Church: Mormon founder Joseph Smith took up to 40 wives, including 14-year-old

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A lithograph of Joseph Smith, the founding prophet of the Mormon church. (Getty Images)

(CNN) — The founder of the Mormon church, Joseph Smith, wed as many as 40 wives, including some who were already married and one as young as 14, the church acknowledged in a surprising new essay.

Smith’s marital history had been the subject of frequent historical debate, but Mormon leaders had until recently taken pains to present its founding prophet as happily married to one woman. Now, the church says, “careful estimates put the number between 30 and 40.”

The church, officially called the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, disavowed plural marriage in 1890 under pressure from the U.S. government, which had imprisoned polygamists and seized their assets.

It’s hard to overestimate Smith’s importance to Mormons, most of whom view him as a larger-than-life figure who received special revelations from God. The news that he had taken so many wives, including teens and other men’s spouses, rocked some members of the faith, according to Mormon blogger Jana Riess.

According to the church’s essay, Smith had not wanted to take multiple wives, but relented after an angel appeared to him three times between 1834-1842. On the angel’s last visit, the church said, “the angel came with a drawn sword, threatening Joseph with destruction unless he went forward and obeyed the commandment fully.”

As the church’s essay notes, Smith saw his fledgling Mormon movement as a restoration of the “ancient principles” of biblical prophets like Abraham, who practiced plural marriage.

Smith’s wife, however, was not amused. In fact, the church said, “it was an excruciating ordeal for Emma.”

Sometime in the 1830s, Smith took his first plural wife, Fanny Alger, according to the church. They later separated, the church said.

At one point, Emma Smith accepted four of her husbands’ plural wives into her household, according to the church. But even she likely didn’t know the extent of her husband’s polygamous unions, LDS officials acknowledge.

Although Smith wed as many as 40 women, he did not necessarily consummate the marriages, the LDS church said. Some might have been “eternity only sealings,” meaning that the relationships essentially were held on reserve for the afterlife.

Most of the women Smith married were between 20 and 40, the church said, but one was as old as 56 and one as young as 14.

“Marriage at such an age, inappropriate by today’s standards, was legal in that era, and some women married in their mid-teens,” the church said in its online essay.

Helen Mar Kimball, the teen, said her marriage to Smith was “for eternity alone,” suggesting the relationship did not involve sexual relations, the church said.

Though controversial, polygamy did have an upside, according to the church: it increased the number of children born in Mormon households.

“A substantial number of today’s members descend through faithful Latter-day Saints who practiced plural marriage,” the LDS essay said.

The essay is part of a three-part series on the subject, said LDS Church spokesman Eric Hawkins.

 

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12 comments

  • dale

    “According to the church’s essay, Smith had not wanted to take multiple wives, but relented after an angel appeared to him three times between 1834-1842. On the angel’s last visit, the church said, “the angel came with a drawn sword, threatening Joseph with destruction unless he went forward and obeyed the commandment fully.””

    Oh, sweet heavens… I can’t be friends with anyone who believes such lunacy. The angel with the sword came and told him to have sex with the girl!

  • Kris

    The LDS church is not the authority on this matter. Emma Smith denied Joseph took other wives. She was his legal and moral wife. Brigham Young embraced polygamy and he was the one taking members west. Emma and her children went east, her son leading the church. They were the reorganized church of Jesus christ of Latter Day Saints and are now renamed yet again Community of Christ. They never practiced polygamy. The reason the LDS church is so visible as a latter day movement body is because they practiced polygamy, bigger numbers. BY is responsible for polygamy. He was inspired by Joseph, that is about the best you can do to pin it on him. If he had practiced he was doing it in error. It could not be secret. It doesn’t even make sense how the LDS church claimed he did it. Robbing later husbands the ability to be sealed after their death, before their marriage in the case of the 14 year old. There have been inappropriate proxy sealings done recently in the LDS church for holocaust victims, though they promised to stop. I think all these names of wives are inappropriate reports of sealings.

  • calebboone

    Dear Ladies and Gentlemen:

    One cannot profess Mormonism and disavow its founders’ doctrine.

    Joseph Smith believed in polygamy and practiced it seriously and diligently.

    Anyone who calls himself a Mormon must believe Joseph Smith was a Latter Day Saint, and must adhere to Joseph Smith’s teachings.

    Joseph Smith was an idiot.

    The Mormon Church is built upon ridiculous, idiotic doctrine.

    Sincerely yours,
    Caleb Boone.

  • Gus T. Breeze

    Not that I give a rat about the religion, but if you look through your family tree far enough your going to find mothers and wives under the age of eighteen so making a big deal about it in this article is moot.

  • deb

    How can anyone say or beleive Joseph did not have sex with all his wives. Plural marriage was for creating more mormens. Again another reason to question what type of religion you are following. Truth be told it 8s one big lie.

    • Pat

      So sorry this small part of church History that is miligned so artfully,has put you opposite to other precious truths..back then,women were destitute if they lost a husband,had no income and little opportunity to obtain work..so many were taken on paper,only,as wives,so they could be part of the community and have support needed to raise their children,in other then poverty.This was Not an excuse to have sex with multiple women,as contemporary so called leaders of such sects(and are in Jail now) may do..this is total oppositional to church law .I am sad to see such a narrow view,port-raid,has set you in opposition..You can read and learn so much more,by first reading the Book of Mormon,praying about it,and then go from there.I put a really good article on my FaceBook regarding this..hope it helps(: