Monday, February 28, 2011

Joseph Smith's Polygamy

Perhaps one of the most controversial yet interesting topics in LDS history is the origin of Mormon polygamy.  Joseph Smith practiced it secretly and introduced it to some of his closest followers.  But tensions surrounding its practice eventually led to the murder of the Latter-Day-Saint Prophet. 

Today, discussion of polygamy is avoided in official church discourse, and it is considered impolite to ask about it in Sunday School.  The church continues P.R. efforts to remove the uncomfortable association between the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Mormon fundamentalism.  Meanwhile, critics use the topic to undermine the church, leaving many church members unsure what to believe, or where to go for reliable information.

But researcher Brian Hales hopes help.
By providing documentation and discussing polygamy openly, he hopes to "defends Joseph Smith against anti-Mormon claims" through his website,

Hales notes the "historical record plainly indicates that the Prophet married women polygamously and authorized other men to do likewise." But he accuses some writers of exaggerating the number of wives, or of attributing false motives to Joseph Smith's polygamous practices.

Hales' site is setup to provide information and discussion on a number of topics including:
  • A list of Joseph Smith's polygamous wives
  • Joseph Smith's motivations for plural marriage
  • Sexuality in Joseph Smith's marriages
  • The question of extra-marital relationships
  • Plural marriage as a requirement for exhaltation
  • Women having more than one husband (polyandry)
Hales recently published a chapter titled 'Joseph Smith and the Puzzlement of "Polyandry"' in The Persistence of Polygamy: Joseph Smith and the Origins of Mormon Polygamy (edited by Craig Foster and Newell G. Bringhurst).   Later this year he will publish a two volume book, Joseph Smith's Polygamy: History and Theology.

Hales believes "virtually all of the previous treatments of Joseph Smith's polygamy have been at best, incomplete, and at worst, full of gross misrepresentations." "I would like to see a more accurate and objective presentation, then observers can make their own assessments."  Hales suggests that George D. Smith's Nauvoo Polygamy: '...but we called it celestial marriage' "is not documented history" stating that "several parts of the text resemble historical fiction because they are primarily the opinion of the author and reflect perspectives that are undocumentable."  However Hales believes Todd Compton's In Sacred Lonliness, The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith "was a significant milestone on the Mormon polygamy landscape and it is still the best publication out on the subject."

Of Hales' research, Compton says he is "wildly enthusiastic" but says he does "disagree with him on some issues."  He indicates Hales book "is very thoroughly researched" and notes that Hales had "access to some significant documents in the church archives that I didn't have access to."


Unknown said...

I wonder what Compton and Hales disagree upon. I enjoy Compton's book and will look forward to comparing and contrasting it to Hales' work. I love the subject of polygamy and Joseph Smith and hope Hales will shed some more light on the mystery behind Joseph and those practices. Thanks for the post.

BRIAN hALES said...

Todd and I went to dinner a couple of years ago and went through a few areas where we differed. I think polyandrous sexuality was one and "dynastic sealings" were another.

Todd is the respondent to my MHA paper on Emma Smith and polygamy (in May at St. George) so he'll have a few microseconds to contrast anything I say.