Officials with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints confirmed that the founder of the Mormon faith, Joseph Smith, had as many as 40 wives — including a teenager and women who were already married, the New York Times reported on Monday.
“Most of those sealed to Joseph Smith were between 20 and 40 years of age at the time of their sealing to him,” the church said on its website. “The oldest, Fanny Young, was 56 years old. The youngest was Helen Mar Kimball, daughter of Joseph’s close friends Heber C. and Vilate Murray Kimball, who was sealed to Joseph several months before her 15th birthday. Marriage at such an age, inappropriate by today’s standards, was legal in that era, and some women married in their mid-teens.”
A footnote at the end of the post, dealing with “plural marriage,” said that “careful estimates” placed the number of women Smith married at between 30 and 40.
Another footnote said that Mar Kimball referred to her marriage to Smith as being “for eternity alone,” indicating that they did not have sex. Marriages involving sex between spouses were described as being “for time and eternity.” Mar Kimball married again after Smith died in 1844 and became an advocate for polygamy.
The church’s post states that Smith himself was reluctant to begin practicing polygamy, until he was approached by an angel who “came with a drawn sword, threatening [him] with destruction” unless he obeyed God’s command to do so.
Church historian Steven E. Snow told the Times that the explanation of Smith’s introduction of polygamy to the church is part of a series of essays the church has posted to help members find an honest understanding of their faith, including its more difficult aspects.
“I believe our history is full of stories of faith and devotion and sacrifice,” Snow said. “But these people weren’t perfect.”
According to the essay, polygamy was an “excruciating ordeal” for Smith’s first wife, Emma, who initially approved of his first four “plural marriages” to other women.
“She may have approved of other marriages as well,” the post stated. “But Emma likely did not know about all of Joseph’s sealings. She vacillated in her view of plural marriage, at some points supporting it and at other times denouncing it.”
The church officially disavowed polygamy in 1890 after members were arrested by federal officials, losing their assets in the process.