Editor’s Note: This interview with Brian C. Hales and Laura Harris Hales continues Meridian Expand’s forum on polygamy. See other articles in this series here.
Ralph: “When did you become interested in the Mormon Polygamy question? How has your interest developed, and what have you written?”
Brian: In 1989 a member of my family was excommunicated for joining a polygamy group. I studied their teachings but was never impressed, especially regarding sealing authority. In response, I wrote three books about Mormon Fundamentalist history and the theological problems with their doctrines. When I spoke with people about modern polygamy, many would ask me questions about Joseph Smith’s plural marriages, but I couldn’t answer them. Eventually, I started what turned out to be a six-year project culminating in the 1500-plus page Joseph Smith’s Polygamy: History and Theology (Greg Kofford Books, 2013).
Laura: I became interested in the Mormon Polygamy question after attending a panel discussion on Brian’s Joseph Smith’s Polygamy books shortly after we became engaged. The response from the crowd during the question and answer session included tears and heart-felt expressions of distress. The dramatic reaction encouraged me to set aside a serious block of time to read his books.
What I learned was surprising because it represented unconventional, unusual, and sometimes odd behavior. Unlike some members, I grew up knowing Joseph Smith had plural wives, but I presumed they numbered three or four, and Emma was aware of the sealings. That was not the case and processing new details into a long-established narrative was at times disconcerting, though the experience helped me empathize with those who struggle with Joseph Smith’s practice of polygamy.
I myself had information overload and needed time to figure out how this new narrative reflected on Joseph’s prophetic calling. For the next six months I studied, prayed, and pondered. After reaching my own conclusions, I was able to convince my husband to once again delve into the topic of Joseph Smith’s practice of polygamy and co-write a book for a mainstream LDS audience titled Joseph Smith’s Polygamy: Separating Fact from Fiction, available this spring. This book contextualizes the historical record in light of the theology Joseph taught and also includes short biographies of Joseph’s plural wives. [See cover illustration.] My husband and I also blog regularly on JosephSmithsPolygamy.org, a website containing essays on each of the major discussion points dealing with the early practice of polygamy.
Ralph: “What was the biggest challenge you faced in this line of research?
Brian: The number of associated documents in the archives of the Church and other repositories is immense. I was fortunate to employ Don Bradley, an amazing researcher, for two years. He scoured the libraries and other archives for any document dealing with Joseph Smith and plural marriage. Our goal was to identify and quote (or reference) every known document dealing with this subject. Since the trilogy’s publication, critics have not accused us of leaving anything out. All of these documents can be downloaded without charge at MormonPolygamyDocuments.org.
Laura: Finding time to absorb Brian’s trilogy, read other books on the topic, and learn how to use the Church History Library was challenging. Though the research was time consuming, convincing Brian that less was more when writing our book was my most difficult task.
Ralph: What was the biggest challenge as a Latter-day Saint (what appeared most disturbing, unsettling….)?”
Brian: Like most observers, I was curious about Joseph Smith’s sealings to legally married women. Other authors, virtually all of them, portray the Prophet as practicing a plurality of husbands (polyandry), but I was never convinced by the evidence they cited. Here’s what I found:
- Joseph Smith’s “marriages” to women with legal husbands were actually more properly termed “sealings” and were of two types. The vast majority of them were for eternity-only, but a few were for time and eternity.
- In Joseph Smith’s teachings, an eternity-only sealing was only for the next life (after death). Sexual relations between him and the woman during mortality would have been adultery.
- A few of the sealings appear to have been for time and eternity and each was a special case. Importantly, a time-and-eternity sealing ceremony would have caused the legal marriage to be “done away” (D&C 22:1, 132:4) creating the equivalence of a Church divorce between the woman and her civil spouse. So a woman could never have two genuine husbands so far as the Church was concerned. After a time-and-eternity sealing, sexual relations between the woman and her legal husband would have been adultery (D&C 132:41).
- Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and all other leaders and members have condemned sexual polyandry as adultery.
- There is no unambiguous evidence supporting that Joseph Smith practiced or would have tolerated sexual polyandry.
Laura: My heart aligned with the plight of the Partridge sisters. It was difficult for me to understand why Joseph did not shield them more vigorously from maltreatment. It took time for me to develop sympathy for Joseph and appreciate his challenges.
Ralph: “How would you describe in a summary way, your findings? And how do these stand in relation to your testimony as an LDS?”
Brian: My six-year project with Joseph Smith and plural marriage strengthened my belief in him as a true prophet. We are fortunate to live in his dispensation. My studies also generated an increased dislike for polygamy as practiced on earth. Polygamy increases a man’s emotional and sexual opportunities as a husband as it simultaneously fragments a woman’s emotional and sexual opportunities as a wife. It seems unfair during mortality. However, Joseph Smith taught that some men will need to have plural wives in eternity because every exalted being is married there. All men will not be polygamists, but some will. (See D&C 132: 19–20, 16–17.) I believe that an exalted plural wife feels no different than an exalted monogamous wife due to the timelessness and endless resources of eternity (D&C 76:59, 84:100). Admittedly, it is unimaginable for us now.
Laura: My view of Joseph Smith’s character has expanded. Instead of a prophet on a pedestal guilty of only minor indiscretions such as being too jovial at times, I see him as a man struggling to follow difficult commandments given him by the Lord, making mistakes, and facing the consequences. Having broken down this limited view of Joseph, the prophet, I am less distressed by each new historical detail I learn. From my study, I have concluded that he behaved morally, even if I don’t agree with all of the decisions he made. Joseph is much more real to me now, and I think that is a good thing.
Ralph: “Some have found it possible to believe that Joseph Smith’s plural marriages might not have included sexual relations. Could this be plausible? Explain.”
Brian: Unfortunately some writers in the past year have promoted the idea that Joseph Smith did not consummate his plural marriages. As discussed above, some of the unions, at least a third, were nonsexual eternity-only sealings, commencing only after death. However, I have documented the probable existence of sexuality in twelve of his time-and-eternity marriages. The available manuscript data can be accessed at JosephSmithPolygamy.org. In my view, some of the accounts might be dismissed, but to try to ignore them all simply results in historical fiction and poor scholarship.
Joseph Smith taught several reasons for plurality including as part of the “restitution of all things” prophesied in Acts 3:21. Section 132 explains that God was going to “restore all things” through Joseph Smith (vv. 40, 45). Old Testament patriarchs like Abraham and Jacob had children by their plural wives, so establishing polygamy without sexuality would not be restoring anything Biblical. Such relations are not described in ancient scripture so would not need to be restored.
Another reason for plural marriage was “to multiply and replenish the earth” (D&C 132:63). In Nauvoo, Joseph challenged Heber C. Kimball to enter plural marriage. Lorenzo Snow recalled that “The principle was quite a trial to [his first wife] Sister Vilate Kimball but she [tried] to submit to it and went and chose two very old maids of quite plain and homely appearance for her husband. Brother Kimball spoke to the Prophet Joseph about it and he said, ‘Brother Kimball, that arrangement is of the devil. You go and get you a young wife one you can take to your bosom and love and raise children by.’” For Joseph to advocate sexuality in others’ plural marriages but not consummate his own makes little sense.
Similarly, there is no logical reason for the Prophet and his plural wives to have avoided this in his time-and-eternity sealings. For these women, Joseph was their only husband and spending time with him and perhaps even having his child would likely have been desirable. It is true, however, that the need for secrecy and his hectic schedule limited his interactions with them and evidence that sexuality was a common occurrence does not exist.
One of the Prophet’s plural wives Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner stated: “I know he [Joseph Smith] had three children. They told me. I think two are living today but they are not known as his children as they go by other names.” Historical evidence supports the birth of two children, one to plural wife Olive Frost who died in infancy, and DNA testing in the second child, born to Sylvia Lyon, is not negative, but equivocal due to possible cross-marrying within two genealogical lines prior to Joseph’s sealing to Sylvia.
Laura: Confirmation of sexuality in ten of the time-and-eternity sealings is very solid — affidavits, documentation by family members, and court testimony are difficult to discount. The evidence in two other sealings is less convincing but present. On this matter, Brian and I weigh the evidence a bit differently.
Ralph: “Many people naturally find this a troubling topic. Have you found peace on this question, and can you share the intellectual and spiritual sources of this peace with our readers?”
Brian: Perhaps it would be useful to focus on eternal marriage rather than plural marriage. Eternal marriage is Joseph Smith’s zenith teaching. Through it, exalted beings “shall inherit thrones, kingdoms, principalities, and powers, dominions, all heights and depths . . . when they are out of the world; and they shall pass by the angels, and the gods, which are set there, to their exaltation and glory in all things, as hath been sealed upon their heads, which glory shall be a fulness and a continuation of the seeds forever and ever. Then shall they be gods, because they have no end; therefore shall they be from everlasting to everlasting, because they continue; then shall they be above all, because all things are subject unto them. Then shall they be gods, because they have all power” (132:19–20). Would a woman be willing to be a polygamous wife to obtain these blessings if no monogamous man was available to marry? Would a plural spouse who enjoyed these blessings ever feel that she was less or inferior or compromised? These are questions we can only answer for ourselves.
Laura: Yes, I have found peace with this issue. I believe Joseph Smith practiced polygamy because he was commanded to do so rather than to satisfy carnal lusts. The theology behind the practice is solid in my mind. In order for all righteous women to be exalted, plural marriage will need to be practiced by select individuals. For some reason the Lord commanded the practice among the Saints for a period of time. This is a singular event in history, which I don’t expect to be repeated.
Studying the lives of Joseph’s plural wives and reading their testimonies has helped me gain respect for them. Many record the struggle they went through when the practice was first proposed to them. They were initially repulsed by the thought. But through prayer and contemplation, they came to a decision that it was what God wanted them to do. Emily and Eliza Partridge, Eliza Snow, and Lucy Walker were just four of Joseph’s wives, but their stories of courage, tenacity, faith, and strength of character in facing trials are particularly inspiring. Eliza Partridge remarked: “Nothing but a firm desire to keep the commandments of the Lord could have induced a girl to marry in that way. I thought my trials were very severe in this line.” Her words inspire me to persevere when my trials are quite severe because I share her desire to keep the commandments and receive the blessings of the restored gospel.