Reviewed by George D. Smith
With this book, Merina Smith, a graduate of the University of Colorado with a Ph.D. from the University of California at San Diego, has synthesized research from a range of historians to present an accurate and colorful view of the beginnings of Mormon polygamy from 1830–1853, bringing together much of the work of Lawrence Foster, Richard Van Wagoner, Todd Compton, Gary Bergera, Richard Bushman, and my own Nauvoo Polygamy.
Merina Smith introduces her book with Joseph Smith’s revelatory narrative of an afterlife family redefined by the polygamous writings of early biblical patriarchs, even managing to use the Book of Mormon’s condemnation of polygamy toward this end.
But she also documents the resistance he (and others in the Church hierarchy) faced from many women (some of them still in their early teens) when asked to become plural spouses. Joseph Smith himself married girls as young as age 14, and within the polygamous families begun in the Nauvoo settlement, one of the author’s sources records a 12-year-old wife, four 13-year-olds, twenty-one 14-year-olds, and thirty 15-year-olds, to total fifty-six wives under 16 years old.
Independent-minded women challenged the idea of polygamy from the outset, and now that this erstwhile practice has been banned in the LDS community (except for in some independent communities that continue to believe the polygamous narrative) and by the American government; the practice has been mostly forgotten in twenty-first century LDS teaching manuals.
The story of early Mormon polygamy often reads like a soap opera, from Joseph Smith’s barnyard romance with Fanny Alger in Kirtland, to his first failed proposals to Zina and Presendia Huntington, to his first plural marriage to Louisa Beaman (performed 5 April 1841). The author does overlook a curious dimension to these three plural courtships in 1841: after having been turned down by Zina and Presendia Huntington, and within about a month after his first plural marriage, Joseph and Emma conceived an unnamed son. By the time of the baby’s birth on 7 February 1842 (he died immediately), Joseph had married Zina and Presendia Huntington (by then both married women), as well as his deceased brother’s widow, Agnes Coolbrith (Smith). It would be interesting if future historians turned more attention to this period from 1841 to 1844, doubtless rife with both comedy and tragedy as pregnancies, courtships, and marriages multiplied.
A curious bias that seems to peek through from time to time is Merinda Smith’s uneven judgment of some of the people involved. For example, although it seems apparent that Joseph Smith and John C. Bennett both participated in the leadership of the growing church community in Nauvoo—Bennett was Smith’s candidate for Nauvoo mayor, Assistant President of the Church, and the subject of a revelation (D&C 124:16-17)—the author dubs Bennett “an out and out lecher.” Meanwhile, Joseph Smith goes on to marry thirty to forty women (up to fourteen of them already having husbands and homes) but escapes a similar judgment. Indeed, it seems that sometimes the author writes as though it were the fault of historical researchers that Smith “went on to marry many wives” (p. 104), subtly blunting Joseph Smith’s ownership of his many marital decisions. Similarly, the women who allowed themselves to engage the attentions of this married man with a family and a church to manage (making Emma’s life miserable in the process) escape the author’s condemnation.
The author identifies some important facts, such as that after 1841 when Brigham Young and Heber Kimball finished their travels throughout America and England, they went on “no extended foreign missions—a good thing for their burgeoning families” (p. 99). In later years these two men eventually married “over a hundred women.”
Merina Smith has composed a thorough and fast-moving account of Mormon polygamy in the Nauvoo community, which focuses “primarily on the secret phase of Nauvoo polygamy” from 1841–1844. This is a valuable and readable description of a key aspect of westward-moving American history. Perhaps she will continue her focus on in-depth analyses of some of the many dramas within this Nauvoo community and how they developed after the Saints brought this secret practice out in the open in their new home in the west.