Episode 190: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith

John, Zilpha, Lindsay (Winterbuzz at FMH), and Kaimi discuss the the plural wives of Joseph Smith and early Mormon polygamy.

Episode 190

80 comments on “Episode 190: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith”

  1. Ryan Reply

    Don Bradley’s recent research on Fanny Alger found that Andrew Jenson’s record (which cited Fanny Alger as a wife) was in the handwriting of Eliza R. Snow, who lived with the Smiths at the time (1835). Andrew had gathered names himself and Eliza added several for which she presumably had direct knowledge. All it proves is that Eliza considered Fanny a wife but that is arguably a better source than we are led to believe by most accounts. The other statement of Fanny being a wife comes from Mosiah Hancock in 1903, who is Fanny’s cousin. He stated that his father (Levi Hancock) performed the marriage between Fanny and Joseph, but he clearly got the date wrong (1833) and thus he is often discounted as a reliable source.

    • iamse7en Reply

      Thank you Ryan. Very interesting points. Is Don Bradley’s article available for reading online? I believe it was published in a book?

    • Joe Geisner Reply

      The first chapter “The Persistence of Polygamy, Vol I” edited by Bringhurst and Foster is by Don Bradley, who writes about Joseph Smith’s
      relationship with Fanny Alger, his 18year old house-keeper/guest in
      Kirtland, Ohio, during the spring of 1836. Bradley assembles evidence,
      some of it new, to argue that their relationship was a plural marriage
      or sealing, not an adulterous affair on Smith’s part. Bradley introduces
      new evidence with the recently released Andrew Jenson file in the CHL.
      This record is quite late recollections and has to be considered in that

      I would like to look at the closest evidence to the
      time of the affair. Smith and Rigdon had been in Far West in November
      1837 and met with the leaders there. Smith and Cowdery met and discussed
      what had happened between Smith and Alger. Just before Smith left, the
      two had decided they would no longer talk publicly about the incident,
      but keep it private. When Smith went back to Kirtland, he decided this
      was not enough, and started claiming that Cowdery admitted he had lied
      about Smith and Alger. Cowdery’s brothers, Warren and Lyman were in
      Kirtland and heard Smith say this, so they wrote a letter to Oliver
      telling him what was happening. Oliver Cowdery then wrote to his brother
      Warren Cowdery on January 21, 1838 telling him what had transpired in
      Far West : “You will see from the other page that your own Brother
      Lyman’s requests concerning the Stated confession made to Mr. Smith, is,
      if I am to be credited, not so. For what he pretended to have made it,
      is to me unaccountable. I can assure you and bro. Lyman, that as God is
      to judge my soul in the world to come, I never confessed, intimated
      that I ever willfully lied about him. When he was
      there we had some conversation in which in every instance I did not fail
      to affirm that which I had said was strictly true. A dirty, nasty,
      filthy affair (scrape) of his and Fanny Alger’s was talked over in which
      I strictly declared that I had never deviated from the truth on the
      matters, and as I supposed was admitted by himself.”

      “At any
      rate, just before leaving, he wanted to drop every past thing in which
      had been a difficulty or difference—he called witnesses to the fact,
      gave me his hand in their presence, and I might have supposed of an
      honest man, calculated to say nothing of the former matters.”

      On the same day, Cowdery wrote to Joseph Smith:
      – I learn from Kirtland, by the last letters, that you have publickly
      said, that when you were here I confessed to you that I had willfully
      lied about you – this compels me to ask you to correct that statement,
      and give me an explanation – until which you and myself are two.”

      the Far West Record April 12, 1838, p. 167: “David W. Patten testifies,
      that he went to Oliver Cowdery to enquire of him if a certain story was
      true respecting J. Smith’s committing adultery with a certain girl,18
      when he turned on his heel and insinuated as though he was guilty; he
      then went on and gave a history of some circumstances respecting the
      adultery scrape stating that no doubt it was true. Also said that Joseph
      told him, he had confessed to Emma”

      If we stop here, not
      allowing Nauvoo theology (which the Jensen interviews would be clouded by) influence accounts and memory to cloud the past, it
      seems both Cowdery and Smith considered this nothing more than an
      affair. If this affair was on the up and up (a marriage), why did Smith
      not tell Emma and Cowdery that this was a religious ordinance or there
      was a revelation? Why did others not come out and say that this was a
      sealing or marriage when the affair was made public, but instead Smith’s
      followers accused Cowdery of making it all up?

  2. Rich McCue Reply

    I agree with John, that it is was how Joseph abused his position of trust as a religious leader that is most troubling about polygamy in Nauvoo.  Great podcast guys!

  3. Kaimipono Wenger Reply

    Sigh, I totally mixed up a few things. Embarrassed. This is why I really like to write things down, that way I can make sure I’m not bobbling a date or a name.

    • JTurn Reply


      Don’t sweat it. Both you and Lindsay were terrific – I especially appreciated your articulate, matter-of-fact and non-polemical presentation, commentary, and analysis of the standard apologetics. The entire group’s final comments were insightful and offered a positive forward-looking perspective that honored all of us who are struggling to maintain our integrity as we live with polygamy’a troublesome legacy and/or hoping for a day when the Church will find within itself the courage to own it and then formally disown it. Focusing on Joseph Smith was the right approach.

      Thank you and everyone involved very much.


    • Thisiscrazy28 Reply

      Kaimi, I thought you did a great job (Lindsay as well). You both really know your stuff.

    • brandt Reply

      Awesome job by the both of you. The problem with polygamy is that to get the full understanding, you need much more time than a simple hour and a half, and it’s so much more complex than a few sentences. I think you, Lindsay, John and Zilpha did a good job of having a nice discourse on all the different sides of polygamy, and did a great job in trying to lay out the facts and having the listeners come to their own conclusion. Great job, all of you.

  4. iamse7en Reply

    This is good. I’m glad you brought in people who have done a lot of research. I’m a believing Mormon and have read many books on Nauvoo polygamy, and I thought this was pretty good and relatively fair. A few important details missed here and there, but overall this was well done. If only you had done the same (brining in experts) with the Adam-God podcast, which was a jumbled mess with a lot of misinformation.

    • johnmormonexpression Reply

       I hear from people saying that we confused Adam-God, but that is only because Adam-God itself is a hot mess. Please, straighten us out on where we were presenting misinformation.

          • iamse7en

            Richard: because I didn’t respond within a day or two to John’s request, Heather was inferring my silence (crickets) means my argument was invalid. I did respond with a long comment, and a week later, I am seeing the irony in calling *crickets* on my non-response.

      • iamse7en Reply

        I responded here: http://mormonexpression.com/2012/02/20/188-the-adam-god-doctrine-for-dummies/#comment-460767490

      • iamse7en Reply

        Yeah, why am I not surprised… I provide a long explanation of all your “misinformation” and you have no rebuttal.

  5. David Clark Reply

    It’s my understanding that William Law was a member of the First Presidency during the period in question.  William Marks was the Nauvoo Stake President.  If you correct this later in the podcast, great.  I know I’ll forget it if I wait until the end to mention this.

  6. Wes Cauthers Reply

    Fascinating episode with some new information I had not heard before.

    The COJCOLDS is definitely in a major bind when it comes to the doctrine of polygamy, but I don’t see them ever coming clean about it.  Despite the fact that more and more Mormons are learning the truth about all this stuff thanks to the internet, my prediction is that very little will change from the top because the leadership lacks humility and always has.

    Interesting discussion near the end when the possibility of comparing Joseph Smith to Peter from the NT as a flawed vessel was brought up along with the idea that polygamy has the potential to be a good thing if practiced properly.  The problem with the former is that Mormonism is a pharisaical religion based on works, laws, and ordinances which teaches that people must earn their way into the highest heaven.  In that kind of system, there is no room for Joseph Smith being a flawed vessel because if he didn’t earn his way to the top through rigteousness, how can anyone else?  The problem with polygamy is that there seems to be little evidence to indicate it has ever produced good results.  Whether we’re looking at the stories from the OT, the middle east today, or groups like the FLDS in our own country, the only thing I see is heartache and oppression.

    • David Clark Reply

       I thought the presentation was good…until the discussion near the end.  A little piece of advice to those advocating for gay rights inside the LDS church: don’t link them to polygamy.  Don’t even mention them in the same sentence.  They are totally unrelated.  If you want to advocate for gay rights, advocate for them based on what you feel are moral principles.  It does no good to push for something you see as right while linking it, whether subtly through juxtaposition or overtly, to something that was a blatant misuse of power, made possible through lies and deception, and ultimately a disaster.

      • Heather_ME Reply

         With all due respect, arguing for gay marriage rights and polygamous marriage rights ARE argued from moral principles.  At least for me. 

      • Lindsay P Reply

         Thanks David! I respectfully disagree with you to a point.  In the general debate, I’d agree but in the context of Mormonism I’ll compare the two all the live long day.  I’ll do so because our major roadblock “doctrinally” is the Proclamation to the Family. Many faithful members cite this as proof God can’t allow a marriage that doesn’t exist between a man and woman. What they’re usually not aware of is that our church has advocated marriage between a man and a woman and a woman and a woman married to a man married to three other women.  Brigham Young (and many others) openly and vehemently condemned monogamy.  The reason why I draw these lines is to show the church can and has evolved on its stance with marriage and has changed it’ view on what an ‘eternal family’ looks like. Those parallels don’t even take into account the fact that our church was persecuted heavily for living a different sort of marriage, they openly politically advocated for a different lifestyle and the same arguments used against gay marriage were used against the Mormons. The exact same arguments.  Now we’re on the other side of the argument.  Also, like Heather, I think it’s morally right to stand up for our gay brothers and sisters. And if given the choice, I would also vote to allow polygamous relationships.  Although I condemn the practice personally and think it’s harmful to women, I don’t see anything wrong if consenting adults practice it, believing it’s their religious right to do so.

      • jennwestfall Reply

        David–I totally disagree with you, respectfully of course.  One of the reasons I left the Mormon church is due to their vehement fight against gay marriage.  I have never understood their stance.  To me, having gay marriage accepted in the United States just opens the door to them being able to again practice polygamy–which is an eternal principle and still taught as such.  At least it was still being taught that way when I left.  

        To me, I think they would be the biggest advocates of changing the definition of marriage in this country to include any relationship between consenting adults, rather than limit themselves to the standard that marriage exists between one man and one woman.

      • Kyle Harris Reply

        To me, the right of an adult to freely choose what kind of relationships they enter into is a moral principle. People should have the right to be polygamysts as much as they should have the right to marry someone of the same sex.
        As has been mentioned before, it was the way in which the polygamy came about that was the problem, not necessatrily the polygamy itself. It was the manipulation, spiritual abuse, and child abuse that was the problem. The fact that more than two people want to enter into some kind of marriage relationship is no concern to me at all.

      • Mark Smith Reply

        David, I think your point is very correct, as to bringing it up as an argument with advocating inside the church, particularly because the current Church position is so complicated and duplicitous on the matter of Polygamy.  If you bring it up in EQ meeting it will only lead to a disconnect and serve only to facilitate polarization.

        However, as a legal argument I think Polygamy and Homosexuality have a common thread, that is the right for consenting adults to freely engage in relationships of their own choosing.  I often wonder if the Churches strong position against gay marriage isn’t so much based on morality as it is legal advice that if gay marriage is deemed legal by, say some supreme court decision, then that same precedent would open the door to the legalization of polygamy.  If polygamy were legal the Church’s current duplicitous stance on polygamy would become much more problematic.  The current illegality of polygamy allows the church to kind of brush it under the rug.  If polygamy were legal it would force their hand. In a nutshell, it is entirely possible that the church stance against gay marriage is based on legal and public relations advice rather than moral or spiritual convictions.  

    • Chaste_and_Benevolent Reply

      “Interesting discussion near the end when the possibility of comparing Joseph Smith to Peter from the NT as a flawed vessel …”

      As Joseph Smith is increasingly de-mythologized, there seems to be more of the “he was flawed but” response from his apologists. This misses the point.

      Of course Smith was a flawed person. Who isn’t? The problem is that Smith was flawed as a prophet, not just as a person. He used his alleged revelations to manipulate, exploit, and abuse. Do the apologists think this was just some sort of coincidence? Where do we see similar behavior by Peter?

      For that matter, doesn’t it minimize Smith’s behavior to describe it as being merely “flawed”? If “flaw” is an appropriate term to describe such a devastating abuse of power, why not use a term that sounds only a little more innocuous — maybe “eccentricity” or  “idiosyncracy”? This is like Gordon Hinckley’s dismssal of the church’s racism as “little flecks of history.”

      This is also related to another apologetic trend: The increasing frequency of the refrain that “the prophets are men of their time, like everyone else, and they can be wrong.”

      Well, yes. That is exactly the point that the prophets’ critics have been making since 1830.

  7. brandt Reply

    Awesome podcast. More information like this needs to be out to the general public of the church simply for the fact that it really is a part of history, and you can’t understand many of the aspects of Mormonism without some of these (sometimes uncomfortable) aspects of it. 

    Great hearing Kaimi and Lindsay on there as well. See, we all can play nice with each other, right?!?!!? 😉

  8. brandt Reply

    And a few additional books that I’d throw out there for polygamy studies…

    I’d also throw in “The Persistence of Polygamy, Vol I” edited by Bringhurst and Foster. Great essays and insights into things like the Fanny Alger altercation.

  9. Chad Morrow Reply

    I was actually disappointed in a lot of this. Someday it would be good if this topic was discussed objectively instead of always starting from the assumption that the Utah branch of the church is at all credible on the subject. 

    I mean, we question the truthfulness of the claims Joseph asserted about the First Vision because the accounts all come well after the fact and disagree with themselves on a number of points. But when we talk about polygamy we just swallow the claims made by the Utah church that Joseph was super into polygamy even though no one can provide anything but hearsay, rumor, second-hand assertions, and all the “evidence” comes well after Joseph is long dead. Is it so surprising that the Utah church would say just about anything, true or not, to link their polygamy with Joseph when the legitimacy of their entire church is on the line? We talk about how the Utah church had no problem “lying for the Lord” when they needed to except when it comes to this?

    A few specific things said in the podcast I wanted to note:

    – Someone mentioned the Cochranites as an example of a sect that believed in polygamy around the time of the organization of Joseph’s church. There’s way more to the story than that though. The church had a lot of success converting Cochranites, to the point where there was a big conference held up in that area wherein most of the twelve apostles who later became polygamists were present. Brigham Young married a woman from their group. And one apostle in particular refused to proselytize with a partner, preferring to go it alone. He was later accused of having affairs and other shenanigans with the wives of some of the Cochranite community. Who was that again? Right, Brigham Young. 

    – Someone said something like “Joseph was actually denying polygamy at the time” which isn’t accurate. Joseph -always- denied polygamy. In fact, his testimony and Emma’s that they condemned polygamy are the only testimonies that don’t change over time. 

    – Someone made the claim that the members of the Holy Quorum or Holy Order, whichever name you want to use, was made up primarily of people involved in polygamy. As far as I know that’s wildly untrue. Only five of the sixty-six people Joseph admitted into the Holy Order were polygamists. However, when Brigham Young started admitting people into the Order again after Joseph’s death, twelve out of twenty-one people admitted were polygamists.

    I’m going to stop because I’ve made this case before and I know how little it interests other people but no, I don’t think that the claims made by the Utah church should be given much credibility at all. I’m not saying that Joseph had his hands clean of any and all involvement in polygamy but there is far more of a case to say that he wasn’t supportive of polygamy and instead, fought with and/or against it his whole life.

    • amyblosch Reply

      why are you so interested in “clearing” JS’s name re. this issue? how in the world can you say that he fought against it when he is the one that issued forth the revelation? Occom’s Razor……just say’n.

      • Chad Morrow Reply

        I’m not at all interested in “clearing” anyone’s name. I think Joseph was up to all sorts of shady things, particularly near the end and I find what John said in the podcast about Joseph using men as go-betweens between him and women as an exercise of power to be the most compelling take on things. 

        I do have a problem with never questioning the validity of this particular case though like I would any other issue where nearly all the witnesses and evidence seem questionable at best. I have no vested interest in this and I only keep harping on it because few people do.

        Now, you say he’s the one that gave the revelation. I’m guessing you’re talking about what is now known as section 132? If so, there is no existing copy of the that revelation that I know of until Brigham Young commissions a draft from William Clayton after Joseph is killed. I would appreciate very much having more information that connects it to Smith during his life.  

        • Chris Merris Reply

          Hey Chad – I’ve heard the argument that Joseph didn’t write Section 132 – do you have any resources you could point me to in order to further research that?

    • Hermes Reply

      I am going to go ahead and agree that Joseph fought with polygamy his whole life, pretty much the same way an alcoholic fights with the temptation to drink.  He may very well have had some sober moments, but he was quite often roaring drunk (and I find it hard to blame the whole thing on Brigham Young and/or other third parties: what the heck was Emma protesting?).

      • Chad Morrow Reply

        I mostly agree with you. I don’t think its a stretch to suppose that the quorum of the twelve and a large number of lay members were responsible for the existence of and promotion of polygamy though. 

    • Kevin Johnson Reply

      You seem to be intimating a conspiracy to falsify Joseph Smith’s name that borders on the flat out absurd.    The contemporary accounts of Joseph Smith’s introduction of polygamy are not merely hearsay–they are direct accounts from witnesses, and there are public sealing records that are dated and verifiable that also corroborate.   They are not founded in writings that originated decades later, but in documents verified as early as the 1830’s.  Where is the corrobaration for Emma Smith’s testimony?  How do you explain the public sealing records?  Why would the Utah church admit that Joseph was marrying married women if the evidence for it was as thin as you state?  They’d be the first to jump on that train if they could.

      • Chad Morrow Reply

        What I think is absurd is taking any prominent Utah church leader at that time at their word. I know a conspiratorial power grab by Brigham Young exercising power and influence in shady ways and in unofficial positions is way out in left field because its not like Brigham to be like that (if you forget about everything he ever did in Utah).

        Flippancy aside, yes there are direct accounts, and lots of them. There are court records and certificates, yes. The vast majority of all these does come after his death though. 

        Why would the Utah church want so much for this to be true? Because it makes them the legitimate heir to Joseph’s church. The RLDS church had blood descendants of Joseph and Brigham himself said Joseph’s kid(s) should lead the church if he ever joined up with the Utah branch but only on condition of accepting polygamy. 

        They bang so hard on this story because without it, they would have lost a major claim to authority.

        I have no problem being wrong on this issue and I’d welcome any additional information. To me, there’s major problems in the conventional narrative and it truly does not matter to me which way it plays out.

        • Richard of Norway Reply

          If it doesn’t matter to you how this plays out, perhaps it would be good to take the women and people close to them at their word? If you haven’t read the documentation, you should read Compton’s book: In Sacred Loneliness. For me, that put any and all doubt to rest. Joseph is to blame.

    • chuckborough Reply

      It brings back memories about why I didn;t value history way back in High School. What  happened “then” does not matter (other than for learning); what happens now is what matters. The Church does a good job with lots of things – keep fixing the rest (like the homophoboa, etc.)

  10. NC_Brad Reply

    Indeed polygamy is not “behind us” as President Hinckley tried to assert in his 1998 interview with Larry King.  It’s shocking to me to realize that more people practice polygamy today in 2012 in direct response to Joseph Smith’s teachings than there were total members of the LDS Church in 1844 when Joseph Smith was killed.  The Feb 2010 National Geographic cover story on the FLDS church notes that “an estimated 38,000 breakaway Mormon fundamentalists continue the practice of plural marriage in North America today”.  While the LDS Church Almanac notes that there were 26,146 members in 1844 (and the vast majority of them did not practice polygamy, let alone know anything of it).  So while LDS church leaders try to distance the LDS church from the FLDS with such statements as Hinckley stating to King, “It has nothing whatever to do with it”, the doctrine of polygamy as practiced by the FLDS will be ever sourced to the very founder of the LDS Church, Joseph Smith. 

    Even more damning, as noted in the podcast, polygamy is still essentially practiced by the LDS Church in the temple since a man can be sealed to more than one woman, meaning he’ll have concurrent relationships with multiple women in the afterlife.  How can LDS leaders say that the church has nothing to do with it anymore?

    And how many active LDS women do you know today, who secretly dread some perceived duty to eventually accept that their husband will have other wives in the afterlife?  My own active LDS mother can’t even talk about polygamy because, as she once confided in me, she fears it’s an eternal principle that will inevitably be reintroduced.  Indeed, the doctrine of polygamy is alive and well in the very psyche of LDS women (and men too).    

    The sad truth is that both the practice of polygamy by FLDS and the belief or fear of its return by Latter-day Saints is a reality today!  What I personally perceive to be a convenient doctrine introduced by Joseph Smith to justify his unquenchable thirst for power over others, has now snowballed 168 years later into an absolute mess that wreaks havoc in the lives of thousands of unwilling practitioners (think FLDS underage/unwilling wives, or lost boys) and the belief systems of countless Latter-day Saints who actually think it’s an eternal doctrine that Heavenly Father is probably practicing right now, and all other Celestial Kingdom aspirants need to prepare for.    

    So this is far from behind us!!  The impact of Joseph Smith’s polygamy is all around us, if not in our own families.  And if I were a betting man, which I am, I’d put money on the fact that the impacts of Joseph Smith’s polygamy, especially with the “revelations” being in canonized form, will play out for centuries to come in the lives of those who will yet believe Joseph was a prophet of God . . . when all of this was just a result of his clever attempt to justify himself.

    • chuckborough Reply

      Polygamy is legal now probably in every state. You just can’t have the contract with more then one; you can have all the rest, sex, etc. Not even a misdemeanor.

  11. Rockney Reply

    Why do apologists like Blake Ostler invest any energy in arguing that Joseph Smith didn’t have sex with some of his plural wives? If polygamy was a lawful commandment from God, then sex with one’s polygamous wife would have been lawful, and whether Joseph did or didn’t have it with them would be irrelevant. Apparently, the fact that he may have had sex wit some of these women disturbs these apologists on some level. Was it Lindsay who said that having a problem with Joseph Smith having sex with his plural wives says more about us than it does about Joseph Smith?

    • Jean_A_Marre Reply

      I agree, and will add this: if he didn’t have sex with them, who were THEY supposed to have sex with? Was it expected that these women be celibate? That expectation is just as insidious. Apologists have no way out if you look at it from that angle.

      • Chad Morrow Reply

        Probably being a little too generous to assume any of the men were considering the sexual needs of the women involved at all. 😛

  12. Kevin Johnson Reply

    So I have this problem, and yeah, its born from a lot of anger and resentment, so maybe you can help me find my way through that.  I believe the polygamy Joseph Smith was not only wrong but evil.  It comes down to two simple assessments, even–if Joseph Smith really did go to Helen Kimball, and threaten her with damnation is she did not comply, than this is not merely a “grievous error” but a heinous evil. I am not trying to be polemic, but I do have to call this as I see it.   And if Joseph Smith really went to Heber and said “The Lord wants me to have your wife,” and then merely tell him that it was all just a test, then again, this is not just an excusable human foible but a truly villainous abuse.  

    So how, Lindsay, can I hope to rectify a man capable of not just human weakness, but human wickedness at its basest level, to a prophet who has something to tell me about how I should or shouldn’t behave on a daily basis?

    I’m not trying to just inflame here, though it may sound like it.  I am angry about this, even resentful.   Maybe I need to hear some calmer viewpoints about how Joseph Smith can be acquitted of this…how am I going wrong here?

    • Wes Cauthers Reply


      I fully agree with your assessment here and I think there is good reason for anger and outrage over Joseph Smith’s behavior.  He consistently showed a lack of empathy for others and abused his power on multiple occasions.  Such a man needs to be exposed for who he really was.

      • chuckborough Reply

        Why be angry at someone dead for 180 years? It’s just stories now. What has developed is a pretty darned good organization that can still use some fixing. It’s not about truth; it’s about what works.

    • Lindsay P Reply

       Kevin, I think it’s perfectly appropriate for you to respond the way you do. I think the anger is fine and healthy and you need to take it seriously.  There is no reason you should have to accept these things.  Certainly in modern days we lack context and understanding for many of the things that happened, but much of what we do know is troubling and disheartening. I don’t think you ever have to accept it, if you don’t want to.  You don’t have to believe Joseph is inspired or acting for God. Sometimes this is the easiest conclusion because you can let go of dissonance and find some peace.

      If you are looking for ways to still believe or find inspiration in Joseph Smith, I think it can be done, but it’s difficult and takes time.  For me, it’s taken years of studying and studying and reading and finally getting a story of Nauvoo that fits a narrative I can swallow. That doesn’t mean I accept most of it, and that’s the price to be paid here, but it does mean I don’t feel angry anymore. I find that Joseph Smith was brilliant and his brilliance is to be admired. I find that he was troubled and flawed and that sometimes helps me give him a more sympathetic lens. I think there was something about him that inspired a lot of people, for good or ill and we can’t ignore that.  But mostly, I find faith in the stories of the women that were involved with him, not Joseph himself.  When I say faith, I mean faith in humanity, faith in human strength through frailty. Faith in overcoming. Faith in a spiritual community that has so many abuses but can still bring people together in a beautiful way and help them rise above the abuses (which what I think communities like Mormon Expression can do).  Our community is full of spiritual abuses and we too can rise above them. These stories give me hope.

       I’m not sure any of this will be helpful to you, but I do think that you should definitely give yourself permission to be angry. It shows an incredible amount of character to not accept spiritual abuse when you see it! Be proud of that!

      • Kevin Johnson Reply

        I understand if you don’t want to share it, but I’d love to get a better picture of the narrative that you can swallow, especially as a feminist.  I know why I’m more angry now than as of late.  I used to believe Joseph was just “flawed”.  He just believed in his own juju a bit too much. But after Mormon Expressions and mormonthink and the rest, I have come to the personal conclusion that Joseph Smith was a villian.  I can’t see a way out for him, either.   No ends justify these means, not even close.  

        And if all my Mormon family, all my mormon friends, most of the population of Utah and Idaho are all following after a villian, this is just such a travesty.  It’s a hell of a judgment to make, I guess, but I can’t help it.  We were all conned, conned good, and not by someone who had the best of intentions either.  But by the same kind of man as my Mission president, who told malicious lies about me, was the worst man I’ve ever met, and all the while inspired the ooooh and ahhhhs of my peers while doing some really horrifying things.   I’ve seen  the reverance first hand that people will give to vileness.  It’s such a mind job.

        • Elder Vader Reply

          The way I navigate through it is I find inspiration in the people who held the community together, and made it work in spite of the decisions from those at the top.  This particular narrative helps me admire the latter day saints from Joseph Smith’s time up until the present. 

        • Lindsay P Reply

           This is a hard question and hard to answer in a few paragraphs. I try to put Nauvoo in the context of a history book, rather than a faith legacy I feel forced to carry on my shoulders. I separate and exonerate myself from that history. I am not responsible for it, and I don’t have to defend or protect it.  That has been tremendously helpful. When I believed I was attached to it because of my Mormonism, it caused me extreme pain trying to reconcile the horrors and mistakes with my own morals.

          Nauvoo was a frontier town with over 10,000 people in it. It was a big town. It was full of wild and colorful characters. Like every frontier town, it was full of good, the bad and the ugly. Since I no longer feel I am responsible for Joseph’s actions, I see the story as a rip-roaring good read, full of scandal and community, much like other interesting stories in history.  In Mormonism, we are taught to feel such a responsibility to defend our prophets and our people.  I think we don’t have to defend what we find morally abhorrent. I’m related to Dudley Leavitt of Mormon Meadows Massacre fame.  I don’t have to like what he did to still find the story fascinating. I don’t have to claim his legacy. It’s my right to reject it. 

          Again, I’d caution context for all of Nauvoo history.  The basic talking points could be written off as ‘evil’ but there is so, so, so much to the story. Many that historians are still beginning to uncover. Not that it negates certain actions, but it might help explain them.

          I like this quote from Walt Whitman:  “Re-examine all you have been told…

          Dismiss what insults your Soul.”

          • Kevin Johnson

            Lindsay, you are obviously a very intelligent person, and a great writer to boot.  I applaud your tolerance, and your ability to freely discuss these problems.   From the podcast and your comments, I’m registering that you still are, however, someone who sustains Joseph Smith as a prophet.

            You can forgive his past misdeeds, I guess, as something in some kind of entertaining context that you can totally divorce yourself from intellectually.  I dig that.  And yet, as a result you end up still valuing the product of that prophet’s work–which for feminists, lead to all kinds of other probelms in my mind.

            1) God has a wife, who is presumably also a god–though admitting this, I guess, gets us into trouble with the evangelicals, but oh well.  ,The female god gets no name, no worship, no prayers.  (Yeah it’s because she’s beloved beyond beloved.  But this still equates to a woman in the Mormon scheme being ultimately invisible and powerless. )  

            2)  The Book of Mormon has no real involvement of women as characters and agents of the scripture.  All of the primary acting characters are men.  This is because, presumably, the only people who did anything worth mentioning them by name in all that time were men.  

            How does a feminist sign on to this?

            Joseph Smith designed a system that brutally subjegates women.  I would love to hear the counter argument, I’m a person who believes discussion and debate are not “inducive of evil spirits” but a wonderful chance to grow and learn things.  I’m pretty sure you’re with me on that, so thanks, it’s always refreshing to encounter it.

        • Lindsay P Reply

          Kevin-      I can’t reply to your latest comment, so I’ll reply here. I certainly hope I don’t come across as an apologist for the church in any way.  Apologists start with a conclusion and use evidence to fit that.  I’m not interested in that, I’m interested in where the evidence leads. 
          My ‘testimony’ of the church is complicated.  But I will say that I could not currently qualify for a temple recommend because of the questions of faith involved.  I no longer believe in a literal faith of the church or the prophets. I find the current church’s direction extremely troublesome. I deal with the pain the institution inflicts on women daily in the community circles I move in.  However, in Mormonism there is such a hard-lined ‘black and white’ mindset.  This worldview is harmful and does a lot of damage. I see when a lot of folks leave the church, with all their belief changes, they take the same mindset with them.  “Church is right or wrong. It’s all good or all bad. People need to be all in or all out.”  Life is much too nuanced for me. I love Mormonism.  Maybe it got into my veins too early, but it is an inseparable part of my identity. So when I explain my viewpoint, it’s hard to articulate exactly what I agree with or disagree with because it’s more about an emotional attachment that a logical one.  I do know, that when I was angry (and this was for at least five years) the only way for me to process the anger was to separate the good guys from the bad guys.  Being able to let go of that has been one of the most healing things for me.  Of course this is easy to say, because I was never directly wounded by Joseph Smith (at least not in a person-to-person sort of way).  For good or ill, we’re all here because of Joseph Smith.  I think you can be resentful because of it or grateful, or maybe both.  For me, Joseph Smith was a visionary that generations of my family have devoted their entire lives too. Sometimes I mourn that choice. It’s extremely sad on many levels, but it wouldn’t be fair for me to say that Mormonism has been all bad for me. I have many wonderful memories, experiences and relationships because of it. As much as i want to reject those, it’s not intellectually or emotionally honest for me to do so.  Again, I don’t know how to answer you, except to say I have an interest in this church on several levels and that’s why I continue to participate for the time being.

           I don’t know why I’m quoting Walt Whitman so much, but he said, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself; I am large — I contain multitudes.” 

          I think Mormonism contains multitudes. But I certainly do not defend Joseph or his actions and I would never, ever try to ask someone to view his actions as approved or ordained by God. Does that make sense?  Also, I love discourse, so you won’t ever scare me away! 🙂  I’ll be back for several podcasts so perhaps you can  get a better idea of who I am and where I stand.  Also, it would make me sad to think that I come off as critical of those who disagree or who find my stance problematic. Please don’t take my tolerance as a condemnation of those who reject Mormonism.

          • Farmdog47

            Interesting discussion, although I haven’t been an active Mormon for many years, and I no longer find the revelations concerning Joseph’s behavior  surprising or shocking, I still find it interesting in how active members process some of this new found information.
            If you find you can sort of tip-toe around in the church in order to maintain a connection I say more power to you, but that must be awfully difficult. You remind me of Johanna Brooks, she is also bright, articulate, and a Mormon Girl with church issues.
            One of the comments in the podcast that I didn’t buy 100% had to do with the so called “dynastic” motivation for polygamy.  Someone said in effect the sex angle was secondary and that Joseph could have had all the sex he desired.  I just don’t think he could have gotten away with it without the doctrine of polygamy.  I think Joseph was one of those guys who was haunted by the promptings of some spirit whispering “….so many women so little time”.  Just MHO but polygamy seemed pretty convenient to use as a justification for all of it, I mean this was like ah maybe “screwing for the Lord”. 

          • Kevin Johnson

            You never came off as judgemental or condemning, Lindsay.  To me, you have to make a choice though.  I do not sit on fences well.  Either the church and what its doctrines stand for are moral and right or they are the opposite of these.   Going back to the Book of Mormon–you either can accept the complete absence of women kind doing anything significant as moral and fine or you don’t.  You either accept the idea that dark skinned Lamanites suddenly turning white when they are righteous is a vile and ugly and horrible story, or you don’t.  When the evil is on this level, the wrong is on this level of odious and horrific, how can you then just explain it away with ‘Oh it’s all very mysterious and I still feel so very good about my memories”?

            I cannot in good conscience defend my former faith. And sadly, no one has ever been able to even begin to explain away the immorality of what I describe here.  They always always just go to the “Well it’s right because it feels good” defense.  Not good enough, not good enough when it’s this bad, this wrong, this out of whack.  Give me something more, please.

    • Kaimipono Wenger Reply


      I agree that Joseph’s interactions with some of these women were really, really problematic. 

      I’m in favor of saying this, and talking about it, and making it known.

      I do think that someone can have bad interactions with others, or selfish interactions, or even really despicable interactions, and still have many positive qualities.  And given that sex is such a powerful force, and so tied in to our ideas of identity, I don’t want to judge too harshly.  Yes, what Joseph did was really awful.  Does that make him a bad person? 

      The truth is, there are a _lot_ of people who use sex in selfish, sometimes really destructive ways.  To mention a few high-profile examples — do a little reading on Gandhi and sex, or on JFK. 

      JFK totally used women.  When a new 18-y-o white house intern showed up, he led her upstairs on her first day of work and fucked her.  As she describes the encounter, it was not something she was seeking out — he just took.  And he did that sort of thing a lot, with a lot of women. 

      Gandhi’s sex life was even more problematic.  He demanded that very young women from among his followers — nubile teenage girls — sleep naked with him.  He said that he was doing this to maintain his self-control — that if he could sleep naked with nubile young women and _not_ fuck them, this would help him maintain his self-mastery. 

      There are conflicting reports on what happened between Gandhi and his young women.  But even if it played out just as Gandhi said, that has to be incredibly psychologically disturbing for the young women involved — to be summoned and sent to bed with your aging religious leader, for the sole purpose of providing temptation to him, which he is then supposed to ignore. 

      All of which is to say — sex is a powerful force, and a lot of people, who we might consider as good people overall, have had very problematic sex lives. 

      I don’t think of Joseph as uniquely evil.  He was brilliant and talented and charismatic and driven, and he built cities and established communities and was well-loved by many people.  And like many people in positions of great power, he sometimes acted in harmful ways. 

      • Kevin Johnson Reply

        That is such a cool and thoughtful reply…
        Joseph Smith claimed to be one of the closest men to God, if not the closest, that ever walked on the earth.  Ghandi and Kennedy may have fallen prey to the corruption of power, and if what you describe about them is true, I would say then that they do not qualify as models of morally upright men.  But they would probably be the first to admit this.  To be a great leader you do not have to be morally upright.  Bertrand Russel was a great philosopher, but not so great a father.  His being a lousy father has to be taken into account if you really want to access his character.  Of course there are very few people in history that don’t have weaknesses and wicked deeds. I am chief among those that have them.

        But Joseph Smith has to be held to a higher standard here, if he really is the closest man to God to have ever walked the earth, then one should not expect to find him waist deep in child rape. ( If I told a 14 year old she had to marry me or I’d do something really bad to her, and she acquiecedI think this would have to be called rape. ) I don’t know how you absolve Joseph Smith of rape in the very well documented case of Helen Kimball.  And if you cannot absolve him, then I do not know what he’s doing as someone you would call the closest man to god that ever walked the earth. I guess a case could be made that he was a fallen prophet, much like King David, but all the same I see no compelling reason to join such a man’s church.

        • chuckborough Reply

          “Closest to God” is not a formula for moral action. One could ask his boy to kill his grandchild and stop him at the last moment. One could kill babies and all other firstborn of the Egyptians and let Pharaoh live. His example is not one of morality. It is one of unquestioned power.

      • Spotify John Reply

         Kaimi, well said. The inability to process the historical realities of our flawed heroes is not unique to Mormonism or the LDS Church.

  13. Patriarchal_Gripe Reply

    One huge issue/question that doesn’t ever get discussed regarding this subject is what exactly was the nature of these marriages? How can apologists maintain that these marriages were legitimate if they were all performed before the sealing ordinances were revealed and the temple built? We’re these pre-Nauvoo era marriages just for time? How could they have been performed for eternity outside the temple? If they weren’t sealings, where they just for time only? This is a huge gaping hole in the fabric of these stories in my opinion. Am I seeing this wrong?

    • Lindsay P Reply

       I’m confused by the term ‘pre-Nauvoo era marriages.’ Which marriages are you referring to? That might help clarify the question.  Joseph’s marriage or sealing to Fanny is not well documented, but when she was ‘sealed’ to Joseph by Levi Hancock, it was assumed it was for both time and eternity.  Actually, most of Joseph’s marriages were for eternity. Some were for time and eternity, depending on if the woman was married or not. If she had a spouse, it was usually for eternity only. My series on fmh details specific women and the nature of their sealings.   When Brigham and Heber married residual women that were already sealed to Joseph for eternity, they were only sealed for “time.”

      • Patriarchal_Gripe Reply

        So Levi Hancock was given the Priesthood keys as a sealer?  Barns can serve as a stand in for temples?  I don’t understand how eternal marriage can be applied post hoc to these “marriages”.  It seems to be an assumption that is never examined closely.  I think it is problematic to apply eternal labels to marriages after the fact.  When were Joseph and Emma sealed?  Was it in Nauvoo?  If sealings for eternity were supposedly being done before Emma was sealed to Joseph, why did that take so long to happen?

        • Lindsay P Reply

           I’m with you, and that’s why the Alger ‘marriage’ is oneof the most controversial unions of Joseph’s. To their credit, the best apologist article I ever read, clearly stated at the beginning, something to the effect of, “Joseph was either acting out of adultery or it was a sealing given by God.”  Although I think that over simplifies the narrative,  many of us tend to lean towards the former. However, I suppose evidence can be laid out for several conclusions:

          As far as evidence goes for sealing power, this is probably the most satisfactory answer you’re going to get:  “Whether Joseph Smith knew about the new and everlasting covenant of
          marriage at the time he married his first plural wife, Fanny Alger, in
          the mid-1830s at Kirtland, Ohio, is unknown.  However, the Prophet
          was already established as a restorer.  The only excuse or
          reason he ever needed to promote in order to justify the reintroduction
          of plural marriage was to assert the restoration of Old Testament
          polygamy.  The Old Testament provides no marriage theology,
          monogamous or polygamous, hence there would have been no need to provide
          an ideological foundation or additional religious justification. 
          Joseph Smith’s Nauvoo theology includes plural marriage as one small
          component in a complex and expansive cosmology.”

          So it comes down to what you believe about Joseph Smith and what you believe about God, you know?

          • Patriarchal_Gripe

            I guess I am critiquing the methodology of his restoration, more than trying to assert that they weren’t valid because they weren’t done in the manner they are today.  I am looking beyond the mark, I suppose.  Your response is right on the nose.  There are more questions than answers in these studies.


    the couple that Joseph married in Kirtland was Newel Knight and Lydia Goldthwaite. and not only did Joseph not have the civil authority to marry them, but Lydia was still married (!) to her estranged husband Calvin Bailey at the time.

  15. Gunnar1961 Reply

    Lindsay and Kaimi are very worthy additions to the Mormon Expressions discussion.  I enjoyed and learned a lot from their scholarly insights.  What I learned from their contributions to these discussions about LDS and Joseph Smith’s history, however, only further reinforced my disillusionment with the LDS Church and the growing strength of my conviction that it is extremely unlikely that Joseph Smith was anything more that a narcissistic, religious fraud–perhaps a pious fraud who eventually came to believe somewhat in his own scam, but a fraud, nevertheless.  I have little doubt that at least some of the General Authorities in the Church (even among the top 15) would acknowledge that, if they were truly honest with themselves and with others.
    I share Kevin Johnson’s anger at how the Church has lied to us and misled us, and still does on important issues.  Despite that, however, I think that most of the Church’s current leaders possess some good intentions and genuinely want to improve the lot of its members.  Maybe some of them feel that, at this point, it would be kinder to enable people to hold on to their cherished illusions, in which they have invested so much devotion and resources, than to shatter those illusions and possibly cause them to despair that it was all for naught.
    Despite everything, it can’t be denied that the COJCOLDS has inspired a lot of very good, admirable people to honorable achievements.  The most beloved people in my life (especially my immediate family) are still active, believing members.  Nothing would break my heart more than to be excluded from their company!

  16. Sweet_Swede Reply

    Great podcast! Thanks! Listening all the way from Sweden;).

    My standpoint is that i have resigned from the church. After realizing so much crap about JS i concluded that he was no prophet of god. The topic of this podcast being the worst of it all. And if he wasn’t a prophet of god, i cannot support the mormon church since it all stands or falls with the claims of joseph. And since the church causes so much heartache in peoples lives.

    I hear that you people in the studio also don’t approve of this behaviour of JS. Some of you are still active members though. How do you make that work? Yes, i understand that the world is not black and white, that you may like going to church for many other reasons, that religion may be a greater part of life in america than in europe etc. But can one really know all this about JS and still see him as a prophet? Don’t we show that we approve of all the whole thing when we keep attending? Isn’t the best way to show that we disagree to resign? Or are you hoping to change the church from within? The leaders will never change the concept of JS as the prophet of the restoration, i don’t think.

    I don’t mean to sound accuseing, sorry if i do, i just don’t understand why people stay when they obviously don’t believe in JS. Or, i don’t understand how one can believe in JS considering the content of this podcast.

    I’d be very interested in your and others input here.

    Kind regards and thanks again for the time you put in to produce this podcast!!!


  17. Duwayne_Anderson Reply

    I think one should use the simplest explanation that fits all the facts.  With that in mind, try this little experiment.  Find a non-Mormon who doesn’t know anything (or much) about Mormonism.  Tell them this story:

    “A friend of mine recently caught her over-thirty husband having sex with a seventeen-year-old girl that was living in their home.  My friend was really angry with her husband, but the husband convinced her that God had given him permission to do it, and that God had commanded my friend to accept the young girl as his “wife.”

    After you tell this story, watch the look on the non-Mormon’s face.  I’ve actually tried this experiment and the response is always the same — laughter, incredulity, amazement that anyone would be daft enough to believe such a cockamamie story.

    Okay.  Back to the idea that one should use the simplest explanation that fits all the facts.  Here’s a theory that (I think) does that.  I didn’t invent the theory, I think it follows effortlessly from the podcast; this is just how I’d word it:

    1)  Joseph was horny.  Joseph wanted sex. Joseph had sex with Fanny Alger.
    2)  Emma caught Joseph in the act.  Emma was hopping mad, as any wife would be.
    3)  Joseph was really good at making up stories on the spot.  Joseph had a fertile imagination, had possibly been thinking about taking on more wives, and was in a tight spot with Emma.
    4)  Joseph started talking about god and polygamy — as a way to get out of hot water with Emma.
    5)  Over time, Joseph saw other uses for polygamy.  For example, he saw that he could establish “dynastic” control over other men if he married their wives/daughters.  Joseph like power and control, and this was a good alternative use for polygamy.
    6)  Joseph evolved the new “doctrine” of polygamy as a way of not only having sex, but of exercising dominion.  For Joseph, polygamy evolved into something bigger than sex, but it started out with sex,and Joseph spinning a story to get out of hot water with Emma.

    Men have been cheating on their wives since the birth of our species — and they have been coming up with stories and excuses for just as long.  Joseph probably wasn’t the first to say “god told me to do it.”  It’s just remarkable that anyone would believe such a cockamamie story, or that a church would build a key doctrine around an act that was, without doubt, instigated by genes that just wanted to propagate themselves via Smith’s sperm and Alger’s unfertilized egg.

    • Farmdog47 Reply

      this is the exlaination id buy. i just dont think it would fly for adoring TBMs that couldnt use Joseph Smith and “horny” in the same sentence.

  18. Kevin Hill Reply

    This podcast has been out for a while but I wanted to correct a couple errors. Perhaps others have already.  John, Joseph Smith did not disband the Relief Society.  Brigham Young did shortly after he took control of the church.    Also, William Law was the second counselor to Joseph Smith in the First Presidency. He was not the Nauvoo Stake President.  That was William Marks.  It was a good podcast over all.

  19. chuckborough Reply

    I think it’s the same as knowing that God did not kill the Pharoah, but instead killed all the firstborn (mostly innocent) – and then still loving God. People love power, regardless of whether moral or not. People loved Hitler – far more of them than will ever love you or me.

  20. cobble26 Reply

    I enjoyed the podcast very much.  I believe the the clear motivating force for polygamy was Joseph’s desire for sex and power.  That doesn’t mean that was the only motivating force.  I disagree that Joseph didn’t need to come up with polygamy to have sex with other women.  He was selling the idea that he was a righteous prophet of God.  He risked everything if he was going to go around committing adultery right and left.  His affair with Fanny caused a minor scandel even though it was not widely known to members.  By cloaking his sexual desires in the theology of polygamy, Joseph was able to have sex and in many instances a romantic relationship with dozens of women by the commandment  of God.  After all, if he didn’t obey God’s commandment, the angel with drawn sword would have killed him.  So reluctantly he agreed to have the sex. Even better, he didn’t have to live with them or support them. What a guy! 

     One other comment, I believe it was Lindsay who stated that if you have a problem with Joseph having sex with these women in polygamy, it says more about you than Joseph.  WHAT??? Joseph used his position of power to lie  to and abuse these women –and in many instances their husbands or families– and if I have a problem with that, I have a problem?  Nonsense.  I hope that is not what she meant.

  21. Doug Forman Reply

    After listening to the show I told my with about Orson Hyde’s experience. She doesn’t think it happened or thinks it was an Abrahamic test. Do you have any sources for this one?

    Thanks in advance

  22. 27prg . Reply

    Incredible episode! You really work to back up your statements with evidence. Is there access to notes from John or Lindsay on this episode? Thanks!

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