“Lesson 22 Class Preparation Material: Plural Marriage,” Foundations of the Restoration Teacher Material (2019)
“Lesson 22 Class Preparation Material,” Foundations of the Restoration Teacher Material
As early as 1831, when Joseph Smith was working on his inspired translation of the Old Testament, he prayed to understand why some ancient prophets and Israelite kings practiced plural marriage (see the section heading and verse 1 of Doctrine and Covenants 132). The Lord gave a revelation to the Prophet.
In verse 37, the word concubine refers to a woman who, in Old Testament times, was legally married to a man but had a lower social status than a wife. Concubines were not part of the practice of plural marriage in our dispensation.
Sometime after the Lord revealed the principle of plural marriage to Joseph Smith, He commanded the Prophet to live this principle and to teach it to others. While we do not understand all of God’s purposes for initiating plural marriage in the early days of the Church, its introduction was part of the latter-day restoration of “all things” (Doctrine and Covenants 132:40, 45; see also Acts 3:19–21).
Individuals close to Joseph Smith reported that he had told them that an angel of God appeared to him as many as three times between 1834 and 1842, commanding him to live the principle of plural marriage. “Fragmentary evidence suggests that Joseph Smith acted on the angel’s first command by marrying a plural wife, Fanny Alger, in Kirtland, Ohio, in the mid-1830s. … Little is known about this marriage, and nothing is known about the conversations between Joseph and Emma regarding Alger. After the marriage with Alger ended in separation, Joseph seems to have set the subject of plural marriage aside until after the Church moved to Nauvoo, Illinois” (“Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo,” Gospel Topics, topics.ChurchofJesusChrist.org).
Beginning in 1841, the Prophet Joseph Smith married additional women in obedience to the Lord’s commandment and introduced the principle of plural marriage to a limited number of other Church members.
Eliza R. Snow, who was sealed to the Prophet Joseph Smith and later served as the second Relief Society General President, recalled:
The Prophet Joseph … described the trying mental ordeal he experienced in overcoming the repugnance of his feelings … relative to the introduction of plural marriage. He knew the voice of God—he knew the commandment of the Almighty to him was to go forward. … He knew that he had not only his own prejudices and prepossessions [beliefs] to combat and to overcome, but those of the whole Christian world stared him in the face; but God, who is above all, had given the commandment, and He must be obeyed. (Eliza R. Snow, in Biography and Family Record of Lorenzo Snow , 69)
One of the reasons our understanding of Joseph Smith’s practice of plural marriage is limited is that he and others who practiced plural marriage in Nauvoo rarely mentioned it in written records. Many details of the practice of plural marriage were kept confidential, and historical records simply do not answer all of our questions.
From a Gospel Topics essay about plural marriage we learn:
During the era in which plural marriage was practiced, Latter-day Saints distinguished between sealings for time and eternity and sealings for eternity only. Sealings for time and eternity included commitments and relationships during this life, generally including the possibility of sexual relations. Eternity-only sealings indicated relationships in the next life alone. …
Some of the women who were sealed to Joseph Smith later testified that their marriages were for time and eternity, while others indicated that their relationships were for eternity alone.
Most of those sealed to Joseph Smith were between 20 and 40 years of age at the time of their sealing to him. The oldest, Fanny Young, was 56 years old. The youngest was Helen Mar Kimball, … who was sealed to Joseph several months before her 15th birthday. Marriage at such an age, inappropriate by today’s standards, was legal in that era, and some women married in their mid-teens. Helen Mar Kimball spoke of her sealing to Joseph as being “for eternity alone,” suggesting that the relationship did not involve sexual relations. …
… Joseph Smith was sealed to a number of women who were already married. Neither these women nor Joseph explained much about these sealings, though several women said they were for eternity alone. …
There are several possible explanations for this practice. These sealings may have provided a way to create an eternal bond or link between Joseph’s family and other families within the Church. …
These sealings may also be explained by Joseph’s reluctance to enter plural marriage because of the sorrow it would bring to his wife Emma. He may have believed that sealings to married women would comply with the Lord’s command without requiring him to have normal marriage relationships. …
Another possibility is that, in an era when life spans were shorter than they are today, faithful women felt an urgency to be sealed by priesthood authority. Several of these women were married either to non-Mormons or former Mormons, and more than one of the women later expressed unhappiness in their present marriages. Living in a time when divorce was difficult to obtain, these women may have believed a sealing to Joseph Smith would give them blessings they might not otherwise receive in the next life. …
… After Joseph’s death, most of the women sealed to him moved to Utah with the Saints, remained faithful Church members, and defended both plural marriage and Joseph. (“Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo,” topics.ChurchofJesusChrist.org)
The practice of plural marriage was as foreign and difficult for most early Saints as it would be to Church members today. “In many parts of the world, polygamy was socially acceptable and legally permissible. But in the United States, most people thought that the practice was morally wrong” (“The Manifesto and the End of Plural Marriage,” Gospel Topics, topics.ChurchofJesusChrist.org). The commandment to practice plural marriage “was among the most challenging aspects of the Restoration—for Joseph personally and for other Church members. … For Joseph Smith’s wife Emma, it was an excruciating ordeal. … She vacillated in her view of plural marriage, at some points supporting it and at other times denouncing it” (“Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo,” topics.ChurchofJesusChrist.org).
Not all Latter-day Saints were expected to live plural marriage. And some Church members who struggled with the principle of plural marriage were blessed with a spiritual witness that gave them courage to move forward with the practice. The experiences of two such members are summarized here:
Brigham Young said that, upon learning of plural marriage, “it was the first time in my life that I had desired the grave.” “I had to pray unceasingly,” he said, “and I had to exercise faith and the Lord revealed to me the truth of it and that satisfied me.” …
Lucy Walker recalled her inner turmoil when Joseph Smith invited her to become his wife. “Every feeling of my soul revolted against it,” she wrote. Yet, after several restless nights on her knees in prayer, she found relief as her room “filled with a holy influence” akin to “brilliant sunshine.” She said, “My soul was filled with a calm sweet peace that I never knew,” and “supreme happiness took possession of my whole being.”
Not all had such experiences. Some Latter-day Saints rejected the principle of plural marriage and left the Church, while others declined to enter the practice but remained faithful. Nevertheless, for many women and men, initial revulsion and anguish was followed by struggle, resolution, and ultimately, light and peace. Sacred experiences enabled the Saints to move forward in faith. (“Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo,” topics.ChurchofJesusChrist.org)
Not long after the death of the Prophet Joseph Smith in 1844, the Saints migrated to the Salt Lake Valley in the western United States, where Church members eventually practiced plural marriage openly. From the 1860s to the 1880s, the United States government passed laws against the practice and eventually put harsh punishments in place for those who did not comply, including imprisonment. After seeking the Lord’s guidance and receiving His direction, President Wilford Woodruff prepared a statement in September 1890 that became known as “the Manifesto” (Official Declaration 1), which ultimately led to the end of the practice of plural marriage by members of the Church.
A small number of Church members continued to enter into new plural marriages after the Manifesto was given. During the April 1904 general conference, President Joseph F. Smith issued a second manifesto and announced “that all [plural] marriages are prohibited, and if any officer or member of the Church shall assume to solemnize or enter into any such marriage he will be … excommunicated” (in Conference Report, Apr. 1904, 75). This policy continues today.
Elder Marcus B. Nash of the Seventy has taught:
Some [misread the scriptures] to mean that plural marriage is necessary for exaltation. … This, however, is not supported in the revelations. … Eternal life is promised to a monogamous couple who are sealed by the authority of the priesthood and who abide in the covenant—with no additional condition or requirement [see Doctrine and Covenants 132:19]. … The Church affirms that monogamy is God’s standard for marriage except when He authorizes or commands otherwise through His prophet. The Church does not teach that participation in plural marriage is necessary for exaltation. (“The New and Everlasting Covenant,” Ensign, Dec. 2015, 44, 46)
Again, we do not understand all of God’s purposes for introducing plural marriage in the early days of the Church. But Latter-day Saints today respect the sacrifices and devoted efforts made by those who practiced plural marriage in obedience to God’s command.