I was preparing a talk for church and read in a book called “Our Latter-Day Hymns” by Karen Lynn Davidson that Eliza R. Snow was married to the Prophet Joseph Smith while writing the hymn “Oh My Father”. That got me curious as I had previously thought that there was no confirmed plural wives of Joseph Smith Jr. and that even Emma had stated on her death bed that he was not a polygamist. So I got online and went to Wikipedia, looked up Eliza R. Snow and read some of her history. Then things got even more confusing. It says she married Joseph on June 29 1842 even writing fondly of Joseph “my beloved husband, the choice of my heart and the crown of my life, then later that year she started a petition trying to restore his virtue and denying that he was a polygamist. She even published a certificate denouncing polygamy and denying Joseph as its founder in October 1842. As we know later she married Brigham Young, as a plural wife or for time who knows. If it was for time wouldn’t that be against the whole argument of polygamy being to seal spouses so that they can qualify for the blessings of celestial kingdom? Eliza was one of the Relief Society presidents. Help me understand how a woman who obviously had inconsistencies could have been a leader in the church. Then there’s the whole Joseph Smith possibly being sealed to woman who were married to living men…I find this topic somewhat troubling because in my mind if the men and women who founded the church were living unworthily how could they have received inspiration from Heavenly Father. This is a very troubling topic for me and I can’t just ignore it.
Most of my current thinking and support about Joseph Smith’s plural marriages comes from the three volume set by Brian C. Hales entitled Joseph Smith’s Polygamy Vol 1-3. I wanted to give credit up front for these ideas. All references in support of the ideas given here could be found therein.
First, let me address the thought of no confirmed plural wives of Joseph. I think, if I understand you correctly, that you have correctly concluded that this is not true. There is a great deal of evidence supporting the fact that Joseph had plural wives.
Emma did claim in later years that Joseph was not a polygamist. We don’t know for sure what her motivations were. There are a variety of theories. But there is pretty solid evidence that she actually attended a few of Joseph’s plural weddings. There can be little doubt that she was very aware by the end of Joseph’s life.
When Eliza Snow produced a variety of means to “restore Joseph’s virtue” by way of petition and affidavit and the like, there was some pretty interesting stuff happening by way of the man John C. Bennett. Bennett came into the church and quickly worked his way up to become moderately close to Joseph and influential in the city. He actually became the mayor of Nauvoo. But he was not one of the faithful. We don’t know exactly where he got the idea, perhaps from rumors, but he started secretly introducing the idea of “spiritual wives” around the community. This concept was that a man could have spiritual wives that he was not married to in life, but he was free to have physical relations with them. In other words, it was an excuse for adultery. This led to all sorts of problems. John C. Bennett was eventually excommunicated for adultery, and he turned against Joseph and the church. He began to smear the prophet’s name with all sorts of accusations and publications.
The church went on the defense. Almost all of the literature produced at this time that seems to be anti-polygamy was a direct defense against John C. Bennett’s lies. It also needs to be taken into account that those who accepted plural marriage as God’s law would have believed it to be absolutely and completely virtuous. In short, Bennett claimed Joseph was an adulterer. Snow was defending Joseph.
Concerning Snow’s marriage to Brigham Young — almost all of Joseph’s plural wives (except the polyandrous ones) later married others who were ranking authorities in the church. This was Joseph’s desire. He wanted them taken care of. These marriages were generally time only, where they remained sealed to Joseph.
There is no “whole argument” that polygamy was to seal people to get to the Celestial kingdom. Polygamy is not a requirement for that. The only known purpose for polygamy is to build up seed unto the Lord. We can also presume that it was meant as a trial of faith.
Polygamy can be one of the most difficult things to understand from the perspective of our day. It is so culturally foreign to us, and often we cannot help but look at it through our 21st Century lens. Additionally, critics of Joseph Smith and the church like to approach polygamy with a pre-assumed motivation of lechery. They start from a position that Joseph Smith was sexually deviant, and all of their interpretations of events are informed by this opinion. If, however, one accepts that Joseph’s primary motivation was compliance with God’s will, then a different story emerges fairly easily.
For example, when we look at Joseph’s sealings to women who were married to other men, if we presume it a foregone conclusion that he had marital relations with these “wives” while they were also engaged in the same with their legal husbands, it can be confusing. That would make no sense from our understanding of morality, both culturally and religiously. However, if we look at the big picture there are different ways to look at it.
There is no concrete evidence of sexual relations between Joseph and his wives. Every evidence we have is by way of witness. First hand witnesses exist — meaning some of Joseph’s wives testified directly that they lived as man and wife in the truest sense of the word with him, as well as second hand witnesses — those who claimed Joseph had spent the night with one of his wives at their homes and the like. There are also third hand, hearsay type witnesses aplenty, but they are, obviously, less reliable.
What is interesting to note is that there are no first or second hand witnesses of Joseph being involved physically with any of his wives that were married to other men except two – and those two have explanations that involve things like their legal husbands having run off and left them, and the like.
Obviously this doesn’t prove anything, but it does present a different story especially when coupled with a few other interesting things.
For example, perhaps you are familiar with the famous angel-with-a-sword story. If not, here’s a quick recap. An angel with a sword (perhaps flaming) appeared to Joseph and commanded him to live polygamy or he would be destroyed. The thing is, the third appearance of this angel (the time where he had the sword and threatened) was actually after Joseph had already married several polygamous wives? Seems odd, right? But not if we understand that the sealings that had taken place before that were to women already married to other men, with a good indication that they were only “eternity” sealings and not “time” marriages. It seems that perhaps Joseph, in struggling to comply with the principle, and in a potential effort to comply without hurting his wife Emma, may have joined into sealings with women who were married to other men in order to not have the need for physical relations with them, and in order to appease Emma’s difficulty with the concept.
As you can see, the story of polygamy is not a simple one. We want it all wrapped up and tied into a pretty little bow. But it is complex, and understanding it, even to the limited extent that we can, takes a great amount of learning and understanding. Even if we do the level of research that Brian C. Hales did for his books, we still do not have a complete picture. We have to fill in the blanks a bit. It really comes down to this. Joseph was either a prophet or he was not. He either did as he was commanded by God or he did not. If we believe he was a prophet and did as commanded then we can let the things go that we do not understand, trusting that someday we will. So it is with Eliza R. Snow. We cannot fully understand her. We don’t have the complete picture. We can surmise based on the information we do have, and we can interpret that information based on our belief concerning the truthfulness of the restored gospel. What we do know is that Eliza R. Snow remained a faithful member and stood strongly in support and defense of Joseph Smith throughout her life.
For more insight in it, read the article on lds.org, Plural Marriage and Families in Early Utah.