A brief history of how Joseph Smith began Mormon polygamy, and how it ended.

Reference Links

Joseph Smith Wives Chart
1831 Revelation on Polygamy with 'Lamanites'
A Three Part Article Spanning Mormon Polygamy

Video Transcript

In 1833, Joseph Smith had an affair with his 16 year old household servant, Fanny Alger, and, according to some accounts, Emma Smith saw them in the barn together.

This is explained away by saying that Joseph had received a revelation in 1831 that polygamy was a divine law and that Fanny was his first plural wife, even though the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants expressly prohibit this. But the revelation in question only pertains to marriages to Lamanite women.

In 1843, when Smith had more than a dozen wives, he finally recorded his revelation on polygamy, but it wasn’t told to the general Mormon populace until 1852. Because it generated dissention, it was only practiced by a few hand picked church leaders. In fact, Smith was publicly denying and condemning polygamy right up until he died.

But in private, Smith was an avid polygamist, perhaps taking as many as forty wives, the youngest of which was 14. He married sets of sisters and one mother/daughter set, although both are expressly forbidden in the Bible. By some counts, a third of his wives were actually married to and cohabitating with other men.

On several occasions, Smith actually told other high ranking Mormons that he wanted their wives. After they finally gave in, sometimes Smith would tell them that it was just a test of loyalty. But he did take apostle Orson Hyde’s wife while he was sent away on a church mission to Palestine.

Smith was not above using his influence as a prophet of God to further his polygamy. He would promise prospective wives that they and their whole family would be guaranteed salvation if she married him, and damnation if she did not. Once, he even told a girl that an angel was standing by to kill him if she continued to refuse him.

He also had to use this authority with his wife, who understandably was resistant to the idea of her husband marrying other women. So his revelation on polygamy stated that if Emma did not stand by him, she would be destroyed, and Joseph would then receive a hundredfold more wives.

Polygamy continued long after Smith’s death, spurred on by Brigham Young’s teaching that only polygamist men can become gods. As the practice spread, the community changed, with men marrying their sisters, aunts, nieces, and preteen girls, causing a shortage of women for young bachelors.

Apostle Heber C Kimball even explicitly told missionaries that they were not to marry converts until they had been brought back to Utah so that the older polygamists could have a fair shake. This even led to forced castrations as powerful polygamists competed with young men for wives.

Church presidents made statements that polygamy would never end, that the United States couldn’t abolish it, and that the Mormon church would apostatize if it ever gave it up. But by 1888 so many church leaders were in trouble on bigamy charges that they finally decided to give in.

So in 1890, under intense pressure from the government, church president Wilford Woodruff released a manifesto stating that it was his advice that Mormons refrain from unlawful marriages. But church leaders continued to perform and authorize plural marriages, so in 1904, a second manifesto was released stating that further plural marriages would result in excommunication.

Since then, Mormons who believe that those manifestos were a result of kowtowing to the government and were not the will of God, have continued in polygamy. Find out more at ldsvideo.org.