Did Joseph Smith practice polygamy? Denver Snuffer says no

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Denver Snuffer, 2016

Denver Snuffer, 2016

I think it’s safe to say that Denver Snuffer hates polygamy.

In my interview with him last month (see here for the first installment), he used words like “destructive,” “terrible,” and “disaster” to describe it. Here are a couple of choice comments:

“My wife and I go on hour-long walks and talk constantly the whole time. She’s my best friend. The most interesting and trusted person in my life is my wife. If you were to throw another woman into that mix, it would be destructive. It would be terrible. People who think that polygamy is somehow commendable must not have a decent marriage.”

“I think polygamy is a disaster. I think it is disrespectful of women. I think it is harmful in relationships, and polygamy is its own punishment. It didn’t work happily in the case of Abraham and Hagar, or Jacob. If you look at Jacob’s 11 sons selling a 12th into slavery, it didn’t turn out happily for the family at that point (though God intervened ultimately). If you want to get a lesson in self-inflicted wounds, polygamy is a good place to start.”

Some strong condemnations there. Snuffer’s views on polygamy in fact dovetail pretty nicely with his emphasis on getting back to the time of Joseph Smith. He believes Brigham Young misinterpreted and overemphasized polygamy, which was—wait for it—something Joseph Smith never actually practiced as a sexual arrangement for this world. Snuffer says it was an extension of “sealing” which, at first, had only a single ordinance: marriage. “Immediately before Joseph’s death another innovation for sealing was introduced: man-to-man sealing, or ‘adoption,’ which did not require marriage to implement sealing into the family of God.”

Even though the LDS Church recently (and controversially) conceded that Smith had more than 40 wives, including one who was just fourteen years old, Snuffer says the primary evidence doesn’t back it up.

He has done extensive research on the life of Joseph Smith, drawing on journals, sermons, and newspaper articles. He believes the only evidence that Smith practiced polygamy as a sexual relationship in this life comes from after his death in 1844, and that “if you take all of the material you can track to Joseph Smith before June 27, 1844, and you consider only that story, Joseph and polygamy have a very different relationship than after that.” Church leaders after Smith’s death, Snuffer claims, wanted to give their plural marriages that extra stamp of approval by claiming that the practice had begun with Smith himself.

There is no DNA evidence that Smith fathered children with any women but Emma, says Snuffer. “If Joseph Smith was the aggressive advocate of bedding women as part of the duty to propagate righteous seed, and raise up seed unto God, he was a miserable failure with anyone except Emma Smith, whom he impregnated nine times.”

Obviously, many historians are going to refute Snuffer’s claims about Joseph Smith and polygamy—Brian Hales, in fact, has a lengthy rebuttal here—but I am frankly less interested in the did-he-or-didn’t-he question than I am in the contemporary issue of just what is at stake in the telling.

The fact is that Mormons hate polygamy. In one national survey, 86% of Mormons said that polygamy was “morally wrong,” which is an even higher percentage than similarly disapproved of abortion (74%) or sex outside of marriage (79%).

I can imagine that any historical theory that aims to let Brother Joseph off the hook for instituting sexual polygamy would be very appealing indeed.

Considering how strongly Snuffer has condemned polygamy, even to the point of making the controversial claim that Joseph Smith never practiced it, why have I seen Snuffer’s movement associated with at least a few people reviving it?

I think there are two factors at play here:

  • The radically local nature of these fellowship groups, and
  • The tendency of “mainstream” LDS Church members to paint everyone on the right with the same broad brush.

The first of these factors is pretty clear. In Snuffer’s loose confederation of fellowship groups, each one decides its own membership criteria. “The associations are entirely voluntary,” he said. “It would be up to the local folks to determine what, if anything, to do” if a current member decided to start practicing polygamy.

He has spoken out against it, particularly at a talk in St. George that called for plural marriage to end. “We do get people who are inquiring and interested from the UAB, the FLDS, a number of these polygamist groups,” he said.

So what happens if people who are already practicing polygamy want to join a local fellowship?

“I suggested that if there were those out there who were polygamists already and they wanted to leave their polygamist group and join us, that we ought to baptize them. I would not expect to break up any polygamous family. But their children ought to be taught that polygamy needs to end. I wouldn’t have it continue on into the next generation.”

Just because Snuffer opposes polygamy doesn’t mean he has the authority to force that opinion on anyone else, he cautioned. That’s just the nature of this loose confederation of fellowship groups.

The second point is a little harder to prove. Mormons need a new category beyond the Fundamentalist = Polygamist assumption. Denver Snuffer can be regarded as a fundamentalist in the way that many religious scholars would define that word, because he seems to be guided by a strict if not literal approach to the religion’s founding sacred texts. He also advocates a return to a purer form of that religion by throwing off some modern accretions (in this case, the teachings of all LDS prophets after Joseph Smith).

The problem is that in Mormon lingo, the word “fundamentalist” has been hijacked as a specific code for “Plural marriage is practiced here!”

Clearly, we need some new terminology for all the dissertations that will likely come out of this someday.


Ed note: Duh on me! The version of this post that I put up the first time was not the edited version that Denver had sent back to me with a couple of key corrections or clarifications of his views, but the first draft. It was totally an error on my part that I used the first version in my haste this morning. I have since made the changes so the version you are seeing is the one that more accurately reflects his views. I’m sorry for the mistake.


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  • Memba

    There is quite a bit of evidence that Joseph was practicing “spiritual wifery” or “celestial marriage”, which clearly originally meant plural marriage.

    But like Snuffer, I have always been troubled by the absence of offspring. To me, it is evidence that if Joseph practiced plural marriage, (and I believe he did), he wasn’t having regular physical (sexual) relationships with most of these women, or it would likely have resulted in children.

    Further possible evidence that Joseph didn’t practice polygamy includes:
    1) Harsh attacks on John C. Bennett for doing so.
    2) The destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor–which mainly addressed polygamy–and helped get Joseph killed. Not smart to do this if he were innocent.
    3) Emma’s testimony that Joseph didn’t do it.

    In the end, I believe Joseph did practice polygamy. I also think that meant physical union in many cases. And he may have even had some physical relationships with women that weren’t wives. Hard to accept,…

  • Mike

    The record is clear Joseph Smith practiced polygamy and had sexual relations. I find his actions disgusting. Todd Compton has a great book on the subject. The interesting thing for me is that the church DOES believe in polygamy. We have current apostles who think they will be married to more than one wife in the next life. The church accepts polygamy as a future thing here on earth and possibly in the next life. It is difficult to tell exactly what the church thinks on the topic because the “brethren” will not discuss it. They are all about building up numbers.

  • CarrotCakeMan

    Read John Krakauer’s “Under The Banner of Heaven.”

  • Dan

    Here is an excellent and well-sourced paper on Joseph’s monogamy: http://anonymousbishop.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/JosephSmithsMonogamy1.pdf

  • Mike

    Dan, the problem you and Denver have is you only read some material and then draw conclusions on that. The evidence is overwhelming, that Joseph was a polygamist and possibly even committed adultery.

  • Lysander

    I believe Joseph and his statements that he had only one wife and not the other people who allege that he had multiple wives. I do not think JS was a liar but I do believe many “lied for the Lord” after JS’s murder to tie him to the practice pushed by the Brighamites.

  • mj

    Abraham, Jacob and many other prophets DID have children with plural wives. They remained God’s favored Prophets/Patriarchs (“I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob”). God included ALL of the 12 sons of Jacob, born of 4 different mothers, in the blessings of Abraham and Jacob.

    Why would Joseph Smith try to avoid living PM for so long, if all it meant was sealing wives to him without the usual marital relations? He could have simply said to Emma and others that it was a spiritual wedding, that does not include marital relations, which would have seriously reduced persecution and accusation. And what about the plural wives who have the innate desire to have children? That does not sound fair for women at all to tell them you can’t have that, just remain single servants.

    Why did Joseph Smith tell William Clayton not to worry about having a child with his plural wife in Nauvoo?

    Read 8 posts starting: http://denversnuffer.blogspot.com/2012_06_01_archive.html

  • mj

    See: http://denversnuffer.blogspot.com/2010/04/section-132.html?m=0
    and 5 posts starting:

    Also read Passing the Heavenly Gift 2012 where DS discusses when PM is and is not possible.

    Now read his recent “revision” of D&C 132 verses 34-39, where he leaves in that God gave wives, concubines and children according to the promises to David, Solomon, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob:

    He did not start the negative talking about the topic until about 2014. Previously he talked all about how it was possible in the past and that Joseph Smith obtained his C&E and sealing power by being obedient to it. I think it is obvious that he personally does not like the topic, and he states what HE thinks about it. What does the Lord say about it. Why allow so many in the bible to live it, if it is just a started work of cain? Just a test? Why did Joseph teach others in Nauvoo…

  • mj

    Your title needs editing. He says Joseph did live plural marriage, but not sexual plural marriage.

    This is my own thinking, but I am confident that DS understands that when Joseph seals a spiritual wife to himself, that any children she has (or her children have) are the spiritual offspring/seed of Joseph/Emma. There is a spiritual familial adoption going on, like God does with us. All offspring, even up till today, of Joseph’s plural wives are spiritual offspring of Joseph, even if he himself never had relations with a plural spouse. Others can be adopted into the family kingdom of JSjr. So saying that JS was a failure in raising up seed thru them, is not completely accurate.

  • Kevin JK

    The most telling evidence comes in 2 Sam. 12:7-12. Here we have the prophet Nathan quoting God in condemning David for his adultery with Bathsheba. In verse 8, God says that He (God) gave David his master’s wives and then goes on to say that if he (David) wanted even more, God would have given him more. But because of his sin, verse 11 says that God is going to take away David’s wives and give them to another individual man who will have his way with them.

    If God hates polygamy, why did God give David those wives? And why did God offer to give David even more? More importantly, why would God take those wives from David and give them to another INDIVIDUAL man rather than giving them to several men so that the women would have monogamous marriages?

  • Elder Anderson

    Well, God also favors child sacrifice, but that doesn’t imply anybody has to do it. Same with one guy marrying multiple wives.

  • Mike

    If Joseph and Brigham were alive today, they would be fundamentalists engaging in the same manipulative behaviors that those groups engage in. They would even be excommunicated from the church. Our doctrines and practices are not consistent at all. One day we we discriminate against black people, the next we don’t, one day we are polygamists, then we are opposed to it, one day we hate gays, oh wait-we still do.

  • ben in oakland

    C’mon. you don’t hate us. You LOVE us. Lovelovelovelovelovelove!

    That many gay people and our heterosexuals supporters somehow mistake that Lovelovelovelovelovelove! for hate is simply the result of doing the backstroke in sinsainsinsinsin!

    We need someone to carefully explain to us why the most egregious actions against our lives really aren’t.

  • mkriley

    The most compelling evidence for the sexual nature of Joseph Smith’s polygamy and polyandry comes from the writings of faithful, contemporary Latter-Day Saints. Eliza R. Snow said the relationship was sexual. Helen Mar Kimball (14 years old at the time) said “I would never have been sealed to Joseph had I known it was anything more than ceremony. I was young, and they deceived me, by saying the salvation of our whole family depended on it.” Emma tells of ‘catching Joesph and Fanny Alger “in the very act.” Oliver Cowdrey called it a “Filthy, nasty affair.” Emma did admit to Joseph’s polygamy although it was later in her life. (She tried to protect her sons from the truth about their father.) As to offspring, Dr. John C. Bennett said that he performed abortions in cases where these ‘spiritual wives’ fell pregnant. I hope it was only bravado, but would help explain things. The truth exists independent of Snuffer’s or anyone else’s interpretation.

  • New terminology: Mormonism can’t get it right, so seek the truth.


  • mlennon

    This may come as some shock, but religious people will on occasion exercise mental gymnastics to sync of what they know to be true with what they’d like to be true.

  • mkriley

    ‘Mental Gymnastics’ That’s a good one. And fitting. It is not only religious people but all people who interpret things in accord with their bias. Look no further than the Presidential primaries for confirmation. It’s just that with religion, we expect and hope for truth. Religion is held to a higher standard by it’s adherents. The problem is, that it’s truth is just as subjective as anything else. I think we approximate the truth best from friendly fire and not from the opposition. That is why the writings of early church members regarding Joseph Smith’s polygamy is so compelling.

  • Elder Anderson

    Excuse the levity, but this article got me thinking what would happen if I ever brought home a second wife. I am pretty sure Mrs. Anderson would be a little pissed off or even sorely vexed. Can you picture the scenario?

    “Hi honey (kiss)! How was your day? It was great! How about yours? Mine was OK, but I’m a little worn out. Looking forward to Valentines though! Speaking of…. I brought home a second wife. She’s waiting on the front porch.”

    As a practical matter, I can’t see how we’d ever get things done. Both of us are pretty easy-going and we hash through everyday conflicts pretty easily. Even tough decisions take only a couple of days. But throw in a second wife? Bad case of analysis paralysis.

  • Rebecca

    Wilford Woodruff got rid of the law of adoption because he didn’t understand it (no revelation at all). I would agree that every prophet after Joseph has changed the ordinances and confounded whatever Joseph originally intended.

  • JohnInCA

    Unrelated to the topic – The “Report Abuse” button should have some sort of confirmation. I just accidentally clicked the “report abuse” button because I was still reading a comment and was looking to click “reply” which for many of these comment sections is on the right.

    So, um, sorry about that.

  • Dave

    In today’s jargon, JS was a sexual predator. He went after and bedded a 14 year old! He sent sent men off on missions and married their wives. He actively used coersion to make the case for sleeping with women.

  • Dave

    All true. Why the f&$# do people not see JS as a sexual predator? Reading the contemporaneous journals of the faithful people involved leaves no doubt as to what happened.

  • This is a good example of recounting bad history. It parrots the false accounts. If you re-examine the actual accounts you will discover:
    1. Eliza R. Snow did not confirm sexual relations. Her answer was completely ambiguous and a non-response. I”ve written about this, giving the exact quotes, and will not repeat it here.
    2. The “very act” was a marriage ceremony. Emma purportedly told William McLellin about it before her death. McLellin wrote a letter to JS III explaining the act occurred in the barn. Levi Hancock’s son, Mosiah Hancock explained what the act was: His father told him before his father’s death that he (Levi Hancock) performed the ceremony using words given him by Joseph. Emma witnessed it through the barn door. It is unclear if Emma was invited or uninvited, but either way she did not enter the barn for the event.
    LDS history is a boundless mess of enthusiastic retelling of unsupported and incomplete accounts, to support the judgement of Joseph Smith.

  • Jake

    The record is clear? Their may be affidavits and journal entries, The record certainly alleges that JSjr. practiced polygamy… but that is all that is “clear.”

    JSjr. emphatically denied ever practicing “spiritual wifery” and said he was accused of taking multiple wives, but was only married to one… Emma. That he purported such is “clear,” though perhaps the prophet who spoke with G face to face as a man talks to his friend lied to everyone… including his wife. That seems legit. BoM and the gospel are all about keeping secrets and lying. So was Jesus right? Or just the “brethren” post JSjr.

    What else can we call clear? DC section 132… that conflicts with the BoM? I don’t by FAIR’s interpretation of Jacobs statement either. Or that 132 was kept in a locked desk and only implemented after the trek to Utah, which also conflicted with original DC101, so lets throw that out.

    I guess I’m just a crazy fundamentalist, and all is really well in Zion… wherever…

  • Jake

    Mike, the problem with you is…. I just like how you begin your comment.

  • mkriley39

    Mr. Snuffer. Since you know better, please respond to the quote by Helen Mar Kimball. Please respond to the statements by John C.Bennett. Tell us about the time Emma was locked out of her bedroom while Joseph and Eliza Partridge spent the night together. Tell us about his advances to Sarah Pratt while Parley was on his mission. Tell us about Joseph’s proposal to Sidney Rigdon’s niece Nancy and how he threatened to ruin her reputation if she ever told. And then tell how she did tell Sidney and after confronting Joseph together, he broke down and begged for forgiveness. All of this comes from the writings of the participants.

  • mkriley39

    As to Eliza R. Snow, when asked if her relationship with Joseph was non-physical, she replied, “I thought you knew Joseph better than that.” Did she need to spell it out? And do you recall that when Emma found out about Eliza and Joseph she threw Eliza down the stairs and out of the house? Good history is the truth, not apologetics.

  • mkriley39

    And for the record regarding Fanny Alger: “Emma discovered the sexual affair between Smith and Fanny and exploded in anger. A noticeably pregnant Fanny eventually was kicked out of the house by Emma, as reported thusly: “Former Mormon apostle William McLellin later wrote that Emma Smith substantiated the Smith-Alger affair. According to McLellin, Emma was searching for her husband and Alger one evening when through a crack in the barn door she saw ‘him and Fanny in the barn together alone’ on the hay mow. McLellin, in a letter to one of Smith’s sons, added that the ensuing confrontation between Emma and her husband grew so heated that Rigdon, Frederick G. Williams, and Oliver Cowdery had to mediate the situation.

    “After Emma related what she had witnessed, Smith, according to McLellin, ‘confessed humbly, and begged forgiveness.

    Mr. Snuffer, I wish it were otherwise, but his is the historical record.

  • I have explained my view and provided volumes of explanation. The comments section of a blog (limited to 1000 characters) is not the place to try to untangle the conflicting accounts.
    Just one example of the errors: it was Sarah Pratt, wife of Orson (not Parley). The first accounts were of her seduction by John C. Bennett, not Joseph. It was much later when the account changed to charge Joseph. Sarah founded the anti-polygamy party in Salt Lake following her divorce from Orson. She left him because he announced a change in how he would spend his time with plural wives. This was a breach of his agreement with Sarah, and apparently the last straw in their troubled relationship. Once she lost confidence in her husband she also lost confidence in the Church, founded the anti-polygamy movement and changed her account.
    Oliver’s charges were addressed in the Far West High Council. Joseph was vindicated, Oliver admitted an error.
    I’m out of available characters.

  • truth seeker

    If the ‘act’ was a marriage ceremony then doesn’t that make Joseph a polygamist?

  • Rebecca

    I am very interested in the date of the writings of those participants you cite. If before it after Joseph’s death, it will go toward some of what Snuffer said in the article.

  • Hedgehog

    This happens to me all the time reading on a mobile device, scrolling down comments and accidentally hitting ‘report abuse’ as I go. Just keeping the mods busy…

  • Debbie Snowcroft

    Jake, all the evidence makes sense if you start from the proposition that Joseph Smith was a gifted con man and pathological liar who got hopelessly caught up in his own fabrications, to the point that he even fooled himself.

    Once you stop trying to make sense of things by starting from the proposition that Smith was a “true prophet,” all the evidence lines up nicely and makes perfect sense.

  • Shalyce

    I’d add Joseph’s own testimony within a month or two of his martyrdom to your list of evidence that Joseph didn’t practice polygamy…

    “I had not been married scarcely five minutes, and made one proclamation of the Gospel, before it was reported that I had seven wives…. I am innocent of all these charges…. What a thing it is for a man to be accused of committing adultery, and having seven wives, when I can only find one. I am the same man, and as innocent as I was fourteen years ago; and I can prove them all perjurers.”

    —Joseph Smith, Jr., History of the Church of
    Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 6:410–411

  • Jake

    I agree with the idea that either he was a con or called by God. Similarly either he (if a true prophet) was a liar… Or BY was relative to JSjr being a serial wedder.

  • Lew Craig

    Read it if you want a hatchet job on Mormonism.

  • Lew Craig

    Nice job quoting ant-Mormon sources.

  • collin

    What doesn’t make sense is that DNA evidence has failed to show any children of Joseph Smith other than through Emma. Joseph was fertile, but I guess all of the other women were not. Even the ones who had kids with other men. Hmm,.

  • collin

    Jana, Off topic,

    Yesterday, Dan Peterson posted on his blog a post about civility and taking into account people’s feelings even if they are public figures. It made me think that maybe I’ve been overly critical of you.

    If I have caused you grief in my comments to you, I want to apologize.