Did an angel with a drawn sword force Joseph Smith to start polygamy?

(To see Cal Grondahl’s cartoon that goes with this post, click here.) In his biography of Joseph Smith, “Rough Stone Rolling,” author Richard Lyman Bushman relates a popular Mormon legend/history regarding the Mormon prophet and his embrace of polygamy. He writes, “By delaying plural marriage, Joseph risked provoking God’s wrath. Mary (Elizabeth) Rollins Lightner, one of his plural wives, later said Joseph told her about the pressure he was under. ‘The angel came to me three times between the year of ’34 and ’42 and said I was to obey the principle or he would [s]lay me.’ Others told the story with an additional detail: the angel held a drawn sword.”

The would-be “destroying angel” that prompted Joseph Smith to get moving on polygamy is one of those “legends” that I heard from parents and others growing up as a young Latter-day Saint. I had always assumed it was another legend, such as the White Horse Prophecy, that gets passed around so often that it achieves a false legitimacy. However, there seems to be enough persons aware of this claim that it should be placed above folklore status.

In the book, “Nauvoo Polygamy, but we called it celestial marriage,” author George D. Smith adds to Bushman’s account with one caveat. He reports that Smith’s plural wife, Rollins Lightner, also included the drawn sword in her story. From “Nauvoo Polygamy,” D. Smith repeats a statement Rollins Lightner made in 1902, claiming Joseph Smith told her he had been commanded to marry her as far back as 1834, but had resisted, until, as she related “the Angel came to him three times, the last time with a drawn Sword and threatened his life.”

Rollins Lightner, quite reasonably, relates that she asked Smith “if God told him So, why did he not come and tell me [?]” Apparently, Rollins Lightner did have what she regarded as an angelic visitation. She said, “”… and an Angel came to me, it went through me like lightning.” The pair were married in 1842.

LDS historian Brian C. Hales, who has done a lot of research into polygamy and the early Mormon Church, cites LDS Apostle Erastus Snow as a supporting source that Joseph Smith felt his life was in danger if he did not implement polygamy. Hales writes, “Erastus Snow claimed that Joseph had ‘to plead on his knees before the Angel for his Life.” (Hales’ research lists many persons who were told, either secondhand or by Smith, of the angels’ visits and displeasure. The earliest account he has is 1854.)

If, as most historians believe, Fanny Alger was Joseph Smith’s first plural wife, there was several-years time of “foot-dragging” before the Mormon prophet began to implement polygamy. As Hales and other historians note, not-surprising opposition to the practice by Smith’s lawful wife, Emma, probably was the strongest reason for Smith’s reluctance. Emma Smith had reportedly kicked servant Alger out of the Smith home. Although reports are that she attempted to understand and countenance her husband’s polygamous efforts during the Nauvoo period, she was never able to accept it. After her husband’s murder, a key reason for her refusal to follow Brigham Young with most of the Saints to the Rocky Mountains was due to polygamy.

Bushman brings up another reason that Smith may have been reluctant to embrace polygamy. It was that skeptics of new religions tended to look for dysfunctional sexual behaviors as a reason to condemn the churches or movements. Bushman writes, “From the … sixteenth century to the camp meetings of the nineteenth, critics expected sexual improprieties from religious enthusiasts. Marital experiments by contemporary radical sects increased the suspicions. … With old barriers coming down, people were on the lookout for sexual aberrations.”

Joseph Smith was certainly smart enough to realize how Mormons would be if the young church embraced polygamy. He also, it is virtually universally acknowledged by historians, loved his wife Emma deeply and was loathe to do anything that would hurt her. These conflicts must have disturbed him.

The idea that lust motivated Joseph Smith’s desire for polygamy may satisfy his most severe critics, but the historical record does not support it. A wait of several years after the failed union with Fanny Alger shows reluctance for the practice, not desire. One need not believe that Joseph Smith pleaded before an angel with a sword to acknowledge that. The doctrine of plural marriage, as Smith and other early Mormon leaders understood it, was essential to increase eternal families, and one’s glory in the after-life. It’s likely that many of Smith’s plural marriages, particularly the ones that involved plural marriages to women already married, were sexless and intended only for the afterlife.

To active Mormons, and others who read all the church’s scriptures, the God described in the Doctrine and Covenants is, at least in verbal rhetoric, similar to the God of the Old Testament. Frankly, it’s not that difficult to picture a god of that temperament sending an angel with a sword to “persuade” Joseph Smith to start polygamy.

Nevertheless, whether the angel is a part of Mormon history, or just part of Mormon lore, will always be debated. Church leaders invited that discussion in 1934, when LDS apostle Melvin J. Ballard, wrote, “The statement … concerning the angel appearing with the drawn sword is not a matter that is in our own church history. While it may be all true, the church has not pronounced it authentic nor has it contradicted it.” (Hales, “Joseph Smith’s Polygamy Volume 1a)

Of course, that was during a time that the LDS Church leadership was slowly pursuing a more modern, accommodating church that would assimilate well with the rest of the world. Almost 50 years earlier, a period where the church was still embracing polygamy, Hales writes, “Future apostle Orson F. Whitney, grandson of Heber C. Kimball and son of Joseph Smith’s plural wife Helen Mar Kimball Whitney, apparently believed the story genuine. His 1888 biography of Heber C. Kimball includes this statement:

A grand and glorious principle had been revealed, and for years had slumbered in the breast of God’s Prophet, awaiting the time when, with safety to himself and the Church, it might be confided to the sacred keeping of a chosen few. That time had now come. An angel with a flaming sword descended from the courts of glory and, confronting the Prophet, commanded him in the name of the Lord to establish the principle so long concealed from the knowledge of the Saints and of the world — that of plural knowledge.’

I don’t know how many persons today believe in, or even know of, the alleged angel that threatened Joseph Smith to marry other women, but it clearly merits inclusion as a part of LDS Church history.



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28 Responses to Did an angel with a drawn sword force Joseph Smith to start polygamy?

  1. Lasvegasrichard says:

    I can see it now . Joseph Smith’s headless body discovered behind locked doors . Happens all the time !

  2. Zen Wordsmith says:

    Whereabouts in the [Independence Era] of Jackson County
    Missouri {circa’ 1839}, the act of “plural-wives” amounted to
    a “Harem” {from the root i.e. HYRUM}. Not “polygamy”.
    The unions were held in summary by [Missouri Governor Boggs] to
    be grounds for extermination of the gathered Saints from land held
    in 4 Central United States. Westward to [Old Mexico] DESERET.
    Sorta like knowing where that next ™ Folgers “Cup of Joe” is
    coming from. Trace it to our Prophet of the time: [D & C Sect 89].
    An alleged angel didn’t threaten [Joseph Smith Junior], a white
    {Knight} on a [Joe-Camel] did!
    Long live our folk lore. G-lory, Gloria
    And a revealed Health Code in the W.O.W.

  3. Brad Garn says:

    The following is from a sworn affidavit of Lorenzo Snow, fifth prophet of the Church. This affidavit was printed in a book authored by Joseph Fielding Smith. Lorenzo Snow is describing a conversation he had in April 1843 where Joseph Smith told him about polygamy:

    “He there and then explained to me the doctrine of plurality of wives; he said that the Lord had revealed it unto him, and commanded him to have women sealed to him as wives; that he foresaw the trouble that would follow, and sought to turn away from the commandment; that an angel from heaven then appeared before him with a drawn sword, threatening him with destruction unless he went forward and obeyed the commandment. He further said that my sister Eliza R. Snow had been sealed to him as his wife for time and eternity. He told me that the Lord would open the way, and I should have women sealed to me as wives. This conversation was prolonged, I think one hour or more, in which he told me many important things. I solemnly declare before God and holy angels, and as I hope to come forth in the morning of the resurrection, that the above statement is true.”

    The full title of the book that contains this affidavit is “Blood Atonement and the Origin of Plural Marriage: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.”

    The authors are Joseph F. Smith Jr. (now commonly know as Joseph Fielding Smith) and Richard C. Evans. The book was published in 1905 by The Deseret News Press.

  4. Mark Sparkman says:

    Great stuff, Doug. I have a question for you: How much crazy stuff like this has happened in other churches? Really, no disrespect intended. But, other than the many sects that sprang up during this period, what church can be compared to the LDS faith in terms of off-the-record but still often believed folklore? I was raised Baptist by an atheist father and a mother raised in (and eventually returned to) Catholicism. I never heard anything like this.

    • ScottH says:

      It is interesting that you have never heard of other religions observing practices and beliefs that we would consider odd or even aberrant today. Many similar stories are codified in the Bible, but people tend to excuse these without serious reflection because they purportedly occurred in a distant time and culture.

      In fact, instances of claimed revelations and experiments in unusual sexual practices were fairly common among early 19th Century religious sects in the US. You don’t hear about these as much because most of those sects died out, became incorporated with more mainstream sects, more rapidly adopted mainstream practices, or remained very small. Consider, for example, the Shakers.

      The LDS Church, on the other hand, has become a significant and growing religion, so awareness of its early practices is more common. Older religions either have fewer records of their early practices or else the public has had more time to acclimate to them. The LDS Church, being so young and having so many records of its early practices seems radically different; although, a study of the early days of older religions show that the Mormon experience is not so unusual. It just happened more recently.

      The late 18th and early 19th Centuries were times of great religious upheaval and experimentation throughout the Western world, and especially in the US. The same intrepid expansionist frontier attitude that caused people to throw off the established orders of government and culture pervaded religion as well. Small sects popped up everywhere, as people became dissatisfied with established churches and created their own.

      This pattern actually continues today. Consider the Christian snake handling sects, for example. It will take time to see how well today’s newer sects endure and expand.

      • Mark Sparkman says:

        ScottH: your lecture is unnecessary. Other people read history, too. A more careful scan of my note to Doug would have revealed the phrase “other than the many sects that sprang up during this period.” I asked about non-canonical weirdness in mainstream churches.

    • Denise says:

      for one small example, look up the Onida (sp?, like the silverware brand, they are related) sect in New York. IIRC. they would be after the Nauvoo Period.

    • D. Schmidt says:

      Seriously? You never heard of the so-called “Virgin Birth?”
      Most do not believe this today!

  5. Rod says:

    The negative and positive exposure that this story brings is fun to witness. I am always cognizant of how we “humans” try to explain heaven and God. No where in time has a higher functioning society been “discovered” by a lower functioning society. In all our looking we could never “discover” God. He is the ultimate in the higher functioning society. The only way we would ever hope to understand God is by Him revealing Himself to us — in any way He chooses. If God clearly espoused “societal laws” that govern our relationships with one another and revealed them in Old Testament days then how could one say God would never do that. If God changed then He would cease to be God…and I forever am grateful that He is an unchangeable God. I truly believe the prophet Joseph Smith was very reluctant to obey this commandment…who wouldn’t be. I am always amazed at how much society wants to limit God to their own limitations and borders. In all our searching we would never be able to “discover” who God is unless He initiates the contact and reveals Himself to us. And when He does we still try to limit Him and His “societal laws”. As time progresses the Lord will continue to reveal Himself to us because He loves us and wants us to be happy. But He never forces one to see things His way…look at what Lucifer suffered because he would not see things as they were but only saw things the way he wanted to see them.

  6. Ovala T says:

    Whether a threatening angel came to Joseph with a drawn sword or not doesn’t make any difference to me. If he did, I believe it and have no problem understanding why the young prophet would hesitate and held back from embracing such a doctrine. Let’s face it, the saints were already in the midst of much persecution and no doubt Joseph knew such a doctrine would just add more misery on the saints’ plate. My only problem with all this is why he married women who were already married to other men, if they are true. Even if he was commanded by God doesn’t make it easier for me to understand why though I still accept it by faith. I chose to believe because I’m firmly convinced of the truths of the fruits of the work he helped brought forth and the good it has done to the people of the world. Besides, if an angel with a flaming sword can appear to a donkey 3 times and stopped his progress and made it speak and complain to its master, the prophet Balaam for beating it, (Num. 22), why then wouldn’t it be possible for God to send an angel with a drawn sword to Joseph Smith to coerce obedience from him?

  7. Pingback: 15 April 2013 | MormonVoices

  8. Al Pratt says:

    I have never tried the angel-with-sword pick-up line. I’ll let you know how it works next time I’m in a singles bar.

    You should be embarrassed holding a serious discussion as to whether God inspired Smith to bang oodles of women, much less had to send an armed angel to convince the poor, reluctant “prophet.” (No, no, he wasn’t eager and lustful, perish the thought!) While you’re at it, why not hold a serious discussion as to whether a look at Medusa really did turn people to stone?

    Step away from defending Smith long enough to take a rational look. For starters, imagine anyone else spinning that yarn. You’d marvel at the audacity and cringe on behalf of pathetic dupes.

    Anyone who needs help stepping outside the madness for an honest look at Smith should read Joanne Hanks’ book, “It’s Not About the Sex My A**.” http://www.itsnotaboutthesexmyass.com/index.html or easy to find if you google the author or book name. Hanks and her husband joined and spent seven years in a nutty Utah plyg cult. She writes looking back from a place of rationality (and humor!). The most devout Mormon will be hard-pressed to find much difference between Joseph Smith Jr. and today’s plug leaders whom Mormons love to ridicule.

    • Eric says:

      Thank you for visually bleeping out the word “Ass,” and then including an internet link containing the word “Ass.” Ha.

  9. Leonard says:

    I just wanted to say I really liked your writing style. It was clear, informed and, in my opinion, unbiased. Keep up the good work!

  10. PolishandProud says:

    Very fanciful account. But the fact of the matter is Joseph Smith regularly claimed that he was visited by gods, angels and prophets to justify getting what he wanted: When he needed money for the first printing of the BOM God conviently visited him and ordered Martin Harris to pay up. He had no compunction with telling married woman that God ordered them to marry him. The same god ordered their husbands on missions first. Joseph Smith did not fear GOd and therefore blasphemed his name constantly. This is not “history” so much as it is an indictment of his lack of moral character.

  11. Decider says:

    One afternoon I was visiting a friend at the ‘old’ Bookshelf in Ogden — two young airmen at the checkout counter were furiously thrusting their impending comic purchase in each other’s face, gesturing and arguing about who was the better ‘superhero’, Superman or Batman.
    I remember the Superman guy settled things when he grabbed the un-purchased Batman comic, tore it in half, then stomped out of the store — the un-purchased Superman was still rolled up in his tightly clinched fist.

  12. Stephen M. Cook says:

    Watching a religion successfully change from a frontier-revivalist-millennium cult into a respected global religion makes for an interesting anthropological study.

    • Lasvegasrichard says:

      Respected global religion ? According to whom do you refer ? They are shunned by every dominate modern religion that considers themselves Christian . They are still listed as a cult on many of those sects websites . Those who don’t believe and those who have left most certainly consider them a cult . The only ones who don’t either know very little to nothing about them , or only have the house brand sanitized and whitewashed version .

      • Zen Wordsmith says:

        If the [Church of Jesus Christ] is “listed” as a
        CULT, {lasvegasrichard}, let’s hope and pray
        that you are on [EZRA'S LIST].
        This pertaining to the accumulated amount of
        “Good-Will/Tithes and ore ALMS” bestowed by
        yourself, on your fellow man.
        For even in the “Outward Church’s” of the
        [New Juerusalem], you are “purchased with a
        …”Have I done any good in the World today ?”…

  13. Phillip C. Smith says:

    Polygamy (actually polygyny) or plural marriage was practiced by Old Testament prophets like Abraham and Moses as well, and the Mormon Church adopted the practice until around the turn of the 20th century.

    Belief in and acceptance of Joseph Smith as a prophet of God is a matter of faith. One is entitled to put oneself in a position to ask of God if he is. I did and thus have that faith.

    Phillip C. Smith, Ph.D.

  14. Curtis says:

    I believe the angel and drawn sword part. I don’t believe these marriages were sexless. If this were the case, he wouldn’t have resisted so hard. He could have explained it to Emma in such a way it would have been easy for both of them. Besides I have read several accounts of his other wives and they all said that intimate relations were involved.

  15. Curtis says:

    I don’t believe these marriages were sexless. If so, why would Emma have resisted if it were in name only?

  16. JennyP1969 says:

    I’ve never really known what to think of the angel and drawn sword story. I’ve read where Fanny’s pregnancy became obvious and Emma had seen her and her husband in the barn being intimate, so she banished the servant girl from house — all this years before Elijah appeared with the sealing keys. Also, the original command was to marry the Lamanite women. Then, in the end, Joseph had only one known child by all these women. He had so many wives that visiting each once every six weeks could explain the lack of pregnancies. Also, we don’t know how many miscarriages took place — 30% is average. I’ve read autobiographies and biographies of those who knew he at least slept in the same room with some of his wives. And he wasn’t happy when he would propose and not be accepted. This subject, of all, feels off, to me. Why wouldn’t the Savior come to Him and Emma and teach them about this? Why a violent threat? How is there agency when the choices are do or die? This is not how Jesus was when He walked the earth. In every OT case of violence by command, I feel that the Savior — perfect, loving Savior — is not the same as the one from Galilee.

    It’s not easy to know God, and Jesus Christ whom He hath sent. My personal walk with Them has been much more loving, uplifting, kind, and warm than the violent, angry God of past times. For this, I am deeply grateful. And it is my eternal hope that if there was an angel with a sword, it was from the God of darkness who deceived Joseph. Indeed, the prophet told William Clayton shortly before his death that he had been deceived regarding polygamy. When I read of all the poverty, broken hearts, lonely wives, depression, jealousy, and fathers pushed to the limit to provide, all all the many, many other details of plural marriage, I cannot understand how this was good. All the children born of this order and descended from (myself included) could have been born into monogamous families just as easily. More glory in the hereafter is vanity. There was so little charity in plural marriage. If this is the greatest thing to achieve, it seems contradictive to institute a system so lacking. Look at all the harm up to this day from Abraham’s plural marriage……Jacob’s…… Millennia-long hatreds of children by various wives. Women being glad they don’t have to meet their husband’s physical needs by themselves (I’ve seen this on documentaries), and husbands who keep marrying younger wives — no, it isn’t about sex at all. It’s about a larger posterity — which only comes by sex. The whole foundation of polygamy rests on sex. Women feeling independent and able to accomplish more because they have sister wives, but today, we decry women being strong and independent outside the home. We condemn other women raising our kids in the daycare of other mothers. It’s hard to live monogamy and learn how to truly, deeply, charitably be One. And plural marriage makes it impossible to ever become One as husband and wives. Each wife is robbed of the full time and devotion and exclusivity she deserves. She either lives with a broken heart, or hardens her heart to abide. I hope one day, every single woman will be given her one true love of her very own.

  17. ray says:

    I’ve been a member all my life, am descended from a polygamist great-grandfather and I simply don’t believe polygamy was ever a doctrine from God. Neither does my bishop’s wife. And I have read nothing to convince me otherwise.

    • Zen Wordsmith says:

      I tend to disagree that Polygamy in the restored wasn’t
      instituted by the “Council of God’s”. Besides if it was not
      [Ray], perhaps you wouldn’t of been gifted “imbodiment”.
      LDS President [Lorenzo Snow] was imprisoned by the
      Federal Marshals of his day for the perpetuation of the
      procreation of plurality of wives.
      Policing the actions of Polygamy.
      All for the [Navahjo/Germanic] remnants of the
      of Joseph. {All “Josephs” Inclusive}.
      Some lines closer to the “hybrid”, others a long ways off.
      …”To them many Gods, Many Lords, But to us Only One”…

  18. Erick says:

    Well, in a word, “no”, it’s probably safe to assume that this event didn’t actually happen. A huge problem with these stories about Joseph Smith and the Mormon restoration, is the great urgency that God was in usher in the infamous “restitution of all things” only to let it all stagnate for the 170 years following Joseph Smith’s death. Angels with death threats, visions, plates, etc, that was the message of the restoration. It was an urgent and somewhat extreme millennial message. Now, however, we get lot’s of stuff like this:

    “The happiest people I know are not those who find their golden ticket; they are those who, while in pursuit of worthy goals, discover and treasure the beauty and sweetness of the everyday moments.”

    Dieter F. Uchtdorf.

    Of course, we don’t practice polygamy any more, so was the angel bluffing?

    As for Joseph Smith’s “true” motives, how could anybody say with any kind of certainty? To rule out the idea that he couldn’t have been motivated simply by his position of power to get what he wants, is being a little too generous for objective considerations.

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