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Joseph Smith Fought Polygamy
Vision Articles

How Men Nearest the Prophet Attached Polygamy to His Name
in Order to Justify Their Own Polygamous Crimes

By Richard and Pamela Price

"What a thing it is for a man to be accused of committing adultery, and having seven wives,
when I can only find one"
—Joseph Smith (LDS History of the Church 6:411).

[ Joseph Smith Fought Polygamy Index ]

The Harrison Sagers Case

Joseph and Emma Smith

Joseph continued to battle polygamy throughout 1843. One of the struggles in Joseph's fight against polygamy that year involved an elder in Nauvoo named William Harrison Sagers. Sagers, who was born in 1815, was baptized in 1833 and served as a successful traveling missionary. There is evidence that Sagers became involved in plural marriage as early as 1841, which was during the time that Dr. John C. Bennett was teaching and practicing that doctrine at Nauvoo. When Joseph became aware of Sagers' polygamy, he did not keep the matter secret, but tried him publicly for the crime in two courts—the Church's High Council and the Nauvoo Municipal Court. Even though Joseph tried Sagers in 1843, the wayward elder continued his polygamous activities in 1844.

Sagers' Legal Wife Announced He Had Deserted Her

One evidence of Harrison Sagers' infidelity to his legal wife, Lucinda Sagers, is found in an advertisement in 1844 in the first and only issue of the infamous Nauvoo Expositor. Lucinda used this unusual method to announce to the public that Harrison, whose polygamous connections had already created a scandal, had deserted her. Lucinda's advertisement stated:

One Cent Reward.

WHEREAS my husband, the Rt. Rev. W. H. Harrison Sagers, Esq., has left my bed and board without cause or provocation, this is to notify the public not to harbor or trust him on my account, as I will pay no debts of his contracting. ... LUCINDA SAGERS. June 7, 1844. (Nauvoo Expositor, June 7,1844,3)

Lucinda's advertisement shows that Harrison was a married man in 1844. This was also confirmed by a statement in the Warsaw Signal by a man who published under the name of "A Traveler." Lucinda's advertisement also shows that Harrison had separated from her by June 7, 1844, even though LDS genealogical documents, found so far, have not listed Sagers as having been married during the 1841–1844 period. LDS historians have not dealt with the fact that Sagers began his polygamous seductions as early as 1841.

Joseph Tried Sagers before the High Council

Harrison Sagers was charged for seduction on November 25, 1843, before the Church's Standing High Council. Although the account in the LDS History of the Church calls the charge which Joseph brought against Sagers "seduction," other accounts identify his crime as that of teaching his sister-in-law the doctrine of "spiritual wifery." Sagers had seduced Lucinda's sister by teaching her that Joseph Smith had stated that it was right. This is the same ruse that Dr. Bennett, Chauncey Higbee, and Brigham Young used in their seductions.

The LDS historians reported that Joseph placed in his journal under the date of November 25,1843, the following:

In the evening the High Council sat on the case of Harrison Sagers, charged with seduction, and having stated that I had taught it was right. Charge [by Sagers against Joseph was] not sustained. I was present with several of the Twelve, and gave an address tending to do away with every evil, and exhorting them [the Twelve] to practice virtue and holiness before the Lord; told them that the Church had not received any permission from me to commit fornication, adultery, or any corrupt action; but my every word and action has been to the contrary. If a man commit adultery, he cannot receive the celestial kingdom of God. Even if he is saved by any kingdom, it cannot be the celestial kingdom. I did think that the many examples that have been made manifest, such as John C. Bennett's and others, were sufficient to show the fallacy of such a course of conduct. I condemned such actions in toto, and warned the people present against committing such evils; for it will surely bring a curse upon any person who commits such deeds. (LDS History of the Church 6:81)

Of importance is the fact that Joseph used Sagers' hearing before the Church's High Council to publicly warn several of the Twelve present at the hearing who were already practicing polygamy secretly, that he had not given Sagers, or any other individual, authority to practice polygamy.

It is significant that "several of the Twelve" were present, since by this date Apostles Brigham Young, Parley P. Pratt, Heber C. Kimball, and Orson Hyde had already married plural wives. Therefore, Joseph's words of warning were directed to the members of the Twelve as well as others. But even after this warning by Joseph, members of the Twelve continued that practice, and used Joseph's name as Sagers had done.

Like Sagers, they taught that Joseph "had taught it was right." The Saints would never have accepted polygamy as a doctrine if the leaders had not attached Joseph's name to it, and convinced them that he had received a polygamous revelation.

It is also very important to notice that Joseph declared that if a man "commit adultery" he cannot "receive the celestial kingdom of God." When the Prophet said "adultery" here, he meant "fornication, adultery, or any corrupt action"—which includes polygamy. This statement by Joseph is completely opposite to the teachings of the LDS Doctrine and Covenants, Section 132, which declares that a man cannot receive celestial glory without practicing polygamy. This is another evidence that Section 132 is false and that polygamy is an evil doctrine.

Harrison Sagers' High Council Hearing Was Public

Sagers' trial before the High Council was evidently open to the public. The LDS account does not say who brought the charge against Sagers, nor lists the names of the witnesses and the nature of their testimonies. However, the Warsaw (Illinois) Signal, an anti-Mormon newspaper published by Editor Thomas A. Sharp at nearby Warsaw, supplied some significant details. This information is found in a letter written by a man who visited Nauvoo during the month of December 1843. The man wrote the Signal stating that he had been present during the investigation in which Harrison Sagers was brought before the Church's High Council at Nauvoo for teaching spiritual wifery. The nonmember's statement that he was present at Sagers' trial shows that the High Council hearing was conducted in a meeting open to the public.

Sagers evidently did not deny the charges which Joseph brought against him, but admitted his involvement and charged that Joseph had given him permission to conduct himself as he had done. The author of the letter to the Signal editor believed Sagers' claim that Joseph had given him a secret license to practice polygamy. His readiness to believe Sagers' testimony against the Prophet is an example of how quick some were to conclude that Joseph's prosecution of polygamists was a smoke screen to cover his own polygamy. The author of the letter, who signed himself as "A Traveler," wrote:

Mr. Editor—
In all probability, you have heard of the existence of a body in Nauvoo City, called the "High Council" whose business it is; to investigate all the affairs that concern the church, to try all offenders against the laws of said church, and punish accordingly.... I had often heard of this court, and my curiosity was aroused to see it, and I had the fortune to have it perfectly satisfied in the following manner. Being in that city [Nauvoo], last December, I heard considerable talk of the doctrine of Spiritual Wives, which doctrine, I find has been, and is now being taught to a great extent in that place, the proofs of which are daily, presenting themselves, but in what shape, I shall leave you to determine.

Being compelled to remain in that city on account of the closing of the river, I was happy to learn that there was to be a trial of one of their Priests [Harrison Sagers], not for teaching said doctrine, but for teaching it too publicly. Accordingly on the day of the trial, I repaired to the council chamber, and by good luck, obtained a seat, the room being crowded to excess. It was with much difficulty that I could learn the names of all concerned, but shall endeavor to give them as correct as possible: but previous to my going farther, I will say, that before this occurrence transpired, I cared little or nothing about their creed, consequently was not carried away, as others are against them on account of their faith; and therefore I watched their proceedings strictly, but without prejudice. But it was impossible to be there long, without seeing that it was fixed and settled between Smith and the accused, (the trial merely being got up for effect,) that it should all be blown over. The parties concerned, as near as I could find out, were, Joseph Smith, complainant, Harrison Sagers, defendant, and the two principal witnesses were, Lucy Sagers, wife of the said Sagers, and her sister, Miss Mason, to whom he had been teaching this doctrine for the last two years; which fact was clearly proven, and would have been satisfactory to any court but such an accursed Inquisition as this. The evidence here produced, is of too black and despicable a nature to be described; and had the accused have been dealt with according to his crime, he would have been divested of his office, as priest, and cut off from the church. As is common, however, in all cases of importance, that come before this tribunal, instead of meeting his just deserts, after a short address from the Prophet, which was more to screen himself and brother, than to chastise, the said Sagers was discharged by the Prophet, notwithstanding the suit was brought before the said High Council; and that body did not act officially on that subject, no vote being taken. I must say that a more ungallant speech than that of the Prophet, was never spoken in the presence of females—in fact, so lewd and lascivious, that it was with difficulty that I could sit still and hear it.... A TRAVELER. (Warsaw Signal, March 20, 1844, 2)

The reader should remember that the Warsaw Signal was published by Editor Sharp, who was a bitter enemy of the Saints. His fiery editorials and articles inflamed the public and helped produce the mobs that drove the Saints from Nauvoo.

What can be seen from the "Traveler's" letter is that Joseph Smith, the complainant, brought the charge against Harrison Sagers. Joseph's witnesses included Lucinda [Lucy], and her sister, to whom Harrison had taught polygamy by using Joseph's name to obtain his wicked desires. The question arises: Was Lucinda's testimony against Sagers' polygamous activities a factor in her not being listed in LDS records as having been his wife?

Nonmember William Jordan Attended a High Council Meeting

Another example of a person who testified that the meetings were open to the public was William Jordan. In July 1889 he told the story of how he, a nonmember, came to attend a meeting of the Church's High Council in 1841. Jordan declared:

In the spring of this year [1841] I was requested by a party of eight men, who were like myself, infidels, to attend the Mormon conference and see if they were as bad as had been represented to us. I consented to go, as a sort of delegate, and find out all I could about them by questioning the prophet and thereby get information direct. When the conference convened at Nauvoo, on the sixth of April, I was there. I sought and obtained an introduction to Joseph Smith, the prophet, and sought a conversation with him. He informed me that there were hundreds there on the same mission as myself, and that his time was all engaged until five o'clock that evening, at which time he would meet me and answer my questions. After showing where the High Council were met he left me. This was the first time I had seen him. I had expected to see a man with a very commanding air, but he was just the opposite.

I entered the High Council chamber and remained with them until they adjourned, then I was introduced to "Mother Smith." I conversed with her for some time, thinking I would get her "story" and after that I would test the prophet and see if their statements harmonized. At five o'clock I left "Mother Smith" and met the prophet.... at the close of that conference I was baptized by Elder Savidge, confirmed by Elder Hicks, and was ordained to the office of an elder at the same time. (Autumn Leaves 2 [July 1889]: 327)

Joseph Tried Sagers in the Municipal Court

Elder Sagers continued his polygamous activities into 1844, in spite of having been tried before the Standing High Council. Therefore, he was brought to trial again. The records show that four months after the first trial, on April 13,1844, Joseph, who was then mayor of Nauvoo, presided over a session of the Nauvoo Municipal Court, when:

A charge was preferred against Harrison Sagers for teaching spiritual wife doctrine and neglecting his family. (LDS History of the Church 6:333)

(Note the word "family," which indicates that he and Lucinda had children.) The Latter Day Saint Church history states that this time Joseph "handed [Sagers' case] over to the High Council to act upon." It is important that Joseph prosecuted Sagers in both the Church and the city courts. Polygamy and bigamy were crimes in Illinois.

Sagers Continued His Polygamy under Brigham Young

After Joseph was killed, Sagers followed Brigham Young's leadership and migrated to Utah. In spite of the fact that Sagers had a wife in 1843 who was named Lucinda (Lucy), he is listed in LDS records as having married first, Olive Amanda Wheaton in 1846. The records also state that he was married to Ruth Adelia Wheaton, Lucy Marilla Wheaton, Sarah Lovena Bailey, Harriet Emmaline Barney, Frances Cornelia Adams, Mary___, Elizabeth____, and Marion Browning Smith. According to the LDS records which have been searched, none of the women listed here were Sagers' wives during Joseph Smith's lifetime (see LDS Family Group Record, Genealogical Data, for William Henry Harrison Sagers).

LDS genealogical records list nine women to whom Sagers was married. One of his wives was Harriet Emmaline Barney, who bore him four children. She separated from Sagers and married Brigham Young, and her children by Sagers were sealed to Brigham (see James H. Crockwell, Brigham Young and His Wives [Salt Lake City, Utah: The F. W. Gardiner Co., 1896], 38; The Utah Genealogical and Historical Magazine 11 [April 1920]: 133).

Yes, Brigham Young married a woman who had been a plural wife of Sagers, who had been involved with polygamy since the days of Dr. John Bennett. Joseph the Prophet spent time and effort, during the last seven months of his life, attempting to convict Sagers for polygamy. But Sagers, like Bennett, Higbee, and Young, placed the blame for their plural marriages upon Joseph.

Conclusion

Joseph the Prophet was in a no-win situation. He tried desperately to hold back the invasion of polygamy into the Church, but although he was the Prophet and the mayor of Nauvoo, he did not have the support of many who were closest to him. It is probable that some members of the High Council and the City Council were sympathetic to Brigham Young and his secret practice of polygamy, and were working against Joseph, who wanted to expose those who were secretly involved.

It was a no-win situation because no matter how strongly Joseph proclaimed against polygamy, or prosecuted those involved in its practice, his actions were conceived as a mere cover-up. For instance, the "Traveler" who attended Sagers' hearing before the High Council, summed up his opinion of the case, just as many others were doing at Nauvoo. He declared that Joseph was prosecuting Sagers only "for teaching it too publicly. ...the trial merely being got up for effect," which was "more to screen himself."

What more could Joseph have done to stop polygamy and clear his name —to cause the people to believe him? He was hedged in on all sides by the members of the Twelve and others who were polygamists. And they were also keeping the system alive by enlarging their growing circle of participants. Of course, they hoped that Joseph could be convinced to join their polygamous group. But he resisted and proclaimed against that doctrine.

So they practiced polygamy in secret and denied it openly, while Joseph challenged them by openly denying and condemning it.

Joseph proclaimed against that doctrine, not to send up a smoke screen, but to declare the truth, knowing that the doctrine of plural marriage would be devastating to the Church unless it could be eradicated.

 

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Joseph Smith Fought Polygamy—Volume I, by Richard and Pamela Price, can be purchased at the Restoration Bookstore or from our online store.  Articles on this subject continue to be published in Vision magazine, which also can be purchased at the Restoration Bookstore or online. It is planned that this additional material will be compiled into future volumes.

For a general understanding of both the origins of polygamy among the Latter Day Saints and the several conspiracies to falsely implicate Joseph in polygamy, read the article on our Web site, "Joseph Smith: Innocent of Polygamy," by Richard Price.

 
 

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