Joseph Smith’s Polygamy: Toward a Better Understanding


by Brian C. Hales and Laura H. Hales

  • “A useful and interesting volume.... I wholeheartedly recommend this book to all.” — Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture
  • “It is a book that will be read and discussed for years to come.” — Robert L. Millet

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Book Description:

In the last several years a wealth of information has been published on Joseph Smith's practice of polygamy. For some who were already well aware of this aspect of early Mormon history, the availability of new research and discovered documents has been a wellspring of further insight and knowledge into this topic. For others who are learning of Joseph’s marriages to other women for the first time, these books and online publications (including the LDS Church's recent Gospel Topics essays on the subject) can be both an information overload and a challenge to one's faith.

In this short volume, Brian C. Hales (author of the 3-volume Joseph Smith’s Polygamy set) and Laura H. Hales wade through the murky waters of history to help bring some clarity to this episode of Mormonism’s past, examining both the theological explanations of the practice and the accounts of those who experienced it first hand. As this episode of Mormon history involved more than just Joseph and his first wife Emma, this volume also includes short biographies of the 36 women who were married to the Prophet but whose stories of faith, struggle, and courage have been largely forgotten and ignored over time. While we may never fully understand the details and reasons surrounding this practice, Brian and Laura Hales provide readers with an accessible, forthright, and faithful look into this challenging topic so that we can at least come toward a better understanding.

AuthorCast Interview with the Author:

Comprehensive Table of Contents:



The Polygamy Puzzle
Limited Documentation
Latter-day Saints’ Reluctance to Study Plural Marriage

1. Reasons for Practicing Plural Marriage

Reasons for Practicing Polygamy

2. A “New and Everlasting Covenant”

Examples to Help Us Understand
The Connection between Eternal Marriage and Plural Marriage
The Need for Plurality in Eternity
Readdressing the Original Question about a Plurality of Wives
A Note on the Language of D&C 132
Law of Sarah

3. Polygamy Is Commanded

Polygamy: An Inconsistent Commandment
Section 132 Does Not Command Plural Marriage
An Angel with a Sword
Polygamy Commanded among the Saints
Can a Commandment Be Removed?
Post-Manifesto Polygamy

4. Different Marriage Sealings, Different Marriage Durations

Types of Plural Sealings
Plurality of Husbands?
A Polyandrous Paradox

5. Early 1830s—Prologue to Plural Marriage

An Early Revelation
Accusations of Polygamy among the Latter-day Saints
The Article on Marriage

6. Fanny Alger—Joseph’s First Plural Wife

Early Chronology of Joseph’s First Plural Marriage
Authority to Perform a Plural Marriage
Dating the Plural Marriage
Discovery by Emma
Fanny Alger Leaves
Rumors of the Relationship

7. Between Kirtland and Nauvoo

The Power to Bind in Heaven
Joseph Smith’s Pre-Nauvoo Reputation

8. Nauvoo Plural Marriage Begins

1840—Secretly Introducing Plural Marriage
First Nauvoo Plural Sealing
Joseph Teaches Members of the Quorum of the Twelve
Eternity-Only Sealings
Table 8.1 Plural Proposals and Sealings After Louisa Beaman
Why Did Joseph Smith Seek Sealings to Legally Married Women?
An Angel Commands Joseph the Polygamist to Practice Polygamy

9. Changes after the Angel’s Third Visit

Brigham Young Seeks a Plural Wife
Heber C. Kimball Marries Polygamously
Joseph’s Proposal to Nancy Rigdon
Additional Sealings through August of 1842
Sarah Ann Whitney Weds Two Men: Joseph Smith and a “Pretended” Husband

10. John C. Bennett’s Brief Stay with the Saints

John C. Bennett Enters Nauvoo
Bennett Excommunicated
Was Bennett a Polygamy Confidant?
Bennett’s Legacy

11. Disclosures, Denials, and More Marriages

Additional Sealings
Were There Children Fathered by Joseph Smith in These Plural Unions?
Sexual Relations with Plural Wives Were a Rarity
Young Wives
The Case of Sylvia Sessions Lyon
Denials of Polygamy

12. Emma Smith

Emma Participates in Plural Sealings
Why did Joseph Wait to Tell Emma?
Emma Experiences Plural Marriage
Crisis and Agreement

13. Emma Struggles as Joseph’s First Wife

A Confrontation with Eliza R. Snow?
Flora Ann Woodworth Leaves Joseph Smith
Partridge Sisters Dismissed from the Nauvoo Mansion
Emma’s Renewed Support
Emma’s Unique Path through Plural Marriage

14. Joseph Smith’s Last Days

William and Jane Law
Plural Marriage and the Martyrdom

15. After the Martyrdom

Did Joseph Smith Intend to Abandon Plural Marriage?
Post-Martyrdom Church Involvement of Joseph’s Plural Wives
Joseph Smith’s Polygamy in Retrospect

Summary of Joseph Smith’s Plural Marriages

Biographical Sketches

Agnes Moulton Coolbrith (Sealed January 6, 1842)
Almera Woodard Johnson (Sealed April 1843)
Delcena Didamia Johnson (Sealed Prior to July 1842)
Desdemona Fullmer (Sealed July 1843)
Eliza Partridge (Sealed March 4, 1843 and May 11, 1843)
Eliza R. Snow (Sealed June 29, 1842)
Elizabeth Davis (Sealing Date Unknown)
Elvira Annie Cowles (Sealed June 1, 1843)
Emily Partridge (Sealed March 4 and May 11, 1843)
Esther Dutcher (Unknown Sealing Date)
Fanny Alger(Marriage Date Unknown—Probably 1835 or 1836)
Fanny Young (Sealed November 2, 1843)
Flora Ann Woodworth (Sealed Spring 1843)
Hannah Ells (Sealed Prior to the Summer of 1843)
Helen Mar Kimball (Sealed May 1843)
Louisa Beaman (Sealed April 5, 1841)
Lucinda Pendleton (Sealing Date Unknown)
Lucy Walker (Sealed May 1, 1843)
Malissa Lott (Sealed September 20, 1843)
Maria Lawrence (Sealed May 1843)
Marinda Nancy Johnson (Two Sealing Dates: April 1842 and May 1843)
Martha McBride(Sealed Summer 1842)
Mary Elizabeth Rollins (Sealed February 1842)
Mary Heron (Sealing Date Unknown)
Nancy Maria Winchester (Unknown Sealing Date)
Olive G. Frost (Sealed Summer 1843)
Patty Bartlett (Sealed March 9, 1842)
Presendia Lathrop Huntington(Sealed December 11, 1841)
Rhoda Richards (Sealed June 12, 1843)
Ruth Vose (Sealed February 1843)
Sarah Ann Whitney (Sealed July 27, 1842)
Sarah Kingsley (Sealing Date Unknown)
Sarah Lawrence (Sealed May 1843)
Sylvia Sessions (Sealed between November 19, 1842 and approximately May 18, 1843)
Zina Diantha Huntington (Sealed October 27, 1841)


Q&A with the Author:


Q: The last few years we've been inundated with new information concerning Mormon polygamy, from podcasts about polygamy, to the Church posting an essay on the subject, to Brian's 3 volume set on the history and theology of polygamy in early Mormonism. How does Joseph Smith's Polygamy: Toward a Better Understanding fit into that landscape and contribute to this ongoing conversation?

Laura: The Gospel Topics essay on early polygamy gave as good of a basic introduction to the subject as it could in ten pages. Brian’s book was 1500 pages. This book expands on the information in the essay by using the research used to write the trilogy. The first third of the book provides a theological framework for the unfolding of Nauvoo plural marriage; the second third provides the history; and the third contains short biographies of 35 of Joseph’s possible plural wives who agreed to participate in this strange practice.

Brian: Even though this volume is short, no major topic has been avoided. All the controversies have been presented. This volume fills an important niche to help inquirers who want more information than that found in the essay, but don’t have the time or interest to dive into 1500+ pages of my trilogy, which deals more with the various opinions regarding the controversies.

Q: Like most authors, you would probably like as many people as possible to read your book. Is there an intended audience for this volume?

Laura: Absolutely. This book differs from the first three volumes in the series in that it was written specifically for Latter-day Saint members curious about Joseph Smith and his many plural wives, or who wonder about the meaning of Doctrine and Covenants 132. Whether the reader has a basic or a more comprehensive knowledge of the topic, they will benefit from the information in this volume.

Q: What do you hope they get from it?

Laura: Our hope is that readers will gain some reassurance. Often in the past, aspects of the practice have been exploited or sensationalized by authors less concerned about accuracy than promoting their opinion of Joseph Smith or for their distaste for the practice of plural marriage.

There may be things that are surprising and possibly discomforting about what occurred during the time period, but when contextualized, they are easier to understand. The early polygamists were just as skeptical as us about the restoration of the practice. Their actions (including the behaviors of Joseph and Emma) are better understood when historical and theological information is provided.

We would also hope that readers will gain just a little bit of sympathy for Joseph Smith as they learn of the difficult choices he had to make. Perhaps readers will also feel admiration for the plural wives whose faith, courage, and tenacity enabled them to have the bravery to embrace this commandment.

Q: Books about controversial subjects invite all kinds of commentary and criticism. As you have thought about what you would like reviewers to write about the book, what would top your wish list?

Laura: We did our best to present the story in the words of the participants without overly opining on motivations for behaviors, leaving the reader to ponder the evidence. At times, we probably could have provided more context, but we really wanted the reader to be able to look at the scant evidence and realize that much that has been previously published has included a fair amount of guess work. There is so much that we simply do not know. Hopefully we have conveyed the nebulous nature of the historical record, so the reader will be wary of any author that proclaims to know for surety what happened in any given situation.

If readers and reviewers could leave the book with an open mind, pondering what they have read, and searching on their own to answer their questions through further research, then I would be pleased. I have done this myself, studying the history of these people, how they interacted socially, and why Joseph would choose to be sealed to certain women. Some of my questions have been answered, but it takes time, patience, and study on the part of the seeker. Having reviewers laud us for leaving the door open instead of evaluating the merits of the book on their preconceived notions of what occurred, would be great.

Brian: Because polygamy involves sex and religion, it is immensely controversial. It appears that the greatest factor in determining a person’s reaction to plural marriage (or a book about it) involves their a priori beliefs. Because of the ambiguities and contradictions in the historical record, multiple interpretations can be advanced. Unbelievers seem to disagree with any explanation that does not depict Joseph as an adulterer motivated by libido. Believers, on the other hand, may join with us in seeing that while questions exist, there is no credible evidence Joseph was involved in sexual immorality and much documentation to support he was sincere and felt compelled by God to establish the practice.

This book is not an attempt to increase testimony, but instead to tell the story as accurately as we can, believing that historical truth will support belief better than any alternative. Accordingly, the best we may be able to hope for is for reviewers to conclude that we have presented the evidences with clarity and in a balanced way allowing individuals to understand our interpretations, even if they do not agree with them. 

Q: Laura, tell us a little about your own journey in co-authoring this volume with Brian. Where were you at personally about the subject matter when you began the project, and where did you end up?

Laura: My journey began before I married Brian. I attended an author-meets-critic session at the Sunstone Symposium where Brian’s trilogy was being critiqued. I hadn’t read the book, so I had no idea if the criticisms were valid. So I read the books over the next six weeks, expecting not to learn much new about early polygamy. After I finished the last page of the book, I found myself asking what had happened to the Joseph Smith I knew.

After thinking, writing, and studying about Joseph Smith and his practice of polygamy for the last eighteen months, I think I have found him again. He isn’t the sanitized prophet that I grew up with, but he is much more real to me. Over time I have been able to feel sympathy for him, which was elusive for me for a long time. The Joseph I know now is so much more multi-dimensional, and I feel like I have been able to get a small glimpse into his character from those who knew him. Hopefully over the years that view will broaden with even more study because I still have unanswered questions. 

Q: What were the most enjoyable and least enjoyable aspects of writing Joseph Smith's Polygamy?

Laura: The most enjoyable part of writing a book with a co-author is the synergy that happens—working together on an idea, completing each other’s sentences, and suggesting that elusive word to express a common thought. The least enjoyable aspect of writing this book were the spirited conversations that occurred when we disagreed on how to present a specific concept. I had to keep reminding Brian that he had already written “that book” and this one was for a different purpose and audience. I’m sure this was frustrating for him as well because this it is the first time he has collaborated on a writing project.


Praise for Joseph Smith’s Polygamy: Toward a Better Understanding:

“Few matters of LDS history have proven to be as faith-sensitive as Joseph Smith’s plural marriages. While a number of efforts have been made in recent years to shed light on this challenging phenomenon, nothing has brought greater clarity, enlightenment, and, particularly for believing Saints, spiritual reassurance, than has the work of researcher Brian Hales. He and his wife Laura have now rendered a monumental service to Mormons and interested observers by bringing clarity and better understanding to this topic. I for one am grateful for the context, perspective, and both straightforward and faithful answers provided for so many of the questions surrounding Nauvoo polygamy. It is a book that will be read and discussed for years to come.” — Robert L. Millet, Professor Emeritus of Religious Education, Brigham Young University

Toward a Better Understanding is warmly recommended for anyone who wants to learn more about Joseph’s plural marriages but particularly to those just venturing into its sometimes choppy waters. Were I not vulnerable to the sin of envy, I’d wish I had written it.” — Gregory L. Smith, Interpreter

“I enjoyed this book and found it very helpful.... The book allowed me to understand the relationships between events more clearly than I have before. I found the book to be faith-affirming and a further testimony of Joseph Smith’s life as a prophet of God. I would recommend it for those struggling with the topic as well as those who want to know more so they can be prepared for questions from others.” — Suzanne Long Foster, Interpreter

Joseph Smith’s Polygamy: Toward a Better Understanding is an excellent and essential volume that will not only answer questions and offer solace to “truth seekers [who] may encounter details that are uncomfortable when studying early polygamy” but will also be a useful and interesting volume for those who have spent years studying the subject. I wholeheartedly recommend this book to all.” — Craig L. Foster, Interpreter

“Here’s the bottom line: Joseph Smith’s Polygamy: Toward a Better Understanding is a badly needed treatment of Nauvoo polygamy as practiced by Joseph Smith that does an admirable job covering the facts and providing many quotations from actual sources.” — David Banack, Times and Seasons

“Despite the book's brevity, it is detailed enough to address, or touch on, the full range of controversies associated with this topic. This book is a welcomed condensation of Brian Hales's massive 2013 Joseph Smith's Polygamy, which is a three-volume set on the same topic.” — M. Scott Bradshaw, BYU Studies Quarterly

About the Authors:

Laura Harris Hales is a freelance copy editor, author, and educator. She received a bachelor’s degree in International Relations from Brigham Young University and a master’s degree in Professional Writing from New England College. She has worked as both a paralegal and as an adjunct professor of English. After marrying in 2013, she found herself immersed in the study of LDS Church history. With her husband, she maintains Laura is the mother of five children.

Brian C. Hales is a board-certified anesthesiologist in Layton, Utah, and graduated from Utah State University. He is the award-winning author of six books on Mormon polygamy, including a three-volume series on the history and theology of Joseph Smith’s Polygamy. Along with his wife, Laura, he maintains Brian’s entire database of polygamy-related documents may be accessed at He is the father of four children.

More Information:

223 Pages
ISBN 978-1-58958-723-6
Published April 2015

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