After officially acknowledging earlier this month that founder Joseph Smith had multiple wives, some of them as young as 14, officials at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are now facing two important questions.
Who were these women, and what are their stories?
Smith was already married when he began to set his sights on other women. His first wife, Emma, had wed the handsome, charismatic religious leader in 1827 with the firm belief that it would be a traditional relationship. Emma suffered multiple miscarriages during her life and lost several children after they were born. When her husband began to practice polygamy, she may have felt like something of a failure, according to Jana Riess, a Mormon blogger for Religion News Service.
“Imagine what it would have felt like to be her, and see her husband apparently abandoning her to be with others who might be able to bear him children,” said Riess.
Church officials could not provide The Huffington Post with a comprehensive list of Smith’s wives. But historians have been able to learn quite a lot about the women by piecing together information from diaries and family histories.
The church’s public affairs department directed HuffPost to Todd Compton, a Mormon researcher whose 1997 book In Sacred Loneliness compiles a list of 33 well-documented wives of Joseph Smith — although the total number is likely as high as 40.
Emma was allegedly disturbed by the doctrine on polygamy, which Joseph claims he received through divine revelation. Her stance put the prophet in the position of having to choose between God’s will and his wife’s. As Joseph would later tell it, it wasn’t until an angel appeared to him, brandishing a sword and threatening destruction, that the prophet finally agreed to obey the commandment fully.
Being married to the founder of the LDS church was considered a tremendous honor during the early days of Mormonism. Members believed that civil marriages conducted on earth were only “for a time” and would not continue after death. By contrast, temple marriages performed by the priesthood were “sealed” for all eternity.
Many of Smith’s wives may have been willing participants, Compton told The Huffington Post. Some were romantically smitten, while others were attracted by Smith’s intellect. Some women may have wanted to give their own families a better chance at salvation by establishing a link to Smith for eternity. But the question of consent among Smith’s teenage wives is more problematic — even though it was common for women to marry young during that period in American history.
The majority of Smith’s wives — 11 out of the 33 documented by Compton — were between the ages of 14 and 20 when they wed the prophet. About 55 percent were single at the time of marriage and were not allowed to enter civil marriages until Joseph Smith’s death. Another 33 percent were already in civil marriages to other men when they were sealed to the prophet. Although he may not have been intimate with his youngest bride or with the older ones, studies indicate that Smith had sex with at least some of his plural wives.
Today, most LDS authorities attempt to ascribe heavenly motivations for Smith’s polygamy. Critics, on the other hand, say he practiced polygamy for purely sexual purposes.
Riess suggests that Smith’s behavior most likely had elements of both — that it was a mixture of the sacred and the profane.
“It’s important to understand the significance of what he was trying to do,” Riess told HuffPost. “He was linking the whole human family, from the time of Adam and Eve to the present […] to link all people together in a kinship network that would go beyond the grave.”
The news about Smith reportedly came as no surprise to many women within the American LDS church. But, Riess said, they were troubled by Smith’s relationships with young and married woman.
The “devil was in the details,” she said.
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SOURCE: The Huffington Post