Mormonism and polygamy/Divine manifestations to plural wives and families
Joseph Smith era:
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This page is based on an answer to a question submitted to the FAIR web site, or a frequently asked question.
Did those who entered into plural marriage do so simply because Joseph Smith (or another Church leader) "told them to"? Is this an example of "blind obedience"?
It is clear that Joseph applied very little pressure, and the members were not inclined to simply follow him blindly. Those who sought a witness received a dramatic experience which convinced them, independent of Joseph, that plural marriage was the correct path for them to follow.
Critics do not want their audience to know that most of those approached about plural marriage were very reluctant until their opinions were changed by what were often dramatic spiritual experiences.
Zina's brother Dimick encouraged her to accept Joseph's proposal of plural marriage. However, she refused. What changed her mind? Zina recorded:
- I searched the scripture & buy [by] humble prayer to my Heavenly Father I obtained a testimony for myself that God had required that order to be established in this church, I mad[e] a greater sacrifise than to give my life for I never anticipated a gain [again] to be looked uppon as an honerable woman by those I dearly loved [but] could I compremise conience lay aside the sure testimony of the spiret of God for the Glory of this world…
Simply put, Zina "did not merely bow to Smith’s pressure; she obtained her own testimony of polygamy by scripture study…and by personal revelation."
Joseph approached Benjamin Johnson for permission to marry his sisters, Delcena and Almera. If Joseph's intentions were dishonorable, this seems a foolhardy thing to do. Benjamin reports his reaction:
- In almost an agony of feeling…I looked him Straight in the Face & Said: ‘Brother Joseph This is Something I did not Expect & I do not understand it—You know whether it is right. I do not. I want to do just as you tell me, and I will try. But if I [ever] should Know that you do this to Dishonor & debauch my Sister I will kill you as Shure as the Lord lives=and while his eye did not move from mine He Said with a Smile, in a soft tone ‘But Benjamin you will never know that. But you will know the principle is true and will greatly Rejoice in what it will bring to you’ "But.how I asked. Can I teach my Sister when I mYself do not understand…'But you will See & underStand it' he Said and when you open your mouth to talk to your Sister light will come to you & your mouth will be full. & your toung lose.
Here we have a brother who wants to do the right thing, but swears by God to kill Joseph if he learns that the prophet is proceeding for false reasons. This demonstrates that Joseph was not seen as infallible by his followers—Benjamin knows that Joseph could be acting from base motives. Benjamin says that Joseph knows “whether it is right” (not “that it is right”) but he does not. Benjamin proceeds on the basis of a rather fear-filled faith to speak to a sister:
- I stood before her trembling, my knees shaking…Just So Soon as I found powr to open my mouth it was filled for the Light of the Lord Shone upon my understanding and the Subject that had Seemed So dark, now appeared of all Subjects pertaining to our Gospel the most lucid & plain, and So my Sister & myself were converted together.
Heber and Vilate Kimball
Helen Mar Kimball wrote of her parents:
- My mother had noticed a change in his [Heber's] looks and appearance [since the command to practice plural marriage], and when she enquired the cause, he tried to evade her question, saying it was only her imagination, or that he was not feeling well, etc. But it so worked upon his mind that his anxious and haggard looks betrayed him daily and hourly, and finally his misery became so unbearable that it was impossible to control his feelings. He became sick in body, but his mental wretchedness was too great to allow of his retiring at night, and instead of going to bed he would walk the floor; and the agony of his mind was so terrible that he would wring his hands and weep, beseeching the Lord with his whole soul to be merciful and reveal to his wife the cause of his great sorrow, for he himself could not break his vow of secrecy. His anguish and my mother's, were indescribable and when unable to endure it longer, she retired to her room, where with a broken and contrite heart, she poured out her grief to [God]. . . .
- My father's heart was raised at the same time in supplication, and while pleading as one would plead for life, the vision of her mind was opened, and she saw the principle of Celestial Marriage illustrated in all its beauty and glory, together with the great exaltation and honor it would confer upon her in that immortal and celestial sphere if she would but accept it and stand in her place by her husband's side. She was also shown the woman he had taken to wife, and contemplated with joy the vast and boundless love and union which this order would bring about, as well as the increase of kingdoms, power, and glory extending throughout the eternities, worlds without end.
- Her soul was satisfied and filled with the Spirit of God. With a countenance beaming with joy she returned to my father, saying, "Heber, what you have kept from me the Lord has shown me."
- She related the scene to me and to many others, and told me she never saw so happy a man as father was, when she described the vision and told him she was satisfied and knew that it was from God. She covenanted to stand by him and honor the principle, which covenant she faithfully kept, and though her trials were often heavy and grievous to bear, her integrity was unflinching to the end.
Helen Mar Kimball
...I thought that the Anointed of the Lord would not get more wives unless they were commanded to do so. But still I wanted a knowledge of the truth for myself. I asked my husband if he did not think we could get a revelation for ourselves on that subject. He said he did not know....[That evening] my mind was carried away from the earth and I had a view of the order of the celestial kingdom....I have seen so much wrong connected with this ordinance that had I not had it revealed to me from Him that cannot lie[,] I should have...doubted the truth of it, but there has never a doubt crossed my mind concerning the truth of it since the Lord made it known to me by a heavenly vision.
When Joseph Smith mentioned plural marriage to Emily Partridge, her response was immediate:
- ‘He asked me if I wished the matter ended. I said I did…[I] shut him up so quick’ that he did not bring up the subject again for months.
Critics are fond of portraying Joseph Smith as being driven by sexual lusts. In this case, he simply left Emily alone for months. She received her own witness in the interim, without any influence or pressure from Joseph:
- she was troubled by Joseph’s teachings and later described herself as ‘struggling in deep water’ during those months: ‘I had plenty of time to think and began to wish I had listened to what he would have said and I began to be as miserable as I was before…[In] those few months I received a testimony of the words that Joseph would have said to me and their nature before they were told me and being convinced of them I received them readily.
When Emily told Joseph about her decision, it is clear that Joseph merely waited patiently for months until Emily approached him:
- …[Joseph] said the Lord had commanded [him] to enter into plural marriage and had given me to him and although I had got badly frightened he knew I would yet have him. So he waited till the Lord told him. My mind was now prepared and would receive the principles.
Mary Elizabeth Rollins
When taught about plural marriage:
- She replied that she would never be sealed to him until she had a direct witness from God. He told her to pray earnestly, for the angel had told him that she would have a witness.” [And, indeed, this witness comes:] a Personage stood in front of the Bed looking at me. Its clothes were whiter than anything I had ever seen, I could look at its Person, but when I saw its face so bright, and more beautiful than any Earthly being could be, and those eyes pearcing me through, and through, I could not endure it… [She recounted this to Joseph,] who…predicted events that would take place in her family. ‘Every word came true. I went forward and was sealed to him.’
Of the proposal of marriage:
- When [Joseph] Smith sensed resistance, as has been seen, he generally continued teaching—asking the prospective wife to pray about the principle, promising that she would receive a witness. So it happened here. ‘He said, “if you will pray sincerely for light and understanding in relation thereto, you Shall receive a testimony of the correctness of this principle.”’ Lucy was horrified by polygamy and by his proposal and did not quickly gain the promised testimony. She prayed, she wrote, but not with faith. She was nearly suicidal: “tempted and tortured beyond endureance until life was not desirable. Oh that the grave would kindly receive me that I might find rest of the bosom of my dear mother.
Joseph waited at least four months, and then told Mary that she had to decide before the next day. What was her response?
- ‘This aroused every drop of scotch in my veins,' [wrote Mary,]…I felt at this moment that I was called to place myself upon the altar a living Sacrafice, perhaps to brook the world in disgrace and incur the displeasure and contempt of my youthful companions; all my dreams of happiness blown to the four winds, this was too much, the thought was unbearable.’…She then told Joseph that she could not marry him unless God revealed it to her, and God had not done so yet. She wrote, ‘[I] emphatically forbid him speaking again to me on this Subject.’
What was Joseph's response? Did he threaten? Cajole? Use his prophetic office to apply pressure?
- He walked across the room, returned, and stood before me. With the most beautiful expression of countenance, he said, “God almighty bless you. You shall have a manifestation of the will of God concerning you; a testimony that you can never deny. I will tell you what it shall be. It shall be that peace and joy that you never knew.”
Lucy describes the answer she later received while alone:
- My room became filled with a heavenly influence. To me it was in comparison like the brilliant sun bursting through the darkest cloud…My Soul was filled with a calm, sweet peace that I never knew. Supreme happiness took possession of my whole being. And I received a powerful and irristable testimony of the truth of the marriage covenant called ‘Celestial or plural mariage.’ Which has been like an anchor to the soul through all the trials of life. I felt that I must go out into the morning air and give vent to the Joy and grattitude that filled my Soul. As I descended the stairs, Prest. Smith opened the door below; took me by the hand and said: ‘Thank God, you have the testimony. I too, have prayed.’ He led me to a chair, placed his hands upon my head, and blessed me with Every blessing my heart could possibly desire.
Elizabeth and Newel K. Whitney
Wrote one biographer:
- When Joseph saw that he [Newel Whitney] was doubtful concerning the righteousness of this celestial order he told him to go and enquire of the Lord concerning it, and he should receive a testimony for himself’…This is typical of the way Smith dealt with initial resistance to plurality. And as so often happened, Newel and Elizabeth received a revelation.
- …We pondered upon [the doctrine of polygamy] continually, and our prayers were unceasing that the Lord would grant us some special manifestation concerning this new and strange doctrine. The Lord was very merciful to us; He revealed unto us His power and glory. We were seemingly wrapt in a heavenly vision, a halo of light encircled us, and we were convinced in our own minds that God heard and approved our prayers…Our hearts were comforted and our faith made so perfect that we were willing to give our eldest daughter [Sarah Ann Whitney], then only seventeen years of age, to Joseph, in the holy order of plural marriage…laying aside all our traditions and former notions in regard to marriage, we gave her with our mutual consent.
- [note] Todd Compton, In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books, 1997), 81. NOTE: While this work is a valuable collection of many primary sources about early plural marriage, many members of FAIR reject many of the faulty conclusions which the author draws from the data.
- [note] Compton, 81.
- [note] Compton, 296.
- [note] Compton, 297.
- [note] H[elen] M[ar] Whitney, "Life Incidents" 11 (15 July 1882):26; cited in Stanley B. Kimball, "Heber C. Kimball and Family, the Nauvoo Years," Brigham Young University Studies 15 no. 4 (Summer 1975), 461–462.
- [note] "Autobiography of Sarah S. Leavitt, from her history," ed. Juanita Leavitt Pulsipher, June 1919, 23, Utah State historical Society Library, Salt Lake City; cited in George D. Smith, Nauvoo Polygamy, 359–360.
- [note] Compton, 406.
- [note] Compton, 407, italics added.
- [note] Compton, 408.
- [note] Compton, 213.
- [note] Compton, 464.
- [note] Compton, 464–465, italics added.
- [note] Compton, 465.
- [note] Compton, 465.
- [note] Compton, 347.
- [note] Compton, 347.