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Mormon Church admits its founder Joseph Smith was polygamist with 40 wives
12-11-2014

NEW YORK: The Mormon founder Joseph Smith married as many as 40 women, including a 14-year-old girl, leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints have acknowledged for the first time in a surprising revelation about their most important prophet.

Although the Mormon Church was closely associated with polygamy during its first decades, its teachings had previously portrayed Smith as happily married to one woman.

The reality was apparently very different from that monogamous picture. And with increasing speculation circulating on the internet about his marital history, the Church hierarchy has revealed Smith as a prolific polygamist via an essay posted on its website.

The disclosure shocked many Mormons raised on stories of the life of Smith, the young farm-worker and treasure hunter who in the late 1820s discovered inscribed golden plates, the Book of Mormon, buried in upstate New York.

The book narrated the history of an ancient Judeo-Christian people in North America visited by Jesus Christ – the birth story of the Mormon movement.

Addressing Smith’s wife count, the essay notes that “careful estimates put the number between 30 and 40”. Some of these women were already married to others, while one wife was just short of her 15th birthday.

The Church also notes that Smith’s multiple marriages caused great pain to his first wife Emma. “Plural marriage was difficult for all involved. For Joseph Smith’s wife Emma, it was an excruciating ordeal,” according to the essay, which is part of a collection issued over the past year.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the official name for the Mormons, disavowed plural marriage in 1890 under pressure from the US government after polygamists were jailed and their assets seized. Their home territory of Utah was granted statehood as part of the deal, though some breakaway Mormon cults have continued the practice.

According to the essay, Smith was a reluctant polygamist but relented under the threats of an angel which “came with a drawn sword, threatening Joseph with destruction unless he went forward and obeyed the commandment fully”.

Smith regarded his fledgling church as a restoration of the “ancient principles” of Biblical prophets such as Abraham, who practised plural marriage. He also authorised other Mormons to practice plural marriage, it said.

The Church notes that Smith would not have consummated all the marriages as some were “eternity only sealing”, relationships to be taken up in the afterlife.

Of his 14-year-old bride, the Church adds: “Marriage at such an age, inappropriate by today’s standards, was legal in that era, and some women married in their mid-teens.” That marriage was described at the time as “for eternity alone”, implying that the relationship did not involve sexual relations, the church said.

The essay also noted an upside to the controversial practice of polygamy as it rapidly increased the Mormon population at a time when the church faced religious persecution and economic hardship.

“A substantial number of today’s members descend through faithful Latter-day Saints who practised plural marriage,” the essay said.

The church has addressed other controversies about its history and theology in similar online essays, including its treatment of black people who were barred from the higher priesthood until 1978. A future essay will cover the sensitive issue of the bar on women from serving as priests.

There has been increasing focus on church teachings in recent years, as Mormon Mitt Romney ran for president in 2012 and the satirical musical The Book of Mormon continues to draw sell-out audiences in London and across the US.