Conversations about the religious and spiritual life on the other side of fundamentalism
027-028: Brian C. Hales on Joseph Smith’s Polygamy

027-028: Brian C. Hales on Joseph Smith’s Polygamy

brian halesI had the privilege of speaking with Brian Hales about his upcoming three-volume history of Joseph Smith’s Polygamy, published by Greg Kofford Books. Brian is a practicing anesthesiologist, author and scholar of Mormon History, with emphasis on Mormon Fundamentalism and Plural Marriage. He is also an active, faithful Latter-Day Saint. In this interview, Brian discusses his research of the historical context, circumstances, and theology that gave rise to Joseph Smith’s secret practice of polygamy in the Kirtland and Nauvoo periods. We talk about specific cases and incidents, including Fannie Alger, polyandry, Helen Mar Kimball, Emma Smith’s struggle with the Principle, as well as Brian’s perspective as a faithful Latter-Day Saint who embraces the theological necessity for the Mormon doctrine of Plural Marriage.


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You can preorder Joseph Smith’s Polygamy, Volume 1,2,3 for a discounted price until Feb 26, 2013



    1. Dave

      Whether those people were children of Joseph Smith or not, the fact that the mothers claimed that Joseph had fathered children, clearly indicates that he had sex with them at least. I just think Mr Hales is jumping through hoops to make this ‘dirty, nasty, filthy SCRAPE’ sound less sordid than it was. However, when one thinks of Christianity of the New Testament, Joseph Smith’s practices had absolutely nothing to do with it.

      1. Kai Gorbahn

        Well Dave, Brian admits there’s evidence that Joseph had sex with around 12-15 of the wives. The fact there’s no children goes to say that sex was irregular practice, thus indicating that libido was a small factor in Joseph’s polygamy. If it had been driven by sexual desire, he would have taken the opportunity to have a whole lot more sex.

        Not sure why you’re bringing up the New Testament. What about the Old Testament? Many Christians disregard the Old Testament like it never happened. Mormonism was a restoration of all things: temples, polygamy, garments, etc.

        1. Anabelle

          “The fact there’s no children goes to say that sex was irregular practice, thus indicating that libido was a small factor in Joseph’s polygamy.”

          That is an over-simplified interpretation. JS was afraid of being caught “spending time” with his wives. People were watching him. One of them was my great-great-great grandfather’s sister-in-law. Some of his worries would include (1) It was against the law. (2) He was afraid for his life. (3) He was worried that Emma would leave him, and if she did leave him, it would not give him much anonymity or credibility. If not for these constant worries, he most probably would have been having more sex.

        2. Blake

          Restoration of all things? Like animal sacrifice, not eating shellfish. seems like he might be picking and choosing which practices he likes. Just because there are no kids doesn’t equate to not having a lot of sex. There is the “pull out” method of birth control, especially when you are secretly having sex with these women who aren’t married, of course you don’t want them to get pregnant.

  1. Garrett

    Wow. After listening to this and assuming Brian’s research is true, I’ve come to 3 conclusions:

    1) Joseph committed adultery. How can you argue against this? Sealing or no sealing to Fanny, it was NOT a legal marriage, he was already married to Emma, AND Emma did NOT know about it. That is ADULTERY. There is no way around it. And even in the absence of sealing and sex, he still had a relationship with someone else behind Emma’s back. Ouch. What if our current Prophet did that today? Ouch.

    2. Joseph broke the law. No way around it.
    3. Joseph lied about it. No way around it.

    Whilst I appreciate the great detail Brian has put into his research, I just can’t see how this information can strengthen the average member’s testimony Joseph Smith, or even assuage his or her concerns about the behavior and the practice. It’s everything but comforting.

    And my last question: Why restore an old testament practice? That doesn’t coincide with everything I was taught growing up…that Christ’s atonement did away with old testament practices (ie Law of Moses).

    1. iamse7en

      Michael Quinn would directly challenge your first conclusion. Yes, Joseph did break the law and lied about it. That’s clear. But adultery is illicit sexual intercourse outside the bounds the Lord has set. First off, Joseph claimed that marriage is a priesthood ordinance – he claimed the right to marry others (such as Newel Knight to undivorced Lydia Goldthwaite) by authority of the priesthood, not the State, which he believed had no say in who is married or not. So whether the marriage is “legal” or not is irrelevant in Joseph’s eyes. Also, the D&C clearly states that concubinage is acceptable in the Lord’s eyes. It is assumed a concubine is a partner of which there was no formal ceremony. Although I find the evidence of an Alger “marriage” compelling (especially given Don Bradley’s recent research), it doesn’t matter either way. In Joseph’s eyes, she was given of the Lord. The “scrape” was not adultery. Furthermore, whether Emma knows about the relationships or not is immaterial and has no bearing on the Lord’s definition of “adultery.” If the Lord gave unto Joseph these wives, then his sexual relationships were not adulterous. That is what D&C 132 is all about.

      Yes, I’m sure you do not accept any of this, but this is Joseph’s concept of adultery as he believed the Lord revealed to him. According to this definition, he was not guilty of it.

      To be honest, I find a lot more objectionable behavior from some of these OT prophets to first doubt their prophetic callings before I would Joseph’s, but that’s neither here nor there. I have received a spiritual witness that Joseph did have a special, on-going, communicative relationship with the divine. It was more powerful than any natural experience I’ve had with my own natural senses. On top of that, his doctrines and teachings have made me a much happier person and guided me to be Christ-like to others. The light that is flowed to me throughout my life has come through these teachings and principles and commandments and rituals. It has made me who I am. And for all of that, I will be eternally grateful to Joseph Smith, the man, but prophet.

      1. Garrett

        It’s not that I don’t accept any of it, it’s just really, really hard to come to terms with, especially when my first 30 years as a Mormon were under the belief (because that’s what I was taught) that Joseph and Emma were in a loving monogamous relationship. Call me naive and uninformed, but then you would also have to call 99% of the membership naive.

        Also, I can now understand the cult label that is applied to Mormons by so many in the Christian community. Any time a leader with followers changes the rules…does something outside normal/acceptable social and legal norms, and claims divine inspiration as the source, unless you have the witness you state you have, what else can you call it? A suicide bomber is not committing murder…no, to them it’s an act of martyrdom and the will of God. To the rest of us, it’s cold blooded murder. To believing Mormons, I suppose Fanny is the first instance of the New and Everlasting Covenant. To the rest of the rational world, it’s adultery. Though I have no reason to doubt Mormons’ good intentions and virtuous lives, I’m really starting to understand where guys like Christopher Hitchens are coming from…when educated and rational people start saying adultery is not adultery, to guys like Hitchens, religion really is poisoning everything.

        1. Roy

          “Any time a leader with followers…does something outside normal/acceptable social and legal norms, and claims divine inspiration as the source… what else can you call it [than a cult]?

          I would say something more substantial is going on.

          In D&C 132 Joseph created a new god – a god who apparently is “more concern about order in his Church than he is about unrighteous dominion.”

          That’s something that out lasts a cult leader. That’s the power of theology.

          Now hold on! – you may say. Joseph also gave us a God who weeps (Moses 7:28).

          But wait, were these tears of tender sorrow and empathic suffering?

          No, in His next breath we feel His swift and terrible mood swing:

          “And the fire of mine indignation is kindled against them; and in my hot displeasure will I send in the floods upon them, for my fierce anger is kindled against them. Behold, I am God; Man of Holiness is my name; Man of Counsel is my name; and Endless and Eternal is my name, also.” (Moses 7:34, 35).

          More weeping follows, along with torment, misery, doom, and imprisonment.

          Joseph’s theology also turned Jesus into the Old Testament Yahweh with full-blown BPD.

  2. Roy

    My favorite fun story that Brian told was when Joseph promised Mary Rollins an angel would come and tell her to marry him and sure enough it flew in her window but she was a coward and hid under the covers and no more angel visits for her! Mary learned her lesson not to be so skeptical that day!

  3. Mazza

    I have to be honest, this podcast simply confirmed for me what a complete and utter mess polygamy is/was. For all of his wonderful research, Dr. Hales has still not cleared the issue up. In fact, it seems even more complicated (and terrible) now.

    This issue/podcast (and I mean no offense here) sort of reminds me of the salesmen who knows he/she is selling a piece of junk product but still resorts to every trick to convince you that the product is worth your while.

    For whatever else polygamy was, it still boils down to J. Smith having sex with young women, married women, etc. If this is from God…God help us!!!

  4. I have to question Dr. Hales’ theory that the main theological purpose of polygamy is to deal with the alleged fact that there will be more women than men in the Celestial kingdom. I don’t think this idea is anywhere in LDS scripture, and I’m not even aware of any 19th century sources supporting that idea. Putting aside the rather dubious idea that there are more Celestial women than there are Celestial men, this theory only works if there is a fixed, limited number of potential entrants into the Celestial kingdom, so that if everyone is paired-off by sex, there would be a few that are unpaired.

    D&C 132:30 states that the posterity of Abraham will continue to increase when they are “out of the world” (i.e., in the afterlife). If there is not a finite allocation of tickets to the Celestial kingdom, then any person who has not yet, because of some imbalance, been matched up with a spouse in that kingdom need only wait an eon or two until a new spouse becomes available there. Unless the number of people of each sex is fixed, unequal, and finite, polygamy is not inevitable.

    Along those lines, I also have to question Dr. Hales’ theory that in the Celestial world, nobody will be “married or given in marriage” because at that point (presumably after the Millennium), everyone’s list of spouses will be apparently fixed for all time. D&C 132:15-17 refers to people who are “neither marry nor are given in marriage….” in the world to come, but does not say that this applies to everyone in the Celestial world. Rather, these particular verses just apply to those who marry under worldly law, rather than under the Covenant. I just don’t see any scriptural or other authoritative backing for the idea that presumably omnipotent gods and goddesses will nevertheless lack the power to marry or be given in marriage.

    1. Jessica, I couldn’t agree more. If God did command Joseph Smith to practice polygamy (and I am far from convinced that he did), then I am simply at a loss for how to react to that. It would mean that God inhabits a completely different moral universe than I do. I would honestly lose any desire that I currently have of trying to become God-like (because of what that would mean).

      I have four young daughters whom I love more than anything else in this world. The thought of them being in an eternal polygynous relationship quite literally nauseates me.

  5. Ana

    Someone should create an organization called “Apologists Anonymous” because Brother Hales seems to be very deep into denial that he is indeed an apologist. I appreciate his knowledge, but I found his interpretations and analysis of the “evidence” to be quite biased towards the outcome that he wanted. Historians should not do that.

    If an interpretation was not in harmony with his opinion, he said things such as there’s “no evidence when people say this, they’re making it up.” But when describing how he came to a conclusion when there was no record (evidence), he said you “fill in the blanks.” Isn’t that the same as “making it up”?

  6. This is what apologetics SHOULD be.
    The Maxwell Institute should hire this guy as their director! Dogmatically concerned with the facts and evidence, presenting it as open and fairly as possible, gently offering opinions and interpretations but ultimately leaving it up the reader to make up their own mind, all the while being unfailingly nice in the process.
    Like so many people my faith crisis was made worse when I turned to apologetics and found their mean spirited, manipulative attack.
    If instead I had encountered someone like this who is not only nice and fair but gives you the feeling he is providing you with all the information relevant to the situation, not just what supports his own view, I may even have ended up staying in the Church.
    Ultimately I’m happy i left so from my perspective I’m happy the apologists pushed me out. But from the Church’s point of view, they NEED guys like this front and center if the Church is going to survive the internet era.

  7. Josh

    I appreciated the podcast and the obvious amount of effort and research that Mr. Hales has put into his book. For the integrity of the content, I’d give him an A. With regard to his conclusions and interpretations, maybe a C.

    And regardless of any of the justifications that i’ve heard put forth, practicing something in private while publicly denying it in public is not acceptable in my book. I think its terrible.

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  9. Jean

    You cannnot imagine how many times I yelled “BS” at my computer while listening to this podcast. This is not thoughtful faith it is blind faith. Comments that Hale makes that are complete conjecture just make me angry; they don’t deal with any other possible answer. For example the lack of progeny of Joseph Smith simply means that he wasn’t having a lot of sex with them. Honestly, you cannot think of any other possibilities? Really and you are a married man?

    Pre- menarche is one answer; a decline in the average age of menarche from 17 to 13 in Europe from 1850 to 1960 is well documented.

    Birth control of various methods including the rhythm method, withdrawal and condoms have been traced all the way back to 1000 BC.

    Abortion was a known practice. Having husbands sleeping with the women was good cover for Smith who also may not have had very fertile or healthy sperm. Some of his natural children with Emma died.

    He may have merely consummated the marriage and not had ongoing sexual arrangements with his plural wives.

    He may have planned the marriages around the possible infertile times of the women’s menstrual cycle or simply not consummated until the time was right.

    If I can come up with these other possibilities so could you if you ‘wanted’ to. You are an apologist just shoring up the faith of those who cannot take the meat yet because even you are not ready for it.

    On the other hand I so appreciated the questions asked by Sarah. They were open, honest and insightful – well done Sarah.

    1. Kai Gorbahn

      Why did you even listen to the podcast, Jean? In dealing with polygamy, this is as thoughtful as it gets. Joseph wouldn’t use birth control, that makes no sense. The women he married wanted to have his children. They respected him and he respected them. He would never in a million years have performed an abortion– nor would he have planned around a women’s menstrual cycle (that’s just ridiculous). The fact that he wasn’t having a lot of sex isn’t the main point Hales’ is trying to make. The point is that Joseph was a man of integrity and wouldn’t do anything that was contrary to what God wanted. If you follow the evidence, you’ll see the correlation.

  10. Taylor

    I am a descendent on many lines of individuals who practiced polygamy and I listened to this podcast with great interest for several reasons:
    1. I like to think I have noble ancestors for their “faithfulness” to have embarked upon such a difficult path and their faithfulness to their religion and their spouse(s).
    2. It gives me great difficulty to accept it within the context of what I have observed within myself and others when it comes to sexuality, the potential for the abuse of power, the feelings of women, and the overall sordid appearance that Joseph’s secretive actions gave the whole concept.
    3. Why would not just one more wife have satisfied the angel with the drawn sword and not 33 wives? As I examine many of whose stories individually they give me pause and I don’t see the differentiation as to whether or not he consummated the marriage as far as Emma’s feelings are concerned.
    4. I have a hard time with the line of logic that more women will be in the celestial kingdom than men. What about all of the men who died in wars as young men who never had the opportunity for marriage and then accept the gospel in the spirit world and are in need of wives to allow them to meet the qualifications of celestial marriage?
    5. I find within myself that the natural man is too willing to explain behavior that is advantageous sexually for me (a man), the use of power, opportunity or privilege to expand sexual privilege and indulge sexual appetites. I cannot speak to whether or not this situation would be reversed if women enjoyed the opportunities of power, privilege and opportunity. It is my gut feeling that it may not be so as our gender gives a different perspective as to the needs, wants and desires that sexuality brings to the table. Speaking from a practical standpoint, women more directly bear the burdens of sexuality and are therefore seem inclined to look at it from a perspective of fidelity, commitment, support, and emotion.
    My wife and I have discussed this topic for years and the longer I am married and the clearer my perspective gets. I suspect this is from a probable decline in hormone levels, and I am able to have greater empathy for her feelings and those feelings that each polygamous wife may have felt as she “shared” her husband. I am reminded of the scripture from The Book of Mormon Jacob Chapter 2. To be brief I’ll only quote the last verse:
    35 Behold, ye have done greater iniquities than the Lamanites, our brethren. Ye have broken the hearts of your tender wives, and lost the confidence of your children, because of your bad examples before them; and the sobbings of their hearts ascend up to God against you. And because of the strictness of the word of God, which cometh down against you, many hearts died, pierced with deep wounds.
    Jacob 2

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