“United in an Everlasting Covenant,” chapter 40 of Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days, Volume 1, The Standard of Truth, 1815–1846 (2018)
Chapter 40: “United in an Everlasting Covenant”
When Joseph returned to Nauvoo on January 10, 1843, friends and relatives flocked to his house to congratulate him. Soon after, he and Emma held a dinner party to celebrate his victory and their sixteenth wedding anniversary. Wilson Law and Eliza Snow composed songs for the occasion, and Joseph and Emma served the meal while their guests laughed and shared stories.1
Joseph enjoyed being among loved ones. “If I had no expectation of seeing my mother, brothers, and sisters and friends again,” he soon mused, “my heart would burst in a moment.”2 He took comfort knowing that baptisms for the living and dead, the endowment, and eternal marriage provided ways for the Saints to make sacred covenants that sealed them together and ensured that their relationships continued beyond the grave.
Yet up to now no women and only a handful of men had received the endowment, and many Saints were still unaware of the eternal marriage covenant. Joseph clung to the promise that he would live to finish his mission, and he yearned for the temple to be completed so he could introduce the Saints to these ordinances. He continued to feel like time was running out.
Still he sprinted forward, urging the Saints to keep pace. He believed extraordinary blessings were available to those who received sacred ordinances and obeyed God’s laws. Now, more than ever, his goal was to extend the divine knowledge he had received to a greater number of Saints, to help them make and keep covenants that would uplift and exalt them.3
The Mississippi River froze solid that winter, blocking the usual traffic of rafts and riverboats up and down the water. Snow fell often, and icy winds cut across the flatlands and over the bluff. Few Saints stayed outside long since many of them had only low shoes, thin jackets, and threadbare shawls to protect them from the cold and slush.4
As the end of winter approached, a bitter chill still hung in the air while Emily Partridge washed clothes and tended children at the Smith home. For more than two years, she and her older sister Eliza had been living and working with the Smiths, not far from where their mother lived with her new husband.5
Emily belonged to the Relief Society and talked often with the women around her. Occasionally she would hear whispers about plural marriage. More than thirty Saints had quietly embraced the practice, including two of her stepsisters and one of her stepbrothers. Emily herself knew nothing about it firsthand.6
A year earlier, however, Joseph had mentioned that he had something to tell her. He had offered to write it in a letter, but she asked him not to do so, worried that it might say something about plural marriage. Afterward, she had regretted her decision and told her sister about the conversation, sharing what little she knew about the practice. Eliza appeared upset, so Emily said nothing more.7
With no one to confide in, Emily felt like she was struggling alone in deep water. She turned to the Lord and prayed to know what to do, and after some months, she received divine confirmation that she should listen to what Joseph had to say to her—even if it had to do with plural marriage.8
On March 4, a few days after her nineteenth birthday, Joseph asked to speak with Emily at the home of Heber Kimball. She set out as soon as she finished work, her mind ready to receive the principle of plural marriage. As expected, Joseph taught it to her and asked if she would be sealed to him. She agreed, and Heber performed the ordinance.9
Four days later, her sister Eliza was sealed to Joseph too. The sisters could now talk to each other and share what they understood and felt about the covenants they made.10
The Saints continued to defend Joseph against the accusations in John Bennett’s exposé. Much of what John had written was embellished or flatly untrue, but his claim that Joseph had married multiple women was correct. Unaware of this fact, Hyrum Smith and William Law fiercely denied all of John’s statements and unwittingly condemned the actions of Saints who obediently practiced plural marriage.11
This made Brigham Young uneasy. As long as members of the First Presidency remained unaware of the practice, he believed, their condemnation of polygamy could prevent Joseph and others from fulfilling the commandment of the Lord.
Joseph had already tried without success to teach his brother and William about plural marriage. Once, during a council meeting, he had barely broached the issue when William interrupted. “If an angel from heaven was to reveal to me that a man should have more than one wife,” he said, “I would kill him!”
Brigham could see that Hyrum’s and William’s actions exhausted Joseph. One Sunday, as Brigham finished his evening chores, Joseph arrived unexpectedly at his door. “I want you to go to my house and preach,” Joseph said.
Normally Brigham enjoyed meeting with the Saints, but he knew Hyrum would be preaching that evening as well. “I would rather not go,” he said.12
Both Brigham and his wife Mary Ann had come to know through prayer and inspiration that they should practice plural marriage. With Mary Ann’s consent, Brigham had been sealed to a woman named Lucy Ann Decker in June 1842, a year after Joseph had first taught him the principle. Lucy had separated from her first husband and had young children to care for.13
“Brother Brigham,” Joseph insisted, “if you do not go with me, I will not go home to my house tonight.”
Reluctantly, Brigham agreed to preach, and he walked home with the prophet. They found Hyrum standing beside the fireplace, speaking to a full house. He held the Bible, Book of Mormon, and Doctrine and Covenants in his hand and declared that they were the law God had given them to build up His kingdom.
“Everything more than these,” Hyrum said, “is of man and is not of God.”
Brigham listened to Hyrum’s sermon, his emotions rising. Beside him, Joseph sat with his face buried in his hands. When Hyrum finished, Joseph nudged Brigham and said, “Get up.”
Brigham stood and picked up the scriptures Hyrum had set down. He laid the books in front of him, one by one, so everyone in the room could see. “I would not give the ashes of a rye straw for these three books,” he declared, “without the living oracles of God.”14 Lacking a latter-day prophet, he said, the Saints were no better off than they were before God revealed the gospel through Joseph Smith.
When he finished, Brigham could tell his sermon had moved Hyrum. Rising to his feet, Hyrum humbly asked the Saints to forgive him. Brigham was right, he said. As valuable as the scriptures were, they were no substitute for a living prophet.15
That spring, Joseph often left Nauvoo to visit the smaller stakes of the church nearby. Everywhere he went, he was accompanied by his new clerk William Clayton, a bright young man from England. William had gathered to Nauvoo with his wife, Ruth, in 1840 and had been hired by the prophet soon after.16
On April 1, William traveled a half a day with Joseph and Orson Hyde, who had recently returned from Jerusalem, to a meeting in a town called Ramus.17 The next morning, William listened as Orson preached that it was the Saints’ privilege to have the Father and Son dwell in their hearts until the Second Coming.18
Later, while they enjoyed a meal at the home of Joseph’s sister Sophronia, Joseph said, “Elder Hyde, I am going to offer some corrections to you.”
“They shall be thankfully received,” Orson replied.
“To say that the Father and the Son dwell in a man’s heart is an old sectarian notion and is not correct,” Joseph said. “We shall see Him as He is. We shall see that He is a man like ourselves.”19
Joseph had more to say on the matter when the conference continued later that evening. “The Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s, and the Son also,” he taught, “but the Holy Ghost is a personage of spirit.”20
As Joseph spoke, William wrote down as much of the sermon as he could in his diary. He was drawn to the profound truths Joseph shared and hungered to know more.
William recorded Joseph’s teaching that the knowledge and intelligence people acquired in life rose with them in the Resurrection. “If a person gains more knowledge in this life, through his diligence and obedience, than another,” Joseph explained, “he will have so much the advantage in the world to come.”21
A month later, Joseph and William returned to Ramus and stayed in the home of Benjamin and Melissa Johnson. Joseph taught the Johnsons that a woman and man could be sealed together for eternity in the new and everlasting covenant of marriage. Only by entering into this covenant, which was an order of the priesthood, he taught, could they obtain exaltation. Otherwise, their relationship would cease beyond the grave, putting an end to their eternal progress and increase.
Joseph’s description of eternal marriage awed William. “I feel desirous to be united in an everlasting covenant to my wife,” he wrote in his diary, “and pray that it may soon be.”22
Orson Hyde’s return from Jerusalem meant that Peter and Mary Maughan had to move their family out of the Hyde home in Nauvoo. Having nowhere else to stay, they camped on a city lot they acquired from the temple committee, with the understanding that Peter would work on the temple to pay for the land. Mary, meanwhile, bartered spools of cotton she had brought from England for food.
Peter soon started work as a stonemason, cutting and shaping limestone blocks for the temple.23 By now, the walls were twelve feet high in some places, and a temporary floor had been installed to allow the Saints to hold meetings in the temple.24
The building was going to be bigger and grander than the temple Peter and Mary had visited in Kirtland. It would still have assembly rooms on its first and second floors. But the exterior of the temple in Nauvoo would be adorned with ornate stone carvings of stars, moons, and suns, evoking the kingdoms of glory described in Joseph’s vision of the Resurrection as well as John the Revelator’s description of the church as “a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars.”25
Week after week, workers used gunpowder to extract stone from quarries north of town. They then chiseled the rock into rough blocks and used ox-drawn carts to haul them to a workshop near the temple. There, men like Peter cut and polished the blocks to the right fit while skilled artisans carved and sculpted the more decorative stones. When a stone was ready, workers attached it to a tall crane and hoisted it into place.26
With steady work and land of their own, Peter and Mary planted a vegetable garden, worked on building their house, and looked forward to comfortable days ahead.27
Two months after her sealing to Joseph, Emily Partridge still worked every day in the Smith home, washing and mending clothes and tending the children. Julia Smith turned twelve that spring and took painting lessons.28 The boys too were getting older. Young Joseph was ten, Frederick was six, and Alexander was nearly five. The older children attended school with Emily’s younger sister Lydia. Young Joseph also played with her nine-year-old brother, Edward Jr.29
In choosing to be sealed to Joseph, Emily trusted in her witness that she was acting in obedience to the Lord’s commandment. She and her sister Eliza continued to keep their marriages private. They and the others who practiced plural marriage never referred to it as polygamy, which they considered a worldly term, not a priesthood ordinance.30 When Joseph or someone else condemned “polygamy” or “spiritual wifery” in public, those who practiced plural marriage understood that they were not referring to their covenant relationships.31
Aside from the Bible, Joseph had no models or precedents to follow, and the Lord did not always give him exact instructions on how to obey His word. As with other commandments and revelations, Joseph had to move forward according to his best judgment. Only many years later did Emily and others write recollections of Joseph’s obedience to the principle and their own experiences with plural marriage in Nauvoo. Their accounts were often brief and fragmented.32
Because neither Joseph nor Emma wrote down how they felt about plural marriage, many questions are left unanswered. In her writings, Emily recorded some of their struggles with the practice. At times Emma rejected it completely while at other times reluctantly accepting it as a commandment. Torn between the Lord’s mandate to practice plural marriage and Emma’s opposition, Joseph sometimes chose to marry women without Emma’s knowledge, creating distressing situations for everyone involved.33
In early May, Emma took Emily and Eliza aside and explained the principle of plural marriage to them.34 She had told Joseph that she would consent to him being sealed to two additional wives as long as she could choose them, and she had chosen Emily and Eliza, apparently unaware that Joseph had already been sealed to them.35
Rather than mention her former sealing, Emily believed that keeping silent on the matter was the best thing for her to do.36 A few days later, she and Eliza were again sealed to Joseph, this time with Emma as a witness.37
On May 14, while Joseph was away at another conference, Hyrum preached in the temple against men having more than one wife. Referring to Jacob’s condemnation of unauthorized plural marriages in the Book of Mormon, Hyrum called the practice an abomination before God.38
After the sermon, Hyrum began to question his own certainty about what he taught. Discussions about plural marriage swirled around Nauvoo, and rumors that Joseph had several wives were also common.39
Hyrum wanted to believe this was not the case, but he wondered if Joseph was not telling him something. There had been times, after all, when Joseph had alluded to the practice, perhaps testing Hyrum to see how he would react. And Hyrum sensed there were some things that Joseph told the Twelve that he had not taught him.
One day soon after the sermon, Hyrum saw Brigham near his home and asked if they could talk. “I know there is something or other which I do not understand that is revealed to the Twelve,” he said. “Is this so?”
The men sat down on a pile of fence rails. “I do not know anything about what you know,” Brigham answered cautiously, “but I know what I know.”
“I have mistrusted for a long time that Joseph had received a revelation that a man should have more than one wife,” Hyrum said.
“I will tell you about this,” Brigham said, “if you will swear with an uplifted hand before God that you will never say another word against Joseph and his doings and the doctrines he is preaching.”
Hyrum stood up. “I will do it with all my heart,” he said. “I want to know the truth.”
As Brigham taught him about the Lord’s revelation to Joseph on plural marriage, Hyrum wept, convinced that Joseph acted under commandment.40
In late May 1843, Emma and Joseph were sealed together for eternity in a room above Joseph’s store, solemnizing at last what they had long desired.41 Joseph then invited Brigham and Mary Ann Young, Willard and Jennetta Richards, Hyrum and Mary Fielding Smith, and Mary’s widowed sister, Mercy Thompson, to meet with him the following morning to receive the same ordinance.42
Before the meeting, Hyrum worried about his complicated family situation. If the blessings of eternal marriage belonged only to those who had been sealed together by the priesthood, what would happen to his first wife, Jerusha, who had died six years earlier?
“You can have her sealed to you upon the same principle as you can be baptized for the dead,” Joseph said.
“What can I do for my second wife?” Hyrum asked.
“You can also make a covenant with her for eternity,” Joseph said.
Mary agreed to serve as Jerusha’s proxy in the special sealing. “And I will be sealed to you for eternity myself,” she told Hyrum. “I love you and I do not want to be separated from you.”43
On the morning of May 29, Joseph and the others met above his store, and each couple was sealed together, uniting them for eternity. As the only widow in the room, Mercy Thompson could not help feeling different from the others. But learning that she could still be sealed to her late husband, Robert, who had died of a malarial fever a few years earlier, made her feel like God was mindful of her and her situation.44
When Mercy’s turn came to receive the ordinance, Joseph said he could think of no one better than her brother-in-law Hyrum to stand in for Robert. He sealed her to Robert, then sealed Hyrum to Jerusha with Mary serving as proxy.45
Brigham closed their meeting with a hymn and a prayer, and the friends spent the rest of the morning talking about the things of God. A pleasant harmony seemed to quiet everything that had troubled the Saints for the last few years.46