(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.