Food Storage & Other Adventures in Motherhood

Book Review: In Sacred Loneliness Part 1- The First Three Plural Wives of Joseph Smith

by heather

This book review doesn’t fall in with the general scope of what I talk about in my blog (food storage, health and motherhood) but I’m aware that there are people who read my blog only because of this post where I discussed my husband leaving the LDS Church. In the past six months I have spent a lot of time researching, particularly about Joseph Smith’s polygamy because that was one of my husband’s big issues. There is a lot that is said on the internet about the topic. Some of it is true and some of it is false. To get to the bottom of the issue I began reading In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smithby Todd Compton, which is peer-reviewed and well-researched. I know there are some who would say that any discussion of Joseph Smith’s polygamy= ‘anti-Mormon propaganda’. Let me assure that this book is available at Deseret Book, a company that is owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, (although it’s cheaper on Amazon) and last I heard Todd Compton was still a faithful member in good standing with the Church. I don’t believe that an examination of history is ‘anti-Mormon’. That idea goes against everything the LDS Church has taught me about how to successfully research family history. (If you are interested in hearing about the book in his words, he did an interview that can be found here.)

Compton is a historian who started writing this book after he was commissioned to transcribe the journals of Eliza R. Snow. In her journals she  kept referring to various women who were married to Joseph Smith; in order to keep them all straight he began researching the lives of the women that were married to Joseph Smith. He took all of the journals, letters and documents that he could find and wrote a chapter devoted to sketching the lives of each of these women. I have found this book to be fascinating and compelling. To me, reading this is like a well-written family history. And anyone who has done a significant amount of time researching genealogy and family history knows that each person is more than just dates on a page. Yes, birth, marriage and death dates help to outline that person and who they were, but to really understand and appreciate them, you need some of the information that was in-between. I’ve come across websites or documents that simply give charts or lists with dates, but to appreciate these women as real people and why they agreed to these unusual relationships, you need more details. These were real women who loved and laughed and sacrificed and suffered. Obviously polygamy was important to Joseph Smith, and I think it is important to remember these women. As I review each wife, I’ll will still highlight the major life events, because those facts are important, but I’ll also give details that I thought were interesting, things that made these women real to me, as well as helped to illuminate the practice of polygamy. (It’s nearly 800 pages long, so it will take me a bit to get through it.) It is difficult to make any generalizations about Joseph Smith’s polygamy without looking at each case. The circumstances of each relationship varied. Because I understand that many of the details of their lives do not correlate with conventional Church history I will try to keep my input to a minimum and take a lot of quotes directly from the text (in italics), although for brevity I summarized a few things I thought were important, but long. I feel like this information does a good job of answering many of the questions about polygamy, although it certainly raises others.

General Information about Joseph Smith’s polygamy

For my first part in this series of posts I am going to review his first three plural wives, as well as give a little bit of background information. The Book of Mormon, which was translated from 1827 to 1829, deals with polygamy in Jacob 2:23-25 and has been misinterpreted as a blanket denunciation of all plural marriage. However, it condemns only unauthorized plurality, allowing for the possibility of polygamy when commanded by the Lord (Jacob 2:30) (pg 27). According to Compton, Joseph Smith had 34 wives that he felt were reasonably documented (33 plural wives in addition to Emma Hale Smith). Brian Hales, a Mormon apologist, has more recently said 38 wives. Other authors have estimated or suggested larger numbers, however I suspect that some people are just reaching for a large dramatic number before carefully evaluating the documentation. Though thirty-three is less than forty-eight, it is still a remarkably large polygamous family. (pg 10)

Among Smith’s well-documented wives, 11 (33%) were between the ages of 14 and 20 when they married him, 9 wives (27%) were between 21 and 30, 8 wives (24%) were of Smith’s own peer group, 31 to 40 years old, 2 wives (6%) were age 41 to 50 and 3 wives (9%) were age 51 to 60. The teenage representation was the largest, though the twenty-year and thirty-year groups were comparable, which contradicts the Mormon folk-wisdom that sees the beginnings of polygamy as an attempt to care for older unattached women. These data suggest that sexual attraction was an important part of the motivation of Smith’s polygamy. In fact, the command to multiply and replenish the earth was part of the polygamy theology, (See D&C 132:63) so non-sexual polygamy was generally not in the polygamous program as Smith taught it. (pg 11-12) This statement is corroborated by the following statement from Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling by Richard Bushman “Partly to maintain secrecy, Joseph could not have spent much time with [Louisa] Beaman or any of the women he married…. As the marriages increased, there were fewer and fewer opportunities for seeing each wife. Even so, nothing indicates that sexual relations were left out of plural marriages” (pg 438-439)

Another aspect of Smith’s polygamy that has many untruths flying around about it is polyandry. Eleven women were married to other men and cohabiting with them when Smith married them....In the past polyandry has been ignored or glossed over, but if these women merit serious attention the topic cannot be overlooked. Joseph F. Smith, seventh president of the Church and Andrew Jenson, Assistant Church Historian, documented these women’s polyandrous marriages to Joseph Smith, including affidavits with dates of the ceremonies. Their civil marriages and dates of childbirths are also easily corroborated….A common misconception concerning Joseph Smith’s polyandry is that he participated in only one or two of such unusual unions. In fact, one-third of his plural wives…were married civilly to other men when he married them. (pg 15)

Some have suggested that the first husbands in these marriages were generally disaffected with Mormonism or were non-Mormon and Smith married the women to offer them salvation. In such cases, the women would have wanted to be married to Smith as a righteous husband who could bring them exaltation. If so, one would have expected the women to leave the unworthy men. The totality of evidence, however, does not support this theory.Another theory that Joseph married polyandrously when the marriage was unhappy. If this were true it would have been easy for the woman to divorce her husband, then marry Smith. But none of these women did so, some of them stayed with their “first husbands” until death. (pg 16)

Smith taught that “all real marriages were made in heaven before the birth of the parties.”…Thus heavenly marriages in the pre-existence required earthly polyandry here. Certain spirits were “kindred,” matched in heaven, were born into this life, and because of (previous) unauthorized marriages performed without priesthood sealing power, became linked “illegally” to the wrong partners. (pg 19) Civil marriage was even a “sin,” unless a “higher affinity cemented” spouses together. (pg 17) Mormonism’s intensely hierarchical nature allowed a man with the highest authority—a Brigham Young or a Joseph Smith—to request the wives of men holding lesser Mormon priesthood, or no priesthood. (pg 22) Unfortunately, there have been no official statements from the LDS Church about polyandry. (* indicates a polyandrous marriage.)

Fanny Alger (Smith Custer)
born Sept 20, 1816 in Rehobath, Massachusetts
married to Joseph Smith- early 1833 in Kirtland, Ohio
married to Solomon Custer- Nov 16th, 1836 in Dublin, Indiana
died- after 1880, probably in Dublin, Indiana

  • Fanny’s parents joined the Mormons when she was 14, and were converted by Parley P. Pratt. (pg 26)
  • There is no specific date for Alger’s marriage to Smith, nor for her death. We know very little about her except the comment of Benjamin Johnson, an early Mormon and a close friend of Smith, that she was “varry nice and comly,” a young woman to whom “every one Seemed partial for the ameability of her character” (pg 25)
  • Edit 7/30/13: I just found her obituary here saying that she died November 29, 1817 at her son’s home in Indianapolis, Indiana. This obituary was discovered in 1999 and Compton’s book was published in 1997.
  • Fanny Alger was a hired live-in maid in Smith’s home in at the time of their marriage. (pg 34)
  • Smith and other 19th century Mormons taught that plural marriage was necessary for complete salvation. (pg 27)
  • Alger’s parents were proud of their connection to the prophet, which would hardly have been the case if it were just a furtive affair. (pg 28)
  • There was an exchange made regarding Fanny’s marriage. “Therefore Brother Joseph said “Brother Levi (Levi Hancock, Fanny’s uncle) I want to make a bargain with you. If you will get me Fanny Alger to wife, you may have Clarissa Reed. I love Fanny.”[Levi] goes to Fanny and said “Fanny, Brother Joseph loves you and wishes you for a wife will you be his wife?” “I will Levi” Said She [Levi] takes Fanny to Joseph and said “Brother Joseph, I have been successful in my mission”—[Levi] gave her to Joseph repeating the ceremony as Joseph repeated to him.” (pg 32)
  • Nauvoo plural marriages show a similar pattern of rewards for those who helped solemnize Smith’s marriages. (pg 33)
  • Women are indoctrinated from childhood to accept such arranged marriages. (pg 41)
  • Historical documents give no evidence as to what might have happened if she had rejected the proposal. (pg 42)
  • An account of her relationship with Emma in 1834: “Mrs. Smith had an adopted daughter, a very pretty pleasing girl, about seventeen years old. She was extremely fond of her. No mother could be more devoted.” (pg 34)
  • “Although her parents were living, they considered it the highest honor to have their daughter adopted into the prophet’s family.” (pg 34)
  • Sometime between 1835 and 1836 Emma’s sentiment’s changed. This account comes from Chauncey Webb, a neighbor who Fanny went to live with after Emma discovered more about their relationship. “Joseph Smith was sealed in Kirtland secretly to Fanny Alger. Emma was furious, and drove the girl, who was unable to conceal the consequences of her celestial relations with the prophet, out of her house.There is no record of Fanny having a child, either he was mistaken (unlikely), the child miscarried, or died young or it was raised under another name. (pg 35)
  • In an 1872 letter to Joseph Smith III, William McClellin wrote: “Again I told Emma I heard that one night she missed Joseph and Fanny Alger. She went to the barn and saw him and Fanny together alone. She looked through a crack and saw the transaction!! She told me this story was verily true.”…This account contradicts Webb’s and later statements on polygamy by Emma….But whether Emma saw her husband in the barn or discovered evidence of Fanny’s pregnancy, her reaction was the same. (pg 35)
  • Benjamin Johnson tells another version of the incident “I was…told by Warren Parrish that he himself & Oliver Cowdery did know that Joseph had Fanny Alger has as a wife for They ware Spied upon & found togather” (pg 35)
  • According to Oliver Cowdery’s description of a meeting with Joseph Smith “in every instance I did not fail to affirm that what I said was strictly true. A dirty, nasty, filthy affair of his and Fanny Alger’s was talked over in which I strictly declared that I never deviated from the truth.” This meeting took place in Far West. Immediately after Fanny was evicted from the Smith home, Joseph had asked Oliver to smooth the situation over with Emma. (pg 38)
  • One can only guess at Fanny’s marrying a non-Mormon, after an extremely short courtship. Perhaps she felt abandoned by Smith after being thrown out of his house, or maybe she fell in love with Solomon who was closer to her own age. (pg 37)
  • According to her husband’s obituary, she lived more than forty years as a wife of a patriotic grocer and had nine children. (pg 41)
  • Despite her important role in initiating the era of Mormon polygamy, she lived a quite, uneventful stationary existence of a monogamous mother and grandmother. (pg 41)
  • Though Fanny accepted Smith’s proposal in 1833, in 1836 she rejected him, the physical community of Mormonism, the geographical Zion that was a central tenet of the 19th-century faith, even though the choice involved separation from her family. (pg 42)

Lucinda Pendleton (Morgan Harris Smith)
born Sept 27, 1801 in Washington Co., Virginia
married Captain William Morgan- October 7, 1819 in Washington Co., Virginia
married George Washington Harris- November 30, 1830 in Washington Co., Virginia
married Joseph Smith in 1838 in Far West, Missouri*
death- unknown

  • Captain William Morgan is historically important as he was an ‘anti-Masonic martyr’. He was in the process of publishing a book revealing Masonic secrets when he was murdered in September of 1826. Lucinda was left with a two-year old and a newborn.(pg 44-45)
  • Many people who disliked the Masons gave her financial support. (pg 46)
  • She married George Harris, a friend of her former husband’s, and also a former Mason. (pg 48)
  • In 1834, George and Lucinda Harris were converted to Mormonism by Orson Pratt when he was teaching in Indiana. (pg 48)
  • In 1835 George and Lucinda Harris moved to Missouri.
  • In a letter dated May 24, 1839 Smith wrote that he had selected a lot for them, “just across the street from my own”. George had high status in Nauvoo and served on the Nauvoo high council. (pg 50)
  • In mid-July 1840 George was sent on a mission. (pg 50)
  • In 1841 Lucinda did baptisms for her dead relatives, including William Morgan. (pg 51)
  • In 1842, the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo was founded. It is significant that Lucinda’s name never shows up on the RS minutes. Perhaps the explanation may have been that Emma Smith was the RS president, and there was tension between them. (pg 51)
  • In 1844 George was the “Acting Associate Justice”. He thus played a small, but telling part in the events that led to Joseph Smith’s martyrdom….After a great deal of testimony related to the alleged wrongdoings of the Expositor staff, “Alderman Harris spoke from the chair, and expressed his feelings that the press ought to be demolished.” Smith was arrested for complicity in the Expositor’s destruction and was killed on June 27. (pg 51)
  • On January 22, 1846, Lucinda was sealed to Joseph “for eternity” and to George for time. This sealing seems to show George’s awareness of his wife’s connection to Joseph, and it certainly seems indicate his willingness to deliver up Lucinda to Joseph in the next life. (pg 52)
  • By 1853 Lucinda had left George Harris. George died in Council Bluffs, Iowa in 1857.
  • Lucinda is last recorded as working in a hospital in Memphis, Tennessee during the Civil War with “The Sisters of Charity” (pg 54)
  • One might think of her as the archetypal Burned-over District Woman. (pg 54)
  • Lucinda after many years in Mormonism and her close relationship with the founding prophet, is last seen as a Catholic. (pg 54)

Louisa Beaman

Louisa Beaman (Smith Young)
born Feb 7, 1815 in Livonia, New York
married Joseph Smith April 5, 1841 in Nauvoo, Illinois
married Brigham Young Sept 19, 1844 in Nauvoo, Illinois
died May 18, 1850 in Salt Lake Valley, Utah

  • Louisa was heroized by a life of suffering. Most of Joseph’s wives had difficult lives, but Louisa stands out even among them. The mother of five children by Brigham Young, including two sets of twins, she lost all of them and then died of breast cancer in early middle-age—thus becoming the mater dolorosa of early Mormon polygamy. (pg 56)
  • The first fort in Parowan Valley was named Fort Louisa. A leader of the mission said “It was in honor of the first Woman who listened to the light and voice of Revelation— & yielded obedience to the Seal of the covenant.” (pg 55)
  • Although we know little about her, it is apparent that she was loved. (pg 56)
  • Her family was friends with the Smith family as far back as the 1820’s.
  • Martin Harris remembers “old Mr. Beman” (Louisa’s father) digging for treasure with the Smith’s. (pg 57)
  • In the fall of 1840 Joseph Smith taught Joseph Bathes Noble (Louisa’s brother-in-law) about polygamy. “saying the angel of the Lord had commanded him to move forward with said order of marriage.” Smith then asked Noble to officiate in marrying Louisa to himself. The prophet said “In revealing this to you, I have placed my life in your hands, therefore do not in an evil hour betray me to my enemies. (pg 59)
  • Louisa was disguised as a man during the ceremony. Nauvoo polygamy was so secretive that it almost had a cloak-and-dagger atmosphere—perhaps its very secrecy, giving participants a sense of being in the center of the innermost church, helped infuse it with its sense of sacrality. (pg 59)
  • In court testimony in 1892, Noble reports that Joseph Smith spoke to him of his sharing a bed with Louisa. (pg 60)
  • In 1843, Smith rebaptized Louisa and at least one other plural wife for reasons that might be related to his marriages to the Partridge sisters. During this era rebaptism was common.(pg 60)
  • She received her endowment on January 26, 1845 and joined the Holy Order, or Quorum of the Annointed, also known as “the Priesthood”, an elite group that met frequently to perform Joseph Smith’s endowment rituals and pray together. (pg 61)
  • The emotional and physical toll on Louisa as her last (5th) child slowly died must have been awful. (pg 64)
  • A complex web of friendships and affiliations between the plural wives was evident. The women ate together, slept over together and tended to each other’s needs. (pg 65)
  • We have seen that Louisa spoke in tongues on occasion and once laid hands on Patty Sessions’s head with other sisters. An 1849 entry of Zina Young’s journal gives another example. “Sister Washbern sent for Louisa, Sister Twist and my self to come and wash and annoint her daughter Mary Ann. She was very sick. Brigham Young sent his Carrage to carry us down. The Lord blest the administration & she was better.”That Brigham Young (the prophet at the time) would send a carriage to take three women to administer to another is a striking contrast to modern-day Mormon practice, in which only men are allowed to perform administrations for health. (pg 68)
  • As we assess the significance of Louisa Beaman’s life, we recognize that she was the important first plural wife in Nauvoo. Her marriage to Joseph was esoteric, highly secret, sacred; although it reportedly had a sexual dimension, it produced no known children. (pg 69)

In Sacred Loneliness Part 2


One Response to “Book Review: In Sacred Loneliness Part 1- The First Three Plural Wives of Joseph Smith”

  1. […] pioneer heritage — Pie and Beer Day!!! (Or something like that…) Time to reflect upon the sacrifices made by the early Mormons, and maybe learn some real […]

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