Joseph Smith and Sexual Polyandry

I’ve written before about sexuality in Joseph Smith’s plural marriages, but until now there seemed to be definite evidence that one of his polyandrous marriages, that with Sylvia Sessions Lyon, involved sexual relations. If we are to believe Sylvia’s statements (and I have no reason not to do so), it is highly likely that her daughter Josephine was the biological daughter of Joseph Smith. 

LDS apologist Brian Hales has done some pretty thorough work on Joseph’s practice of polygamy, but he believes that the polyandrous relationships were not sexual. I won’t go into detail about his support for this belief, as it can be found on his web site, but Michael Quinn has delivered a devastating response to Hales’s presentation on this subject at the Mormon History Association’s conference in June of 2012. Some highlights:

There is strong evidence for sexual polyandry in the case of Mary Heron Snider, a married LDS woman living in Nauvoo. Mary’s son-in-law Joseph Johnson testified in 1850 before a council of apostles that he “was familiar with the first frigging — that was done in his house with his mother in law — by Joseph.” Hales suggests that the statement was a fabrication to justify Johnson’s own sexual behavior. Quinn refutes that statement by noting Johnson’s statement just before the “frigging” sentence: “I never heard any conversation to say it was right to go to bed with a woman if not found out–I was aware the thing [with Mrs. Snow] was wrong.”

Johnson’s testimony was given before a council of apostles, presided over by Brigham Young. Although at least one member of the council said the statement had “taken me by surprise,” no one denounced Johnson for saying what he did. Quinn notes that in June of 1841, Mary Isabella Horne stated that “the prophet with Sister Snyder called in his buggy upon Sister Clev[e]land” in Quincy, Illinois.” This statement is significant for a couple of reasons: First, Sarah Cleveland, one of Joseph’s wives, had “served as [Joseph’s] “intermediary” in the spring of 1842 for introducing the idea of polygamous marriage to Eliza R. Snow.” At that time Mrs. Snider was living alone with her son. This visit does not definitively corroborate Johnson’s statement, but it does refute Hales’s statement, “Despite intensive research, I have found no additional evidence linking Mary Heron Snider with Joseph Smith.” Later that year Joseph Smith sent John Snider to England, as he done with other polyandrous husbands, who may or may not have been aware of their wives’ relationships with Joseph Smith.

Another polyandrous wife was Flora Ann Woodworth Gove, who married Joseph Smith at age 16 and then married Carlos Gove. Smith’s secretary, William Clayton, notes that Joseph met with Flora alone at Clayton’s house “while Clayton was intentionally absent.” Flora regretted marrying Gove and as Quinn puts it, “two subsequent trysts with the 37-year-old Prophet in Clayton’s house on consecutive days showed how much she regretted marrying a younger man earlier in the week.”

A third wife Quinn mentions is Esther Dutcher Smith, who married Joseph Smith in 1843. Although married for 10 years, Esther had not conceived a child by her husband, but at the time of Joseph Smith’s death, she was six months pregnant with a son, Joseph Albert. Her marriage to Joseph was noted by Brigham Young’s counselor Daniel Wells in 1877, who wrote that Esther “nearly broke his heart by telling him [her legal husband] of it, and expressing her intention of adhering to that relationship” with the prophet. Wells further wrote that Albert Smith “got to feeling better about it” seven years later. Wells’s wording shows that Esther was married to Joseph without Albert Smith’s knowledge, and had this been an “eternity only sealing,” Albert would not have been upset about the relationship, and her plans to “adhere” to it would not make sense. (Quinn further notes that there is no record of any “eternity only” sealings performed in the LDS church throughout the entire nineteenth century. 

A fourth wife Quinn mentions is Philo Dibble’s wife, Hannah Ann Dubois Smith Dibble, who is mentioned in an 1857 anti-Mormon book as having been Joseph’s wife. Quinn notes that in 1843, Joseph was accused of “improper conduct” with Hannah Dibble and Agnes Smith, who was Don Carlos Smith’s widow. Agnes Smith was later acknowledged as Joseph’s plural wife, and Benjamin Johnson’s autobiography states, “At this time [May 1843,] I knew that the Prophet had as his wives … Sisters Lyon and Dibble.”

Finally, Hales states that evidence was “ambiguous” for Joseph’s marriage to Elvira Ann Cowles Holmes, wife of Jonathan Holmes, although Hales cites the following statement from Elvira’s daughter Phebe:”I heard my mother [Elvira Ann Cowles Holmes] testify that she was indeed the Prophet Joseph Smith’s plural wife in life and lived with him as such during his lifetime.” That doesn’t sound ambiguous to me (or to Quinn). And, as Quinn puts it, “I find it difficult to believe that Elvira’s 37-year-old widower-husband Jonathan stopped having sex with her only six months after their civil wedding, simply to accommodate the Prophet’s sexual relations with her (which in June 1843 seemed likely to continue for many years).” This is an important point. If we are to believe that there was no sexual polyandry in this case, there are only two options: Jonathan Holmes stopped having sex with his wife, or Joseph “lived with” Elvira as a wife but did not have sex with her. I’m with Quinn on this one.

Regrettably, Quinn’s paper is not available online so far as I know, but I have a copy in my possession and can provide citations as needed. For me, there is no question that Joseph’s marriages included sexual polyandry, as the evidence is quite clear.


27 Responses to Joseph Smith and Sexual Polyandry

  1. Lorraine says:

    I wonder if there’s a typo in the second sentence of your first paragraph. In your parenthetical statement, you say, ‘I have no reason to’ [believe Sylvia’s statement]. The context suggests you have no reason not to believe her statement. Would you mind clarifying?

    Interesting piece notwithstanding. Thank you for recapping Quinn’s presentation.

  2. Jake says:

    Excellent work.

  3. Chris Smith says:

    Nice summary, John. I’m about halfway through Quinn’s response, and so far I have been very impressed with it. Well-documented, cogently argued, and very readable.

  4. pollypinks says:

    No reason to doubt any of this. I don’t see why people are offended by it. It’s been well documented.

    • runtu says:

      Yes, it has. I just had never heard of most of Quinn’s new evidence.

      • GrannyCannon says:

        Runtu…I’m a member of the G Q Cannon family (G Q’s aunt was Leonora Cannon, wife of John Taylor)…I read an excerpt about Leonora being propositioned by J Smith (while she was married to Taylor), something apparently common in Q of 12 back then……Per your kind offer, Is there a way I could secure this excerpt/story, or any details surrounding it, from your copy of Quinn’s monograph?
        Thanks so much, in advance…

  5. Jean Bodie says:

    John, hasn’t there been DNA testing done on Josephine’s posterity and she is not the offspring of Joseph Smith?
    I thought that one had been settled already. I would very much like the links to Quinn’s research. I have no doubts about the sexual part of Joseph’s marriages but I don’t really see why that matters. The next so called prophet Brigham Young definitely practiced it this way (yeh, he needed to practice) and so did John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff, Joseph F. Smith and their counselors and other leaders and members. They all thought that was the way to live in plural marriage so if that was wrong, then the church fell. They were disobeying the law while proclaiming in the Articles of Faith that they believed in being subject to…you know the rest. They lied over and over and over. Woodruff had to issue a second manifesto because ‘everyone’ knew that the first was just to satisfy the ‘persecuting government officials; they members knew they could continue on, but keep quiet about it. This continued into the early 20th century. There is so much information on the topic already; the rest is just gravy.

    • runtu says:

      Jean, Ugo Perego was doing a DNA study of suspected children of Joseph Smith, but he had not released results for Josephine Lyon. It has been a few years since he said the results would appear shortly, so we’re all waiting. Even if she wasn’t his child, her mother thought she was, and there’s only one reason she would have thought so.

  6. Jean Bodie says:

    Another thought: the only reason to try to prove that Joseph was not sexually active with other women is to prove that he was perfect and godlike, so the church was true when it began. It was only that lecherous old Brigham Young that dragged the church into the gutter and Wilford Woodruff who pulled it out again. Hmm, that challenges the doctrine of ‘the Lord will not allow the prophet to lead the church astray’ unless by ‘prophet’ they meant only Joe.

  7. Tsosie says:

    Troubling is the fact that so many LDS jump on “Joseph never had sex with these women” rather than the idea of him “marrying” women already married – and to his fellow Church leaders.

    That he sent many of them on Church business or missions and then took up with their wives – and members don’t get excited and upset over this – is baffling to me.

  8. […] Mormon Heretic compared it to the FAIR (Mormon apologetics) conference. From what I’ve been reading about apologetics this past week, it doesn’t sound very […]

  9. No one can’t be really free without discovering all that he believes are one day not true. It’s when he arrived to know that he was wong in his beliefs, then he will be really free. The world is really incomprehensible.

    In discovering that you where wong, you will be really free. As they say: the truth will make you free.

    Joseph Smith was really a polygame. Even today the mormon’s church still preaching the polygamy saying it’s an eternal law. They just cease to practice it because of prevention of the USA constitution, remember the intervention of severals former president of USA against this practice. It’s evenly true for they bigotry doctrines against the blak people preventing them to get into the mormon’s church,this bigotry practice still today preaching in this church. Even Mitt Romney, a mormon candidate for the election of USA face to Obama 2012, has recently related that the bigotry doctrine is still teaching inside of his church saying they teach to the mormon’s missionnaries not to teach, baptize, the black people etc.

  10. Paul Plumb says:

    Not true Lauriston. Black people are joining the church all over the world. There are two black members in my ward who are excellent members of the church. And no – the missionaries are not taught to not teach or baptize black people.

    • I see your foolishness by saying it’s not true. Do you wand to disclaim Mitt Romney when he gave a press meeting as he runs for USA presidential? I do ask you to go to discover the video of Mitt Romney replying to those who has been asking to him about the bigotry of the mormons church against the blaks before coming to say to me that it’s not true. May I ask you between you and Mitt Romney who do you really think know more the mormon’s church? Mitt Romney was Bishop and Stake president. I could say even I know the mormon’s church better than you do. I ask you to go and know and discover your church before replying that’s not true. Don’t be like a robot program, or a brainwashed who accepts every programs installed in himself. Don’t let any one control your spirit and have control of your spirit. This the best advice I may give you.

      Have fun!

      • FireMountain says:

        Nonsense! I was Mormon for 45 years so I know what the LDS Church teaches and also its culture. The church has missions all over Africa. My own son fulfilled a mission in Alabama where he taught primarily Blacks. That said, the church is still quite racist in its culture and the beliefs of its members. Official doctrine is no longer racist. I grew up in Provo in a very well-educated, but racist, household, so I do know what I am talking about here.

      • runtu says:

        I agree with FireMountain, as his summary is quite accurate. There are still vestiges of racism in the church, but it’s not overt, like it was before 1978.

  11. Brad says:

    Great post John. One thing I think Quinn was incorrect on is his assessment of Esther Dutcher Smith. Esther is my great…grandmother and is now widely considered to be a plural wife of Joseph. I have no doubt that she was a plural wife of Joseph and no doubt that her relationship with Joseph was sexual (she is involved in a couple of other sexual controversies in Nauvoo and Manti as well). What is incorrect is the statement that she did not give birth to any children by her husband in 10 years of marriage. She actually had three children prior to joining the church. One child was named Azariah and was involved in the Mormon Battalion and was present at Sutters Mill when gold was discovered (a great book is available about Azariah on Amazon), another was Candace who is my great…grandmother.
    I think what Quinn meant to say was that Esther had not had a child by her husband in 10 years until giving birth to Joseph Albert Smith in 1844. That would have been 11 years after she gave birth to my grandmother Candace.
    Another interesting tidbit would be that Joseph Smith had sent Esther’s husband (my grandfather) on a mission shortly before marrying Esther. My grandfather (Albert Smith) was home from his mission in time to have been the biological father of Esther’s son Joseph Albert, but it is pretty close. That taken with the fact that they had not had a child in 11 years lends credibility to the fact that it may have very well been Joseph Smith’s child.

    • runtu says:

      Thanks for that insight, Brad. I suspect Quinn’s wording was awkward, which is why I misinterpreted it.

    • Lauriston says:


  12. FireMountain says:

    The wikipedia article on Joseph Smith and polygamy is a chilling account of Joseph and his behavior concerning his many wives, including a spirited denial that he had anything to do with polygamy shortly before his death.

    • runtu says:

      I’d recommend reading “Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith” or “In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith” for a good (and chilling/depressing) account of his practice of plural marriage.

  13. Brian Hales says:

    For anyone interested in my response to Michael Quinn’s comments regarding my polyandry presentation, here is a link:


    Brian Hales

  14. Please do not construe any comments of the person identified as FireMountain as having any affiliation with the contributors or staff of the Firemountain press, a publishing co. within the Latter Day Restoration movement.
    Nolan W. Glauner, Editor

  15. runtu says:


    This is embarrassing, but I can’t find the copy of Quinn’s paper. I’ll look some more. In the meantime, the only citation I’m aware of for Joseph’s proposing to Leonora Cannon Taylor is this:

    “The Prophet went to the home of President Taylor, and said to him, ‘Brother John, I WANT LEONORA.'” Taylor was stunned, but after walking the floor all night, the obedient elder said to Smith, “If GOD wants Leonora He can have her.” Woodruff concluded: “That was all the prophet was after, to see where President Taylor stood in the matter, and said to him, Brother Taylor, I dont want your wife, I just wanted to know just where you stood.”
    – John Mills Whitaker Journal, Nov. 1 1890

    • GrannyCannon says:

      Wow, never mind! Quinn’s 131-page paper is actually embedded in the headline (of the Reddit post above) as a hyperlink! Okay, now we’ll dive in…

      Thanks again…

  16. GrannyCannon says:

    Below is the Reddit post that called our attention to the matter of Leonora C. & John Taylor, and JS. The post contains a bit more detail, but it would really help to see the whole citation. Please let us know if you track down this important paper by Michael Quinn. We already know how difficult it is to get the true history of our family… Thank you!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: