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Understanding The Marriages Of Joseph Smith: Historical Perspective

© by history.churchofjesuschrist.or

Joseph Smith, the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church), is a figure shrouded in mystery, reverence, and controversy. 

His role as a prophet and religious leader has been the subject of much scrutiny and debate, particularly concerning his practice of polygamy. 

Whether you’re a history buff, a religious scholar, or just someone interested in the peculiarities of the 19th century, understanding Joseph Smith’s marriages offers valuable insights into the social and religious fabric of early Mormonism. 

The Genesis of a Controversial Practice

Joseph Smith’s introduction of polygamy is one of the most controversial aspects of his life. For the uninitiated, let’s set the stage:

  • Religious Context: Smith claimed that polygamy was a divine commandment revealed to him by God. This was not a whimsical decision but one that supposedly came with spiritual imperatives and consequences.
  • Social Context: The early 19th century was a period of religious experimentation in America. New movements and doctrines were cropping up like mushrooms after a rainstorm.

Smith’s revelation on polygamy was first documented in 1843 and was meant to be kept secret from the general public. This secrecy, of course, didn’t last long. 

Imagine trying to hide multiple marriages in a tight-knit community—it’s like trying to hide an elephant under a doormat.

Who Were Joseph Smith’s Wives?

While the exact number of Joseph Smith’s wives is still a matter of debate, historians generally agree that he had around 30 to 40 wives. Yes, you read that right. Here’s a look at some notable figures:

  1. Emma Hale Smith: His first and only legal wife. Emma was aware of Joseph’s other marriages but was reportedly not too thrilled about it. Understandable, right?
  2. Louisa Beaman: Often considered his first plural wife.
  3. Eliza R. Snow: A prominent poet and Relief Society leader.

The list goes on, but you get the point. Each wife had her own story, her own life, and her own reasons for entering into such a marriage. 

Some were young, some were widows, and others were already married to living husbands—a practice known as “polyandry.”

For a deeper dive into Joseph Smith’s wives, check out: Joseph Smith Wives Explained.

Why Polygamy?

The reasons behind Joseph Smith’s practice of polygamy are multi-faceted and complex. Here are a few theories:

  • Religious Doctrine: Smith taught that polygamy was necessary for exaltation in the afterlife. More wives equaled more children, which equaled more souls to populate the celestial kingdom.
  • Social Welfare: Some argue that polygamy served a social welfare function, providing for widows and single women in a time when economic opportunities for women were limited.
  • Dynastic Connections: Marrying multiple women helped to strengthen social and familial ties within the Mormon community.

The Impact and Legacy

Polygamy was officially discontinued by the LDS Church in 1890, but its legacy continues to impact the LDS Church and its offshoots. Here’s how:

1. Continuing Debate

  • Mainstream LDS Church: Today’s LDS Church strictly prohibits polygamy, but the topic remains a sensitive issue.
  • Fundamentalist Groups: Some splinter groups continue to practice polygamy, arguing that the original teachings of Joseph Smith should be upheld.

3. Cultural Impact

  • The notion of polygamy has seeped into popular culture, from reality TV shows like “Sister Wives” to fictional portrayals in books and movies.

Understanding Joseph Smith’s marriages requires a nuanced approach. 

It’s easy to cast judgment from our 21st-century vantage point, but empathy allows us to see the complexities and challenges faced by the individuals involved. 

After all, history isn’t just a series of dates and events; it’s a tapestry woven from the lives and experiences of real people.

So, the next time you find yourself in a heated discussion about Joseph Smith and his marriages, remember to bring a little humor and empathy into the conversation. History has enough stern faces and wagging fingers; sometimes a smile and an open heart can help us understand it a bit better.