Did Joseph Smith Marry Young Girls?

Criticism

Critics argue that Joseph Smith’s polygamous marriages to young women are evidence that he was immoral, perhaps even a pedophile.

Response

Mormon Temple MarriageThe information we have on Joseph Smith’s plural marriages is sketchy, simply because there were few official records kept at the time. This may have well been because of the fear of misunderstanding and persecution. What we do know is culled from the journals and reminiscences of those who were involved.

The most conservative estimates indicate that Joseph entered into plural marriages with 33 women, 6 of whom were under the age of 18. The youngest was Helen Mar Kimball, daughter of LDS apostle Heber C. Kimball, who was 14. The rest were 16 (two) or 17 (three).

It must be understood that many of Joseph Smith’s wives were “spiritual wives” to whom he was sealed for the eternities, but with whom he did not cohabitate.  It should also be understood, once the Saints learned the doctrines of eternal marriage, how highly desirable it was to be sealed to a prophet of God.

Helen Mar Kimball

Some people have concluded that Helen did have sexual relations with Joseph. Even supposing she did, we must remember that Joseph Smith and Helen were married with her consent and the consent of her parents. However, historian Todd Compton does not hold this view; he criticized the anti-Mormons Jerald and Sandra Tanner for using his book to argue for sexual relations, and wrote:

The Tanners made great mileage out of Joseph Smith’s marriage to his youngest wife, Helen Mar Kimball. However, they failed to mention that I wrote that there is absolutely no evidence that there was any sexuality in the marriage, and I suggest that, following later practice in Utah, there may have been no sexuality (p. 638). All the evidence points to this marriage as a primarily dynastic marriage.

In other words, polygamous marriages often had other purposes than procreation—one such purpose was likely to tie faithful families together, and this seems to have been a purpose of Joseph’s marriage to the daughter of a faithful apostle.

Critics who assume that everything “is all about sex” reveal more about their own cultural biases and assumptions than they do about the minds of early Church members.

Helen Mar “took pen and paper in hand before she died to describe vividly her ties as a member of the Latter-day Saint Church during its first two decades of existence in a series of articles published in the Woman’s Exponent”  in the 1880s  (Holzapfel, ix).

Some of her articles dealt with plural marriage:

“Her personal remembrances of those days constitute an important source that, taken together with other first-hand accounts by participants, provides a more complete view of the introduction of one of the most distinctive features of nineteenth-century Mormonism” (Holzapfel, xv). Helen Mar’s writings, an important source of LDS history, were published by BYU’s Religious Studies Center in 1997 in a book entitled A Woman’s View: Helen Mar Whitney’s Reminiscences of Early Church History. The book also includes her 1881 autobiography to her children, wherein, concerning her marriage to the Prophet Joseph Smith, she wrote:

I have long since learned to leave all with [God], who knoweth better than ourselves what will make us happy. I am thankful that He has brought me through the furnace of affliction & that He has condesended to show me that the promises made to me the morning that I was sealed to the Prophet of God will not fail & I would not have the chain broken for I have had a view of the principle of eternal salvation & the perfect union which this sealing power will bring to the human family & with the help of our Heavenly Father I am determined to so live that I can claim those promises  (Holzapfel, 487).

Fanny Alger

The wife about whom we know the least is Fanny Alger, Joseph’s first plural wife. He came to know her in early 1833 when she stayed at the Smith home as a house-assistant of sorts to Emma (such work was common for young women at the time). There are no first-hand accounts of their relationship (from Joseph or Fanny), nor are there second-hand accounts (from Emma or Fanny’s family). All that we do have is third hand accounts, most of them written many years after the events.

Unfortunately, this lack of reliable and extensive historical detail leaves much room for critics to claim that Joseph Smith had an affair with Fanny and then later invented plural marriage as way to justify his actions. The problem is that we have no evidence one way or another, and so are left to assume that Joseph acted honorably (as believers) or dishonorably (as critics).  It was historically reported that Fanny’s family was very proud of her marriage to Joseph, which would indicate that it was an honorable circumstance and not an extra-marital affair.

There is some historical evidence that Joseph Smith knew as early as 1831 that plural marriage would be restored, so it is perfectly legitimate to argue that Joseph’s relationship with Fanny Alger was in line with the doctrine of polygamy.

Historical and cultural perspective

Plural marriage was certainly not in keeping with the values of “mainstream America” in Joseph Smith’s day.  (Although worldwide, about 80% of marriages were polygamous.) However, modern readers also judge the age of the marriage partners by modern standards, rather than the standards of the nineteenth century.

Within Todd Compton’s book on Joseph Smith’s marriages, he also mentions the following monogamous marriages:

Wife Wife’s Age Husband Husband’s Age Difference in age
Lucinda Pendleton 18 William Morgan 44 26
Marinda Johnson 19 Orson Hyde 29 10
Almira McBride 17 Sylvester Stoddard 40s >23
Fanny Young 44 Roswell Murray 62 18

And a variety of non-Mormon historical figures had similar wide differences in age:

Husband Husband’s Age Wife Wife’s Age Difference
Johann Sebastian Bach 36 Anna Magdalena Wilcke 19 17
Lord Baden-Powell (Founder of Scouting) 55 Olave Soames 23 32[3]
William Clark (of the Lewis and Clark Expedition) 37 Julia Hancock 16 21[4]
Grover Cleveland (22nd, 24th US President) 49 Frances Cleveland 21 28
Martin Harris (1808) 24 Lucy Harris (1st cousin) 15 9[5]
John Milton (Paradise Lost) 34 Mary Powell (1st wife) 17 17
John Milton 55 Elizabeth Minshull (3rd wife) 24 31
Almonzo Wilder 28 Laura Ingalls (Little House) 18 10

The 21st century reader is likely to see marriages of young women to much older men as inappropriate.

According to the law of the early twenty-first century, someone of Joseph Smith’s age might be found guilty of “statutory rape” in the case of his younger wives —this is when an older person (usually a man) has sexual relations with a young person who is too young to give legal “consent.” This means that even if she “wants” to have sexual relations, the law considers her too young to give that permission to someone so much older than herself.

But this is a more modern attitude.

The age of consent under English common law was ten. United States law did not raise the age of consent until the late nineteenth century. In Joseph Smith’s day, the age of consent in most states was still ten. Some states raised it to twelve, and Delaware lowered it to seven![6]

It is significant that none of Joseph’s contemporaries complained about the age differences between polygamous or monogamous marriage partners. This was simply part of their environment and culture; it is unfair to judge nineteenth century members by twenty-first century social standards.

In past centuries, women would often die in childbirth, and men often remarried younger women afterwards. Women often married older men, because these were more financially established and better able to support them than men their own age.

Conclusion

Joseph Smith’s polygamous marriages to young women may seem difficult to understand or explain today, but, in his own time, such age differences were not typically an obstacle to marriage. An important thing to realize is that women were highly honored in Mormon culture, even at the beginnings of the Church, and were expected to use their free will and make their own decisions. Women, even very young ones, had the right to refuse any proposal and had access to divorce.

Endnotes

  1. [back] Todd M. Compton, Response to Tanners, post to LDS Bookshelf mailing list, no date. It should be mentioned that many reviewers of Compton’s work do not agree with all of his conclusions, even though he has collected much useful data; see the reviews of In Sacred Loneliness, linked under “Printed material,” below.
  2. [back] Jeni Broberg Holzapfel and Richard Neitzel Holzapfel, eds., A Woman’s View: Helen Mar Whitney’s Reminiscences of Early Church History. (Provo: Religious Studies Center, BYU, 1997.) This book is available on GospeLink.com (subscription required).
  3. [back] ”…such an age difference was not uncommon at the time.” Baden-Powell, en.wikipedia.org (accessed 21 January 2006)* (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baden_Powell)
  4. [back] ”…Clark also met and married Julia Hancock, several years his junior, whom he met when she was 12 years old, and he decided he would marry her on her fifteenth birthday.” Biography of William Clark, virginia.edu (accessed 31 May 2006)
  5. [back] Susan Easton Black and Larry C. Porter, “”For the Sum of Three Thousand Dollars”,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 14:2 (2005): 6.
  6. [back] See Melina McTigue, “Statutory Rape Law Reform in Nineteenth Century Maryland: An Analysis of Theory and Practical Change,” (2002), accessed 5 Feb 2005.

For more details, go to FairLDS.org.

 

 

 

All pictures come from
BYU archivesl
All rights reserved.

Ask a Mormon