Joseph Smith’s Polygamy Denials


Joseph Smith denied the prac­tice of polygamy1 on sev­er­al occa­sions. He was also respon­si­ble for the pub­li­ca­tion or dis­tri­b­u­tion of sev­er­al addi­tion­al denials. A com­plete list­ing of ear­ly Church leader polygamy denials up to 1850 is avail­able here.

A few notes:

  • Hyper­links to orig­i­nal source mate­r­i­al may be found by click­ing on the link found in each head­er. These links point to a more com­plete tran­script of each source and that tran­script also con­tains a link to the orig­i­nal source host­ed by LDS affil­i­at­ed sites where available.
  • Denials are tagged with OWN WORDS (5 occur­rences), RESPONSIBLE FOR (3 occur­rences), or POSSIBLY AWARE OF (1 occur­rence, in the appen­dix).2
  • Empha­sis is some­times added to high­light the most rel­e­vant parts of a statement.
  • The wife count is com­piled from LDS apol­o­gist Bri­an Hales’ Joseph Smith’s Polygamy site and only uses estab­lished sealing/marriage dates—the actu­al wife count may be high­er.3
  • Sev­er­al denials refer to the 1835 Doc­trine and Covenants state­ment on mar­riage.

Denials listed in chronological order

May 5, 1838, Prophet’s Answers to Sundry Questions—OWN WORDS

Joseph Smith had 2 wives at this time.4

Sev­enth–“Do the Mor­mons believe in hav­ing more wives than one?”

No, not at the same time. But they believe that if their com­pan­ion dies, they have a right to mar­ry again. But we do dis­ap­prove of the cus­tom, which has gained in the world, and has been prac­ticed among us, to our great mor­ti­fi­ca­tion, in mar­ry­ing in five or six weeks, or even in two or three months, after the death of their com­pan­ion. We believe that due respect ought to be had to the mem­o­ry of the dead, and the feel­ings of both friends and children. 

April 15, 1842, Times and Seasons—OWN WORDS

The rumor about being shut in a room for sev­er­al days is almost cer­tain­ly false, but the gen­er­al out­line of Martha Brotherton’s sto­ry as con­tained in her affi­davit is like­ly truth­ful. Joseph Smith had at least 8 wives when these words were spoken.

He [Hyrum Smith] then spoke in con­tra­dic­tion of a report in cir­cu­la­tion about Elder Kim­ball, B. Young, him­self, and oth­ers of the Twelve, alleg­ing that a sis­ter had been shut in a room for sev­er­al days, and that they had endeav­ored to induce her to believe in hav­ing two wives

Pres’t. J. Smith spoke upon the sub­ject of the sto­ries respect­ing Elder Kim­ball and oth­ers, show­ing the fol­ly and incon­sis­ten­cy of spend­ing any time in con­vers­ing about such sto­ries or hear­ken­ing to them, for there is no per­son that is acquaint­ed with our prin­ci­ples would believe such lies, except Sharp the edi­tor of the “War­saw Signal.” 

August 31, 1842, Affidavits against Bennett—RESPONSIBLE FOR

The below affi­davits by Kim­ball and Young refer to Martha Brotherton’s affi­davit, which is like­ly truth­ful, at least in its gen­er­al out­line. Martha’s affi­davit pri­mar­i­ly makes the claim that Joseph and Brigham attempt­ed to per­suade her that polygamy was approved of God and to become Brigham’s wife. Brigham swore to the below state­ment in August—two months pri­or he had tak­en Lucy Ann Deck­er for his first polyg­a­mous wife. Heber C. Kim­ball also took his first polyg­a­mous wife ear­ly in 1842. Joseph Smith called for vol­un­teers to dis­trib­ute the broad­side con­tain­ing these affi­davits. In 1870 Brigham had Martha Broth­er­ton sealed to him by proxy. Joseph Smith had at least 13 wives by this time.

… Heber C. Kim­ball, who being duly sworn accord­ing to law, deposeth and saith that the affi­davit of Miss Martha Broth­er­ton, which has been pub­lished in sundry news­pa­pers, is false and with­out foun­da­tion in truth, and fur­ther this depo­nant saith not. 

… AFFIDAVIT OF BRIGHAM YOUNG … I do here­by tes­ti­fy that the affi­davit of Miss Martha Broth­er­ton that is going the rounds in the polit­i­cal and reli­gious papers, is a base false­hood, with regard to any pri­vate inter­course or unlaw­ful con­duct or con­ver­sa­tion with me. BRIGHAM YOUNG … 

September 1, 1842, Times and Seasons—RESPONSIBLE FOR

Joseph Smith was edi­tor of the Times and Sea­sons when this was pub­lished and had at least 13 wives by this time.

Inas­much as the pub­lic mind has been unjust­ly abused through the fal­la­cy of Dr. Bennett’s let­ters, we make an extract on the sub­ject of mar­riage, show­ing the rule of the church on this impor­tant mat­ter. The extract is from the Book of Doc­trine and Covenants, and is the only rule allowed by the church.

All legal con­tracts of mar­riage made before a per­son is bap­tized into this church, should be held sacred and ful­filled. Inas­much as this church of Christ has been reproached with the crime of for­ni­ca­tion, and polygamy: we declare that we believe, that one man should have one wife; and one woman, but one hus­band, except in case of death, when either is at lib­er­ty to mar­ry again. It is not right to per­suade a woman to be bap­tized con­trary to the will of her hus­band nei­ther is it law­ful to influ­ence her to leave her husband.” 

October 1, 1842, Times and Seasons—RESPONSIBLE FOR

Joseph Smith was edi­tor of the Times and Sea­sons when this doc­u­ment was pub­lished. Two of the women who signed the doc­u­ment were Joseph’s plur­al wives (Sara M. Cleve­land and Eliza R. Snow). Bish­op Newel K. Whit­ney had per­formed a plur­al mar­riage of his daugh­ter to Joseph the pre­vi­ous July. John Tay­lor and Wil­ford Woodruff had also like­ly been taught about polygamy by this time.5 Joseph Smith had at least 13 wives when this was published.

… Inas­much as this church of Christ has been reproached with the crime of for­ni­ca­tion, and polygamy: we declare that we believe, that one man should have one wife; and one woman, but one hus­band, except in case of death, when either is at lib­er­ty to mar­ry again… 

We have giv­en the above rule of mar­riage as the only one prac­ticed in this church, to show that Dr. J. C. Bennett’s “secret wife sys­tem” is a mat­ter of his own man­u­fac­ture; and fur­ther to dis­abuse the pub­lic ear, and shew [show] that the said Ben­nett and his mis­an­throp­ic friend Ori­gen Bach­e­lor, are per­pe­trat­ing a foul and infa­mous slan­der upon an inno­cent peo­ple, and need but be known to be hat­ed and despise. In sup­port of this posi­tion, we present the fol­low­ing certificates:— 

We the under­signed mem­bers of the church of Jesus Christ of Lat­ter-Day Saints and res­i­dents of the city of Nau­voo, per­sons of fam­i­lies do here­by cer­ti­fy and declare that we know of no oth­er rule or sys­tem of mar­riage than the one pub­lished from the Book of Doc­trine and Covenants, and we give this cer­tifi­cate to show that Dr. J. C. Bennett’s “secret wife sys­tem” is a crea­ture of his own make as we know of no such soci­ety in this place nor nev­er did.

[Signed by 12 men, includ­ing Newel K. Whit­ney, John Tay­lor, and Wil­ford Woodruff. Under an almost iden­ti­cal state­ment are the print­ed sig­na­tures of 18 women includ­ing Sara M. Cleve­land and Eliza R. Snow] 

October 5, 1843, Joseph’s Journal—OWN WORDS

Joseph Smith had at least 27 wives by this time.

Evening at home and walked up and down the street with my scribe. Gave inst[r]uction to try those who were preach­ing teach­ing or prac­tic­ing the doc­trine of plu­ral­i­ty of wives. on this Law. Joseph for­bids it. and the prac­tice ther[e]of— No man shall have but one wife. 

February 1, 1844, Times and Seasons—OWN WORDS

Joseph Smith had at least 30 wives by this time. Hyrum Smith had 3 or 4 wives at this time. Brown was lat­er excom­mu­ni­cat­ed for preach­ing polygamy.

…an Elder of the Church of Jesus Christ, of Lat­ter-day Saints, by the name of Hiram Brown, has been preach­ing Polygamy…he has been cut off from the church, for his iniquity 


May 26, 1844, Testimony against Dissenters—OWN WORDS

Joseph Smith had at least 30 wives by this time.

… I had not been mar­ried scarce­ly five min­utes, and made one procla­ma­tion of the Gospel, before it was report­ed that I had sev­en wives… 

… and he [William Law] swears that I have com­mit­ted adultery… 

… A man asked me whether the com­mand­ment was giv­en that a man may have sev­en wives; and now the new prophet has charged me with adul­tery. I nev­er had any fuss with these men until that Female Relief Soci­ety brought out the paper against adul­ter­ers and adulteresses. … 

… Wil­son Law also swears that I told him I was guilty of adul­tery. Broth­er Jonathan Dun­ham can swear to the con­trary. I have been chained. I have rat­tled chains before in a dun­geon for the truth’s sake. I am inno­cent of all these charges, and you can bear wit­ness of my inno­cence, for you know me yourselves. … 

What a thing it is for a man to be accused of com­mit­ting adul­tery, and hav­ing sev­en wives, when I can only find one.

I am the same man, and as inno­cent as I was four­teen years ago; and I can prove them all perjurers.

Appendix‑A Statements Joseph Smith may have been aware of

March 15, 1843, Times and Seasons—POSSIBLY AWARE OF

John Tay­lor was edi­tor of the Times and Sea­sons, was in Joseph’s inner cir­cle, and had like­ly been taught about polygamy by this time. Tay­lor would take a plur­al wife before the end of 1843. Joseph lived in Nau­voo when this state­ment was pub­lished in Nau­voo. He had at least 17 wives at this time.

We are charged with advo­cat­ing a plu­ral­i­ty of wives, and com­mon prop­er­ty. Now this is as false as the many oth­er ridicu­lous charges which are brought against us. No sect have a greater rev­er­ence for the laws of mat­ri­mo­ny, or the rights of pri­vate prop­er­ty, and we do what oth­ers do not, prac­tice what we preach … I remain, sir, your oblig­ed ser­vant, H. R. 

Appendix‑B Denials discussed in lds​.org essay

The Plur­al Mar­riage in Kirt­land and Nau­voo essay on lds​.org states the fol­low­ing about the denials (as of 2017-05-07):

The rumors prompt­ed mem­bers and lead­ers to issue care­ful­ly word­ed denials that denounced spir­i­tu­al wifery and polygamy but were silent about what Joseph Smith and oth­ers saw as divine­ly man­dat­ed “celes­tial” plur­al marriage.[22] The state­ments empha­sized that the Church prac­ticed no mar­i­tal law oth­er than monogamy while implic­it­ly leav­ing open the pos­si­bil­i­ty that indi­vid­u­als, under direc­tion of God’s liv­ing prophet, might do so.[23]

They ref­er­ence the fol­low­ing footnotes:

[22]: In the denials, “polygamy” was under­stood to mean the mar­riage of one man to more than one woman but with­out Church sanction. 

[23]: See, for exam­ple, “On Mar­riage,” Times and Sea­sons, Oct. 1, 1842, 939–40; and Wil­ford Woodruff jour­nal, Nov. 25, 1843, Church His­to­ry Library, Salt Lake City; Par­ley P. Pratt, “This Num­ber Clos­es the First Vol­ume of the ‘Prophet,’” The Prophet, May 24, 1845, 2. George A. Smith explained, “Any one who will read care­ful­ly the denials, as they are termed, of plu­ral­i­ty of wives in con­nec­tion with the cir­cum­stances will see clear­ly that they denounce adul­tery, for­ni­ca­tion, bru­tal lust and the teach­ing of plu­ral­i­ty of wives by those who were not com­mand­ed to do so” (George A. Smith let­ter to Joseph Smith III, Oct. 9, 1869, in Jour­nal His­to­ry of The Church of Jesus Christ of Lat­ter-day Saints, Oct. 9, 1869, Church His­to­ry Library, Salt Lake City). 

Did Joseph Smith and other leaders lie or deceive?

Official and Apologetic explanations

  1. Some­times a denial was focused on his indi­vid­ual behav­ior (e.g., 1844) and some­times it was focused on Church doc­trine or prac­tice.

  2. OWN WORDS are state­ments direct­ly attrib­ut­able to Joseph Smith and are high­ly like­ly to reflect the pre­cise words he spoke on that occa­sion. RESPONSIBLE FOR means he had imme­di­ate stew­ard­ship over the con­tents of the pub­li­ca­tion (Times and Sea­sons) or direct­ly pro­mot­ed its dis­tri­b­u­tion (Affi­davits against Ben­nett). Joseph Smith was named as the Times and Sea­sons edi­tor from at least March of 1842 until Octo­ber 1842. Peter Craw­ley notes that while he was the named edi­tor, John Tay­lor and Wil­ford Woodruff actu­al­ly ran the Times and Sea­sons. Still, Tay­lor and Woodruff were in Joseph’s inner cir­cle and had like­ly been taught about polygamy by this time, so it stands to rea­son that they were act­ing with Joseph’s approval (either direct­ly or indi­rect­ly). Regard­less, Joseph nev­er con­tra­dict­ed or cor­rect­ed these state­ments, and there is no rea­son to believe he wasn’t aware of their pub­li­ca­tion. As edi­tor he was nom­i­nal­ly respon­si­ble for the con­tents of the peri­od­i­cal, and giv­en his close asso­ci­a­tion with Tay­lor and Woodruff, it seems rea­son­able to hold Joseph respon­si­ble for these state­ments. POSSIBLY AWARE OF is asso­ci­at­ed with a denial in the Times and Sea­sons that Joseph may have been aware of.

  3. Joseph Smith’s wife count is com­prised of all those to whom he was mar­ried or sealed at the time of the state­ment and is derived from the most con­ser­v­a­tive esti­mate of well-estab­lished dates for his marriages/sealings tak­en from joseph​smith​spolygamy​.org.

  4. Vir­tu­al­ly all schol­ars agree that some kind of sex­u­al rela­tion­ship or mar­riage occurred between Joseph and Fan­ny Alger. The account of a mar­riage cer­e­mo­ny comes via a lat­er tes­ti­mo­ny from Levi Han­cock.

  5. John Tay­lor and Wil­ford Woodruff were orig­i­nal mem­bers of the Quo­rum of the Annoint­ed found­ed in ear­ly 1842. Refer­ring to the “On Mar­riage” affi­davit, D. Michael Quinn wrote: “The sign­ers includ­ed Apos­tle John Tay­lor and Apos­tle Wil­ford Woodruff (who had already been taught the doc­trine of polygamy by Joseph Smith)…”. Also see dis­cus­sion by Mithryn.

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