right in the crosshairs, indicating that he had a stake in promoting his theories after the fact. The coziness with Joseph isn’t as certain as LDS Mormons suppose. For example, Clayton was supposedly not as “in the pocket” of Joseph Smith as is supposed, accorded to Smith’s personal secretary in Navuoo, James Whitehead.
There are two main problems with Clayton’s journals. His journal that details Nauvoo polygamy are written out of order, almost as if they were inserted later into his other journals. That implicates them as being dated years after they were experienced, which begs questions about how much of it was Clayton’s ex post facto tampering. But this also wasn't atypical of other diarists. Other liberties are taken with titles and abbreviations. They are also inaccessible for true forensic scrutiny but kept in Church vaults. They were only examined once in the 1970’s, but not forensically, such as testing the dates as accurately recorded. Even with that, only 25% have been made available. Experts are too trusting of Clayton's version of things. It’s quite possible that Clayton’s journals (journal 2 specifically) were simply propaganda pieces developed early on to help the Church sell its public reveal of polygamy in 1852. With such things at stake, it would be easy for Clayton to record stories after the fact and backdate these second-hand experiences with Joseph Smith, even if they weren’t true. Joseph wasn’t alive to defend himself.
There’s evidence this has been done. We have testimonies from  Charles Wesley Wandell, assistant church historian in 1902, outlining how things were changed in such a way to support the “order of things.” The biggest forensic evidence of altered history was revealed with the publication of the Joseph Smith Papers few years ago. It is here we see Joseph Smith’s journal for October 5, 1843 being deliberately altered to change its context. George A Smith looks to have made those changes. He, along with Brigham Young, William Clayton, Willard Richards, and Andrew Jenson would often revise the official history. The kicker is, this wasn't all that uncommon in the 19th Century. That absolves some of the nefariousness of historical tampering, but it also strengthens the case.
Around the time of the Morrill Act, polygamy was coming under greater pressure to be abandoned, both internally and externally. There was a heroic effort to protect its legacy, mainly through the efforts of then Apostle and nephew to Joseph Smith, Joseph F. Smith Sr. (JFS).
The Church was also coming under intense pressure from the efforts of the newly minted Reorganized LDS Church from the Midwest, who was sending missionaries, namely, the two sons of Joseph Smith, to convert them. The testimonies from those in Nauvoo, including Emma Smith, that Joseph did NOT invent polygamy, would have been impressive. Add to this the presence of Joseph and Emma's two sons, Joseph Smith III (JFIII) and David Hyrum Smith, and you have a powerful counter-narrative to fight. The need to repudiate Emma would be ever consuming, and it did ignite a feud between Emma Smith and Brigham Young. The modern story of Joseph Smith's polygamy narrative essentially begins with the efforts of JFS. By 1869 he was alarmed at the lack of primary evidence for Joseph Smith starting polygamy and he needed ammunition to combat the efforts of JSIII. The William Clayton journals were referenced in the History of the Church but unavailable. The only other evidence were oral histories that would soon die with those telling them. Thus, JSF went about collecting affidavits from Joseph's "wives" and other witnesses to cement the legacy of polygamy into the far future.
Many historians credit JFS for their dominant consensus narrative, and indeed, his collection is impressive. But like Clayton and others, can his affidavits be completely trusted? It wasn't as if JSF went through the estates of these wives and found written journal testimonies. These were interviews from a biased standpoint collected either by JSF, or Andrew Jensen, Church historian. How many of their testimonies were encouraged, cajoled, or even threatened? How many of their memories can be trusted as these events happened decades later? How did these women view their efforts in light of protecting a Church they loved and cherished? How many of them were conflicted in their loyalty of Brigham Young or Heber C. Kimball, their current husbands? Indeed, this game was not limited to JSF. His cousin, JSIII would interview and notarize some of these women and get conflicting accounts. Truly, a counter-narrative testimony (and there were some) that came through JSIII would have been more impressive due to him coming into the lion's den and asking these women to testify against the lions. Accusations of changing testimonies after the fact abounded on both sides. Are these affidavits reliable?
It's maybe too easy to dismiss these women as liars and shaming them for their loyalty to Brigham Young and the Church. The principle of how we treat others, especially women in history, who were as likely victims of an inherently abusive power structure can’t be ignored. And it's possible that while lies may have occurred, it is likely they would have done it to save their family's reputations, to testify on behalf of a Church they loved, than in any attempt to conspire out of greed or power. If they did lie, they were pawns in a game to protect the power of institutions run by men. Let's recognize that challenge.
The consensus of the historians is a numbers game, the testimonies of Joseph and Emma, William Smith, and a few others left in Nauvoo, against the 30-something wives, brothers, husbands, leaders, daughters and sons of those that went west, which level around 200 people. The scales are invariably tipped. If that is compelling, the counter-narrative is lost. However, let’s remember that many of these same 200 people swore affidavits in 1842 and 1843 saying exactly the opposite. Either way, the reason for the lying would have been to protect the reputation of the Church. There were also personal reputations at stake to tow lines and stay in good standing. That was the case in 1842 and it would have been the case in the 1870’s onward. Thus, how reliable are the testimonies at providing forensic proof that the narrative had been finally defined? Hardly.
To take it even further, what is more likely? . . . that 200 faithful people lied about polygamy in 1842, and not one of them tipped the scales by traveling a few miles south and telling all to Thomas Sharp in Warsaw and become an anti-Mormon hero when stakes were raised, or that 200 faithful people lied about polygamy in the 1870's and 1880's, and not one of them were willing to give up all they had to travel 1,000 miles to tell their story? Which lie and conspiracy would be easier to maintain?
But what about the sex? Sex isn't really the most important issue, surprisingly; but it does give an indication of the motivations of those who preferred and practiced polygamy and it remains a big piece of this puzzle that interprets the other actions. This includes both how women in history were pressured by men to say and do things they would otherwise not have done. Polygamy, or lying about polygamy, or whatever they may have said or done to please a man in power, is the crux here. Sexuality in the 1900's was a tool of power and control. Had Mormon polygamy been a sort of an experiment with open marriage or free love, where consent was king, the morality of it may not have been as much in question today. But it was often cruel and controlling. We need to always remember that even while we are looking for evidence of any carnal relations. Sex is only part of the equation. The most difficult moral questions are in the lying, the cajoling, and manipulation, and gaslighting of others to enter the practice, particularly the women.
As part of this effort to prove or disprove polygamy in the late 19th Century, the defining of terms ran into the problem of discussing sexual intercourse in an era when such things weren't spoken of. The attempts to interpret "wink and nod" expressions are difficult to parse because they can either be taken as evidence such things occurred, or in a different tone of voice, completely the opposite. The most telling example comes from Eliza R. Snow's account where when confronted about her relations with Joseph being sexual, repeated in a private gathering "I thought you knew Joseph Smith better than that." Depending on the tone of voice, this can be taken several different ways. It is unreliable as evidence because the intention of the parsing was to hide it out of sense of protecting Victorian scruples.
More pointed, however, are the testimonies that were given in the Temple Lot trial in 1894.
This strange case comes to use due to a legal suit between the RLDS Church and the Temple Lot (Church of Christ) over land in Missouri in the early 1890's. The LDS Church got into the game on the side of the Temple Lot to disprove the RLDS Church claims and keep those lands from the hands of the RLDS Church. Joseph III, being a trained lawyer, was interested in using the case to vindicate his father as a monogamist. The stakes being set, the LDS Church sent witnesses to testify about their relations with Joseph Smith, specifically, the "carnality" of that relationship (mind you, 50 years later).
Several women were called to testify. Among them, Melissa Lott, Lucy Walker, and Emily Partridge indicated they had a sexual relationship with Joseph Smith. The first two obfuscated and parsed their words, beating around the bush, but in the end, they stated they did live with him as "husband and wife." Emily Partridge directly answered the question and indicated she slept with Joseph one night and that they had "carnal" relations. Could they have lied? It's possible. The judge called the testimonies of the women “sports in nest hiding,” which indicated that they if they were telling the truth, it’s because they were mistresses of a sexual libertine nature, not part of some holy order of things. He found the doctrinal ties to the relationships of these women a stretch.
One must think of the amount of pressure these women were under, sent as emissaries from the Church to uphold its entire succession narrative. They were also members of families who had reputations riding on what they said. Could they have been telling the truth? That's always a possibility, but not an inevitability. Much would have been at stake.
In the end, the only direct witness statement for Joseph practicing sexual polygamy comes from Partridge. All other testimonies from other sources are either victims of the Victorian practice of not talking about sex, whether deeds were done or not done, or they came second or third hand.
No DNA Evidence Exists The penultimate piece in the sex puzzle is the physical proof, the evidence of children sired by Joseph Smith and NOT from Emma. Joseph F Smith admitted that Joseph had no children with anyone but Emma. When asked in 1879 why Joseph had no children with anyone but Emma, Joseph F Smith responded thus:
“Because it would have been against him and the law of the state against bigamy. The children would have been proven to be his or the mothers would have been condemned for illicit intercourse, polygamous marriages not being considered legitimate marriages.”
His reasoning is bizarre given that after he died the children started coming fast and furious for two more years before the bulk of the Saints left. One wonders, tongue in cheek, if bigamy wasn’t a problem anymore in 1845 Illinois. Of course, it was, but not as stark as he points out. It was basically a fine and a few months in prison. Joseph surrendered to authorities for much worse in Missouri, essentially treason, to clear his name. To go to such lengths for him or his "wives" to avoid bigamy charges seem like an overreach by his nephew.
Even more alarming is that while the LDS Church names 25 men who entered polygamy prior to Joseph’s death, there are only perhaps 3-5 known children among them all through 1844 and of those, a couple are thought to have been born or conceived in England prior to Joseph revealing polygamy! On the other hand, we have several testimonies that have indicated certain individuals were Joseph's children through one of his wives. Until recently this was simply a war over testimonial evidence. However, science has changed the equation.
Over the past decade, DNA scientists have tested the paternity of the males in some of these cases where people testified being Joseph’s offspring and they have come up with nothing that would prove they are Joseph's, and in fact, that they were not Joseph's. That kind of test was only available to males. Female tests were inconclusive. Likely the most famous story, however, is a daughter of Silvia Sessions, Josephine Lyons. Silvia was married to her husband when it seems she was also "married" to Joseph in 1842-3. Her daughter recalls:
“Just prior to my mothers [Sylvia Sessions Lyon] death in 1882 she called me to her bedside and told me that her days on earth were about numbered and before she passed away from mortality she desired to tell me something which she had kept as an entire secret fro me and from others until no but which she now desired to communicate to me. She then told me that I was the daughter of the Prophet Joseph Smith, she having been sealed to the Prophet at the time that her husband Mr. Lyon had was out of fellowship with the Church.”
Techniques have developed that now allow DNA tests for paternity to also be done on females. Geneticist, Ugo Perego, did such a test in 2015 that showed Josephine was NOT Joseph's daughter, despite the namesake. That was a sore blow to polygamy historicists at the time. It also begs the question about why Silvia would lie on her deathbed? Perhaps she was so convinced due to Church narratives that she WAS a sexual wife to Joseph even though she wasn't. There have been recent studies showing how people will invent memories that they believe to be true to the point that they can no longer tell they are false memories. This could be the case for both Sessions and other very committed Latter-day Saints women who wished to be linked to the Martyr, Joseph, who was now larger than life, and an attractive catch. Perhaps her testimony to her daughter was an indication of how she felt about the power of a sealing ceremony to Joseph which would mean that her daughter was also sealed to Joseph. Perhaps she thought Josephine was Joseph's because she was having sexual relations with BOTH Joseph and her husband at the time, and she believed or hoped her offspring was Joseph's. Regardless, the idea that a deathbed confession may not be as believed should give us pause to other testimonies given under circumstances less authentic, such as in the affidavits gathered by Joseph F Smith as well as testimonies in the Temple Lot Case.
The lack of physical evidence is the strongest quiver for the case of Joseph being sexually monogamous. It’s appalling how casually this is swept under the rug by academics (who, embrace DNA evidence with gusto when it bolsters their case against the Book of Mormon being historical). While it doesn't PROVE Joseph didn't have offspring, it is compelling evidence that he did not. While it’s true that it’s more difficult to have children under polygamy than monogamy, perhaps since conjugal relations are less frequent and under normal circumstances, conception is only 30% possible in any given month. But say you cut that that statistic in half just to tie it down to 15% but multiply that by 20 wives (because some were too old to conceive), you still have a 225% chance of getting pregnant just once with at least one wife! Thus, it remains strong evidence that he did not have sexual relations as widely as some have reported, and that Joseph's version of "polygamy" should be less tied to the spiritual wifery of Bennett or temporal polygamy of Young. It should create a more nuanced conclusion from anyone seeking to understand this issue from an historical perspective.
Conclusion: Was Joseph Smith a polygamist? it depends As with other issues, let’s peruse the narratives as we conclude the topic of Joseph’s polygamy:
Fraud Option - Joseph Smith had a libido and he was a libertine huckster. He used religion to get into bed with women and lied about it to protect himself. He invented a theology based around polygamy to cover his own sins and when he was discovered, he attempted a coverup in the destruction of the printing press. For that, the state of Illinois had him incarcerated where he met his doom (probably somewhat justifiably)
Nuanced Scholarly Option - Joseph Smith had a libido but it was complicated. He had strong spiritual experiences and was a mystic who could “see” the other side. Polygamy was an attempt to bring together these seemingly dichotomous elements. Perhaps he saw that he was going to eventually overthrow the Victorian sensibilities of the era, opening humanity to a more advanced and more open view of human sexuality. Later, his followers developed a more biblical view of the practice that later became entrenched and patriarchal.
LDS Narrative - Joseph Smith reluctantly introduced polygamy, because he saw it as a practice by holy men and wanted to “restore all things,” and thus he implemented it, but it was messy and secret to keep the church from being ruined by the practice. He also didn’t have sex with most his wives, as many were ceremonial marriages. But eventually the secrets got out, and it ended up costing his life. His followers took up the mantle and carried it to Utah where it could be practiced openly until they were forced by the Federal government to cease the practice
LDS Fundamentalist Position - Joseph Smith revealed the sacred, precious, and eternal capstone doctrine of plural marriage. The Church was forced to abandon it by a vindictive government, and some men were charged to keep it in secret, even outside of church governance, until the Lord could send a mighty and strong one to reintroduce the principle and bring the Church back into order.
Counter-consensus narrative - Joseph Smith fought polygamy. He was the victim of a secret combination of a few of his close followers who used treachery and deceit to gain power, and then altered the histories once they got into power. The rest of his followers got in line either because they were afraid of Brigham Young, or became convinced Young was right. Once consciences cleared and the power brokers died, the institution was forever tied to the idea because it was how they explained their inheritance from the power brokers. So even while the practice was slowly abandoned, pretenses for its commencement are still maintained today to protect the brand. This idea is closest to the sentiments of the Smith family after Joseph was killed along with the church they formed in 1860. This view was strong for almost 100 years until abandoned in favor of the consensus.
Evidence has never been conclusive tying Joseph Smith to the origination of the practice of sexual polygamy promulgated by Brigham Young. People and institutions have spent decades and dollars propping up a preferred story that fits the late Deseret evidence. The entire foundation of the LDS succession narrative is based on this understanding due to the idea of the Brethren being keepers of the sacred secrets of Joseph Smith. But anyone who wishes to understand this issue cannot undercut the personal counter-testimonies of ground zero participants and observers such as Joseph Smith, Emma Smith and the rest of the Smith family. Evidence regarding interactions with pre-1842 “spiritual wifery” groups that could have infected Mormonism apart from Joseph Smith also cannot be dismissed. Evidence from spiritual wifery practices by Apostles and followers in England cannot be ignored. In order to overwhelm these counter-evidences, one MUST rely upon the good graces of record-keeping and research motives of the LDS Church and completely trust the records they have provided on a limited basis. We discussed earlier the tendency and evidence for Church historians to change and adapt the historical texts to be in line with the preferred narrative. To think that this research sandbox is clean is highly presumptuous, yet historians and researchers use this evidence to drive their idea of consensus. We must always keep that in mind.
For a video presentation of the challenges with the historical polygamist consensus, check out the link below.
 Todd Compton, In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith (Signature Books, 1997)  https://restorationbookstore.org/articles/nopolygamy/jsfp-vol1/chp1.htm  William G. McLoughlin, "Free Love, Immortalism, and Perfectionism in Cumberland, Rhode Island, 1748-1768," Rhode Island History 33 (1974), pp. 67-85  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jacob_Cochran  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oneida_Community  https://www.amazon.com/History-Saints-Expose-Smith-Mormonism/dp/025202589X  https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis+16%3A4%E2%80%9316&version=niv  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peace_Maker_(pamphlet)  Joseph Smith Fought Polygamy, Volume 1, Chapter 4; The Messenger of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints 1 [June 1875]: 29; Deseret News, July 1, 1874)  Lorenzo Snow, Deseret Semi-Weekly News, June 6, 1899  Journal of Discourses 1:188  Canon 1869  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1890_Manifesto  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Second_Manifesto  Driggs, “Fundamentalist Attitudes,” 41. Driggs, “Twentieth-Century Polygamy,” 46. Baer, Recreating Utopia in the Desert, 37  Warsaw Signal – October 22, 1845  https://www.facebook.com/notes/identifying-joseph-smiths-true-teachings-and-more/a-proclamation-william-smith/744769579384385/  https://www.dialoguejournal.com/wp-content/uploads/sbi/articles/Dialogue_V16N02_13.pdf  Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought Vol. 49, No. 3 (Fall 2016), pp. 41-60 (20 pages)  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helen_Mar_Kimball  https://gw.geneanet.org/rpalao?lang=en&n=kimball&oc=0&p=apostle+heber+chase  http://johnslds.blogspot.com/2015/12/the-wives-and-children-of-brigham-young.html  https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/topics/plural-marriage-in-kirtland-and-nauvoo?lang=eng  https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/scriptures/dc-testament/dc/132?lang=eng  https://www.deseret.com/2016/10/26/20599078/picturing-history-the-lyman-wight-settlements-in-texas  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alpheus_Cutler  (August 12, 1847). Voree Herald as quoted in Fitzpatrick, pp. 74–75  http://denversnuffer.net/podcast/transcripts/2011.10.14.The%20Mission%20of%20Elijah%20Reconsidered,%20Spanish%20Fork%20UT_Transcript_v2.0.pdf  https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/ensign/1971/04/the-king-follett-sermon?lang=eng  History of the Church, 6:304–5, 312, 317; paragraph divisions altered; from a discourse given by Joseph Smith on Apr. 7, 1844, in Nauvoo, Illinois; reported by Wilford Woodruff, Willard Richards, Thomas Bullock, and William Clayton; see also appendix, page 562, item 3  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Law_of_adoption_(Mormonism)  James Allred, "Statement," (15 October 1854) cited in Brian C. Hales, Joseph Smith's Polygamy Volume 2: History (Salt Lake City, Utah: Greg Kofford Books, 2013), 142–143  Saints' Herald 65:1044–45  https://onewhoiswatching.files.wordpress.com/2015/11/lds-dc-132-writing-style-analysis-by-enid-debarthe-1.pdf  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Seer_(periodical)  Conference Reports, October 8, 1861 (reported by George D. Watt. Also found in the Journal of James Beck)  Polygamy and its Fruits--The Missionaries--The Pony Express--More Pugnacious Preaching--Death of a Prominent Physician--The Season.", The New York Times, May 15, 1860  https://www.huffpost.com/entry/brigham-young-and-polygamy_b_1792555  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blood_atonement  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mormon_Reformation  https://www.yearofpolygamy.com/tag/steptoe-expedition/  https://www.yearofpolygamy.com/year-of-polygamy/year-of-polygamy-marriage-to-brigham-young-episode-50/  https://www.amazon.com/dp/B00ILV8XV8/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Morrill_Anti-Bigamy_Act  https://www.yearofpolygamy.com/year-of-polygamy/year-of-polygamy-marriage-to-brigham-young-episode-50/  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edmunds_Act  Revelation to John Taylor, October 13, 1882, “Book of Revelations, 1882–1884”; see also Revelation Given through President John Taylor, at Salt Lake City, Utah Territory, October 13, 1882 (Salt Lake City, 1882), 1.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1886_Revelation  https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/scriptures/dc-testament/dc/132?lang=eng  https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/136/1/  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Journal_of_Discourses  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Clayton_(Mormon)  https://bycommonconsent.com/2017/10/21/the-william-clayton-diaries/  https://rsc.byu.edu/preserving-history-latter-day-saints/william-clayton-records-church-history  Hales, Joseph Smith's Polygamy: History 2:190. Originally quoted in "The Prophet's Birthday," Deseret News, January 12, 1881, 2  W. Clayton, Journal 1840-82, April 1, 1840  Abstract of Evidence Temple Lot Case U.S.C.C., p 336  http://downloads.miridiatech.com.s3.amazonaws.com/remnant/JosephSmithsMonogamy.pdf  William Clayton and the Records of Church History, Allen  Dialogue, Editing William Clayton, James B. Allen, p 132  Richard S. Van Wagoner, Sidney Rigdon: A Portrait of Religious Excess, Signature Books (Salt Lake City, 1994), p. 322.  https://faenrandir.github.io/a_careful_examination/oct-5-1843-journal-entry/  1879 Interview with Emma Smith, RLDS History of the Church 3:352–358  https://www.yearofpolygamy.com/uncategorized/episode-95-dueling-josephs-how-two-smith-cousins-shaped-modern-polygamy/  http://mormonpolygamydocuments.org/free-documents-index/  https://www.yearofpolygamy.com/uncategorized/episode-95-dueling-josephs-how-two-smith-cousins-shaped-modern-polygamy/  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Victorian_morality  http://josephsmithspolygamy.org/plural-wives-overview/eliza-r-snow/  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Temple_Lot_Case  http://josephsmithspolygamy.org/plural-wives-overview/emily-dow-partridge/  Brian C. Hales, Joseph Smith’s Polygamy: Volume 3 p 375  Nauvoo Roots of Mormon Polygamy, 184146: A Preliminary Demographic Report, p 30  https://www.dialoguejournal.com/wp-content/uploads/sbi/articles/Dialogue_V34N0102_135.pdf  https://www.deseret.com/2011/7/10/20202957/dna-solves-a-joseph-smith-mystery  https://www.deseret.com/2011/7/10/20202957/dna-solves-a-joseph-smith-mystery  http://josephsmithspolygamy.org/plural-wives-overview/sylvia-sessions/  https://www.deseret.com/2016/6/13/20590178/joseph-smith-apparently-was-not-josephine-lyon-s-father-mormon-history-association-speaker-says