(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.