Currently the issue of Joseph Smith and plural marriage is receiving a great deal of attention both in the media and on the blogosphere. As the author of a relevant trilogy, Joseph Smith’s Polygamy: History and Theology, coauthor of the newly released Joseph Smith’s Polygamy: Toward a Better Understanding, co-webmaster of JosephSmithsPolygamy.org, and webmaster of MormonPolygamyDocuments.org, it has been interesting to see how various writers, bloggers, podcasters, and others deal with this topic and the historical evidences.
I have seen my name pop up many times and believe I might need to advise everyone that my first name is not “apologist” and my middle name is not Brian. Most of the references to me by name seem to be “apologist Brian Hales.” Gratefully the “a” in apologist is usually not capitalized, so maybe there is no confusion. I have also been referred to as a conservative Mormon, a believer, and, more recently, a fact-checker. Titles like scholar, doctor, researcher, and historian are less common or non-existent. I am, in fact, a historian, but an amateur not a professional.
Within blogs and essays dealing with polygamy, one is less likely to encounter an author labelled as a critic, unbeliever, antagonist, skeptic, or liberal than an apologist. This may be because some of these words are pejorative, and people, in general, try to be respectful. However, the word “apologist” can also be used pejoratively, but its use seems to be acceptable nonetheless.
Everyone has biases and understanding those biases is often important to contextualize the interpretations advanced by any author. However, one observer recently wrote to me: “The dialogue about polygamy has been fascinating although it is disappointing that . . . at times, it turns into more of a personal attack on you than a mere debate on the issues.”
This is sometimes referred to as an ad hominem attack, which is a logical fallacy meaning one is attacking the person proffering the argument rather than attacking the argument itself. This tactic is often employed when there is no easy response to the argument.
I’m not one to embrace victimhood and am generally thick-skinned. But I would offer a possible reason for what may be a tendency to criticize me and my writings when dealing with the topic of plural marriage rather than dealing more strictly with the historical evidences.
Having tried to view every known document dealing with Joseph Smith and plural marriage, I recently have come up with only one question regarding new blogs and podcasts that dissect the Prophet’s plural marriage actions: “Do the authors and speakers present any new evidence in their essay?” That is, when someone emerges with a new allegation or criticism of Joseph Smith and polygamy, is it based upon primary documents that are already available, or is it due to some new discovery that adds additional light on this topic?
No new documents of any significance have been discovered in the last two years. Consequently, the critics are simply revamping arguments surrounding a particular piece of evidence that has been previously available. This can be useful because new insights are always possible. However, my experience with recent critical essays, blogs, podcasts, and posts is that they seldom rise in their level of scholarship beyond tabloid accusations. There may be some exceptions, but they are few.
It is true that Joseph Smith was not without flaw; only Christ was perfect. Yet, there is no plain evidence that Joseph was guilty of sexual sins that would have prevented his ability to function as an inspired prophet. When speaking during the Q&A portion of a session at the 2013 Sunstone Symposium, Gary Bergera, another polygamy scholar, and I both agreed that “there is no smoking gun.” No person left a credible record that Joseph Smith seduced a woman or anything close to it.
There are, however, numerous contradictory and ambiguous statements that could be interpreted either way, depending upon the biases of the reviewer. For example, four of the hottest topics include Fanny Alger, fourteen-year-old brides, sexual polyandry, and Mary Heron. I have documented that while Mosiah Hancock, Eliza R. Snow, Fanny’s parents, and Fanny herself believed a plural marriage occurred, Emma Smith and Oliver Cowdery believed it was adultery.(1)
Similarly, Todd Compton acknowledged that evidence regarding Joseph Smith’s consummation of his union with fourteen-year-old Helen Mar Kimball is ambiguous.(2)
Concerning the practice of a plurality of husbands, non-apologist Dan Vogel admitted, “There is no solid evidence of polyandrous sexuality in any of Joseph Smith’s plural marriages.”(3) Mike Quinn, unarguably one of the most accomplished of all Mormon scholars, also agreed.(4)
One statement reported a sexual relationship between Joseph and Mary Heron Snider, a legally married woman. But when Joseph was accused by William Law in January 1844 of adultery with a plural wife, one of the witnesses called by the Prophet to testify of his moral uprightness was Mary’s husband, John Snider.(5)
So what do we conclude concerning these incidences? Many claim Joseph Smith was an adulterer with Fanny Alger, a pedophile with Helen Mar Kimball, practiced sexual polyandry, and committed adultery with Mary Heron. However, the evidences are hardly conclusive and the alternate view that Joseph married Fanny, did not seek or consummate the union with Helen, never practiced sexual polyandry, and was viewed as morally upright by those who knew the details of his behaviors is equally plausible.
While polygamy has become the latest focus for unbelievers, similar attacks years ago upon the divine origin of the Book of Mormon caused Elder Neal A. Maxwell to conclude: “It is the author’s opinion that all the scriptures, including the Book of Mormon, will remain in the realm of faith. Science will not be able to prove or disprove holy writ. However, enough plausible evidence will come forth to prevent scoffers from having a field day, but not enough to remove the requirement of faith. Believers must be patient during such unfolding.”(6)
Perhaps there is a parallel here. The historical record cannot be used to prove or disprove Joseph Smith’s motivations and actions in establishing plural marriage. However, enough plausible evidence is available to prevent critics from declaring victory regarding their claims of uncontrolled libido and to convince many observers that he established polygamy because of divine directive.
So, “hello,” my name is just Brian Hales. I have spent twenty years researching the early practice of polygamy, motivated by a desire to answer questions just like the ones you have. I am a believer and an apologist. Some think that apologists are spinners of the evidence, but I see myself as a researcher following the evidence to its most likely conclusion. We can critique the evidence, the interpretation, or the messenger. However, shifting our analysis toward the documents and away from the people who have viewed them may be more useful as we move toward a better understanding of Joseph Smith’s practice of polygamy.
 See Levi Ward Hancock Autobiography with additions in 1896 by Mosiah Hancock, 63, CHL, (Ms 570, microfilm); Eliza R. Snow’s handwriting in Andrew Jenson Papers [ca. 1871-1942], MS 17956; CHL, Box 49, Folder 16, documents 1; Ann Eliza Webb Young, Wife Number 19; or, The Story of a Life in Bondage, Being a Complete Exposé of Mormonism, and Revealing the Sorrows, Sacrifices and Sufferings of Women in Polygamy (Hartford, Conn.: Dustin, Gilman, 1876), 66–67; Eliza J. Webb [Eliza Jane Churchill Webb], Lockport, New York, letter to Mary Bond, May 4, 1876, Biographical Folder Collection, P21, f11, item 9, Community of Christ Archives; Oliver Cowdery, Letter to Warren A. Cowdery, 21 January 1838, copied by Warren F. Cowdery into Oliver Cowdery Letterbook, Huntington Library, San Marino, California, Emma’s comments to William McLellin in Stan Larson and Samuel J. Passey, eds., The William E. McLellin Papers, 1854–1880 (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2007), 395.
 Todd Compton, In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1997), 14; see also “Early Marriage in the New England and Northeastern States, and in Mormon Polygamy: What Was the Norm?” in The Persistence of Polygamy: Joseph Smith and the Origins of Mormon Polygamy, eds. Newell G. Bringhurst and Craig L. Foster (Independence, Mo.: John Whitmer Books, 2010), 231.
 See http://josephsmithspolygamy.org/hales-vogel-1-facebook-exchanges/.
 See http://josephsmithspolygamy.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/Quinns-FINAL-RESPONSE.pdf and then go to endnote 267 on page 118.
 Dinger, John S., ed., The Nauvoo City and High Council Minutes (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2011), 199.
 Neal A. Maxwell, Plain and Precious Things (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1983), 4.
I sincerely appreciate this post, Brian. You are indeed correct that there is enough ambiguity that I, for one, remain ambivalent about the motivations of Joseph.
I know longer believe that polygamy was required or inspired or necessary but that does not mean I need to impugn evil motives on the prophet. I could allow that he may have since relieving committed to “restoration” and misunderstood that polygamy was never ideal to begin with, and I think he began to have his questions and concerns about it as time went on.
I condemn personal attacks against anyone trying to follow the dictates of their conscience and trying to faithfully follow the truth. This includes both you AND Kirk Van Allen.
I, for one, appreciate all of the research you’ve done. We may disagree on some of the conclusions or legitimacy of what the documents mean I flat out reject the story of an angel with a flaming sword because that is not the kind of God I worship, I embrace a complex Joseph as a prophet.
I can handle prophets who do amazing things and also disgraceful things. I can accept that kind of reputation. (It fits with the reality of prophets, whether we’re talking about Moses, Martin Luther King Jr., or Joseph Smith.) Would that the Church collectively could embrace that instead of trying to make Joseph Smith out to have impeccable character (a la Elder Anderson in the last General Conference), which is a thing Joseph never claimed for himself.
While I remain ambivalent, is there room for someone like me to allow Joseph, even if he did commit adultery, to be inspired in other ways and to embrace the good and reject the bad?
“I flat out reject the story of an angel with a flaming sword because that is not the kind of God I worship”
You may be referring to some accounts of Joseph being visited by an angel with a drawn sword. The angel with the flaming sword was placed (by the God I worship) to guard the Tree of Life.
(Please forgive the typos–I am on my phone and didn’t catch some of the auto corrects)
“However, enough plausible evidence is available to prevent critics from declaring victory regarding their claims of uncontrolled libido…”
Keep beating that straw man, Brian.
I don’t think people are critical of you for the research you have done. Rather, it’s the conclusions you draw from that research. To assert that one cannot read the same primary materials and come to vastly different conclusions would be absurd.
As a scholarly researcher you’ve surely heard of a null hypothesis. What is yours regarding JS’ polygamy? What evidence would there have to be to lead you to a different conclusion? To me, that’s what adds the negative connotation to “apologists” who also do research. It is that they operate without a clear and realistic null hypothesis that is necessarily part of reliable research.
I thought the point of polygamy was to “raise up seed” or “a righteous branch”. How do you do that without sex? Where are the scriptural accounts that support your claims? It wasn’t God that said polygamy was for dynastic reasons, it was men. God said it was to raise up a righteous branch, anything else is an invention to justify the reasons for it.
Two words: Meat Commerce
You have to stop being a hypocrite. I mean really, you call John Dehlin an Anti Mormon for goodness sake, and bandy about that term very freely. You called Jeremy Runnells a liar sent from Satan. Only apologists do that kind of thing.
As for calling you a Mormon apologist, if the shoe fits… But to be really accurate, you are a Joseph Smith apologist. And your "new evidence" argument is a giant red herring for reasons that are so obvious that I really can't quite believe you are using it.
To reiterate what Johnny Stephenson said, the first thing I thought of when Brian Hales mentioned ad hominem attacks was Hales' post about Jeremy Runnells. Good grief!
President Hugh B. Brown once said: “Some say that the open-minded leave room for doubt. But I believe we should doubt some of the things we hear. Doubt has a place if it can stir in one an interest to go out and find the truth for one’s self.”
An honest investigation into the story of an angel with a flaming sword has led me to doubt its authenticity. I’m, frankly, shocked the new church essays assumes we should buy it:
In which the apologist apologizes for himself.
Good comments Brian, always a good and insightful read.
I appreciate all your research and I agree that you can’t fully understand Joseph’s motivations with 100% certainty. I think the reason you get labeled as an apologist so frequently is that your conclusions about the evidence derive from your definition of behavior that is acceptable for an inspired prophet.
“It is true that Joseph Smith was not without flaw; only Christ was perfect. Yet, there is no plain evidence that Joseph was guilty of sexual sins that would have prevented his ability to function as an inspired prophet.”
You seem unwilling to accept any explanations that fall outside the lines of what you believe an inspired prophet can do. While it is true that a 100% clear picture isn’t available, we do have enough evidence to make reasonable judgments about what was happening. Your predetermined definition for acceptable prophetic behavior makes you unwilling to accept any contradictory evidence.
One other thing, you site multiple people as agreeing with you on key elements of your argument. Gary Bergera, Todd Compton, Dan Vogel, Mike Quinn. Unfortunately this short web post lacks the context and background that would show how each of these individuals draws very different conclusions about the historical record. I believe they would disagree with your conclusions more frequently than this post would imply.
Thanks for your post.
I have to confess that I have often used the term “apologist” when discussing your work.
That is because you do spin the evidence, and you spin it so hard at times it becomes a blur, making it difficult for even seasoned historians to follow you. I listened to a podcast recently where you did just that.
It is actually painful to watch at times.
You seem to have a penchant for privileging theological argument over historical documentation.
It is a shame because whenever I talk about you, I also say there is likely nobody on earth more knowledgeable about the subject of Joseph Smith and polygamy than you.
I think you would be better served if you allowed for different interpretations of the available evidence, rather than trying to force it all to fit into your preconceived template.
You would gain nothing but credibility by so doing.
And maybe you wouldn’t make others so dizzy.
Thanks for your article Brian.I acknowledge your perspective of Joseph Smith and note the sentence where you refer to”no plain evidence that Joseph was guilty of sexual sins that would have prevented his ability to function as an inspired prophet.” We each may interpret the data differently. All my life I was taught to believe in a God of Truth. Truth is a bedrock principle.Then I learn even the L.D.S. concedes there was plain evidence that Joseph told lies, though some prefer to call them “carefully worded denials. He told them shrewdly, repeatedly, and enlisted his closest followers to tell them. He taught that these lies/carefully worded denials were necessary to the building up of the kingdom of god.Sadly, lies/carefully worded denials take on a life of their own. They perpetuated themselves, and their fruit flourishes to this day. Like Joseph, I am not perfect, but I believe in a God who can be trusted-a God of Truth.I would ask those who presume to build the kingdom of a God of truth, “How can you build that kingdom with carefully worded denials?”
I do appreciate your web site and the observations, conclusions and information that you present. I being a latter-day saint have always believed there was a valid reason for those early actions taken by Brother Joseph, but had never spent the time to research as you have done for us. The issue has come to the fore front of our faith and some members will take issue and leave without giving proper reflection on all of the facts. This is what I am grateful for in your blogs and website. You spend the time to layout all before the reader without drawing the mind to a rushed conclusion. Your site has truly helped me to understand why God asked and demanded that Joseph live the law. It helped me to see the internal conflict that he faced as he tried to respect and love his wife and show respect and love to his God at the same time. Like many we sometimes fail at both.
Keep up the good works.
This article is one of the many reasons why I love Brian Hales. Keep up the good fight.
If all that were true, then where are all the dynastic results in Joseph’s case? No DNA evidence of descendants of Joseph’s supposed polyqamous unions can be found, even though he managed to beget children with Emma.
Thanks again for your work Brother Hales. While I hold you to the titles; Historian, author, doctor, apologist, and so on… I also hold you as my brother under Christ’s fatherhood.
If, “it is true that Joseph Smith was not without flaw” what are these flaws? Did he exhibit any flaws when implementing polygamy/polyamory/polyandry? I don’t see any flaws conceded in the essays or new seminary lessons. We know that Craig Foster defends that in exceptionally rare cases single boys married 14-year old girls on the frontier. That’s not the problem. The problem is how to defend 37y/o already married prophets who marry additional 14-year old girls without the consent of the wife. What does the statistical data show? How common was it for already married men to marry other girls on the frontier? How many religions in the world glorify, praise, and honor these beautiful secondary secret marriages? I am in awe of joseph smith and what he accomplished during his short life. Many of the doctrines he taught were inspiring and expansive. I just feel that marrying other women without the consent of your wife, and having sexual relations with 10 – 12 of them is called adultery. it is sad, but the facts are painful, it’s not like I haven’t invested a lot into the church.
I concur Hale….and also encourage doubters to read your excellent blog https://dearjohndehlin.wordpress.com/
You have written some great stuff there! Thanks
I concur Hale….and also encourage doubters to read your excellent blog https://dearjohndehlin.wordpress.com/
You have written some great stuff there! Thanks