Polygamy Sources: Melissa Lott Willes

As anyone who has been reading my blog lately knows, some claims have been made about the primary sources regarding Joseph Smith’s practice of polygamy, or plural marriage, however you want to call it. I haven’t had time to go back to primary sources, but then my point was not so much to dispute sources as to point out naked speculation and baseless assertion. I’m grateful to my friend “Grindael”–whose blog, Mormonite Musings, is a fantastic source of research in Mormon history–for posting some of the primary sources in comments here. I’ve decided to put them up as posts so that those who might be interested will be more likely to see them.

A little background for this testimony, most of which was given during the “Temple Lot” case, The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, complainant, v. the Church of Christ at Independence, Missouri, which was decided in 1894. Essentially, a small offshoot of the Latter-day Saint movement, the Hedrickites, or Church of Christ (Temple Lot), had purchased part of the property Joseph Smith, Jr., had designated for the building of a temple in the last days in Independence, Missouri (see Doctrine and Covenants Section 57). When the Hedrickites began gathering materials to construct a building on the site, the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (RLDS), a rival organization headed by Joseph Smith III, initiated a lawsuit claiming title to the land as the legal successor to the church established in 1830. The Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) gave financial and legal support to the Hedrickites. One important aspect of the trial was establishing whether the church as originally organized by Joseph Smith had taught and practiced plural marriage. The RLDS church argued that the practice had originated after Joseph Smith’s death, and thus the LDS church was a splinter group, not the legal successor. Thus, it was important for the LDS church to establish that Joseph Smith had taught and practiced polygamy during his lifetime. For that reason, several of Smith’s plural wives testified about their relationships with Joseph Smith.

As we’ve seen recently, some have argued that the testimony is ambiguous and can be dismissed because the witnesses were pressured by LDS church leaders to lie or shade the truth in order to pin plural marriage (including sexual relations) on Joseph Smith. I think it’s best to let the wives speak for themselves. In my view, there’s not much ambiguity, so we’re left to decide for ourselves whether the wives were telling the truth or not.

First up is Melissa [alternately spelled Malissa] Lott Willes, who married Joseph Smith on September 20, 1843. The following are excerpts from her recorded testimony in the Abstract of Evidence, Temple Lot Case, published by the RLDS church in 1893. You can read Melissa’s testimony in full here, lest anyone say I’ve quoted selectively.

I lived at Nauvoo a number of years; I cannot state exactly how long we were there. We were there in Nauvoo about ’46, I think, as near as I can come at it. The system of plural marriage was taught in Nauvoo the same as it is here in Utah. There is no change.

Q. — What law of the church existed at that time by virtue of which you took the name of Melissa Lott Smith?

A. — There has never been any change that I knew anything about since I knew anything about the church. I was acquainted with the rules of the church at that time, and have been ever since. I was acquainted with Joseph Smith. I knew he had a wife living at the time.

His wife was named Emma Smith. … Yes, sir, I said in my direct examination in answer to the questions from Mr. Hall, that the practice of plural marriage was taught to me in Nauvoo by Joseph Smith and I also said that I was married to Joseph Smith, September 27, 1843. As nearly as I can remember or understand it, the marriage ceremony at the time I married Joseph Smith, is as follows: “You both mutually agree to be each other’s companion, husband and wife, observing the legal rights belong to this condition, that is, keeping yourselves wholly for each other, and from all others during your lives.” I married him under that ceremony, knowing at the time he had a wife living, his wife, Emma Smith.

Q. — Did he agree in that marriage ceremony to keep himself from his wife, Emma, for you?

A. — I cannot tell you. You will have to ask him that question. I cannot swear to his saying he would or would not. I don’t think he made any promise of that kind. Do not remember it if he did. I made a promise of that kind, but he did not. There were no children born of the fruit of that marriage. …

Yes, I said I was married for time and eternity. The ceremony you read there is only for time. There was no other ceremony used. It was all the same only it was for time and eternity.

That is not a matter of time alone, for I go on beyond time and I think there is such a thing as eternity. Very likely you will find out there is, too, before you are through with it. That was what was contained in the ceremony–time and eternity.

All good Latter Day Saints [note the RLDS usage] when they married calculate they are married for time and eternity. Yes, sir, that was the ceremony. Well, now, I would not say that the words time and eternity were used in the ceremony. I was never married to anybody else except Mr. Willes, and I had a family of children by him.

Q. — If you were married to Joseph Smith for time and eternity, how does it happen that you were afterwards married to Mr. Willes?

A. — I married him for time, and when we meet in eternity we will settle that there, for that is something that the laws of to-day have nothing to do with.

Q. — You married one for eternity, and one, the father of your children, you married to time?

A. — Well, that is a matter we will settle afterwards. That is a matter between God and myself, and not a matter that concerns this world. …

Q. — Well, have you met any other children of Joseph Smith besides those you have mentioned? [She had mentioned Joseph, Frederick, Alexander, and David Smith.]

A. — I cannot swear to anything of that kind, no person is supposed to swear to anything of that kind, only those that belong to them.

Q. — Why can’t you say those are all the children Joseph Smith had?

A. — I can’t swear anything about whose children they are, can only swear to my own children and who their father is. I never met any other children of Joseph Smith except the ones I have named.

Of course, if I had married a man who had a wife living when it was not the law of the church allowing a man to have two wives, I would have violated the church law. …

Q. — I will ask you now if you did not state to Joseph Smith, the present President of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, at that time and place in that conversation there at your house, in Lehi, in this Territory, that you were never married to Joseph Smith, but that you were sealed to him for eternity.

A. — I do not think that I told him any such thing. I answered him just as I have answered you to-day about it,–that I was sealed or married, whatever you have a mind to call it, and I quoted over the very ceremony as near as I could to him at the time, but to-day I cannot do it, for I am nervous here to-day.

Q. — And did you not tell him further at that time and place and on that occasion that his father never solicited you to have anything to do with him?

A. — I did not tell him anything of the kind; I told him the same as I have answered you here to-day, and he would not say but what I told him the same as I have answered here if he were here either. He would not say that I told him anything different if he were here to-day.

And the following is testimony from the court transcript, which you can read here in full:

86 Q:-How many children were born to you by Joseph Smith? A:-Not any.

87 Q:-There was not any children born to you by Joseph Smith? A:-No sir.

88 Q:-Have you ever borne any children since that time? A:-Yes sir, I have.

89 Q:-Who was your husband at that time? A:-Well sir, the father of my children was Mr. Will[e]s.

93 Q:-State now the reason why you never bore any children by Joseph Smith? A:-Well that is something impossible to do,-that is something I can’t tell.

108 Q:-Did you ever see any children of Joseph Smith in the territory of Utah,-or do you know of any of his children being in Utah at any time? A:-I don’t know anything about his affairs,-I attend to my own business.

227 Q:–Did you ever room with Joseph Smith as his wife? A. Yes sir.

228 Q:– At what place? A:– At Nauvoo

229 Q:– What place in Nauvoo? A:– The Nauvoo Mansion.

230 Q. At what place in the Mansion? A. Do you want to know the number of the room, or what?

231 Q. Well just what part of the house the room was in if you can give it? A. Well I can give it and the number of the room too. It was room number one.

252 [sic] Q. Room number one? A. Yes sir.

233 Q:–Who else roomed there? A:–I don’t know of any one.

234 Q:–Where was Emma Smith at that time? A:–I don’t know I didn’t ask where she was.

235 Q:–Did you know where she was at that time? A:–No sir I didn’t.

236 Q:–Did she know where you were at that time? A:–I did not ask her whether she did or not.

237 Q:–So you roomed with him in the Nauvoo Mansion in room number one? A:–Yes sir.

238 Q:–That was the house that Joseph Smith lived in was it not? A:–Yes sir.

239 Q:–And you don’t know whether Emma Smith was in the house or not? A:–No sir.

240 Q:– And you can’t say whether she knew where you were? A:–No sir. I couldn’t say where she was, and I don’t know that she knew about me, for I did not speak to her.

241 Q:–Well she was at home? A: Yes sir.

242 Q:–How do you know? A:–She was there when I see her last.

243 Q:–What time was that? A:–That I saw her?

244 Q:–Yes madam? A:–I can’t tell you the time, If I had thought I was to be asked all these questions I might have kept a note of all these things, but as I didn’t know anything about this examination I didn’t.

245 Q:–How often did you room there with Joseph Smith? A. Well that is something I can’t tell you.

246 Q:–Well was it more than once? A:–Yes sir, and more than twice.

247 Q:–Well that is something I would like to know? A:–Well there is something I would like to know. If I am to be asked these questions I would like to know if I am to answer them. I have told you all about this thing that I know, and I can’t see any reason in your worrying me with these questions, and I would like to know if I have to answer them?

248 Q:–Well if you decline to answer them say so, and that will do? A:–I don’t decline to answer any question that I know anything about.

249 Q:–Well answer that question then? A:–What is the question?

250 Q:–I asked how many times you had roomed there in the house with Joseph Smith? I do not expect you to answer positively the exact number of times, but I would like to have you tell us the number of times as nearly as you can remember it? A:–Well I can’t tell you. I think I have acted the part of a lady in answering your questions as well as I have, and I don’t think you are acting the part of a gentleman in asking me these questions.

251 Q:–Well I will ask you the question over again in this form, –was it more than twice? A:–Yes sir.

252 Q:–Well How many times? A:–I could not say.

253 Q:–Did you ever at any other place room with him? A:–In what way.

254 Q:– Of course I mean as his wife? A:–Yes sir.

255 Q:–At what places? A:–In my father’s house.

256 Q:-At other places did you ever room with him as his wife? A:-Well now I think that is all the places it is necessary for me to answer you one way or the other. I think I have answered plenty of questions on that matter, and all that you should require of a lady whom you know is telling the truth as best she can.

257 Q:-Did you ever room with Joseph Smith at any other place or places than at the Nauvoo Mansion and your father’s house,-that is did you ever room with him as his wife? A:-That is all the places I remember.

258 Q:-Those are the only places you remember? A:-Yes sir.

259 Q:-Now at the times you roomed with him, did you cohabit with him as his wife? A:-Yes sir.

260 Q:-And you never had any children? A:-No sir, I answered that question before and told you no.

261 Q:-You want to go on record here as saying that you cohabited with a man as his wife, and knew at the time you did that he had a wife living, and you don’t know whether there was any law of the church or land permitting it at all? Is that the way you want to go on record? A:-I told you that it was the law of the church at the time,-I considered it the law of the church and it was all right, for I have always lived correctly.

Edited to add something from an interview she gave to Joseph Smith III, in which she confirms that she was a wife “in very deed” and then explains why they had no increase (it wasn’t lack of sex):

Q. Were you married to my father?

A. Yes . . .

Q. Was you a wife in very deed?

A. Yes

Q. Why was there no increase, say in your case?

A. Through no fault of either of us, lack of proper conditions on my part probably, or it might be in the wisdom of the Almighty that we should have none. The Prophet was martyred nine months after our marriage.

And here are some notes from Andrew Jenson’s interview with her, wherein she says that she was his wife “in the full meaning of the term”:

WILLES, (Malissa LOTT,) daughter of Cornelius P. Lott and Permelia Darow, was born Jan. 9, 1824, in Bridgewater, Luzerne Co., Penn. Her parents having embraced the fulness of the Gospel, the family removed to Kirtland, Ohio, where Sister Melissa was baptized in November, 1837. After the expulsion of the Saints from Kirtland and Missouri, Brother Lott located with his family in Pike County, Illinois, where they remained until 1842, and then moved unto Joseph Smith’s farm, located some four miles east of Nauvoo, on the Carthage road. Shortly afterwards Sister Melissa became intimately acquainted with the Prophet’s family, and on Sept. 20, 1843, she was married to Joseph Smith for time and all eternity. She spent most of the following winter in his family, going to school in the so-called brick store. The Prophet’s children, Joseph, Frederick and Alexander, went to the same school, under the immediate watch-care of Sister Melissa. In the spring of 1844 she went back to live with her parents on the farm, where she remained until after the martyrdom of her husband in Carthage jail. Subsequently she lived with Emma Smith, occasionally, until the exodus in 1846, when she left Nauvoo with the rest of the Saints. After spending two winters at Winter Quarters, she accompanied her father’s family to G. S. L. Valley in 1848, coming through in Heber C. Kimball’s company. On May 13, 1849, she married Ira Jones Willes, formerly a member of the Mormon Battalion, with whom she lived in Salt Lake City and Lehi, Utah Co., until his death, Dec. 5, 1863. He was accidentally killed while crossing a creek near Lehi, being thrown from a load of wood into the water together with his son Cornelius John, about nine years old. Both were drowned. With Elder Willett Sister Melissa had seven children, of whom four are yet living. Although now somewhat advanced in years, she is still bright and active, and occupies a prominent position in the Lehi Female Relief Society. She is ever unflinching in her testimony of what she knows to be true, and states in the most positive terms, and without any hesitation, that she was sealed to Joseph Smith the Prophet on the above named date, and became, in the full meaning of the term, his wife, according to the sacred order of celestial marriage. She further states that when she was married to Ira Jones Willes, he fully understood that he was marrying a widow of Joseph Smith, the martyred Prophet; that their association together would end with this life, and that in the morning of the resurrection she would pass from him to the society of her deceased husband.

And this from RLDS source R. C. Evans:

When in Salt Lake City I called at the residence of Patriarch John Smith, brother of Joseph F. Smith, and son of Hyrum Smith, nephew of the original prophet Joseph Smith, and while there his wife, Helen, told me, among many other interesting things, that “Melissa Lott told me that when a girl she sewed for Emma Smith and took care of the children. Joseph had to pass through her room to go to Emma’s room. She said Joseph never had sexual intercourse with her but once and that was in the daytime, saying he desired her to have a child by him.”

So, what think ye of Melissa Lott Willes? Faithful wife? Liar?


18 Responses to Polygamy Sources: Melissa Lott Willes

  1. yaanufs says:

    To me, her testimony reads as. I slept with Joseph in his house, in my father’s house, multiple times, but I’m a lady and I’d rather not spell it out explicitly that we had s e x as husband and wife. I can understand that she would feel that way given the era this occurred. People didn’t talk about such things, particularly ladies.

    I believe this is how most neutral people would interpret her testimony.

  2. grindael says:

    The Court transcript IS available online. Go here. https://eadview.lds.org/findingaid/MS%201160/

  3. grindael says:

    Her testimony can be found in this folder… Ms d 1160, Box 1 fd 11

  4. grindael says:

    I read the entire transcript last year. I would recommend that to every serious student of Mormon History. It’s well worth the time it takes to do so.

  5. Equality says:

    Well, I think that “wife in very deed” probably just means that she served him cold cuts neatly arranged on a platter, maybe with some cheese and crackers. You can’t prove that’s not what she meant, so let’s just go with that.

  6. AM says:

    Is it known who asked the women to testify? Did the Hedrickites subpoena them without input from SLC or did the Utah Church leaders seek them out and get them to testify? Or is there more to the story?

    • runtu says:

      AFAIK, the LDS church helped the Hedrickites locate Joseph’s plural wives. Of course, some of these had been known because of Joseph III and David Smith’s earlier visit to Utah. Some believe that David’s mental breakdown came as a result of being confronted with so much evidence that his father was, after all, a polygamist.

      • Jeff Seaman says:

        Well, only if you using “polygamist” as a euphemism for “lying asshole adulterer.” I think my kids would be similarly crushed. Who wouldn’t be?

      • runtu says:

        I just think their image of Joseph was based on their mother’s vehement denial that he practiced polygamy. It must have been jarring to learn their mother had lied to them.

      • Jeff Seaman says:

        I don’t see how “Gee Mom lied!” Is going to be more of a blow to kids than “Gee Dad slept with soooo many women while married to Mom! And Mom is so ashamed she lied to us about it.”

      • runtu says:

        I’m saying it is more the latter, so I’m agreeing with you. Imagine being taught all your life, by your mother, that these allegations of polygamy are evil falsehoods taught by those apostates out in Utah, whereas your father was an honorable man who was faithful to his wife. Then you find out he did have many wives, and your mother was lying to you. I think that would be pretty devastating.

  7. Jenny says:

    Why would Emma feel that she had to lie about something that was directed by God almighty? Here is the thought about Emma that has always bothered me personally: Why would a woman who had a front row seat to the forming of the one true church on the earth not crawl, walk, skip, or ride to the Salt Lake valley to remain a faithful member of that church? It wouldn’t matter if you hated Brigham Young…we are talking THE TRUE CHURCH for crying out loud! That the Salt Lake Mormon church now days holds her up as a hero and an elect lady of the LDS church is in my book comical.

    • runtu says:

      According to Benjamin F. Johnson, Emma said she would only agree to go west with the church if she “could be the leading spirit.” She was, he wrote, “inflexible in the idea of her own right to be principal as leader of the Church.”

      I have some sympathy for her. She had been uprooted many times, with her family, had lost homes and friends, and lastly had seen children and her husband die in the course of following her husband’s religion. From what I can tell from her actions and words after Joseph’s murder, her primary goal was in securing the safety and wellbeing of her family. I can’t really blame her for that.

    • Julie M. says:

      Polygamy was a huge issue for Emma. It’s also what pretty much split the saints between who followed Brigham out to Utah and who stayed back east. The great majority of the men and families that went out to Utah were polygamists (and that group only flourished and grew because of the converts from Europe who were lied to about polygamy).

      I also believe that Emma knew the whole thing was a fraud by the time Joseph died. She was embarrassed and humiliated by how her husband had treated her and cheated on her. I think her pride caused her deny that Joseph ever lived polygamy.

      • runtu says:

        I really don’t know what she thought about her husband’s calling as prophet. I do think it’s clear from her statements and actions that his practice of polygamy was deeply humiliating for her, and she wanted nothing more to do with it, even before Joseph’s death. So, by vehemently denying plural marriage she protected her husband’s reputation and spared herself humiliation. Totally understandable, IMO.

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