Polygamy in Pieces - Part One: Timeline (Doctrine & Covenants 132)

Monday, November 8, 2021


Transcript for this episode by the phenomenal Heather B!

Works Cited for this episode:
Other Resources relevant to this episode (make sure to check out the bibliographies for more sources):

Channing: Hi, friends! I’m Channing.

Elise: And I’m Elise.

Channing: And this is The Faithful Feminists podcast.

Elise: [00:00:12] But this is not just any Come Follow Me podcast. We do things a little differently here. We offer approachable feminist interpretations of the Come Follow Me manual for those who want to study and understand the scriptures in a framework of equality, social justice, and sisterhood. We are here to show you all the really good ways faith and feminism work together to illuminate and deepen the gospel experience. 

Channing: We saved you a seat on the soft chairs. So join us today for a conversation about Doctrine and Covenants sections 129 through 132 for November 8th through the 14th. This week, it's going to be a little different.

[00:01:03] Because there is so much content and so many feelings and so many resources about this week’s sections, especially section 132, we've decided to do a miniseries titled “Polygamy in Pieces.” Each day we'll release a new episode covering a different aspect of early Mormon polygamy. We hope that this series is a deep dive but comes to you in manageable parts.

[00:01:32] Elise: Welcome, welcome, welcome everyone. Holy smokes. I can't actually believe that we are doing this episode now. Like Channing said, the sections cover 129 to 132 and section 132 is all about polygamy. 

[00:01:51] Channing: WhoOoo. We should have done this one for Halloween.

Elise: Boo. That's right. We should've done this one for Halloween. At the beginning of the year, when Channing and I knew that we were looking at the Doctrine and Covenants, like, this episode has been looming and, like, in the back of our minds for the entire year. So now that it's finally here, wowza. A couple of things on the front end. Additionally, we're pulling from tons and tons of articles and resources, but please know that we are in no way, like full-on experts or historians on polygamy.

[00:02:20] People spend a significant amount of their lives and careers studying polygamy. So, we hope our listeners will consider this both a deep dive, but honestly, a tiny snapshot because there's so much to share. There's so much research to do. And we plan to share all of the resources that we've explored, but that's not even an exhaustive list.

[00:02:39] So we encourage you, if this speaks to you in any way or pisses you off or just engages you, please, there's so much work still left to be done. And so many things to read. 

Channing: [00:02:49] Yes. And we're so grateful to all of the people who have spent so much careful time and consideration with their research and all of the time that they've spent to share these resources with us, because it would be impossible for us to do any of this work or do this episode at all in the length and detail that we are able to do it without all of their work behind us. So, thank you like a deep, deep gratitude for all of the scholars, all of the podcasters and researchers that have come before us. We owe you big time. So thanks for all the work. 

Elise: [00:03:24] However, if you do want a podcast to kind of supplement our material or just to continue exploring polygamy, we highly, highly recommend listening to A Year of Polygamy podcast with Lindsay Hanson park in this whole podcast project she spends so much care and share so much knowledge and research about polygamy and moves through individual people throughout an entire year. We highly recommend this podcast. 

Channing: [00:03:50] For today, we will be focusing on creating a timeline of early Mormon polygamy between the years, 1831 and 1844.

Elise: [00:04:00] We understand that this section, section 132, might be a little bit misleading because it says that it wasn't even published until 1843, but that's way too simple. There is a whole history of polygamy that begins way, way, way before and goes on way, way, way after this formal revelation was published. So, we're going to start first off by walking through the timeline so that you can see just how prevalent, but also secret, polygamy was.

Channing: [00:04:28] Yes. So most of this content comes from the church essay titled Plural marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo. So did you catch that? In Kirtland! Where we have already been many, many episodes ago. This comes literally straight from the church website, the gospel essays. They're like, this is not hidden information anywhere. It's very easy to find. It says ,“Many details about the early practice of plural marriage are. Plural marriage was introduced among the early saints incrementally and participants were asked to keep their actions confidential. They did not discuss their experiences publicly or in writing until after the Latter-Day Saints had moved to Utah and church leaders had publicly acknowledged the practice.

[00:05:17] The historical record of early plural marriage is therefore thin. Rew records of the time provide details and later reminiscences are not always reliable. Some ambiguity will always accompany our knowledge about this issue. Like the participants in polygamy, we quote “see through a glass darkly and are asked to walk by faith.””

[00:05:41] After reading that first introductory paragraph, I just wanted to highlight some of those words there. Incrementally: that means little bit by little bit. Confidential. Ambiguity. Have some faith. And so that's kind of the background or the foundation of how polygamy started. And so, we get the first official plural marriage ever happening in Nauvoo when Louisa Beamann and Joseph Smith were sealed in April 1841. So notice the date there. Elise originally said that section 132 was written in 1843. So, Joseph and Louisa were married two years prior to section 132 ever even being written. The church essay also states that Joseph married many additional wives and authorized other Latter-Day Saints to practice plural marriage.

[00:06:40] Elise: What this essay shrouds in shadow is that Joseph Smith had relations with the 14 year old girl named Fanny Alger in 1831. Remember section 101 where there was this big, huge focus on monogamous marriage, no stress, friends, because Joseph Smith had already been seeking revelation and exploring the possibility of polygamous marriage at the time of writing that revelation in section 101, 10 years (10 years!) before section 132. The most substantial contemporary description of the relationship between Joseph Smith and Fanny Alger comes from a letter written by Oliver Cowdrey on January 21st, 1838, in which he declares that, “ In every instance, I did not fail to affirm that what I said was strictly true, a dirty, nasty filthy affair of his and Fanny Algers was talked over in which I strictly declared that I never deviated from the truth.” Lawrence Foster, who's a professor of American History at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, wrote an essay or an article for Dialogue in which he writes about Joseph Smith's relationship with Fannie Alger saying “There is strong evidence from later sources that Joseph Smith may have considered at least as early as July, 1831, the possibility of re-introducing a form of patriarchal Old Testament polygamy.”

[00:07:59] Channing: Yeah. And also like notice that date. That is the year the church was formally instituted. Like, the church started in April, 1831. And now here we are in July.

[00:08:16] Elise: (groans and laughs) Welcome to only the first five minutes of the episode and we’re already irritated.

[00:08:20] Channing: For real. The church essay that I referenced earlier continues to say, “The revelation on plural marriage was not written down until 1843, but it's early verses suggests that part of it emerged from Joseph Smith's study of the Old Testament in 1831. People who knew Joseph well later stated he received the revelation about that time.

[00:08:39] Fragmentary evidence suggests that Joseph Smith acted on an angel's first command by marrying his plural wife, Fanny Alger in Kirtland, Ohio in the mid 1800s. Several Latter-Say Saints who had lived in Kirtland reported decades later that Joseph Smith had married Alger who lived and worked in the Smith household after he had obtained her consent and that of her parents. Little is known about this marriage and nothing is known about the conversations between Joseph and Emma regarding Alger. After the marriage with Alger ended in separation, Joseph seems to have set the subject of plural marriage aside until after the church moved to Nauvoo Illinois.”

[00:09:16] And I wanted to include this section from the church website. It feels important and significant that the church is recognizing and saying like, “Hey yeah, this actually happened.” And the timeline that we've presented, like, “oh section 132 came about and like that's when polygamy started.” No, no, no. It started well, well, well, before that. Some other perspectives on the relationship between Joseph Smith and Fanny Alger comes from an essay titled “Plural Marriage, Singular Lives: In Sacred Loneliness- the Plural Wives of Joseph Smith” by Todd Compton reviewed by Lawrence Foster.

[00:09:51] “Again,” he writes, “there is no reliable contemporary evidence that any of the sexual relationships Joseph Smith may have sustained with women other than his first wife, Emma, prior to the first formally documented plural marriage ceremony with Louise Beeman.” Wow. That was a mouthful. “There's no evidence that these were necessarily viewed at the time as a “marriage.” Such earlier, sexual relationships may have been considered marriages, but we lack convincing contemporary evidence supporting such an interpretation.”

[00:10:23] And I wanted to include that too, because, here, Foster is kind of trying to make this claim that, “well, no one knows for sure if those were actually considered plural marriage.” And while I appreciate the author's neutrality, I can't remain neutral. There is strong evidence, especially from this, knowing that Joseph was having sexual relationships outside of his marriage to Emma, like, it's very obvious to me that Joseph was living the spirit of the law of plural marriage, but not necessarily the letter of it before section of 132 is written.

Elise: [00:10:54] Continuing on with the Gospel Topics Essays about polygamy from the church website, we read, “after receiving a revelation commanding him to practice plural marriage, Joseph Smith married multiple wives, and introduced the practice to close associates. Participants in these early plural marriages pledged to keep their involvement confidential, though they anticipated a time when the practice would be publicly acknowledged.” And there was significant public outcry regarding polygamy. But to this, on the church website, it says, “nevertheless, rumors spread. The rumors prompted members and leaders to issue carefully worded denials that denounced spiritual wifery and polygamy but were silent about what Joseph Smith and others saw as the divinely mandated “celestial plural marriage.”

[00:11:43] The statements emphasized that the church practice no marital law, other than monogamy, while implicitly leaving open, the possibility that individuals under the direction of God's living prophet might do so.” Not only that, but the saints relied on section 101 all about monogamous marriage to battle and deny claims of spiritual wifery and the sacred secret practice of polygamy to the public, even while high-ranking members of the church were engaging in plural marriage behind closed doors. 

Channing: [00:12:15] That's so wild to me. 

Elise: Yeah.

Channing: It's like the church is saying, like, “okay, this is what we really believe. Like, here's the evidence in this section that was written by our prophet.” And yet, like, unbeknownst to probably the large majority of the public the leaders were actually doing exactly what they were being accused of.

[00:12:40] Friends, thanks so much for joining us on this episode. As we put together this timeline of how polygamy was practiced in early Mormonism. We've covered the way that polygamy was practiced even before Doctrine and Covenants 132 was written and how it's kind of progressed and moved through the years, and even some of the reactions felt afterwards. We love you so much. And we look forward to sharing more with you tomorrow in our series of “Polygamy in Pieces.” Bye!

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