The Faithful Joseph – plausible explanations for reports painting Joseph as a practicing polygamist

I’m having a fabulous time reading Brian C. Hales’ recent volumes titled Joseph Smith’s Polygamy.

My initial reaction was despair when my husband told me there was yet another book (nay, three volumes totaling 1562 pages) about Joseph Smith and polygamy. I thought “Will I never have a chance to write my necessarily fictional account about John C. Bennett, Joseph Smith, Elvira Annie Cowles, Jonathan Harriman Holmes, and Eliza Roxcy Snow without some new author piling another several hundred pages of required reading on my to do list?” Actually, I mostly just thought “Aaaaargh!”

Brian C. Hales, however, is delightfully thorough. Throughout he patiently and doggedly plows through the chaff surrounding Joseph Smith and Polygamy, sifting the histrionic and unsupported late assertions from the contemporary accounts of the day. I’m pleased to find that the necessary adjustments to my internal timeline are minor as I read. And Brian’s conclusions are reasonable and well supported. I’m also enjoying his patient and non-defensive discussion of previous writers. He may be secretly slipping cyanide into their meals at night, but in written form, Brian C. Hales is astonishingly cordial and patient as he treats the haystack of salacious accusations made in the past and erupting full grown from researchers in our own day.

Imagine my surprise when I found a reference to “polygamy researcher, Meg Stout…”. Brian quotes an excerpt from my 2010 post A Short History of Jonathan Holmes and Elvira Cowles. My delight was only tempered by the fact that Brian then fails to voice my conclusion that Elvira’s lack of pregnancy prior to 1845 strongly suggests no one was having sex with her – not Jonathan and not Joseph. This would make Elvira a woman involved in a ceremonial polyandrous relationship who was for all reproductive purposes single.

To celebrate my new-found status as a cited polygamy researcher, I wanted to briefly summarize what I think are innocent explanations for the tales most researchers interpret as indicating sexual relations (bangy bangy) between Joseph Smith and his wives. Here Brian C. Hales helps by narrowing the field to twelve possible candidates:

  1. Fanny Alger. Brian C. Hales indicates Joseph marries Fanny after Easter 1836. Sometime that summer events unfold that cause Emma to become very upset. Joseph reaches out to Oliver Cowdery to help calm Emma, but Oliver infers that Emma’s distress was caused by catching Joseph and Fanny together in the barn, engaged in sexual relations. Despite late tales about a pregnancy that also attribute an incorrect name to the young lady involved, there is no contemporary evidence that Fanny bore a child. My necessarily fictional interpretation? Joseph was not sleeping with Fanny, who was an attractive young woman with potential suitors (in my fictional account Jonathan Harriman Holmes plays the love-sick suitor). Emma could have caught Fanny privately talking with Joseph in the barn, demanding that he either make her a wife or free her from the restrictions of a hollow ceremonial marriage. Emma’s outrage at Fanny and Joseph needn’t be due to witnessing bangy bangy – Fanny’s audacity in bypassing Emma and taking her plea directly to Joseph would be sufficient.
  2. Louisa Beaman is reported to have spent the night with Joseph Smith in the home of her brother-in-law, Joseph Bates Noble. Spending the night together in the same bed does not mean bangy bangy was happening. In my view, Joseph was recruiting woman to understand and teach the doctrine of eternal marriage. When such a powerful and previously unknown topic is being discussed, why would he waste time engaging in the physical act of consummating a physical relationship when an unexplainable pregnancy could get him killed? Sufficient to give believing observers the impression of marital relations. Even George Smith admits that mere sharing of the same room/bed does not constitute proof that sex was happening.
  3. Emily Partridge testified she slept with Joseph Smith in the same bed. Yawn. Repeat the Louisa Beaman possibility of lots of pillow talk and no bangy bangy. On the other hand, Emily was asked in 1892 if she had carnal intercourse with Joseph Smith and answered “Yes sir.” This was fifty years after Emily was sealed to Joseph Smith. Emily and many of her friends had been living as plural wives for all that time, and the court case she was testifying at held the future of the Temple Lot in the balance. It was crucial to prove that the Temple Lot in Missouri didn’t belong to the Church headed by Emma Smith’s boys, who denied Joseph Smith ever taught polygamy. Intercourse literally means to run between. The sexual definition for intercourse is not often listed as the primary definition. Pennsylvania even has a town named Intercourse, named for the fellowship and social interaction and support provided by the crossroads in town. Emily lived in Joseph’s home, where there was definitely social interaction and fellowship. And it’s possible that a plate of meat was passed from time to time. This would be an absurd length to go. But Emily and her sister also had a bone to pick with Emma Smith, who first agreed to their marriage to Joseph, even participating in a ceremony sealing the girls to him. Then Emma’s attitude towards the girls shifted. After three months, Emma evicted the girls from her home. Emily and Eliza certainly would have felt carnal intercourse, carnal knowledge, and all other privileges due a wife should have been theirs free and clear. Instead they were treated like grasping trollops. Emily’s simple “Yes sir.” must also be weighed against Emma’s testimony that she was Joseph’s only wife. One of the two women was lying. Of the two, Emma is the one most noted for her absolute devotion to honesty. So though I feel Emily’s testimony is considerable indication that Joseph engaged in sexual relations with at least one wife Emma herself granted to him, Emily could have been intentionally misleading, straining the definition of words, to save the Temple Lot and strike back in the only way she could at a woman, Emma Smith, who had caused Emily great pain.
  4. Ben Johnson wrote in 1903 that Eliza Partridge was the first plural wife Joseph Smith stayed with in the Johnson home. No mention that they were in the same bed even, here.
  5. Theodocia Frances Walker Davis told Joseph Smith III in 1876 that her aunt, Lucy Walker, said she had lived with Joseph Smith as a wife. Lucy lived in the Smith household in 1843 and participated in a July 1843 ceremony making her Joseph Smith’s wife. Sufficient factoids to make Lucy’s account to her niece true. Again, no bangy bangy required.
  6. Ben Johnson also reported that his sister, Almera Johnson, shared a room and bed with Joseph Smith in the Johnson home. Very likely proof of pillow talk. Not necessarily proof of bangy bangy.
  7. In 1915, Josephine Lyons reported an 1882 conversation with her dying mother, Sylvia Sessions. According to Josephine, who had never been to the temple, Sylvia told Josephine she was Joseph Smith’s daughter. Josephine’s interpretation was clearly that she was Joseph Smith’s biological daughter. But as she had never been to the temple, she would have remained unaware of the non-biological priesthood link making any child of Sylvia Sessions after her sealing to Joseph Smith a child attributed to Joseph Smith in eternity. Josephine’s full-blood siblings all died in childhood before 1850. Josephine’s half-sisters were married in the Endowment House and would have been told about their spiritual sealing to Joseph Smith at that time, so Sylvia’s supposed failure to make a special announcement to them is not necessarily an omission. Josephine’s half-brother never married, so at the least Sylvia wasn’t in fear that he had married out of the faith and might become lost, never knowing of the special heritage that was his because of his relationship to Joseph Smith because of Sylvia’s sealing in Nauvoo. To illustrate the practice of telling Joseph Smith’s ‘children’ by other fathers of their relationship to the prophet and their mothers’ connection to him, I will relate the experience Marietta Holmes had when she was married to Job Welling in 1866. In the record book Job Welling’s name is written as Wellings, and there is a mark through the “s,” which Job had dropped shortly after conversion when his family rejected him. Interestingly, Marietta Holmes’ name had been recorded as Marietta Smith because her mother had been sealed to Joseph Smith, even though Marietta herself wasn’t born until 1849. In the record book there is a decisive slash through the name “Smith” and “Holmes” is written in a different hand next to it. So Marietta, the only person in that ceremony likely to have passionately removed Smith’s name and replaced it with Holmes, was likely not aware of Joseph Smith’s eternal paternal tie to herself prior to her own marriage in the temple, or she wouldn’t have reacted so forcefully.
  8. In the weeks before the Expositor was published, William Law asserted that Joseph Smith was living in an open state of adultery with Maria Lawrence. William Law was one of the two men who provided signed affidavits for the Expositor, a paper full of histrionic assertions, such as the claim that polygamists were entrapping new converts straight off the boat into their heinous practices. Further, Maria or Sarah Lawrence asserted in later years that the relationship with Joseph was non-sexual. I have to check my books again, but one of the two Lawrence sisters visited with Martha Spence while she traveled to Utah, telling Martha information about polygamy that greatly troubled the Irish spinster. Since Martha was traveling to Utah with the understanding she would become Joseph Leland Heywood’s plural wife, celibacy in plural marriages would be more troubling than sexual relations.
  9. Various sources assert that Sarah Lawrence was also one of Joseph Smith’s plural wives. In 1902 Lucy Walker included Sarah Lawrence in a group of four women she asserts Emma know about as plural wives, that [Emma Smith] “was well aware [Joseph Smith] associated and cohabited with them as wives.” While cohabitation is frequently used during that era to mean sexual relations, at least one of the Lawrence sisters flatly denied anything sexual had happened between herself and Joseph Smith. The literal meaning of cohabited means “lived in the same home,” a description that was literally true of Emma Smith, Joseph Smith, Eliza Patridge, Emily Partridge, Maria Lawrence, Sarah Lawrence, Lucy Walker, and about a dozen or so other people at the time.
  10. In 1893, Joseph Smith III asked Malissa Lott if she had been Joseph Smith’s “wife in very deed.” Malissa answered “Yes.” The question here is whether “wife in very deed” necessarily meant bangy bangy or if it merely meant that Joseph Smith and Malissa were actually ceremonially married. Joseph Smith III was questioning even the ceremonial marriages between his father and the various alleged wives. Then a mature teenager, Malissa lived in the Smith home during the last few months of Joseph Smith’s life and walked then-tween Joseph Smith III to school, so they knew each other well.
  11. Two sources indicate Olive Frost bore a child to Joseph. Both Olive and her child died before the Saints left Nauvoo. I look forward to reading Brian C. Hales’ chapter on Olive. Given that Todd Compton mentioned Olive, and I didn’t find the assertions for any of the wives persuasive as proving sexual relations, I’m guessing I thought Olive seemed like a potential victim of the Bennett sex ring. If this were so, her pregnancy would not be attributable to Joseph Smith.
  12. Brian apparently feels there is credible evidence indicating Mary Heron could have been a a plural wife with whom Joseph was intimate. Since Mary Heron wasn’t one of the plural wives Todd Compton highlighted in his book, I am not yet versed on the arguments. [added 20 August] Having now read what Brian Hales writes, the possibility that Mary Heron was Joseph’s is based on her son-in-law’s confession to adultery with Lorenzo Snow’s wife. The errant son-in-law was Joseph Ellis Johnson, who said “I never heard any conversation to say it was right to go to bed to a woman if not found out–I was aware the thing was wrong…” This teaching, that it was right to go to bed with a woman as long as no one found out appears to have been the spiritual wifery concept taught by John C. Bennett’s sex ring to seduce unwary women under pretentions that sexual relations outside the bounds of traditional marriage was sanctioned by God as long as no one found out about it. The record of Joseph Ellis Johnson’s confession continued, “He was familiar with the first frigging–that was done in his house with his mother-in-law [Mary Heron]–by Joseph [presumably Smith].” Reading the record makes it clear that words were being dropped and abbreviated. To me the circumstances scream that there is a missing word. If I add one word (made) and slightly rearrange the words for one legitimate grammatical interpretation of the sentence, we have: “He was [made] familiar by Joseph [Smith] with [about] the first frigging (a euphemism for the act of committing forced unlawful carnal knowledge)–that was done in his house with his mother-in-law.” This reading of Joseph Ellis Johnson’s confessional testimony would be interpreted as him saying he himself had had no delusions that his seduction of Lorenzo’s wife was OK. Far from believing the promiscuity taught by Bennett’s sex ring was OK, Joseph Ellis Johnson knew illicit sex, even if undiscovered, is wrong. His own family had been torn apart by the sexual liberties a member of the sex ring took with his mother-in-law (Michael Quinn points out that Joseph Ellis Johnson owned property in Nauvoo from December 1841, which perfectly fits the location and time period in which the sex ring was operating). I remain profoundly unconvinced that Joseph Ellis Johnson was alleging a sexual liaison between his mother-in-law, Mary Heron, and Joseph Smith.

I find it curious that Brian doesn’t cover the alleged interaction between Hannah Dubois and Joseph Smith during the early 1830s. Hannah’s descendents definitely believe Hannah and Joseph were intimate, leading to Hannah’s child born in 1830s. This would explain the assertion that a wife was taken in by the Dibble family, and the indication that William Smith pronounced great things on a child of Hannah Dubois. If Hannah Dubois were intimate with a Smith in the early 1830s with whom she did not have a traditional marriage relationship, I think the Smith in question was William Smith. Modern assertions by descendants of Hannah Dubois Dibble regarding a Smith-Dubois/Dibble link do not seem adequately addressed in the Hales volumes so far.

Brian C. Hales does not cite Eliza Snow as a plural wife with whom Joseph was sexually intimate. I find that curious, though if Eliza Snow were ever actually pregnant in Nauvoo, she most certainly didn’t give birth prior to 17 March 1843. Eliza, if pregnant and giving birth around 17 March 1843, could have been impregnated by John C. Bennett, as alleged by Wyl in 1885.

There is another story, where Joseph was washing his hands and commented that he’d just come from helping a wife give birth, with Emma acting as midwife. Suggestive though this story certainly is, it is also possible that the wife giving birth had been impregnated by someone else (the woman’s public husband or, in the case of Eliza Snow or Olive Frost, by a member of the Bennett sex ring).

By pointing out these plausible alternatives, I don’t mean to assert that Joseph Smith necessarily remained exclusively physically faithful to Emma. In fact, it would have been completely appropriate for Joseph to fulfill his physical duties to women Emma granted him after May 1843 (e.g., Malissa Lott, Lucy Walker, Emily Partridge). However given the lack of provable children and Emma’s final testimony, it is interesting to note that there is a non-sexual explanation for everything that has previously been reliably cited as an indication that Joseph consummated his plural marriages.

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2 Responses to “The Faithful Joseph – plausible explanations for reports painting Joseph as a practicing polygamist”

  1. Amanda Says:

    This is just a curiosity question, posed by someone who has given polygamy some thought. Why is the thought of Joseph Smith acting as a husband to multiple women (ie. a husband in very deed) so reprehensible a thought for his mortal life, when we are seemingly fine with him being a husband to these same women in the hereafter? What makes it such a marked distinction for you (and presumably others)?

  2. megstout Says:

    Alice wrote a couple of comments. One involved the Brooklyn Bridge and the other said I was possessed of twisted self-delusion.

    It is not integrity to post comments that are openly abusive. Perhaps, Alice, you fail to understand the meaning of the term integrity. I think you mean that you wish I had the blind transparency to post every random comment someone decides to post on my website.

    Alice (and Will Roberts and tapirrider), I have retained your collective five comments in a not-approved state. So know that I have read your comments and haven’t deleted them.

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