Emma and Eliza

This essay was originally posted at Both Sides Now. Its aim is to explore how contemporary Mormon women relate to and feel about polygny. Please be sensitive in the comments.

The excellent series at Feminist Mormon Housewives “Remembering the Forgotten Women of Joseph Smith” has given me pause on a lot of levels. It is a series of posts that, using primary and secondary sources, works to recover the stories, voices, and (when available) photographs of each of Joseph Smith, Jr.’s many plural wives.

As a historian-in-training and scholar of gender, I am always very pleased – no, thrilled – when there are sources available about women, and when the stories of women can be reclaimed from obscurity and inscribed in the record. As a scholar with some background in subaltern studies, I am delighted when we can find ways to tell the stories of not just the famous and powerful, but also of those who are often overlooked, usually the poor, minorities, and women.

(As an aside – I am relieved that I’ve never felt compelled in the slightest to do early LDS history professionally. The sources, though plentiful, are all so incredibly biased – whether toward apologetics or toward nasty and vengeful indictments of early leaders – that recovering any sort of coherent narrative of early LDS history, let alone attempting an accurate one, is phenomenally difficult. And I say this with the added acknowledgement that “accuracy” in history is a very thorny idea indeed.)
All of this is fine and good on a dispassionate, scholarly level.


On a personal level, as a woman who went through a long period of agonized, wrenching pain of soul while researching LDS history in my late teens and early twenties, I find the series to raise – or, perhaps, to resurrect – some of my own old demons. In particular, as I read the startled and outraged responses of both lifelong members and new converts on fMh, all of them encountering for the first time the murkier, less saintly bits of our history, I am reminded sharply of my own sense of disorientation when, over ten years ago, my born-and-bred, seventh-generation-LDS worldview began to unravel.

I am sad to say that a part of me – a deep, dark part that I don’t like to acknowledge to myself – had thought badly of these women, the plural wives of Joseph Smith, when I first learned of their existence. I had been ashamed of them, much as the broader institutional church now appears to be. (I say this since these women are notably absent from official church histories.) A big part of me didn’t want to know, and wanted to un-know as soon as I learned.

As I stepped back and really contemplated my own reticence to find out about Joseph Smith’s wives, I realized that it was deeper than discomfort with an embarrassing and, given current mores, increasingly inexplicable past. It was even deeper than dismay and bewilderment that this past had been kept hidden from me by a church hierarchy who knew of it – though that in itself was a source of profound soul-ache. I was uncomfortable on a private, personal level learning more about these women because there was no way around the feeling that they had betrayed Emma, Joseph’s first wife and the only official wife most LDS people grow up learning about. And I felt uncomfortable because I felt that they had been duped into this betrayal, and had been asked to sacrifice everything – their reputations, their honor, their ability to live happily with husbands who loved them. I couldn’t shake the belief that they had been duped cruelly, made to be figures of shame, figures that we are so ashamed of that we don’t speak of them now. (At least in Islam all of Muhammad’s wives are owned up to! At least they knew about each other! my mind rails.)

So many of them lied to Joseph’s wife, a woman they called their friend. And I didn’t want to identify with any of them – not Emma, and definitely not any of the plural wives. Yet I couldn’t avoid it. Our earliest exemplars as LDS women, the counterparts to the men we revere as prophets, include a heartbroken wife whose husband over and over again went behind her back to marry women whom she counted as her best friends. And the women consented. Over and over again.

It is probably for this reason that I am so uncomfortable with Eliza R. Snow. When I read about her I feel that had I known her, I would have liked her. I would have wanted to be her friend. She reminds me of the women I am drawn to – strong, witty, intelligent, educated, possessed of a way with words. I would have wanted to be close to her, to enjoy her company and engaging mind. She, more than any of Joseph’s other myriad wives, stings me. I have read the various accounts — all from potentially problematic sources – of Emma pushing Eliza down a flight of steps after catching her in some form of flagrante delicto with Joseph. I am aware of the problems of the sources: some say that Eliza was visibly pregnant, which is unlikely, and that she miscarried, which is never mentioned in Eliza’s copiously documented personal journals; some of the source authors disliked Emma and sought to discredit her through vilification.

Still, this one, the story of the staircase, fills me with dread. Even if it is apocryphal, it describes an impulse I can understand. Many sources – far too many to discount entirely – document the moments when Emma discovered that yet another one of her friends or housemaids or neighbors was secretly married to her husband, and her furious, broken response. Somewhere in my heart, knowing that Emma and Eliza were close, that they worked together side by side in a Relief Society that they themselves worked to establish, makes the secrecy of Eliza’s marriage to Joseph more galling to me. I can only imagine the blind rage, the swimming, dizzying awfulness of discovering her – my friend! my dearest darling friend! – in the arms of my husband. I can imagine the world tilting off its axis in that moment.

Et tu, Eliza?

(And where was God for Emma? Where was the trusted source of comfort, when her husband may be stealing off with another woman at any moment, always insisting that it was God’s will?)

Our legacy of polygyny is… disquieting, particularly the stories that we repeat to justify its practice in the nineteenth century and its eventual elimination in the early part of the twentieth. To say that God once demanded it of some and now forbids it of all invites doubt. Not just doubt in God, but doubt in the safety and stability of our most private, precious relationships. It suggests to women that betrayal – or the feeling of having been betrayed – may be asked of us at any moment, and that our feelings would be yet another sacrifice on the altar of devotion.

It is doubly disconcerting because even today widowers who have been sealed to a deceased wife can be – and often are – sealed to a second wife when they remarry, creating an eerie echo of a past we often do not speak of, and perpetuating the unresolved doctrinal question of whether or not there are polygynous relationships in the eternities. This lingering doctrinal irresolution impels many of us to go back to these hidden histories and contemplate a scenario as impossible as that of Eve: What would you have done, had you been in Eliza’s place? Trust the prophet and betray your friend? Or say no to God? If you were Emma, would you have borne it? If you had been one of her friends, would you have turned him down? (How could any of us know what we would have done?) Would you be the first wife, later spoken of caustically by Brigham Young; the shamed and betrayed woman who left an enigmatic legacy and split off from her husband’s church? Or would you be a woman who went west to Utah, to be buried in the desert like so many secret sister wives, largely forgotten by all but a few of your family until, more than a century later, a handful of LDS women finally started demanding to know of you against the wishes of their all-male leaders?


  1. To say that God once demanded it of some and now forbids it of all invites doubt. Not just doubt in God, but doubt in the safety and stability of our most private, precious relationships. It suggests to women that betrayal – or the feeling of having been betrayed – may be asked of us at any moment, and that our feelings would be yet another sacrifice on the altar of devotion.

    Exactly. I think this is why polygyny is such a painful issue for so many women.

    Well done, Galdralag.

  2. I really enjoyed your thoughts in this post. This part of our history is definitely a tender subject, and was and continues to be a painful issue for many people. Like the Eve, I also want to say something about the following quote from your post:

    “It suggests to women that betrayal – or the feeling of having been betrayed – may be asked of us at any moment, and that our feelings would be yet another sacrifice on the altar of devotion.”

    It is easy, and I believe right, to be sympathetic towards Emma in this situation, and it is easy to understand why she acted the way she acted. But I also think we should be sympathetic towards Joseph, who was commanded by God to live this law or be destroyed, and additionally was told that if Emma, whom he loved so much, did not accept it she would likewise be destroyed. I’m sure he felt quite trapped when Emma refused to accept the revelation and continued to refuse it over time. In addition to the burdens of restoring the fullness of the gospel, building the church, and establishing a city and the kingdom of God on earth; his salvation as well as Emma’s were now in jeopardy. How could he navigate this safely, avoid condemnation, and at the same save Emma from losing her salvation despite her current feelings over plural marriage? I can only imagine the anxiety he must have felt.

    Now to your quote. While Emma’s actions are so easy to sympathize and identify with, we must acknowledge that if she somehow could have found the strength through prayer and/or fasting to learn the truth of the revelation for herself, like Vilate Kimball or other first wives in her situation, then the situation could have been very different. It seems that Joseph would not have had his hand forced in navigating behind Emma’s back, nor her friends to have seemingly betrayed her in like manner. We could even say that the “feeling of having been betrayed” in reference to these things being done behind Emma’s back, was not asked of her or anyone else, but was as a result of her refusal to accept a revelation while others tried to keep it, trying not to discard Emma altogether in the process. It was a delicate balance, and given the situation I can’t see a better alternative to the problem than what happened. I think it is also worth pointing out that Joseph never gave up on Emma as he tried to get her approval until the very end, and she did eventually accept the doctrine of plural marriage for a time (Joseph delayed opening the endowment to women, hoping and waiting for Emma to accept the revelation on plural marriage so she could have the honor of being the first endowed female, which did finally happen).

    I don’t think this needs to be the cause for such great doubt as your words seem to suggest, when we view the situation in light of Emma’s difficulty in accepting the revelation. If we are willing to follow God’s commandments, He will reveal to us as much as we are capable of bearing. Otherwise, He will wait until we are ready. While God then does not give us all knowledge at once, we can trust, rather than doubt, that when we are kept in ignorance it is done for our good, and in time when we are truly ready all things will be revealed to us to our perfect satisfaction. I trust that God does not seek to destroy, but rather seeks to encourage and glorify our most private and precious relationships, and I think having that faith can dispel our doubts–even if we don’t understand how it all works out in the end.

  3. Steve – but what if the revelation wasn’t true? What if Emma DID pray, DID seek earnestly, and she got the sure and certain answer that no, no this is not a good practice. This practice will horrendously damage hundreds of women, it will drive the saints from their homes and it will cause untold confusion and heartbreak and division. It will isolate the church from other believers and set up false ideas of superiority and exceptionalism. It will, in fact, be the seat and seed of a vast number of the problems the modern church will struggle to resolve (problems that are causing large numbers of formerly faithful members to leave right now).

    After all, the practice has been formally discontinued and, looking at current manuals and teachings, the church is doing absolutely everything possible to pretend that it never happened at all. If this were a true and eternal principle would the women who faithfully lived it at the expense of their own comfort, health, happiness and security be ignored and sometimes almost wiped from official history? Surely they should be praised – as highly as the pioneers who trekked across the plains for faith. What they did was a much longer and much more sacrificial journey.

    So what if Emma was right all along and was a voice for truth and morality? What if her mistake was not in fighting polygyny but not in fighting it enough. Imagine how different the story could have been then. The Mormons could maybe have stayed in their sacred lands, the ones that Joseph declared to be their promised place. They might have had greater success with proselyting, being able to be honest about the message they were bringing and the community they were forming. They could now be happily sharing all aspects of their history, openly discussing the founding days of the church and how proud they are of the strong, faithful men and women who were honest enough to challenge even the prophet when what he said went against their own moral principles, beliefs and faith.

    Since the church now acknowledges that often prophets speak as men, why isn’t it reasonable to suggest that Joseph, in this case, was speaking as a flawed and very human man who wanted to justify his own sinful actions? Why is it Emma, who after all was trying to protect her family – the family structure that the Mormon church now claims is holy and sacred, consisting of a man and a woman – who is at fault here?

  4. Steve, you’re vilifying Emma just as much as anyone because she didn’t have the strength or commitment to accept the truth, unlike those other first wives did. You further gloss over what must certainly have been complex feelings on the part of those other first wives. I sincerely doubt that any of the women who “accepted” the doctrine did so without serious turmoil. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if many of them did feel betrayed as part of the process of coming to terms with what had been asked of them. Indeed, I think it would have been difficult in their cultural context *not* to feel some amount of pain or betrayal or disbelief or confusion, etc. So yes. I think these women were *all* asked to go through a process of feeling betrayed or hurt or confused, even if some of them ultimately did come to terms with it and believe that they were genuinely complying with God’s will.

    And I completely agree with Megan that we have to be open to the possibility that Joseph’s belief that this was a commandment from God was a mistaken belief. it doesn’t necessarily have to have been a willfully mistaken claim consciously meant to obscure his own sin. But I think it’s entirely possible that it was a mistaken belief to think that God wanted them to practice polygamy.

    finally, I would caution you against telling other people what should or should not be cause for doubt and struggle on their part. Especially given that your explanation for why this needn’t be a source of such pain and confusion is dependent on Emma’s spiritual incapacity to submit herself to God’s willl; which explanation implies that those who now struggle with it must be similarly spiritually incapable.

    Regardless of whether God really did command polygamy, regardless of whether the problem really was one of Emma being unwilling or incapable of submitting her will to God’s, it’s inexcusable that the church hides this history as thoroughly as it does. It’s one thing not to call attention to aspects of our history that are less than savory. It’s another thing to willfully hide it and, in my opinion, actually lie about it (just think about the church’s rhetoric during the Prop 8 campaign when multiple church leaders at just about every level proclaimed that marriage always has been and always has been between a man and a woman; there was no acknowledgement of polygamy and that’s just deceitful given not only our history but our ongoing practice of serial polygamy via sealing one man to multiple women). The church has set up a situation that will inevitably lead to a certain contingency of its membership feeling betrayed and lied to when they discover this history, regardless of the divine (or not) nature of the 19th century practice of polygamy. And that’s unconscionable. I’m sick of Mormons and Mormon leadership using allegedly good ends to justify truly despicable means. This is just one example thereof.

  5. One other small point – had polygyny and polyandry not been practiced it’s quite likely that Joseph would not have been killed.

    Just sayin’.

  6. you’re vilifying Emma just as much as anyone

    You know, this thread kind of insists on vilifying someone. I’m not comfortable with that part of it. Do we vilify Emma or Eliza?

    Do we have to vilify either?

  7. Steve, when you mention Emma’s refusal to accept revelation, are you referring to the ‘angel with a sword’ bit? I’m not aware of anything else that might have been considered a command from the Lord to practice polygyny at that time.

  8. Stephen – it is not my intention to vilify Emma or Eliza. It is my intention to talk about the lingering effects of our legacy of polygyny on modern Mormon women. I offered a few of my own thoughts and feelings, but I don’t expect or assume that others will feel the same.

    More to your point – I think that both Emma and Eliza were put in a situation in which they had to make extremely morally difficult decisions. I don’t blame either of them for making the choices that they made – what I wanted to convey is that I can’t imagine being put in the position to have to make those sorts of decisions. The situation they were put in was extremely hurtful.

  9. Stephen R. Marsh, I agree with you that it’s just as problematic to vilify Eliza R. Snow as Emma Smith. I didn’t at all mean to imply that it’s okay to vilify either of them. I think all of the people who practiced polygamy in early Mormonism had to deal with serious issues when deciding to do so or not, whether male or female. there are certainly some players who had a significantly greater amount of power and I’m more willing to criticize them, but I think the whole institution was at best troubling and potentially very destructive. And I don’t the explaining it or dealing with the residual challenge it presents Mormons now is as simple as blaming any single party or certain parties more than others,

  10. Thanks for rescuing one of my comments from the spam filter. The other, an attempt at a word poem and a comment was probably best left there.

    Thanks for refocusing the discussion away from the criticism of people.

  11. One other comment. Many people engaged in some retroactive continuity and editing. Thus their later accounts are somewhat divergent from each other.

    What it is easy to forget is just how common that is.

    But it also causes us to see events through lenses that are, perhaps, not as reliable as they could be.

    Polygamy is probably the reason Mormons became an ethnic group with the speed they did and something that also delayed assimilation and may well have kept the movement from being subsumed as has happened to the RLDS.

    It is not necessary for it to not be a transitory phase for it to be something that God wanted.

    In our time I have met widows who remarried and who were sealed to both husbands while they were alive. I suspect that sealing has a different meaning than we attach to it. The entire human family is to be sealed together.

    Anyway, it has been an interesting thread. Thank you.

  12. Great post, Galdralag. The paragraph Eve quoted is one that sticks out to me too. It’s not just that polygamy itself was troublesome. It’s what polygamy suggests about God, and what God is willing to do.

    Also, this is probably obvious, but in Steve’s comment and Megan and amelia’s responses, it might be easier for a man to sympathize with Joseph and a woman with Emma. (Although for myself, even as a man, I find myself sympathizing with Emma more.)

  13. Galdralag –

    I wanted to actually comment on what you asked since I didn’t do that before!

    As a modern woman I find polygyny extremely problematic. The inherent inequality of the system and the way it commodifies women is abhorrent to me. Since I find that commodification in the scripture that established it, it seems that women-as-objects is at the very root of the system and that makes it a system I cannot be a part of – my personal ethical beliefs contradict the entire idea of people as things; my hard-won belief in my own value as a person makes me reject a religion that casts me as a belonging.

    Abraham is ‘given’ Hagar; David ‘receives’ many [nameless] wives and concubines; D&C 132: 41 a man ‘recieveth’ a wife in the new and everlasting covenant; v. 52 Joseph’s multiple wives were ‘given’ to him; v. 61 virgins are ‘given’ to men and they belong to him.

    I find the entire idea disgusting and disturbing. For both sexes.

  14. Megan, it’s that precise dynamic that turned me off of the sealing ceremony even while I was still committed to practicing Mormonism. That the woman gives herself and the man receives her but there is no reciprocity in it.

    I’m not a possession to be given to someone else. I am a person. And though I do give of myself to my partner and happily, he does the same in return. Because we choose to.

  15. One aspect of polygamy that is often emphasized in the current church is that polygamy didn’t and doesn’t happen without the first wife’s consent. I wonder if this emphasis is often placed in order to dispel some of the fears women have about polygamy. In fact, one of the most troubling aspects of polygamy to me is that a woman might not have full control over who enters into her private and eternal marriage arrangement.

    Obviously there are many problems with this reassurance, the biggest one being that this rule was not followed by Joseph Smith or many others in the early church. Other aspects of this reassurance that I find troubling are that supposedly wives who are not the first wife have no say (not to mention that the whole idea of there being a hierarchical marriage arrangement with the labels of 1st wife, 2nd wife that carry different amounts of power is problematic). Also it is problematic that we talk about consent being a free choice when in fact that consent is likely obtained under a great deal of duress. It isn’t like both choices are presented as equal options, but instead are presented as following God or incurring his wrath. Finally, I find the issue of gaining consent from someone who is dead to be deeply problematic. If the wife gives or denies consent while she is alive, do husbands really honor that consent after she dies? Is it possible for someone to change their mind, or give consent after they have died? Supposedly a husband could learn this through revelation, but it is very difficult to say if his spiritual feelings are an accurate representations of his dead wife’s feelings.

  16. Additionally, I want to point out that the issue of remarriage after a wife has died is one reason why issues of polygamy are very much alive in the modern church. I would imagine that a majority of LDS couples have had conversations about whether or not this will be happening and thus it is something that most LDS people have to negotiate within their modern marriage.

  17. Thanks for spelling this out explicitly, Beatrice. What you say in these two comments is what I was hinting at (perhaps too vaguely) when I talked about the problems created by the unresolved “is there polygyny in the afterlife?” question. This isn’t just irrelevant historical speculation; for many women, the ongoing practice of men being sealed to more than one woman in the temple, coupled with the presence of D&C 132 in our scriptures and the things that you mention, make polygyny a continuing matter of personal anxiety and concern.

    In terms of imagining polygyny from the male point of view, as Steve suggested: I think a more accurate comparison for men would be to imagine yourself in the place of Henry Jacobs, the first polyandrous husband of Zina D.H. Young. He was an active church member and was placed in the position to watch his bride, to whom he was still married, also be married to Joseph Smith and later to Brigham Young.

  18. A few months before she died, my wife told one of her sisters that she hoped that I would find somebody else after she was gone. When the possibility was still just an abstract idea, I could see myself finding someone else and making a new life. Now that the possibility is more concrete, I am less comfortable with the idea. After all, she was, as the scriptures say, “the wife of my youth.” I don’t know that I would wish on any woman to be the person who follows the wife of my youth.

  19. It seems my initial comment missed the real point of this article by only focusing on the history of polgyny as it pertains to Emma. It sounds like the larger concern is how the doctrine of polygamy will have an effect on our marriages in eternity, especially in light of current posthumous polygamous sealings. Before I make my response to this then, I just wanted to say that I agree with most things that were written after my comment. Except I don’t believe the church or leaders of the church are at fault for the way they have handled our history. If I try to pretend for a moment that I am God (hopefully not blasphemous) leading my church, I can’t think of an appropriate venue that I would want this history brought up and taught to the general membership. It isn’t something that can be quickly understood, and I don’t think it would be very faith promoting or relevant to our current needs. And in the way that polygamy is relevant to us now–because it has not been revealed how it will play out in the after-life, the church cannot directly or doctrinally answer our concerns over the eternal implications of polygamous sealings now occurring. I do agree, however, that in this internet age where the general membership is finding and learning about these and other sticky parts of our history, that it would be wise for the Church to build resources that faithful members can turn to if they wish, to aid in resolving any concerns they may have. And from rumors I have heard, it sounds like the leadership of the church may be doing that very thing.

    But I digress. I want to take a moment to comment on concerns or anxieties that may arise from thinking about how polygamy may effect our marriages in eternity. My wife and I have discussed this a lot, and have speculated a fair amount on how it might play out in eternity. After reading every possible quote, recent and historical, I could find on the subject—I have lost the assumption that polygamy is necessarily eternal. I don’t feel confident in believing that polygyny, monogamy, or some mixture of polygyny and monogamy will be the order of heaven in eternity. I do not think this fact has ever been revealed—or even promoted as revealed (and despite fundamentalists pulling quotes out of context to prove to the contrary, Brigham Young and all other polygamous leaders in our history have each been quoted saying they do believe that couples can be exalted in monogamy). It well may be that those sealed in polgyny will eventually be given to others without a spouse in the great sealing chain of those exalted. Or it may be that polygynous sealings really do continue in eternity. My wife and I are both about 50/50 in our speculative belief whether it will be one way or the other (although my wife tends to lean a little towards polygynous relationships being eternal, while I lean a little towards believing in eventual monogamy for exalted marriages—go figure.) But one thing we both agree on, is that the order of heaven will for sure be what we desire most when we attain a perfect understanding of the principles of marriage in eternity. Exaltation is perfect glory and happiness, and we can be confident that we will not be in a position where we are asked to do something that we will not in fact desire at that point. So even if we cannot determine exactly how our marriages will be effected by polygamy in eternity, we can have faith and solace knowing that it will be exactly how we want it to be—otherwise if we lived in a state of even the slightest aversion, how could we call it heaven?

  20. I notice in the last paragraph of the OP and in a few of the comments that the Church’s current polygamous practices of allowing widowers to be sealed to a subsequent wife are mentioned. I want to call attention to the fact that this is not just true for widowers.

    My husband is divorced from his first wife. When we wanted to marry, he requested a sealing cancellation of his first marriage. It was not granted. He was given “clearance” to be sealed to me, but his first sealing was not cancelled. So he is sealed to two living women. I don’t like the fact that he is still sealed to a woman living a few miles down the road. I don’t think it is good for any of us. My husband feels that since his ex-wife has not kept her temple covenants (in some major ways) that it doesn’t really matter because she is not worthy of the sealing anyway. Nevertheless, it still feels like polygamy to me. By the way, I had not been married previously, so there were no sealing cancellation issues on my part.

  21. Steve, thanks for trying, but I’m afraid you’re still not getting it.  Most women are not nearly as concerned over the possibility of eternal spouse-sharing as they are over the heartbreaking personal implications of “plural marriage”  especially as mentioned in D&C 132:61-65.  Of course no one wants to share a beloved spouse… the very idea is completely repulsive. But far worse is the denial of individual worth implicit in the doctrine.

    We raise each precious daughter to believe that she is a daughter of a Heavenly Father who loves her (no Mother, mind you, there are no female gods or even female angels worth an actual mention) and that she can be like Him one day. Except of course that He is male and gender is eternal, so not really.  But she can be “given” to someone who really *can* be like Him, and then she can have his babies forever… millions and billions of them!  Except that it won’t really be millions and billions because she will have so much help in populating her husband’s worlds by all of the other women who were so fortunate to be sealed to him.  So maybe only a few hundred thousand babies because everyone knows that it takes only a few minutes to get a one started, but 9 months to gestate, which is a long time, even for eternity.  So just like a honey bee in a garden, he’ll be really busy, but still be able to do the job on his own.   

    Meanwhile she, and this is very  important, will be completely invisible, and separated from God  and her children by her husband.

    The only way I could be completely happy with an arrangement like that would be to not be me.   So perhaps heaven is only for men.

  22. This was a very well thought out post. You very eloquently depicted my own personal feelings about Eliza and Emma. I remember I had one roommate who was on Team Eliza while I sided with Team Emma. Like you, I wish I could love Eliza, but it’s hard when I consider Emma.

    On the subject of plural marriage…I don’t believe in the eternal nature of polygamy. I remember the first time I heard about it and being literally shocked. Soon after, my young women group took a trip to the family history center in SLC. We looked up Joseph Smith and I was floored that he’d had over 30 wives. I was probably about 13 at the time.

    From that time forward I was in this constant state of concern and upheval anytime it was brought up. I talked to teachers, friends, leaders, etc but no one could set my mind at ease. I would get: “well, we’ll all be living it one day, and it will be God’s way and therefore we will all love it.” The one shred of hope I clung too was a religious teacher who told me: “you’re not supposed to be okay with it. It’s against God’s commandments now.” It didn’t fully appease me, but I was somewhat comforted, becuase I was definitely not okay with it.

    Over the past year, I’ve come to realize that I don’t believe in it at all. I’ve met a polygamous family who are quite content and happy living that way, and I don’t begrudge them that. None of them were forced to live that way, it was a choice and they are a good family. If people really want to live that lifestyle, by all means, feel free. But I do not believe that God would ever force his daughters to live that way to reach their highest glory. I can’t believe in a God like that.

    I think of Joseph Smith. He’s been called to “restore” the gospel, so he is probably searching the scriptures like mad and he notices the plurality of wives in the OT. Maybe he considered it and thought it must be part of the “restoration.” I don’t believe that every word that comes out of a prophets mouth is from God and I think they can sometimes get it wrong, even when they are trying to get it right. Joseph Smith was inspired, and I believe, a genuinely “good man” but he was still limited by his own times, his experiences and his biases. We all are. And ultimately, God will always give us agency. He loves us enough to let us work things out on our own.

    When I came to the realization that I didn’t believe in polygamy as a commandment from God, in anytime or any place and definitely not as a condition for eternal happiness, I felt peace. For the first time ever, my heart was content.

  23. I don’t think anybody knows what they would do. Knowing my awful anger issues, I THINK I’d have become a murderer.

    “When I came to the realization that I didn’t believe in polygamy as a commandment from God, in anytime or any place and definitely not as a condition for eternal happiness, I felt peace. For the first time ever, my heart was content.” Natsy, this is exactly how I felt when I figured out the church’s priesthood ban on black men. I wonder about the psychological implications of that figuring out a principle/doctrine was just crap, and as a result, feeling more at peace with the church.

  24. As someone who sides more on Emma’s side, I’ve always been concerned over the first wife’s say in the matter of her husband taking additional wives.

    A few months ago, I attended a lecture by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, where she talked about a book she was working on, about polygamy before the Manifesto. During the question answer period, I voiced a concern about the first wives having a say in who the polygynous wives would be. The way that Ulrich explained it, is that Brigham Young was quite liberal in granting divorces, and that the most “successful” polygynous wives were those who were relatively young, and more subservient to the first wife. At least that is how I understood her answer.

    Now, this answer opens up another can of worms, when it comes to young girls being co-opted in polygynous marriages. It also doesn’t come close to addressing the problems that seem to have attended Joseph Smith’s many marriages, but it does give me a slim ray of hope for how all the women in a certain marriage constellation were involved in the decision to marry at all.

  25. Thanks for your comments, everyone. This is a difficult subject, and I appreciate the respectful tone.

    OldJen: I’m glad that you drew out the implications of polygyny and its doctrinal ambiguity. You hit the nail on the head – for many of us, the concern isn’t primarily – or even at all – about possible afterlife marital arrangements. The concern is about what polygyny tells us about our status as women in the church. This is particularly disconcerting because of the constant drumbeat emphasizing the absolute importance and eternal nature of gender, and the simultaneous discouragement from talking about what “eternal gender” means for women: no (or extremely limited) discussion of Heavenly Mother, and frequent caution against talking or even asking about Her. Almost no specifics in our temple ceremonies about women, other than (heterosexual) marriage and possible perpetual subservience to men. No clarification about polygyny.

    Furthermore, I would argue that the lack of clarification about polygyny leads to very real consequences for men as well as women. If a man believes that he is entitled to more than one wife in the afterlife, or that plural wives are eventually due to him for his righteousness, how does this translate into how he views and treats women in his everyday life?

  26. LOVE what OldJen had to say – and Galdralag, your expansion on that really got to something I think is essential.

    I am bothered enormously by the argument that, ‘well, we don’t do it NOW so it doesn’t matter.’ It DOES matter. If this is a genuine, god-given principle that has only been suspended then the fact that Mormons are not required to live it at the moment is not helpful – in fact it complicates things. Mormons are taught that this life is a preparation for the next, that personality and habits and choices are all eternal and that the person you form yourself as here is continued in the next life. That is why (I was told) it isn’t good enough to sin like mad and have a wild and crazy life and then death-bed repent and be baptized – you’ll have laid down a lifetime of bad and lazy habits and that will be problematic for you in the eternities (okay, at least that’s what my mum told me when I very sensibly said I would prefer NOT to have known about the gospel until the very end of my life so that I could have had the fun without the responsibility).

    Living this life as though polygyny were not an eternal principle because that’s the only way to be happy in the gospel means to me that either a) you will be unhappy in the eternities because you will have to live a plan that contradicts the ethics you formed in this life or b) you will be fundamentally changed outside of your own free agency and contrary to your personality which really throws the entire point of a mortal existence into question.

    But for so many women it is not possible to live happily with the concept of polygyny, and the refusal of the church to address the issue head on is, I think, extremely problematic. It is not good enough to say that making a definitive statement would cause problems – doing the hard thing because it’s the RIGHT thing is what the gospel teaches and is what the church should live as well.

  27. Galdralaq said: “If a man believes that he is entitled to more than one wife in the afterlife, or that plural wives are eventually due to him for his righteousness, how does this translate into how he views and treats women in his everyday life?”

    Exactly. When a husband sees his wife not as his One and Only but as his First of Many, of course the marriage relationship will be negatively impacted. The bond simply can’t be as strong as it would have been without fuzzy boundaries. The results so often are a man that “window shops” and a woman who responds by building a protective shell around herself. Sadly, a marriage that could have been glorious, becomes merely stable.

    Speaking of fuzzy boundaries and window shopping, it might be time to ask ourselves what impact a “sacred expectation” of a future harem has on our current epidemic of porn addiction.

  28. This has been a painful but important discussion, thank you Galdarag. Old Jen, I can add nothing to your comments, you said what I would have said. I remember reading Juanita Brook’s novel “The Joshua Tree” many years ago long before I had given polygany much thought. It was illuminating. I wish this book were still in print as Brook’s well researched carefully crafted plot illuminated a few of the pitfalls mentioned in this thread.

  29. One time I was sitting with my friend in Sunday School. We were attending the Gospel Principles class and I think they were talking about the Millenium or something and basically what I got from that lesson was that the Millenium would be a time for populating and preaching. It was put out as this great reward and responsibility that we would have because we had been faithful in this life. I leaned over to my friend and told her “If that is an idea of heaven, sign me up for hell.” (My irreverent side pops out all too frequently at church.) I know that the Millenium is not necessarily “heaven” but I have heard similar descriptions of what the eternities will be like.

    I loved what you said Old Jen: “The only way I could be completely happy with an arrangement like that would be to not be me. So perhaps heaven is only for men.” I would not be happy living that way. I don’t want to spend an eternity giving birth. Which, from many explanations I’ve been given, is a justification for polygamy. I like to think that I am more than my uterus.

    This is an important discussion and I appreciate all the thougtful responses that have given me a lot to think about.

    As a side note, I saw a meme on facebook with this quote from Walt Whitman that reminded me of this discussion: “Re-examine all you have been told. Dismiss what insults your soul.” Polygamy, described as an eternal doctrine, insults my soul.

  30. The LDS view of polygamy DOES currently affect how men treat their wives. My now X spouse used the temple sealing words, as I “gave myself to him” to mean that he could sexually abuse me because I was HIS. After our divorce I married a NOMO and we are very happy. However, X later married in the temple to wife #2. Within a few months I requested a cancellation of my sealing to him. There was NO WAY IN HELL I would stay sealed to him because it furthered his belief that I still belonged to him. Mind you I was/am fully worthy of the other blessings associated with the temple sealing covements. YET, NO ONE would ever verbally or written, assure me that my children remain sealed to me. I simply got a form letter from the 1st Pres. My heart tells me I AM most assuredly sealed to my kids, while I am unsealed to X spouse. He was a mysogynst thru and thru who used the church’s beliefs and teachings to abuse me. For decades. And he still believes the same things today and he is active in the church, while I am marginally active, mostly because of how the church views and treats women.

  31. A little more – the story of Emma pushing Eliza down the stairs is a fictional part of Orson Scott Card’s book “SAINTS” Initial title was “A WOMAN of DESTINY” A fascinating read. I fully commiserate with Emma; she was put in a horrible position and too many poeple villify her without knowing the facts. I also like the comment that maybe Joseph wanted to restore polygamy himself, ie; it wasn’t a commandment from God. I also find D & C 132 absolutely horrifying and believe it was completely made up by Joseph to justify his polygamy anad to put the fear of God into Emma. As a church and even any moral group or person, we believe in light and truth and to cover up/lie about polygamy in Nauvoo goes against everything I believe. WHY was it so lied about? Eve and Adam were an exalted couple without polygamy. And the current LDS teachings of family certainly portray one man/one woman. SO…in IMHO we NEED more spoken and taught about our Heavenly MOther too. That would hopefully neutralize some of the damage that’s been caused by polygamy.

  32. @ Sherry

    I don’t want to get too sidetracked here, but I feel like I should probably clarify: The story that Orson Scott Card used (and the book sounds fascinating, BTW – I’ll have to find a copy) is based on historical sources (non-fictional), several of which are cited at the bottom of the fMh post:


    However – and this is something I tried to get at in the post, though perhaps I was unsuccessful – even if that particular event was entirely apocryphal, there is very solid historical evidence that 1) Emma was deeply unhappy and conflicted about the practice of polygyny; 2) many of Joseph’s marriages were kept from her until after the fact; and 3) Emma and Eliza’s friendship was profoundly negatively affected by Eliza’s marriage to Joseph. This legacy remains part of the current Mormon zeitgeist, whether we want it or not.

    … which leads to what you and others have said here: we need to talk about this more, and to seriously consider the repercussions that we are feeling as a people as a result of the lack of doctrinal clarification.

    Last but not least – I’m so very sorry to hear that your ex internalized the worst implications of these teachings (and glad that you got out and found a healthier relationship). This is one of the scarier things about all of this to me – that these teachings can be so easily manipulated and used as justification to subjugate and abuse women.

  33. Steve brings up an interesting point that I believe is the very crux of the polygyny problem. He says,
    “I can’t think of an appropriate venue that I would want this history brought up and taught to the general membership. It isn’t something that can be quickly understood, and I don’t think it would be very faith promoting or relevant to our current needs. And in the way that polygamy is relevant to us now–because it has not been revealed how it will play out in the after-life, the church cannot directly or doctrinally answer our concerns over the eternal implications of polygamous sealings now occurring.”

    I would expect that most reading this forum have first-hand experience with children. I also would expect that most would agree that in order for children to grow into functioning adults, they need to figure things out on their own, and not be “commanded in all things”. But, speaking at least for myself, if my child were to come to me with tears in her eyes, hurting, and asking for help, I would do everything in my power to help her.

    Now let’s say that my little daughter was being injured every day, while her brother, who I had charged with her protection, was with her. But he couldn’t figure out an appropriate way to help, so each day he just watched, thinking to himself that in a few years it would be over and she would heal. Maybe even with some really cool scars.

    But the brother is still a child, just as the sister is a child. I wouldn’t expect him to know what to do in every situation any more than I would expect my dentist to perform heart surgery. When he helplessly saw his sister being injured, and heard her cries, why did he not come to me for assistance? Why? Did he think that it didn’t matter? Was he so naive as to believe that since he couldn’t think of a solution, no solution could exist?

    When the brothers of Nephi were experiencing a lack of understanding, Nephi said to them, “Have ye inquired of the Lord?” They replied, “We have not; for the Lord maketh no such thing known unto us.” Nephi reminds them that the Lord has said, “If ye will not harden your hearts, and ask me in faith, believing that ye shall receive, with diligence in keeping my commandments, surely these things shall be made known unto you.” (1 Nephi 15:8-11)

    In this instance, Nephi is dealing with his hard-hearted brothers. But even for the tender-hearted, the question should be the same: “Have Ye inquired of the Lord?”

    And so I ask, and I mean no disrespect, rather, I ask with full respect for appropriate lines of authority: Have those charged with the protection of the church asked the Lord for assistance in behalf of their injured and hurting sisters?

    With God, all things are possible.

  34. This is well written. I enjoyed the read and the comments following – many of which I read. In answer to your question, I’ve thought about it enough to know precisely what I would do. . . Plural marriage isn’t for me.

    My response also speaks to your question: “If a man believes that he is entitled to more than one wife in the afterlife, or that plural wives are eventually due to him for his righteousness, how does this translate into how he views and treats women in his everyday life?”

    And forgive me for utilizing portions of a comment I just left at FMH below, but it’s easier to cut and paste than to re-type. ..

    I should also say that I personally do not believe there was any sort of divine revelation involved in plural marriage practice within the early LDS church. The history is murky at best and there is likely a whole lot of detail to which we are not privy. And section 132 of D&C? Well, I’m not sure I believe it was authored by Joseph Smith at all. So there you have my biases.

    This may be self-evident, but in my opinion, a woman must accept some level of inferiority to a man in order to engage in polygyny. I suspect that current fundamentalist or otherwise polygynous partners will find ways to disprove or disagree with my position. But it makes sense to me.

    I believe that the unique ways in which we engage in self-deception can allow us at times to live in unhealthy circumstances — circumstances that are a direct result of our conscious or unconscious feelings of inferiority. Human beings are adept at participating in unhealthy and power-imbalanced relationships while still proclaiming their value and independence. [This is outside and in addition to the “wrath of God if you don’t” pressure referred to in your post.]

    In the early church, especially among the likes of Brigham Young – who “generously” offered to take women into heaven with him on his coat tails -it was widely accepted by both genders that women were dependent on men for many things. Even our feminist sisters writing in WE acknowledge this, albeit, unhappily. The collective, cultural norms were clearly tipped toward the male-in-power model and for the vast majority of women, it surely impacted their own self-worth.

    I’m enjoying watching and participating in the gathering of critical mass to move toward an eventual tipping point away from that model; toward what I believe is the celestial model of partners equally possessed of power, might and glory. And I don’t buy the idea of polygamy in heaven either. It just doesn’t ring true to me.

  35. My mother, who is my father’s second wife (he was a widower when they married) once told me that she used to wonder if/how he could really love her and his first wife without one of them being second-rate somehow. She said she figured it out when she had a second child.

  36. I used to wonder a similar thing: how anyone could love more than one god. I figured it out when I met Mammon.

    I think the relationship works great, but that doesn’t mean God and Mammon get along.

  37. Comparing a wife to a child is insulting. The marriage relationship is not, and absolutely should not be even remotely similar to the relationship between parent and child. To suggest that it is the same in any way is disturbing on so many levels I don’t even know where to begin.

  38. Old Jen, I loved what you said. To quote:

    “And so I ask, and I mean no disrespect, rather, I ask with full respect for appropriate lines of authority: Have those charged with the protection of the church asked the Lord for assistance in behalf of their injured and hurting sisters?”

    I think the current and VERY real problem is that our current church leaders have to believe that there is a legitimate injury and hurt where we women are concerned. Obviously, they don’t, or I believe new prophecies would come tearing out of the pulpit on Conference this weekend, or maybe next year. But who really thinks that’s gonna happen? I honestly don’t think that current church leadership understands the way this issue tears at a woman’s soul and self-worth, and just how much the current and unaddressed (IMO) implication that women are ultimately 2nd class citizens makes your very soul have panic attacks at the thought of eternity spent this way. Becoming a priestess “unto” your husband does NOT make you equal. It puts you in eternal subjection. Polygyny does NOT make us equal if we, as women, do not possess the same chance or ability to practice Polyandry. For myself, I have never understood marriage jealousy. Maybe it’s because I’ve been cheated on before (in the most ultimate way). Maybe it’s because, through this, I realize that you can never compel someone to love you or want to stay with you You just have to be the best and most awesome “you” that you can be. Maybe it’s also because I know the ache of, and completely understand just how easy it is to be in love with more than one person at a time. Current scripture would ultimately have us believe that if this problem existed for a guy, he wouldn’t have to suffer the heartbreak. But a woman HAS to choose, and suffer a loss as well. However, a MAN could have both in the eternities (or sooner? I strongly suspect that with gay marriage rapidly becoming legal and accepted throughout the U.S., it’s only a matter of time before things like polygamy are legalized too).

    Therefore, heaven had better be one of two ways: Completely free of and all polygamy, or it had better offer both polygany AND polyandry for those who so desire. Of course, monogamy should also still be on the the table for those who have no such preference other than the one “love of their youth”.

  39. I am a male,I know this church is true but I also believe everyone makes mistakes and that includes those who think they don’t whomever they may be. I agree that the church needs to clarify in a official way all these questions even if it means admitting to mistakes as it only means honesty and truth. Why they are silent I don’t know why but why not help instead of sitting on the fence. There must be a reason and if so can we not at least share that. Now I believe Joseph Smith was a decent man so I look for that in all my searching and I trust whatever comes will explain truthfully whether it be what we approve of or not. I feel in my heart for dear Joseph and dear Emma, the heart wrenching troubles they endured is really beyond all belief. I maintain they loved each other as they always did, in love, integrity, and total honesty. Totally devoted to each other and God above all. I search knowing God is loving and as tendered hearted as you and I except in ways that are infinitely patient and merciful. The stories filled with contempt, hate, anger, and everything either black or white remind me of a being who also operates in that manner. No room for tolerance or time to just enjoy. I don’t know much like many but I know how to love. I’m not the same man I was in past times, thanks be to God for giving me a chance to learn. Can’t we afford the same as far as a little understanding and staying on Gods side as we search out the facts to our church and to a wonderful and beautiful couple as you each are, Joseph and Emma Smith. Thank you.

  40. I just read news of the historical finding, presented by Dr. Andrea Radke-Moss, that Eliza was gang-raped by “Missouri ruffians,” and that the attack was violent enough that she was left unable to have children.


    I find myself sobbing. I am so heartbroken at the pain that our Mormon foremothers suffered. Dear Eliza, I hope that you found solace and healing.


Comments are closed.