Bad History

When the LDS Historian’s Office writes about history they are prone to both troubling equivocation and unjustified dogmatism. They do not, however, make forthright admissions about how little evidence exists for some traditions. In the recent Joseph Smith Papers, Documents Vol. 8, the following is in the Introduction:

“Another, more controversial doctrine that developed in 1841 was plural marriage. Although no documents in this volume will address it, later documents attest that Joseph Smith married two plural wives during the months covered in this volume. Joseph Smith’s understanding of plural marriage seems to have developed over time, perhaps beginning as early as 1831 in Kirtland. There is evidence that Smith began discussing with close associates some form of plural marriage in the early 1830s and that he first married a plural wife, Fanny Alger, sometime in the mid-1830s. However, Smith did not begin practicing it extensively until the church was headquartered in Nauvoo. It appears that plural marriage was part of a broader restoration of Old Testament concepts and practices that included covenants, priesthoods, and temples. Although he had already been married to his wife Emma for fourteen years, Joseph Smith privately married Louisa Beman on 5 April 1841 and Zina Huntington Jacobs on 27 October 1841.” JSP Documents, Vol. 8, February – November 1841, emphasis added.

There are no contemporary documents that definitively address this. No talks, no letters, no evidence traceable to Joseph Smith. They write there “seems to have” “perhaps” been something “sometime” earlier and “it appears” something may have been afoot. All ambiguous language, and yet, this ambiguity is followed by the absolute, clear, unequivocal assertion regarding two 1841 plural marriages.

For the statement about these two 1841 marriages, footnote 84 on page xxxiii cites to the affidavit book Joseph F. Smith gathered in 1869. Both affidavits were signed 28 years after these purported marriages took place.

In the Chronology for the book, on page 397, the entry for April 5, 1841 states Joseph B. Noble sealed Joseph to Beman. On page 399, the entry for October 27, 1841 states Demick Huntington sealed Joseph to Jacobs. The support for these entries is footnote 84 on page xxxiii.

They should have omitted any mention about a subject for which there is no contemporary proof. Instead, they make assumptions based on affidavits composed twenty-eight year later. Those affidavits were written while there were pending legal issues threatening to imprison LDS leaders and confiscate LDS church property. It would be better to remain silent, rather than advocate as a reliable fact what is dubious at best.

Why not admit there is no contemporary proof? Why not say nothing at the time proved Joseph entered into either of these purported marriages? Why not say that twenty-eight years later two women in Utah signed affidavits while lawsuits were pending and threatened? That would be a better telling of the history.