Polygamy book/Early womanizer
Did Joseph Smith have a long history of "womanizing"?
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Critics charge that Joseph Smith had a long history of "womanizing" before practicing plural marriage.
To see citations to the critical sources for these claims, click here
There is no good evidence to support the charge that Joseph was adulterous or had other "woman problems." The charges are all late, at least second-hand, and typically gathered with hostile intent. Those making the claims are often verifiably wrong on other facts. The witnesses contradict each other, are sometimes ridiculous, and seem to be nothing but warmed-over gossip. Those who could have confirmed the stories did not. Many details bear the mark of outright fabrication.
Even more significantly, there is no contemporary account of witnesses accusing Joseph of unchastity in the Church's early years. Everything is after-the-fact, often decades later. Given how anxious Joseph's enemies were to condemn him, it would be astonishing if he was known to be immoral without them noticing and taking advantage.
- …the sources are not the past but only the raw materials whence we form our conception of the past, and in using them we inherit the limitations that produced them…
- - Dean C. Jessee
- …the sources are not the past but only the raw materials whence we form our conception of the past, and in using them we inherit the limitations that produced them…
An early date for the first plural marriage revelation (see here) makes it more difficult for critics to charge that Joseph invented the idea of plural marriage to justify his "adultery" with Fanny Alger (see here). In response, some critics have charged that Joseph had a long history of adulterous scrapes predating 1831.
They want Joseph to be seen as a rake and womanizer. But was he?
Joseph Smith faced intense opposition throughout his life. Attacks on his moral character surfaced a few years after the Church's organization, though no such charges appeared before the organization of the Church.
A key source for these claims was an apostate Mormon, Doctor Philastus Hurlbut. Hurlbut joined the Church in 1833, but was excommunicated for immoral conduct while on a mission. Hurlbut became Joseph's avowed enemy, and Joseph even brought a peace warrant (akin to our modern "restraining order") against him because of threats on Joseph's life.
Hurlbut returned to the New York area, and gathered a collection of affidavits about Joseph and the Smith family. Hurlbut's reputation, however, was so notorious, that he gave the affidavits to Eber D. Howe of Painsville, Ohio. Howe disliked the Mormons, doubtless partly because his wife and daughter had joined the Church. Howe published the first anti-Mormon book using the affidavits: Mormonism Unvailed (1834).
The Hurlbut-Howe affidavits have provided much anti-Mormon ammunition ever since. But, their value as historical documents is limited. There is evidence that Hurlbut influenced those who gave affidavits, and since some who gave them were illiterate, they may have merely signed statements written by Hurlbut himself.
That said, these charges continue to surface, and are sometimes used as a type of "introduction" to plural marriage. Critics seem to presume that because charges were made, those charges must be true to some extent—"where there's smoke, there must be at least a small fire." They then conclude that since these charges are true, they help explain Joseph's enthusiasm for plural marriage. It is difficult to prove a negative, but a great deal of doubt can be cast on the affidavits themselves, without even considering the bias and hatred which motivated their collection and publication.
One affidavit was provided by Levi Lewis, Emma Hale Smith's cousin and son of the Reverend Nathaniel Lewis, a well-known Methodist minister in Harmony. Van Wagoner uses this affidavit to argue that:
- [Joseph’s] abrupt 1830 departure with his wife, Emma, from Harmony, Pennsylvania, may have been precipitated in part by Levi and Hiel Lewis's accusations that Smith had acted improperly towards a local girl. Five years later Levi Lewis, Emma's cousin, repeated stories that Smith attempted to "seduce Eliza Winters &c.," and that both Smith and his friend Martin Harris had claimed "adultery was no crime."
Van Wagoner argues that this "may" have been why Joseph left. But, we have no evidence of Levi and Hiel Lewis making the charge until the affidavits were gathered five years later. (Hiel Lewis' inclusion adds nothing; he gave no affidavit in 1833, and in 1879 simply repeated third hand stories of how Joseph had attempted to "seduce" Eliza. At best, he is repeating Levi's early tale.)
A look at Lewis' complete affidavit is instructive. He claimed, among other things, that:
- he heard Joseph admit "God had deceived him" about the plates, and so did not show them to anyone.
- he saw Joseph drunk three times while writing the Book of Mormon
- he heard Joseph say "he…was as good as Jesus Christ…it was as bad to injure him as it was to injure Jesus Christ."
- he heard Martin Harris and Joseph Smith claim "adultery was no crime."
- he heard Martin say that Joseph attempted to "seduce Eliza Winters," and that he didn't blame him.
There are serious problems with these claims. It seems extraordinarily implausible that Joseph "admitted" that God had deceived him, and thus was not able to show the plates to anyone. Joseph insisted that he had shown the plates to people, and the Three and Eight Witnesses all published testimony to that effect. Despite apostasy and alienation from Joseph Smith, none denied that witness.
The claim to have seen Joseph drunk during the translation is entertaining. If Joseph were drunk, this only makes the production of the Book of Mormon more impressive. But, this sounds like little more than idle gossip, designed to bias readers against Joseph as a "drunkard."
A study of Joseph's letters and life from this period make it difficult to believe that Joseph would insist he was "as good as Jesus Christ." Joseph's private letters reveal him to be devout, sincere, and almost painfully aware of his dependence on God.
Thus, three of the charges that are unmentioned by Van Wagoner seem implausible, even laughable. They are clearly efforts to simply paint Joseph in a bad light: make him into a pretend prophet who thinks he's better than Jesus, who admits to being deceived, and who gets drunk. Such a portrayal would be welcome to skeptical ears. This Joseph is ridiculous, not to be taken seriously.
We can now consider the claim that Martin and Joseph claimed that adultery was no crime, and that Joseph attempted the seduction of Eliza Winters. Recent work has also uncovered Eliza Winters' identity. She was a young woman at a meeting on 1 November 1832 in Springville Township, Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania. While on a preaching mission with his brother Emer, Martin Harris announced that Eliza "has had a bastard child."
Eliza sued Martin for slander, asking for $1000 for the damage done to her "good name, fame, behavior and character" because his words "render her infamous and scandalous among her neighbors." Martin won the suit; Eliza could not prove libel, likely because she had no good character to sully.
This new information calls the Lewis affidavit into even greater question. We are to believe that Martin, who risked and defended a libel suit for reproving Eliza for fornication, thinks that adultery is "no crime"? Eliza clearly has no reason to like Joseph and the Mormons—why did she not provide Hurlbut with an affidavit regarding Joseph's scandalous behavior? Around 1879, Eliza gave information to Frederick Mather for a book about early Mormonism. Why did she not provide testimony of Joseph's attempt to seduce her?
It seems far more likely that Eliza was known for her low morals, and her name became associated with the Mormons in popular memory, since she had been publicly rebuked by a Mormon preacher and lost her court suit against him. When Levi Lewis was approached by Hurlbut for material critical of Joseph Smith, he likely drew on this association.
Marinda Nancy Johnson
Van Wagoner describes another charge against Joseph:
- One account related that on 24 March  a mob of men pulled Smith from his bed, beat him, and then covered him with a coat of tar and feathers. Eli Johnson, who allegedly participated in the attack "because he suspected Joseph of being intimate with his sister, Nancy Marinda Johnson, … was screaming for Joseph's castration."
There is more to the story than this, however—much more. Van Wagoner even indicates that it is "unlikely" that "an incident between Smith and Nancy Johnson precipitated the mobbing." Unfortunately, Van Wagoner tucks this information into an endnote, where the reader will be unaware of it unless he checks the sources carefully.
Todd Compton casts further doubt on this episode. He notes that Van Wagoner's source is Fawn Brodie, and Brodie's source is from 1884—quite late. Clark Braden, the source, also got his information second-hand, and is clearly antagonistic, since he is a member of the Church of Christ, the “Disciples,” seeking to attack the Reorganized (RLDS) Church. Brodie also gets the woman's name wrong—it is "Marinda Nancy," not "Nancy Marinda." And, the account is further flawed because Marinda has no brother named Eli.
Compton notes further that there are two other late anti-Mormon sources that do not agree with the "Joseph as womanizer" version. Symonds Ryder, the leader of the attack, said that the attack occurred because of "the horrid fact that a plot was laid to take their property from them and place it under the control of Smith." The Johnson boys are not portrayed as either leaders, or particularly hostile to Joseph. It is also unlikely that the mob would attack Sidney Rigdon as well as Joseph if the issue was one of their sister's honor, yet as Rigdon's son told the story, Sidney was the first target who received much harsher treatment:
- …the mob came and got Rigdon first. He was a man weighing about 225. As they draged him some distance over the frozen ground by his heels bumping the back of his head so that when they got him to the place where they were to put the tar and feathers on him he was insensible. They covered him with tar and feathers and pounded him till they thought he was dead and then went to get J. Smith… The mob covered him with tar and feathers and pounded him till they got tired and left them both on the ground. J. Smith soon after the mob left got up and went home not very badly hurt.
Sidney was attacked until the mob thought he was dead; Joseph seems almost an after-thought in this version: someone they will pound until tired, while Sidney is beaten until thought dead.
Marinda Johnson had difficulties with plural marriage, but many years later would still testify, "Here I feel like bearing my testimony that during the whole year that Joseph was an inmate of my father’s house I never saw aught in his daily life or conversation to make me doubt his divine mission."
It is clear, then, that little remains of this episode to condemn Joseph—and Van Wagoner seems to think so too, though he caches this fact in the endnotes.
Benjamin F. Winchester: "Close friend" of Joseph?
Van Wagoner continues to outline Joseph's supposed pattern of problems with women:
- Benjamin F. Winchester, Smith's close friend and leader of Philadelphia Mormons in the early 1840s, later recalled Kirtland accusations of scandal and "licentious conduct" hurled against Smith, "this more especially among the women. Joseph's name was connected with scandalous relations with two or three families."
There is again more to the story, and Van Wagoner again places it in the endnotes. Far from being a "close friend" of Joseph when he made the statement, Winchester was excommunicated after the martyrdom. Winchester claims he was excommunicated for being "[a] deadly enemy of the spiritual wife system and for this opposition he had received all manner of abuse from all who believe in that hellish system."
So, we have a late reminiscence, by someone who is now definitely not a “close friend and leader of Philadelphia Mormons” as he was in 1844. By his own admission, he was an excommunicate apostate and bitter opponent of plural marriage. And, all he can tell us is about rumors of “scandal” in Kirtland, and isn't even sure with whom or how many families.
Van Wagoner's habit of putting important details in the endnotes should trouble us more than these vague charges against Joseph in Kirtland—a period by which he had begun to practice plural marriage.
Winchester's other claims are not included by Van Wagoner. As with Levi Lewis' charges, the other claims demonstrate how unreliable Winchester is. He wrote that the Kirtland Temple dedication "ended in a drunken frolic." As one historian noted:
- Such an accusation conflicts with many other contemporary accounts and is inconsistent with the Latter-day Saint attitude toward intemperance. If such behavior had been manifest, individuals would have undoubtedly recorded the information in their diaries or letters in 1836, but the negative reports emerged long after the events had transpired and among vindictive critics who had become enemies of the Church.
So, on issues which we can verify, Winchester is utterly unreliable. Why ought we to credit his vague, gossipy recall of early plural marriage?
Polly Beswick: The Two-Hundred Pound Domestic
The "best" sources on Joseph's early character have already been presented. The most creative, however, involves Polly Beswick, "a colorful two-hundred-pound Smith [servant who] told her friends" a tale better suited to a farce or bad situation comedy:
- "Jo Smith said he had a revelation to lie with Vienna Jacques, who lived in his family" and that Emma Smith told her "Joseph would get up in the night and go to Vienna's bed." Furthermore, she added, "Emma would get out of humor, fret and scold and flounce in the harness," then Smith would "shut himself up in a room and pray for a revalation … state it to her, and bring her around all right."
One hardly knows where to start with this account. Van Wagoner notes that the story is second hand, but fails to mention that Polly is a known gossip. There is also no reference for Polly's claims—it is impossible to verify them, or know in what context they were given.
The description, however, seems totally implausible. No doubt, Emma Smith was challenged by plural marriage (see here). But, the image of Emma being petulant and then settling down once Joseph produces a "revalation" is totally out of character and quite different from how she behaved when Joseph did provide a revelation. I find this evidence utterly unconvincing and unreliable.
Martin Harris: Again?
The final source provided by Van Wagoner quotes Martin Harris from an interview purportedly given in 1873:
- Martin Harris, Book of Mormon benefactor and close friend of Smith, recalled another such incident from the early Kirtland period. "In or about the year 1833," Harris remembered, Joseph Smith's "servant girl“ claimed that the prophet had made "improper proposals to her, which created quite a talk amongst the people." When Smith came to him for advice, Harris, supposing that there was nothing to the story, told him to "take no notice of the girl, that she was full of the devil, and wanted to destroy the prophet of god." But according to Harris, Smith "acknowledged that there was more truth than poetry in what the girl said." Harris then said he would have nothing to do with the matter; Smith could get out of the trouble "the best way he knew how"
We should not be surprised by now that this charge has many weaknesses. To begin with, Martin Harris was not in Kirtland at the time. The interview with Martin Harris supposedly occurred in 1873; it was not published until 1888. The reader's patience is also strained when we realize that Harris had returned to the Church by 1870, and died 10 June 1875 before the interview was published. Why would Harris give a "tell-all" interview about Joseph Smith three years after being rebaptized and endowed? He was safely dead before it was published, so the author had no need to worry about Harris' reaction.
Furthermore, in this account Martin Harris is portrayed as someone who definitely did not approve of adulterous conduct. This is in direct contradiction with the Levi Lewis affidavit, which has Harris claiming that adultery is no crime.
Other witnesses in Joseph's behalf
Though there are no contemporary witnesses of Joseph's bad behavior, there are witnesses to his good character. We have already seen how Marinda Nancy Johnson also testified of Joseph's good conduct, but there are other more contemporary witnesses.
- Two of Josiah Stowell's daughters (probably Miriam and Rhoda) were called during a June 1830 court case against Joseph:
the court was detained for a time, in order that two young women (daughters to Mr. Stoal) with whom I had at times kept company; might be sent for, in order, if possible to elicit something from them which might be made a pretext against me. The young ladies arrived and were severally examined, touching my character, and conduct in general but particularly as to my behavior towards them both in public and private, when they both bore such testimony in my favor, as left my enemies without a pretext on their account.
- [note] Dean C. Jessee, ed., The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 1984), xiv, italics in original.
- [note] Joseph Smith, History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, ed. Brigham H. Roberts, 7 vols. (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Company, 1980), 1:352–355 for 3–23 June 1833.
- [note] Smith, History of the Church, 1:475–476.
- [note] Brigham Henry Roberts, New Witnesses for God, 2d ed., 3 vols. (Salt Lake City, Utah: The Deseret News, 1911), 3:358–359.
- [note] For discussion of the affidavits, see Hugh W. Nibley, The Myth Makers (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1961); Hugh W. Nibley, Tinkling Cymbals and Sounding Brass: The Art of Telling Tales About Joseph Smith and Brigham Young (Vol. 11 of the Collected Works of Hugh Nibley), edited by David J. Whittaker, (Salt Lake City, Utah : Deseret Book Company ; Provo, Utah : Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1991); Richard L. Anderson, "The Reliability of the Early History of Lucy and Joseph Smith," Dialogue 4 (Summer 1969): 15–16; Richard L. Anderson, "Joseph Smith's New York Reputation Reappraised," Brigham Young University Studies 10:3 (1970): 283–314; Richard Lloyd Anderson, "The Mature Joseph Smith and Treasure Searching," BYU Studies 24 (Fall 1984): 492-494.Richard Lloyd Anderson, "Review of Joseph Smith's New York Reputation Reexamined by Rodger I. Anderson," FARMS Review of Books 3/1 (1991): 52–80; Thomas G. Alexander, "Review of Dan Vogel (Editor) Early Mormon Documents, Vol. 2," Journal of Mormon History 26/2 (Fall 2000): 248–252.
- [note] Except where noted, I have taken the accusations of immorality against Joseph from Richard S. Van Wagoner, Mormon Polygamy: A History, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City, Utah: Signature Books, 1989), 4–5. Van Wagoner takes no time to analyze these charges—he simply drops them on the reader and moves on. One reviewer criticized this tendency in both his volume on polygamy and Sidney Rigdon, writing, "He cites negative reports of early episodes but buries his suspicion for or rejection of the account in a note. But if it is not to be trusted, why cite it in the first place?" [David J. Whittaker, "Review of Richard Van Wagoner's Sidney Rigdon: A Portrait of Religious Excess," Journal of Mormon History 23/1 (Spring 1997): 193.]
- [note] A. Brant Merrill, "Joseph Smith's Methodism?" letter to the editor, Dialogue 16/1 (Spring 1983): 4–5.
- [note] Van Wagoner, Mormon Polygamy, 4. See "Mormonism" Susquehanna Register, and Northern Pennsylvanian 9 (1 May 1834).
- [note] Hiel Lewis, "Mormon History," Amboy Journal (6 August 1879); cited by Linda King Newell and Valeen Tippetts Avery, Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith, 2nd ed. (Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1994), 64.
- [note] For in-depth examination of the witnesses, see Richard Lloyd Anderson, "Attempts to Redefine the Experience of the Eight Witnesses," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 14/1 (2005): 18–31; Kenneth W. Godfrey, "David Whitmer and the Shaping of Latter-day Saint History," in The Disciple As Witness: Essays on Latter-Day Saint History and Doctrine in Honor of Richard Lloyd Anderson, edited by Richard Lloyd Anderson, Stephen D. Ricks, Donald W. Parry, and Andrew H. Hedges, (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2000), 223–256; Kirk B. Henrichsen, "How Witnesses Described the "Gold Plates"," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 10/1 (2001): 16–21; Matthew Roper, "Comments on the Book of Mormon Witnesses: A Response to Jerald and Sandra Tanner," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 2/2 (1993): 164–193; Richard Lloyd Anderson, "The Credibility of the Book of Mormon Translators," in Book of Mormon Authorship: New Light on Ancient Origins, edited by Noel B. Reynolds and Charles D. Tate (eds.), (Provo, Utah : Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University ; Salt Lake City, Utah : Distributed by Bookcraft, 1996 ), Chapter 9, 213–232; Richard Lloyd Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1981); Richard L. Anderson, "Personal Writings of the Book of Mormon Witnesses," Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited: The Evidence for Ancient Origins, edited by Noel B. Reynolds, (Provo, Utah : Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1997), Chapter 3; Milton V. Backman, Jr., Eyewitness Accounts of the Restoration (Orem, Utah: Grandin Book, 1983).
- [note] See remarks in this vein in Paul H. Peterson, "Understanding Joseph: A Review of Published Documentary Sources," in Joseph Smith: The Prophet, the Man, ed. Susan Easton Black and Charles D. Tate (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Company, 1988), 110.
- [note] Mark B. Nelson and Steven C. Harper, "The Imprisonment of Martin Harris in 1833," Brigham Young University Studies 45/4 (2006). (My thanks to David Keller for bringing the article to my attention in this context.)
- [note] John Phillip Walker, ed., Dale Morgan on Early Mormonism: Correspondence and a New History (Salt Lake City, Utah: Signature Books, 1986), 242n242; Vogel, Early Mormon Documents 4:297, 345–360. The original is [Frederick G. Mather," "The Early Mormons. Joe Smith Operates at Susquehanna," Binghamton Republican (29 July 1880).
- [note] Van Wagoner, Mormon Polygamy, 4; citing Fawn M. Brodie, No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith, 2d. ed. rev. (New York: Knopf, 1971), 119.
- [note] Van Wagoner, Mormon Polygamy, 4n4.
- [note] Todd M. Compton, In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1997), 230–232: citations to other accounts derive from Compton's treatment, except where noted.
- [note] Compton notes this, as does Van Wagoner's footnote. Ronald V. Huggins, "Joseph Smith's 'Inspired Translation' of Romans 7," Dialogue 26/4 (Winter 1993): 180–181, footnote 59 relies on Van Wagoner, but argues that Joseph's own account (in William Mulder and A. Russell Mortensen, eds., Among the Mormons (New York: Knopf, 1969), 67) mentions an Eli being present at the attack. While Smith, History of the Church, 1:260 mentions Eli Johnson, Johnson is not present in any of the scholarly versions of Joseph's diaries such as Jessee, ed., Personal Writings , Dean C. Jessee, ed., The Papers of Joseph Smith: Autobiographical and Historical Writings, vol. 1 (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Co., 1989), or Scott H. Faulring, ed., An American Prophet's Record : The Diaries and Journals of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City, Utah: Signature Books in association with Smith Research Associates, 1987).
- [note] Symonds Ryder, "Letter to A. S. Hayden," 1 February 1868 in Amos S. Haydon, Early History of the Disciples in the Western Reserve (1876); cited by Van Wagoner, Sidney Rigdon, 114–115. A second account is also cited by Compton: S.F. Whitney [brother of NK Whitney, a Reverend], in Arthur B. Demming (editor), Naked Truths About Mormonism 1 (January 1888): 3–4.
- [note] John M. Rigdon, "Lecture Written by John M. Rigdon on the Early History of the Mormon Church," 9; transcript from New Mormon Studies CD-ROM, Smith Research Associates, 1998 (emphasis added).
- [note] Marinda Hyde, Interview, cited in Edward W. Tullidge, The Women of Mormondom (New York: 1877), 404.
- [note] Van Wagoner, Mormon Polygamy, 4; citing Benjamin F. Winchester, "Primitive Mormonism—Personal Narrative of It," Salt Lake Tribune (22 September 1889).
- [note] Van Wagoner's earlier Dialogue article was slightly better, describing Winchester as "once a close friend." Richard S. Van Wagoner, "Mormon Polyandry in Nauvoo," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 18/3 (Fall 1985): 70.
- [note] Van Wagoner, Mormon Polygamy, 4n5.
- [note] Milton V. Backman, Jr., The Heavens Resound: A History of the Latter-Day Saints in Ohio, 1830–1838 (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 1983), 309n377
- [note] Van Wagoner, Mormon Polygamy, 4.
- [note] Linda King Newell, "Review of Mormon Polygamy," Dialogue 20/2 (Summer 1987): 155.
- [note] Van Wagoner, Mormon Polygamy, 4–5; citing Anthony Metcalf, Ten Years Before the Mast (N.p.: n.p., n.d.), 72 [published 1888].
- [note] Compton, In Sacred Loneliness, 646.
- [note] Jessee, ed., The Papers of Joseph Smith: Autobiographical and Historical Writings, 254n252.
- [note] "History of Joseph Smith Continued," Times and Seasons 4/3 (28 October 1842): 41; see also Smith, History of the Church, 1:90.