Part 22: CES Letter Polygamy & Polyandry Questions [Section C]

by Sarah Allen


Before we dive in, I want to talk about something personal. When I originally wrote this post, it was with a very heavy heart. A few days before I sat down to write it, a woman who was a former acquaintance and coworker of mine—a part of my larger friend group at that job but not someone I was particularly close to personally—was abducted and murdered by a man we vaguely knew, another coworker of ours from a different department. Obviously, I was pretty shaken by all of that, and that friend group and I were shocked and devastated. She was a very kind, generous woman, and she will be missed.

The reason I’m sharing this personal information is because this is the part of the Letter that starts getting a little more vicious with its allegations of mistreatment and abuse of women. As a woman myself, I find these accusations particularly offensive when compared to actual violence toward women, such as what my old coworker suffered that week.

I have been sexually harassed in the past at school and at work. Over the years, I have been catcalled. I have had multiple customers hitting on me while I’m just trying to do my job. I have had men get mad at me when I declined to date them. I have been followed by strange men on the street, all the way up the block to a corner market and then all the way back down into my hotel, to the point where I had to get the front desk clerk to get rid of them for me. I had a complete stranger fixate on me over a Facebook post, find my personal information, and call me at all hours of the day and night. I have been forcibly kissed and groped in an elevator by a stranger in a foreign country where I had no way to fight him off. And I am no supermodel. I am an introvert who blends in with the crowd. Most of you wouldn’t look twice at me if you saw me walking past because I don’t stand out. Even my name is so blandly generic that you can’t Google it without further information. But even I’ve had my fair share of mistreatment, and I know many other women who have had similar experiences.

It’s an unfortunate truth in this world that no matter how many kind, amazing, righteous men there are out there who would never dream of hurting a woman—and I personally know a lot of them—there are other men out there who don’t care who they hurt. There are men who prey on women, and abuse them, and manipulate them, and dominate them, and think women owe them something. These kinds of men aren’t even always readily apparent. They don’t walk around with neon signs over their head telling everyone who they are, and the Entitled Nice Guy is a common trope in entertainment because it’s equally common in real life. Sadly, these abusers of women can be found everywhere, even in the Church.

And you know what? Joseph Smith was not a perfect man. He made plenty of mistakes, and in his place, I probably would have done several things differently. But as someone who has met her fair share of manipulative jerks over the years, I do not believe that he was one of them. I do not think he was a sexual predator or an abuser. I do not think he used his religious position to coerce girls into marrying him against their will. I do not believe he ever forced anyone to do anything. And I deeply resent that these accusations are being made by a man who goes out of his way to manipulate and prey on others the way that Jeremy Runnells has in this Letter.

I am angry at what happened to my old coworker this summer. I’m angry that we live in a world where it’s dangerous for a woman to walk down the street by herself. I’m angry that I can’t sit in a park and read my scriptures without some guy thinking I’m desperately trolling for a date, then getting mad at me when I decline. I’m angry that my aunt stays in an emotionally and verbally abusive marriage because she’s so worn down she doesn’t realize she can do any better. I’m angry that there are people out there actively looking for ways to hurt others. I’m angry that there are those who are so hateful that they spend all their free time scouring old documents, looking for any statement they can twist against the Church. And yes, I’m angry at Jeremy Runnells for putting out this manipulative trash and pretending he’s just asking innocent questions without any agenda.

So, forgive me if I’m not very kind or patient or willing to give him the benefit of the doubt this week. I just didn’t have it in me when I wrote this. I realize I’m conflating these things in my mind and maybe they shouldn’t be conflated. Maybe I should have taken a step back for a week or two, but it gave me something else to think about, so I didn’t.

Anyway, this post isn’t about me, so let’s begin.

Among the women and girls was a mother-daughter set and three sister sets. Several of these girls included Joseph’s own foster daughters who lived and worked in the Smith home (Lawrence sisters, Partridge sisters, Lucy Walker).

Those women listed were not Joseph’s “foster daughters”. That’s a modern term that constitutes a particular legal arrangement that did not exist in Joseph’s day. These women were all of legal marriageable age at the time, and while he oversaw the estate of the Lawrence sisters and helped care for all five of them (and others), it was not equivalent to a modern foster arrangement.

Through this section of posts, the terminology has been all over the place, which exacerbates the issues and makes it harder to understand what was going actually on. I’ve tried to point out where those terms have been incorrect, even though I often default to using them just to keep things easier. Others have helped clarify things in the comments where I haven’t. “Foster daughter,” like “wife,” “marriage,” “polyandry,” “dynastic link,” etc., is not accurate. You can argue the impropriety of the marriage if you want, but the terminology is wrong and it does make a difference.

Traditionally, including during the mid-19th Century, fathers had the right to grant someone else guardianship of their children for whatever reason, usually when their wives died or became gravely ill. We’ve all read older books where a child is someone’s “ward.” This is usually what that means, and sometimes it was a formal legal agreement, and other times, it wasn’t. In the cases of these women listed above, it was not a formal legal agreement. And, ridiculously, single women of marriageable age were often still treated as children under the law at that time and typically required a husband or brother to help provide for them, since they had limited opportunities to provide for themselves. That didn’t really begin to change until after the Civil War.

While Runnells is right that these particular women lived and worked in Joseph’s home at various times, and while he did treat them like family, he was not legally responsible for them and they were not children. He was not certified or appointed by the state, he was not recompensed, and he was not granted parental rights over them. They were simply single women of legal marriageable age who did not have a father or brother able to provide for them at that time. Joseph was asked by family members to fill that role, and he did.

If some of these marriages were non-sexual “dynastic” “eternal” sealings only, as theorized by the Church and apologists, why would Joseph need to be sealed to a mother and daughter set? The mother would be sealed to the daughter and would become part of Joseph’s afterlife family through the sealing to her mother.

This is pretty simple, and as with a lot of Jeremy’s questions, doesn’t require a lot of thought to arrive at the answer. First, “dynastic” does not mean “non-sexual.” It means a linking of families together through the sealing process, the way that Joseph and Heber C. Kimball linked their families through his sealing to Helen Mar Kimball. While in many cases these sealings did not include sealings for time, and as such did not include sexual relations, other sealings for both time and eternity did, even when they were for dynastic reasons.

Second, both mother and daughter would need to be sealed to a righteous priesthood holder in order to reach exaltation in the Celestial Kingdom. If you aren’t, you can’t have the potential for increase in the next life. We typically take that to mean spirit children of our own, but we don’t fully understand exactly what it means or how it will come about. It definitely requires a male and female sealed together under the celestial marriage covenant, however. D&C 131:1-4 is clear about that:

1 In the celestial glory there are three heavens or degrees;

2 And in order to obtain the highest, a man must enter into this order of the priesthood [meaning the new and everlasting covenant of marriage];

3 And if he does not, he cannot obtain it.

4 He may enter into the other, but that is the end of his kingdom; he cannot have an increase.

If both mother and daughter wanted that blessing in the next life, and they both wanted exaltation in the Celestial Kingdom and the possibility for eternal increase, a parental sealing wouldn’t cut it. Both women would need a sealed spouse.

Moreover, and this is important for the next question, adoption and parent-to-child sealings did not begin until after Joseph’s death, once the Nauvoo temple was completed. According to Jonathan Stapley:

[T]he one temple ritual that Joseph Smith never administered during his lifetime was the sealing of children to parents, biological or other. Smith taught that the power to ‘bind or seal’ children to parents was the power of Elijah. This understanding was manifest in the temple where both biological children and non-biological relations became heirs through sealing ritual. Both those not sealed in marriage and those not sealed to parents were to be ‘single & alone’ in the eternities.

The footnote #13 to this same article further states that, “…[N]o child-to-parent sealings/adoptions were performed during Smith’s lifetime. While LDS leaders made provision throughout the nineteenth century to perform their temple rituals outside of these sacred edifices they uniquely confined all child-to-parent sealings to their temples in both Nauvoo and Utah.”

Those sealings were only to take place in the temple, and the temple was not yet completed when Joseph was killed.

Further, Joseph died without being sealed to his children or to his parents. If a primary motive of these “sealings” was to be connected in the afterlife, as claimed by the Church and apologists, what does it say about Joseph’s priorities and motives to be sealed to a non-related and already married woman (Patty Sessions) and her 23-year-old already married daughter (Sylvia Sessions) than it was to be sealed to his own parents and to his own children?

What does it say about Joseph’s priorities? It says that his priority was to perform those types of sealings only in the temple, and the temple was not yet finished so he couldn’t perform them. Brigham Young later confirmed this:

There are many of the ordinances of the house of God that must be performed in a Temple that is erected expressly for the purpose. There are other ordinances that we can administer without a Temple. You know that there are some which you have received—baptism, the laying on of hands, the gifts of the Holy Ghost, such as the speaking in and interpretation of tongues, prophesying, healing, discerning of spirits, etc., and many blessings bestowed upon the people, we have the privilege of receiving without a Temple. There are other blessings that will not be received, and ordinances that will not be performed according to the law that the Lord has revealed, without their being done in a Temple prepared for that purpose. We can, at the present time, go into the Endowment House and be baptized for the dead, receive our washings and anointing, etc., for there we have a font that has been erected, dedicated expressly for baptizing people for the remission of sins, for their health and for their dead friends; in this the Saints have the privilege of being baptized for their friends. We also have the privilege of sealing women to men, without a Temple. This we can do in the Endowment House; but when we come to other sealing ordinances, ordinances pertaining to the holy Priesthood, to connect the chain of the Priesthood from father Adam until now, by sealing children to their parents, being sealed for our forefathers, etc., they cannot be done without a Temple. But we can seal women to men, but not men to men, without a Temple. When the ordinances are carried out in the Temples that will be erected, men will be sealed to their fathers, and those who have slept clear up to father Adam. … This ordinance will not be performed anywhere but in a Temple; neither will children be sealed to their living parents in any other place than a Temple. … Children born unto parents before the latter enter into the fullness of the covenants, have to be sealed to them in a Temple to become legal heirs of the Priesthood. It is true they can receive the ordinances, they can receive their endowments and be blessed in common with their parents; but still the parents cannot claim them legally and lawfully in eternity unless they are sealed to them. 

Arrangements could be made for some ordinances to be performed outside of the temple, just like we do them today, but some can only be done in the temple. Parent-to-child sealings was one of those ordinances. Joseph couldn’t be sealed to his parents or children in this lifetime, because he didn’t have a temple he could do it in. The only sealings he was allowed to perform at the time were those between husband and wife, so those were the ones he performed.

Joseph was married/sealed to at least 22 other women and girls before finally being sealed to his first legal wife, Emma, on May 28, 1843. Emma was not aware of most of these other girls/women and their marriages to her husband. Why was “elect lady” Emma the 23rd wife to be sealed to Joseph?

Because Emma struggled mightily with accepting plural marriage. It was something she fought against, her resolution to follow it went back and forth, she destroyed the original copy of the revelation, and after his death, she lied about Joseph practicing it until the day she died. It was very, very difficult for her to accept.

Sealings are covenants made with God, and like all covenants, they carry consequences when we don’t honor them. The sealing covenant is, some have argued, the foundational covenant upon which our entire religion is founded, present from the First Vision onward. Being sealed to Emma when she didn’t accept the covenant and refused to follow it would only have led to severe consequences in the eternities. That’s why they had to wait. Emma had to be ready. She had a say in the matter too, after all.

For someone so concerned with Joseph coercing women into marrying him, it seems odd that Jeremy would take a stance that would have required Joseph to force Emma to make a covenant she wasn’t ready to make. That’s pretty hypocritical, I’m just saying.

There’s also debate over how many of those sealings Emma was aware of. No one knows exactly what she was taught or when, because she did spend decades lying about it despite records of her having participated in some of them by choosing the women involved and attending the sealings. There are also reports of her discussing the principle with others during the Nauvoo period when the bulk of the sealings took place. We can’t state as fact that “Emma was not aware of most of these other girls/women and their marriages to her husband.” It just isn’t clear.

Some of the marriages to these women included promises by Joseph of eternal life to the girls and their families, or threats that he (Joseph) was going to be slain by an angel with a drawn sword if the girls didn’t marry him.

Nope. As discussed last week, while Helen Mar Kimball may have believed at the time that she was being promised eternal life for her and her family, that appears to have been a misunderstanding that no one else shared.

As for the angel, Jeremy has it backwards. Joseph didn’t tell anyone that he would be slain by an angel if they didn’t marry him. He would be slain if he didn’t propose marriage to them. Joseph was being commanded to enter into plural marriage. The women in question were not. Like every woman who entered into the practice, they were given the choice. And you know what? Some of them said no.

I have a problem with this. This is Warren Jeffs territory. This is not the Joseph Smith I grew up learning about in the Church and having a testimony of. This is not the Joseph Smith to whom I sang “Praise to the Man” or taught others about for two years in the mission field.

Jeremy compares Joseph Smith to Warren Jeffs repeatedly throughout the rest of the section, even making a giant graph that’ll we’ll discuss in a later post. Because he likes to repeat his comments over and over again, I’m going to get this out of the way right now: the two men are nothing alike. Among many other despicable things, Jeffs was accused of incest, something that even none of Joseph’s very worst accusers ever dared claim. Jeffs forced young girls into marriages to men against their will and then ordered them to submit to sex whenever their husbands wanted it, again something that Joseph never did. Jeffs forced men and boys out of the community and reassigned their wives and children to other men. Smith never did any of that, either. In fact, he requested that every woman get their own confirmation that what he was asking was commanded by God. Jeffs was so authoritarian, he banned the color red, while Joseph famously stated that if we were taught correct principles, we’d govern ourselves without his intervention. Jeffs also stated more than once that he was not a prophet and that he was lying about the whole thing.

As for Jeremy apparently not knowing that Joseph practiced polygamy, that’s yet another thing on the lengthy list of stuff that he could have known if he’d studied Church history. Even if I don’t think he necessarily should have known it, it was widely available information. It’s the #1 accusation against Joseph and the Church, and the entire reason the Saints were forced to flee to Utah. Again, I get that different people have different experiences in the Church, but my reaction to that comment is similar to Jim Bennett’s: “Are you saying that when you served a mission, you didn’t know Joseph Smith was a polygamist? When investigators brought up polygamy, did you assume they were lying? That’s astonishing to me. I don’t know how anyone could spend more than a week in the mission field and not know this information.”

And, as Reddit user WooperSlim pointed out, we don’t sing “Praise to the Man” or any other hymn to Joseph, we sing it about him. We do not worship Joseph Smith in this church. We worship God the Eternal Father and our Savior, Jesus Christ. They are divine beings. Joseph was not.

Many members do not realize that there is a set of very specific and bizarre rules outlined in Doctrine & Covenants 132 (still in LDS canon despite President Hinckley publicly stating that polygamy is not doctrinal) on how polygamy is to be practiced.

If “many members” don’t realize that, it’s because they haven’t read their scriptures. I’m sorry to be blunt about that, but it’s true. It’s been part of the Doctrine and Covenants since 1876, the first time they updated the book since the revelation was made known public in 1852.

I also have to object of the use of the word “bizarre.” There’s some truly wonderful doctrine in D&C 132, and as someone who longs to make that particular covenant but hasn’t been able to yet, I don’t appreciate Jeremy’s slanted rhetoric. Personally, I don’t think that exaltation and eternal marriage are bizarre. I think they’re beautiful.

Regarding President Hinckley, he gave that response about polygamy not being doctrinal when he was explaining to Larry King that it’s not something Church members currently engage in. He was trying to make the point that it was past doctrine, but that it no longer applies today.

It is the kind of revelation you would expect from the likes of Warren Jeffs to his FLDS followers.

It’s really not. You can read an example of one of Jeffs’ “revelations” here. It’s a little odd, I’m not going to lie, and reads nothing like D&C 132 in structure or verbiage.

The only form of polygamy permitted by D&C 132 is a union with a virgin after first giving the opportunity to the first wife to consent to the marriage.

Not true. It’s one form of plural marriage permitted, but certainly doesn’t preclude other forms. “Virgin” is sometimes used in the scriptures to describe a female that is morally clean even when it includes widows and divorcees, and clearly, Joseph and his friends didn’t believe it only meant women who met the clinical definition of the word. Joseph was sealed to multiple women who were divorcées, widows, or, as we’ve gone over several times now, currently married for time to other men. Many of Brigham Young’s wives were widows or divorcées too. Heber C. Kimball’s second wife, Sarah Noon, was also a divorcée.

If the first wife doesn’t consent, the husband is exempt and may still take an additional wife, but the first wife must at least have the opportunity to consent. In case the first wife doesn’t consent, she will be “destroyed.”

Webster’s 1828 dictionary lists one of the definitions of “destroy” as “To take away; to cause to cease; to put an end to; as, pain destroys happiness.” The warning is that our eternal potential will end/be taken away if we don’t honor our covenants. If we break our covenants and don’t repent, we aren’t going to make it to the Celestial Kingdom, and we won’t able to have that eternal increase promised in D&C 131:4. That applies to most commandments, and it applies equally to both genders. There is nothing new here, other than the Lord maybe being a little more blunt than usual. D&C 132:17 states this concept pretty explicitly, that those who fall under this category will not be granted exaltation and “cannot be enlarged” for all eternity.

Also, the new wife must be a virgin before the marriage and be completely monogamous after the marriage or she will be destroyed (D&C 132:41 & 63).

Again, it’s referring more to being morally clean as opposed to being a virgin, and yes, we’re under covenant to keep the law of chastity after we’ve been through the temple. Sealed men aren’t allowed to commit adultery without repercussions either. This is pretty basic stuff.

It is interesting that the only prerequisite that is mentioned for the man is that he must desire another wife: “if any man espouse a virgin, and desire to espouse another…”

As Brian Hales points out, that isn’t true. D&C 132:19 clearly states that men have to “abide in [Christ’s] covenant” and “shall commit no murder whereby to shed innocent blood.” The no murder thing is pretty self-explanatory, but what does it mean to abide in Christ’s covenant? The D&C Seminary Teacher’s manual teaches us that it means to “remain true to the Lord’s covenant and law.” Elder Shumway of the Seventy adds that it means to treat your spouse with love and kindness.

It does not say that the man must get a specific revelation from the living prophet, although many members today assume that this is how polygamy was practiced.

Do many members assume that? I’m not sure why they would. While it’s true that many of the early Saints were specifically commanded to take additional wives, others were not. The Church’s essay on Plural Marriage and Families in Early Utah states, “Some men entered plural marriage because they were asked to do so by Church leaders, while others initiated the process themselves; all were required to obtain the approval of Church leaders before entering a plural marriage.”

D&C 132 is unequivocal on the point that polygamy is permitted only “to multiply and replenish the earth” and “bear the souls of men.” This would be consistent with the Book of Mormon prohibition on polygamy except in the case where God commands it to “raise up seed.”

Actually, D&C 132:63 says a little bit more than that, but what else is new? Three-fourths of Jeremy’s citations don’t say what he claims they do. The full text of verse 63 states:

63 But if one or either of the ten virgins, after she is espoused, shall be with another man, she has committed adultery, and shall be destroyed; for they are given unto him to multiply and replenish the earth, according to my commandment, and to fulfil the promise which was given by my Father before the foundation of the world, and for their exaltation in the eternal worlds, that they may bear the souls of men; for herein is the work of my Father continued, that he may be glorified.

So, the reasons given for polygamy in this verse are: 1) to multiply and replenish the earth, according to Christ’s commandment; 2) to fulfill the promise which was given by God the Father before the foundation of the world; 3) for the exaltation in the next life of those practicing it, that they may bear the souls of men (a promise for eternal increase, not a blessing for this lifetime); and 4) to glorify the Father by continuing His work.

By my count, those are four reasons, and nowhere in this section does it say that these are the only reasons polygamy is permitted. There is nothing “unequivocal” about that at all. In fact, as we discussed last week, verse 51 lists a fifth and sixth reason, to prove the Saints like He did with Abraham and to require an offering of them by covenant and sacrifice.

Brian Hales points out even more reasons—to restore all things and to allow all worthy women to be sealed to an eternal husband—and labels the last one as the most important reason:

Joseph Smith taught that exaltation is available only to eternally married (sealed) individuals. This gospel principle creates an undeniable problem if monogamy is the only celestial marital dynamic. Any inequality in the numbers of worthy men and worthy woman at the final judgment would result in damnation of some obedient individuals simply because they had no spouse.

Section 132 does not predict more worthy women than men at the final judgment, but it does anticipate that scenario. Apparently Joseph Smith’s God, who is described as knowing “the end from the beginning” (Abraham 2:8), could predict the future thus eliminating the need to provide for all possible outcomes. A “plurality of wives” is needed in eternity and therefore must be practiced by some of God’s followers on earth. While all men do not need to be sealed to additional wives, some will.

It’s here that Jeremy gives us a helpful little recap of everything he’s claimed so far, and again, it’s in capital red letters to stress its importance:


  • Joseph married 11 women who were already married. Multiple husbands = Polyandry.

No, Joseph was sealed to 11 women who were already married. All evidence points to those being unions strictly for the next life. Every single one of those women stayed with their husbands at least until after Joseph’s death, and there’s no evidence whatsoever of any sexual relations taking place in any of these unions.

  • Unions without the knowledge or consent of the husband, in cases of polyandry.

We don’t have many records showing whether the husbands knew or didn’t, or consented or not. In some cases, they knew and some even stood proxy for Joseph during the re-sealing in the temple after his death. In other cases, it’s unclear. We certainly can’t make any definitive statements, the way Runnells does here.

  • These married women continued to live as husband and wife with their first husband after marrying Joseph.

Yes, because they weren’t married to Joseph for this life, they were sealed to him for eternity only.

  • A union with Apostle Orson Hyde’s wife while he was on a mission (Marinda Hyde).

Only possibly. There are two different dates given, and two different answers given as to whether he was aware of the sealing in advance or not. There is, however, ample evidence that he entered into a plural marriage of his own less than three months after returning from that mission, so clearly, he didn’t object to the doctrine.

  • A union with a newlywed and pregnant woman (Zina Huntington).

Again, a sealing for the next life, not a marriage. Zina continued to live with her first husband until after Joseph’s death. Her marriage was unhappy, according to her own statements, and she appears to have dissolved that union in favor of sealing herself to Brigham Young for time and Joseph for eternity. She was a remarkable, accomplished woman who had some incredibly spiritual experiences, and she made her own choices about who she wanted to be with.

  • Threats that Joseph would be slain by an angel with a drawn sword if they did not enter into the union (Zina Huntington, Almera Woodard Johnson, Mary Lightner).

Nope, not according to any of the reports from the women themselves. They all stated that Joseph said he’d be slain by the angel if he didn’t enter into the unions. They were each given a choice. You can read about these women here: Zina Huntington | Almera Woodard Johnson | Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner

  • Unions without the knowledge or consent of first wife Emma, including to teenagers who worked with Emma in the Smith home such as the Partridge sisters and the Lawrence girls.

Hilariously, “the Partridge sisters and the Lawrence girls” were some of the wives we know for certain Emma did know about and did consent to, as there are records proving she participated in their sealings and statements from most of the women regarding Emma giving her approval and then revoking it later. You can read about them and the evidence regarding their sealings and Emma’s involvement here: Eliza Partridge | Emily Partridge | Maria Lawrence | Sarah Lawrence

  • Promises of salvation and exaltation for the girls and/or their entire families.

Yet again, no, that’s not accurate. There’s no evidence that Joseph ever promised women salvation and exaltation beyond the typical admonition that obeying the commandments and honoring their covenants would bring them eternal rewards.

Anyway, I think this little recap is a good place to pause for the week. In the next post, it looks like we’ll be talking about Fanny Alger, the polygamy denials, and the Nauvoo Expositor, so it’ll be a big one. For now, please stay safe.


Sources in this entry:….threats_of_loss_of_salvation.22



Sarah Allen is brand new in her affiliation with FAIR. By profession, she works in mortgage compliance and is a freelance copyeditor. A voracious reader, she loves studying the Gospel and the history of the restored Church. After watching some of her lose their testimonies, she became interested in helping others through their faith crises and began sharing what she learned through her studies. She’s grateful to those at FAIR who have given her the opportunity to share her testimony with a wider audience.

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