Oliver Cowdery’s ‘Article on Marriage’ embarrassed the LDS Church in its polygamy heyday

(To see Cal Grondahl’s cartoon that goes with this post, click here). During its first several decades, LDS Church leaders included an “Article on Marriage” in the faith’s Doctrine and Covenants. Penned by early church leader Oliver Cowdery, it stated, in part, “Inasmuch as this church of Christ has been reproached with the crime of fornication, and polygamy: we declare that we believe, that one man should have one wife; and one woman, but one husband, except in case of death, when either is at liberty to marry again.”

It sounds pretty simple, albeit a bit clumsy in the wording. Some have surmised that the slight difference in the words “man should have one wife; and one woman, but one husband.” kind of leaves an out for a man to have many “one wife-es” but for a woman, “but one husband.” But that’s all speculation.

For more than two generations, Cowdery’s Article on Marriage was entrenched as part of the Doctrine and Covenants, although not considered a revelation. However, its inclusion turned into a public relations embarrassment for the LDS Church after it publicly embraced polygamy. After sons of Emma Smith, and others traveled to Utah, they used the Cowdery Article on Marriage as evidence that polygamy was an invention of Brigham Young, and not Joseph Smith. ( It seems quaint now to contemplate that 140 years ago missionaries from the RLDS Church were energetically denying that Joseph Smith was a polygamist.)

LDS Church leaders finally eliminated the Cowdery Article on Marriage from the Doctrine and Covenants — it was Section 101 and Section 109 in distinct editions — and Section 132 became the church’s theological defense of polygamy. Church leaders, who were at that time claiming that Smith had first mentioned polygamy as far back as 1832, also took a long-delayed swipe at Cowdery, claiming that he had abused confidence imposed on him by Joseph Smith by having the Article on Marriage inserted into the Doctrine and Covenants without Smith’s approval.

Here’s an example of the let’s-blame-Cowdery explanation from Joseph F. Smith in 1878:

“To put this matter more correctly before you, I here declare that the principle of plural marriage was not first revealed on the 12th day of July, 1843. It was written for the first time on that date, but it had been revealed to the Prophet many years before that, perhaps as early as 1832. About this time, or subsequently, Joseph, the Prophet, intrusted this fact to Oliver Cowdery; he abused the confidence imposed in him, and brought reproach upon himself, and thereby upon the church by ‘running before he was sent,’ and ‘taking liberties without license,’ so to speak, hence the publication, by O. Cowdery, about this time, of an article on marriage, which was carefully worded, and afterwards found its way into the Doctrine and Covenants without authority. This article explains itself to those who understand the facts, and is an indisputable evidence of the early existence of the knowledge of the principle of patriarchal marriage by the Prophet Joseph, and also by Oliver Cowdery.

Cowdery was an easy target, having been dead for more than 25 years. He was excommunicated by church leaders in the late 1830s, largely as a result of the church’s internal dissent following a failed financial institution in Kirtland, Ohio. Cowdery, at the time, also criticized Joseph Smith’s relationship with Fanny Alger, a teen servant girl who is assumed to have been Smith’s first plural wife. That relationship failed once Emma Smith, Joseph’s wife, ended it.

It’s tempting to regard the 1835 Article on Marriage as a response to the Smith, Alger failed relationship, but that’s likely not true. Brian C. Hales, an excellent historian (his books on LDS polygamy are a must-read), has looked as several potential scenarios for what prompted the Article on Marriage. Reactions to Joseph’s sexual behavior, or even Oliver’s, as a catalyst to the Article on Marriage’s inclusion, don’t stand up well to historical scrutiny. Hales writes that the Marriage Article “instead was designed to establish that Christian monogamy was a law they had already established and that infractions of this law were seriously disciplined.”

Under this theory, the early Mormons’ theology of having “all things in common,” was interpreted by gossips or enemies as evidence that the Mormons practiced “free love,” such as sharing of spouses.  That needed to be stopped. Hales quotes John L. Brooke, a chronicler of folk manifestations in early 19th century America, who wrote: “Among the non-Mormons in Ohio there were suspicions that the community of property dictated in the ‘Law of Consecration’ included wives.”

So after all is said and done, the 1870s controversy over the Article of Marriage seems more public relations than a defense for or against polygamy. After Smith’s failed effort with Alger, the prophet was publicly silent on polygamy for several years. The 1835 Article on Marriage seems to be simply a reaffirmation by the new religion of traditional beliefs on marriage and chastity, designed to quell rumors that the new church was immoral.

As mentioned, Oliver Cowdery became the scapegoat for the Marriage Article’s inclusion, a curious charge that fails to explain why the article remained as church scripture for 40-plus years. My supposition is, as mentioned, that church leaders saw its subject as clarifying the Law of Consecration, and not polygamy.

As for Cowdery, he was not a bitter apostate and in the early 1840s sporadic efforts to have him rebaptized began, championed chiefly by Phineas Young, brother to Brigham Young. Although those efforts were put on the back-burner while the church moved West, eventually, in 1848, Cowdery was rebaptized. Although he had made plans to move to Utah and was asked by Brigham Young to lobby for the church in Washington D.C., Cowdery’s health was declining rapidly as 1850 approached. He died on March 3, 1850, at the home of David Whitmer, in Richmond, Mo. He was only 43.


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11 Responses to Oliver Cowdery’s ‘Article on Marriage’ embarrassed the LDS Church in its polygamy heyday

  1. Bob Becker says:

    Whew! That business about “one wife” maybe really meaning “many one wife-es” is as fine a piece of what, in the Baptist-heavy Deep South, I sometimes heard called “jesuitical sophestry” as I can recall.

    Interesting essay.

    • Doug Gibson says:

      My interest in Mormon history reaffirms the irony of the histories of any large organization that has a vested interest in overseeing how it is perceived. That is, the most interesting nuggets are off “the beaten path,” and need to be pursued to be discovered.

      • Bob Becker says:

        Many years ago, I came across an essay by a historian — can’t remember who now — who wrote about how history is constantly re-written, or re-interpreted, by nations, organizations, etc. all trying to “create a useable past.”. I like that phrase, and think it’s pretty descriptive of how pretty much all groups re-work their pasts to better suit their changing contempirary needs.

  2. Lasvegasrichard says:

    Oh please, say it isn’t so . The only true church on Earth changing its official doctrine . Lets hope that a severe change such as that was an anomaly , never to be repeated again .

  3. Catman says:

    Why should the Doctrine and Covenants be trusted if someone can “sneak” section 101 into it? This is a bigger issue to me than the church’s vacillation on marriage partner(s).

    So supposedly, in 1832 Joseph Smith had already received a revelation regarding Celestial Marriage but had elected to keep it secret. While Emma was in the dark, apparently, Fanny Alger was in the “circle of trust”.

    Then 2 years later the 1835 edition of D&C is being carefully prepared. Smith appoints a committee on September 24, 1834 to help in the editorial task to update the Book of Commandments. The “Lectures on Faith” (now expunged) are approved and included by Smith and the committee. The article on marriage, section 101, is part of the final manuscript that is sent to the printer.

    It simply stretches credulity to assert that Cowdery snuck 101 into the manuscript without Smith’s approval. Further, once published, Smith was silent on the matter. He does not warn the faithful by condemning 101. Coincidentally, at this time his polygamy goes further underground.

    Monogamous D&C 101 was still on the books when Smith ramped up his frenzied acquisition of wives in the early 1840′s. D&C 101 was still on the books when, in an 1852 General Conference, polygamy “came out of the closet”. It was commanded (by Brigham) and practiced for another 23 years under the watchful condemnation of monogamous D&C 101 until the 1876 edition of the D&C erased it. In exchange, Smith’s 1843-dated revelation was substituted as D&C 132 where it remains to this day.

    Also, Lectures on Faith does not survive the cut of the 1876 edition. Go read them for yourself and see if you can figure out why.

    The emergence and sustaining of the doctrine of Celestial Marriage is just a historical mess. Odd since today it occupies such a central focus of the faith.

    • mkriley39 says:

      Catman, tell me why the Lectures on Faith did not survive the 1876 revision of the D&C.

      • Lasvegasrichard says:

        I’m not catman , but we all know why . It’s because of the description of the Godhead as opposed to what is said today .

  4. ScottH says:

    Fascinating piece. It generally comports well with my understanding of the historical record, except for the claim that Emma Smith put a stop to the Joseph Smith-Fanny Alger relationship. Many historians feel that this is the case, and it may well be. But after reviewing the best historical records available, it seems to me that this must be left within the realm of speculation rather than fact for the time being. We simply do not have enough credible evidence to verify that the relationship ended for this reason.

    • Deseret JIM says:

      Scott. A marriage among partners should entail a {trio} arranged “pact” before [God the Father]:
      One Man.
      One Woman.
      And the Community at large.

      May you have a joyous Palm Sunday, and an Eternal Easter.

  5. Al Pratt says:

    If anyone is interested in a hilarious account from a contemporary ex-polygamist wife, I highly recommend “It’s Not About the Sex My A**” by Joanne Hanks. Easy to find if you google.

  6. JSDefender says:

    I am interested by your statement, “It seems quaint now to contemplate that 140 years ago missionaries from the RLDS Church were energetically denying that Joseph Smith was a polygamist.” As indicated by your statement, the official RLDS Church—now called Community of Christ—presently supports the position that Joseph was a polygamist. However, the reason for doing this is not because there is overwhelming evidence that he was a polygamist. In fact, there is probably more creditable evidence that he did not teach or practice polygamy than there is that he did. That is why the early RLDS missionaries, including his three sons, went to Utah. The reason the Community of Christ now supports the position that Joseph was a polygamist is to further their agenda to move their church into mainstream Christianity. If they can discredit Joseph to their membership, they can discredit the Book of Mormon, his revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants, the Inspired Version of the Bible, and the basic doctrines of the church that make it unique from all other Christian denominations. And that is what the RLDS/CofC leadership has done for the last 55 years. Since one of the founding principles of the RLDS Church is that polygamy is evil, the RLDS/CofC leadership support of the position that Joseph taught and practiced polygamy is to say to their membership that he was evil and thus the work he did was false.

    There are many RLDS today not associated with the CofC that still believe Joseph was not a polygamist. You may wish to refer to my blog at defendingjoseph.com or to the online book Joseph Smith Fought Polygamy for information supporting this position.

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