I’m feeling lazy, so I’m just going to quote Todd Compton, author of the uniformly excellent In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith:
Sexuality in Joseph Smith’s Plural Marriages
Joseph Smith’s first wife, Emma, allegedly told the wife of Apostle George A. Smith, Lucy, that Joseph Smith’s plural wives were “celestial” only, that he had no earthly marital relations with them. “They were only sealed for eternity they were not to live with him and have children.” Lucy later wrote that when she told this to her husband:
He related to me the circumstance of his calling on Joseph late one evening and he was just taking a wash and Joseph told him that one of his wives had just been confined and Emma was the Midwife and he had been assisting her. He [George A. Smith] told me [Lucy Smith] this to prove to me that the women were married for time [as well as for eternity], as Emma had told me that Joseph never taught any such thing.
Because Reorganized Latter Day Saints claimed that Joseph Smith was not really married polygamously in the full (i.e., sexual) sense of the term, Utah Mormons (including Smith’s wives) affirmed repeatedly that he had physical sexual relations with them—despite the Victorian conventions in nineteenth-century American culture which ordinarily would have prevented any mention of sexuality.
For instance, Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner stated that she knew of children born to Smith’s plural wives: “I know he had six wives and I have known some of them from childhood up. I know he had three children. They told me. I think two are living today but they are not known as his children as they go by other names.” Melissa Lott Willes testified that she had been Smith’s wife “in very deed.” Emily Partridge Young said she “roomed” with Joseph the night following her marriage to him, and said that she had “carnal intercourse” with him.
Other early witnesses also affirmed this. Benjamin Johnson wrote “On the 15th of May … the Prophet again Came and at my hosue [house] ocupied the Same Room & Bed with my Sister that the month previous he had ocupied with the Daughter of the Later Bishop Partridge as his wife.” According to Joseph Bates Noble, Smith told him he had spent a night with Louisa Beaman.
When Angus Cannon, a Salt Lake City stake president, visited Joseph Smith III in 1905, the RLDS president asked rhetorically if these women were his father’s wives, then “how was it that there was no issue from them.” Cannon replied:
All I knew was that which Lucy Walker herself contends. They were so nervous and lived in such constant fear that they could not conceive. He made light of my reply. He said, “I am informed that Eliza Snow was a virgin at the time of her death.” I in turn said, “Brother Heber C. Kimball, I am informed, asked her the question if she was not a virgin although married to Joseph Smith and afterwards to Brigham Young, when she replied in a private gathering, ‘I thought you knew Joseph Smith better than that.’”
Cannon then mentioned that Sylvia Sessions Lyon, a plural wife of Smith, had had a child by him, Josephine Lyon Fisher. Josephine left an affidavit stating that her mother, Sylvia, when on her deathbed, told her that she (Josephine) was the daughter of Joseph Smith. In addition, posterity (i.e., sexuality) was an important theological element in Smith’s Abrahamic-promise justification for polygamy.
Since there is a great deal of evidence that Joseph Smith had sexual relations with his wives, one wonders why he did not have more polygamous children. However, some of his children apparently grew up under other names, as Mary Lightner suggested. Furthermore, he may not have had numerous posterity because he was not able to visit his wives regularly, both because he was often hiding from the law and because Emma, his first wife, watched him carefully. In addition, polygamy was illegal. On top of these pressures, he soon had many wives, which made it more difficult to visit all of them frequently and regularly. Since polygamists generally had favorite wives, Smith probably neglected some of his. Finally, some of his wives were married to other men in polyandrous relationships, so such wives would probably have had children by their “first husbands,” with whom they were cohabiting regularly, not by Joseph. All of these factors would have combined to limit the number of his children. However, it is clear that some of his plural wives did have children by him, if we can rely on the statements of George A. Smith, Josephine Fisher, and Elizabeth Lightner.
Despite this evidence, some have argued that Joseph did not have marital relations with his wives, using the following arguments: First, some conclude that Helen Mar Kimball, who married Smith when she was fourteen, did not have marital relations with him. This is possible, as there are cases of Mormons in Utah marrying young girls and refraining from sexuality until they were older. But the evidence for Helen Mar is entirely ambiguous, in my view.
Some, like Emma Smith, conclude that Joseph’s marriages were for eternity only, not for time (thus without earthly sexuality). But many of Joseph’s wives affirmed that they were married to him for eternity and time, with sexuality included. Eliza Snow, in her autobiography, wrote that “I was sealed to the Prophet Joseph Smith, for time and eternity, in accordance with the Celestial Law of Marriage which God has revealed.” Furthermore, there are no known instances of marriages for “eternity only” in the nineteenth century.
Some have pointed out that Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner said in 1905, “I … was sealed to Joseph for Eternity.” Thus, they argue, Smith had no relations with her, a polyandrous wife, as he was married to her for eternity only. However, Lightner apparently was merely emphasizing eternity in this statement; she testified in three different places that she was also sealed to Smith for time. For example, in a 1902 statement, she said, “Brigham Young Sealed me to him [Smith], for time & all eternity.”
Zina Huntington Young also had a polyandrous relationship with Smith and her first husband, Henry Jacobs. Some point out that she gave an interview in which she referred to her marriage to Smith as “eternal,” not for “time.” However, in the same interview she emphasized that she was married to the Mormon leader for time, as well:
- [Zina:] … he [Joseph Smith] married me … When Brigham Young returned from England, he repeated the ceremony for time and eternity. … I was sealed to Joseph Smith for eternity.
- [Question:] Mrs. Young, you claim, I believe, that you were not married to him “for time?”
- [Zina:] “For eternity.” I was married to Mr. Jacobs, but the marriage was unhappy and we parted …
- [Q:] Is it a fact then, Mrs. Young, that Joseph was not married to you only in the sense of being sealed “for eternity?”
- [Zina:] As his wife for time and eternity.
- [Q:] Mrs. Young, you have answered that question in two ways; for time, and for time and eternity.
- [Zina:] I meant for eternity.
Some interpreters place great weight on these statements, as showing that Zina’s marriage was “spiritual” only. But the interview is so contradictory on this issue, as the elderly Zina sounds defensive and confused while answering an RLDS judge’s harsh questions, that it cannot be used as solid evidence. One even wonders if early Mormons did not use the term “marriage for eternity” to encompass “time and eternity,” as Mormons do today.
In conclusion, though it is possible that Joseph had some marriages in which there were no sexual relations, there is not any explicit or convincing evidence for this (except, perhaps, in the cases of the older wives, judging from later Mormon polygamy). And in a significant number of marriages, there is evidence for sexual relations.