Emma's Fight Against Polygamy

By Richard Price

Joseph and Emma

Joseph and Emma Smith

The familiar Nauvoo paintings of Joseph Smith Jr. and Emma Hale Smith were brought together through a special photographic process to make this beautiful print of Joseph and Emma.

There are many proofs that Joseph Smith Jr., was innocent of instigating and/or practicing polygamy. There are also many evidences that the evil doctrine was brought into the Church by other men in the 1830’s and 1840’s, including Dr. John C. Bennett and Brigham Young—contrary to Joseph’s will and teachings.

Joseph made a concerted effort to stamp out the practice and doctrine of polygamy. His only wife, Emma Hale Smith, also opposed polygamy. She made a life-long fight against it and continually maintained Joseph’s innocence.

Dr. Bennett’s Spiritual Wifery

Dr. John C. Bennett joined the Church at Nauvoo in 1840 and soon became an assistant to the First Presidency and the mayor of the city. Before coming to Nauvoo, he had been a serious student of various forms of polygamy, both ancient and modern. After arriving there he secretly taught and practiced “spiritual wifery,” another name for polygamy. The spiritual wife doctrine which he practiced was one that Jacob Cochran had taught to his followers twenty years earlier in a cult which he developed in the state of Maine.

This false doctrine taught that a man and woman could have sexual relations—supposedly by divine commandment—even though they were married to others. In other words, this system allowed a man or woman, while married according to the laws of the land, to disregard that marriage and be “spiritually married” in another ceremony to another person. The leader of the group supposedly had spiritual power to dissolve and seal marriage unions at will. Dr. Bennett not only practiced this system, but also taught several young men to do likewise.

After the doctor’s activities came to light, Apostle William Smith, editor of the Nauvoo newspaper, The Wasp, published an explanation about Bennett, that he

accomplished his designs by saying it was right; that it was one of the mysteries of God, which was to be revealed when the people were strong enough in the faith to bear such mysteries—that it was perfectly right to have illicit intercourse with females, providing no one knew it but themselves . . . that there was such revelations and such commandments, and that it was of God. (The Wasp, July 27, 1842)

Joseph Smith wrote on July 1, 1842, to explain that Dr. Bennett

went to some of the females in the city, who knew nothing of him but as an honorable man, and began to teach them that promiscuous intercourse between the sexes was a doctrine believed in by the Latter Day Saints, and that there was no harm in it; but this failing, he had recourse to a more influential and desperately wicked course; and that was to persuade them that myself and others of the authorities of the Church not only sanctioned but practiced the same wicked acts. . . . He was well aware of the consequence of such willful and base falsehoods, if they should come to my knowledge, and consequently endeavored to persuade his dupes to keep it a matter of secrecy, persuading them there would be no harm if they should not make it known. (Times and Seasons 3:840)

Joseph had tried to convince Dr. Bennett to give up his adulterous practices and to repent of his wickedness; but Bennett refused and was therefore expelled from the Church in May of 1842. The doctor then became very angry toward the prophet. He left Nauvoo and traveled widely, lecturing against the Saints. He also wrote newspaper articles and a book, in which he made every effort to prove that he himself was virtuous and that Joseph was the polygamist. To this day the world believes Dr. Bennett.

Emma Opposed Spiritual Wifery

When the false practice of spiritual wifery became publicly known, the women of Nauvoo, who were striving to make the city a Zionic community, were horrified. Emma Smith was the head of the Ladies’ Relief Society, and she spearheaded the women’s move to squelch Bennett’s teachings. She called the women together in a mass meeting, where they unanimously adopted the following declaration:

We the undersigned members of the Ladies’ Relief Society, and married females, do certify and declare that we know of no system of marriage being practiced in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints save the one contained in the Book of Doctrine and Covenants [RLDS Doctrine and Covenants 111]; and we give this certificate to the public to show that J. C. Bennett’s ‘secret wife system’ is a disclosure of his own make. (Times and Seasons 3 [October 1, 1842]: 940)

The statement was signed by Emma Smith as president, three other officers, and fifteen prominent women. The Prophet Joseph then published the statement in Times and Seasons, and it was widely distributed in order to show the Church’s strong opposition to this false doctrine.

Emma Opposed Adultery and Polygamy in 1844

Two years after the Bennett scandal several other prominent men were found to be in adultery, including Wilson Law and his brother, Dr. William Law, a member of the First Presidency. They had become close friends of Chauncey and Francis Higbee, who had followed Bennett’s teachings and had practiced spiritual wifery. Expelled from the Church in 1844, the Laws, Higbees, and others formed a group which determined to destroy Joseph Smith and take over the Church of Jesus Christ.

By March of 1844 (three months before Joseph’s death) several apostles and their friends were practicing polygamy in secret. For example, Brigham Young actually had four wives by then. His brother Lorenzo Dow Young had two wives; Apostle John Taylor had three; and Apostle Heber C. Kimball had two wives (Stewart, Brigham Young and His Wives, pages 85–86; Utah Historical Quarterly 14:134,171; Roberts, The Life of John Taylor, page 465; Carter, Heber C. Kimball—His Wives and Family, pages 12-13).

As the deeds of the polygamists and adulterers came to light, once again Emma rose to the occasion by calling upon the Ladies’ Relief Society to denounce the activities of these men in strongest terms. This time Emma called four mass meetings in the assembly room of Joseph’s Brick Store—two on March 9 and two on March 16. The meetings were identical so that every woman of Nauvoo could attend. In each meeting Emma presented a document which denounced polygamy, bigamy, and such practices. Entitled “Voice of Innocence,” this document was adopted unanimously at each meeting.

It reads in part:

We raise our voices and hands against John C. Bennett’s "spiritual wife system," as a scheme of profligates to seduce women; and they that harp upon it, wish to make it popular for the convenience of their own cupidity; wherefore, while the marriage bed, undefiled is honorable, let polygamy, bigamy, fornication, adultery, and prostitution, be frowned out of the hearts of honest men to drop in the gulf of fallen nature, "where the worm dieth not and the fire is not quenched!" and let all the Saints say, Amen!

Emma Smith, Prest.
H. M. [Hannah] Ells, Sec. pro tem.

(Nauvoo Neighbor, March 20, 1844)

Joseph again supported Emma’s activities and meetings by publishing this “Voice of Innocence” in the Nauvoo Neighbor in order to inform as many Saints as possible of the continuing fight of the Church against adultery and polygamy.

Emma's Fight After Joseph's Death

At the time of Joseph’s death Brigham Young and others were already practicing polygamy in Nauvoo, as previously noted. They continued the activity in secret by declaring, as Bennett had taught, that Joseph Smith had received a revelation authorizing the doctrine. Emma Smith remained at Nauvoo. It was not until those men moved to Utah, however, that they publicly acknowledged their practices, forcing the Saints who had followed them to accept polygamy as a cardinal doctrine. Even then, in order to give it credence, they continued to claim that Joseph Smith had secretly taught and practiced polygamy.

After Joseph’s death, Emma refused to follow those who practiced polygamy to Utah. She married Lewis C. Bidamon, an ex-major, who finished part of the Nauvoo House for their home. Emma managed it as the “Riverside Hotel” for a number of years, where many came to ask her about Joseph and the subject of polygamy. Following are some of their reports.

Forscutt’s Testimony Concerning Emma

Mark Forscutt was a secretary to Brigham Young in Utah, until Brigham insisted that he take a plural wife. Mark refused and was forced to escape from Utah to save his life. Later he became an apostle in the Reorganization—and still later he interviewed Emma to get her testimony concerning the polygamy question. He recorded in his diary:

Thur. Sep. 13/77.

Spent day visiting at Nauvoo, Sister Emma (widow of the Martyr) told me that she remembered Joseph having said in answer to a question from Sister , Mother of the Brothers Brackenbury, as to whether Brigham would not lead the church in case of his (Joseph’s) death,—"I would pity the people that should follow Brigham as a leader," and in answer to another question as to why he would pity them, Joseph answered, "Because he would lead them to hell." She also related that after Brigham came into power in Nauvoo, she sought several times to see him; but did not succeed, and finally sent for him. He came, bringing witnesses with him, and enquired what she wished. She asked him why he was teaching or allowing to be taught the doctrines and practises [sic] he was [spiritual wifery and polygamy], to which he replied he knew of nothing of the kind she referred to, and if she knew of any one indulging in such practises, and would inform on them, they should be taken up and dealt with. She replied, "Why, Brigham you need not talk like that; you know these things are done. It is so plain, that even a stranger can not come and walk through our streets without witnessing it. You know too that Joseph in my presence told you that you had been teaching such things while he was alive, and that he commanded you in the name of the Lord, to teach them no more, or judgments would overtake you." He left and she had no conversation with him afterward (Mark Forscutt’s Diary, pages 81–82).

This entry in Mark Forscutt’s diary gives concrete evidence that (1) polygamy was being practiced by the apostles in Nauvoo before and after Joseph’s death, (2) Joseph Smith knew about Brigham’s polygamy and had commanded him to stop it, (3) Joseph and Emma fought against its practice, and (4) Joseph predicted that if the Saints allowed Brigham to control the Church that he would lead them to destruction.

Apostle Jason Briggs’ Interview

J. W. Briggs.—Mrs. Bidamon, have you seen the revelation on polygamy, published by Orson Pratt, in the Seer, in 1852 [Section 132 in the Utah Doctrine and Covenants]?
Mrs. B.—I have.

J.W.B.—Have you read it?
Mrs. B.—I have read it, and heard it read.

J.W.B.—Did you ever see that document in manuscript, previous to its publication, by Pratt?
Mrs. B.—I never did.

J.W.B.—Did you ever see any document of that kind, purporting to be a revelation, to authorize polygamy?
Mrs. B.—No; I never did.

J.W.B.—Did Joseph Smith ever teach you the principles of polygamy as being revealed to him, or as a correct and righteous principle?
Mrs. B.—He never did.

J.W.B.—What about the statement of Brigham Young, that you burnt the original manuscript of that revelation?
Mrs. B.—It is false in all its parts, made out of whole cloth without any foundation in truth (The Messenger, vol. 1, p. 23).

Dixon’s Report

An English author and traveler named William Hepworth Dixon visited Emma and wrote in 1869:

Emma, Joseph’s wife and secretary, the partner of all his toils, of all his glories, coolly, firmly, permanently denies that her husband ever had any other wife than herself. She declares the story to be false, the revelation a fraud. She denounces polygamy as the invention of Young and Pratt—a work of the devil—brought in by them for the destruction of God’s new church. On account of this doctrine, she has separated herself from the Saints of Utah, and has taken up her dwelling with what she calls a remnant of the true church at Nauvoo (New America, Chapter 30, 1869; Saints' Herald 48:165–166).

Chrestensen’s Interview

In 1872, seven years before Emma’s death, J. C. Chrestensen visited Emma at Nauvoo. Christensen questioned Emma about Joseph and polygamy.

Sister Emma, were you at one time the wife of the Prophet?
Yes, sir.

Is it not a fact that he had other wives besides you?
No, sir; I was his only wife, to my knowing during his lifetime.

Could he not have had other wives without you knowing it?
No, sir; no one had a better chance and way of knowing this than myself.

Sister Emma, is it not a fact that Joseph Smith received a revelation favoring polygamy and spiritual wifery?
No, sir; there was no revelation given through him on either spiritual wifery or polygamy. Nor was that abominable doctrine taught either privately or publicly [by Joseph] before Mr. Smith’s death.

How about Brigham Young’s statement to the contrary—that Joseph Smith did receive the polygamy and Adam-god revelation, and that he presented it to you by the hand of a Mr. Clayton, and that after reading it you got mad, tore it up, and burned it?
That is a base falsehood made out of whole cloth.

Have you ever seen and read that feigned and assumed revelation on polygamy?
Yes, sir.

When and where did you first see and read that polygamy revelation?
Right here in Nauvoo in the year 1853, published in Washington, District of Columbia, in a paper called The Seer, by Orson Pratt [of the Utah Church] (Saints' Herald 65:1044–1045).

Apostle Edmund Briggs’ Testimony

She spoke so endearingly of Joseph, in confidence, tears filling her eyes, that I could see she reverenced his very memory, and had full faith in Joseph’s inspiration as a prophet of God, and she always denied to me in the most emphatic language that he taught or practiced polygamy.

I was also present when my brother, Jason Briggs, asked Sister Emma in relation to the purported revelation on polygamy published by Orson Pratt in 1852, and she again denied that her husband ever taught polygamy, or that she ever burned any manuscript of a revelation purporting to favor polygamy, and that "the statement that I burned the original of the copy Brigham Young claimed to have, is false, and made out of whole cloth, and not true in any particular."

My brother was quite particular in his inquiry when she said, "I never saw anything purporting to be a revelation authorizing polygamy until I saw it in The Seer, published by Orson Pratt." Several were present at the time, and I shall never forget the candid manner of her expression when she, without a single hesitancy, with honesty and truthfulness marking her countenance, gave the lie to Brigham Young’s assertion on the 29th of August, 1852, in Salt Lake City when he said, "The original of this revelation was burned up . . . Sister Emma burned the original" (Saints' Herald 48:165).

Apostle Edmund C. Briggs explained concerning other interviews which he had with Emma.

I was very watchful all the time to gather any expression from Sr. Emma in which she reflected any feeling concerning the latter-day work. One evening she said, "If anyone will follow the instructions as laid down in the Proverbs of Solomon and the Psalms of David they will come out all right. But Joseph said David was not raised from the dead when the righteous came forth at the time of Christ’s resurrection, because he put Uriah to death, and the crimes of polygamy and murder always go together(Saints’ Herald, 48:184).

Joseph III’s Account

In February, 1879, only two months before Emma’s death, Joseph III, who had heard her testimonies to others many times on the subject of polygamy, put some of the questions directly to her himself.

Q. (Question)—What about the revelation on polygamy? Did Joseph Smith have anything like it? What of spiritual wifery?
A.—There was no revelation on either polygamy, or spiritual wives. There were some rumors of something of the sort, of which I asked my husband. He assured me that all there was of it was, that in a chat about plural wives, he had said, "Well, such a system might possibly be, if everybody was agreed to it, and would behave as they should; but they would not; and, besides, it was contrary to the will of heaven." No such thing as polygamy, or spiritual wifery, was taught, publicly or privately [by him], before my husband’s death, that I have now, or ever had any knowledge of.

Q.—Did he not have other wives than yourself?
A.—He had no other wife but me; nor did he to my knowledge ever have.

Q.—Did he not hold marital relation with women other than yourself?
A.—He did not have improper relations with any woman that ever came to my knowledge.

Q.—Was there nothing about spiritual wives that you recollect?
A.—At one time my husband came to me and asked me if I had heard certain rumors about spiritual marriages, or anything of the kind; and assured me that if I had, that they were without foundation; that there was no such doctrine, and never should be with his knowledge, or consent. I know that he had no other wife or wives than myself, in any sense, either spiritual or otherwise (Saints’ Herald 26:289–290).

H. A. Stebbins’ Testimony

I also visited "Mother Emma" at Plano and Nauvoo, in the latter place when she lived in that part of the "Nauvoo House," that was built up in 1870–71 for her and her husband, Major Bidamon. She said that she knew that her first husband, Joseph Smith, did not have any other wife but her, and that he did not teach or practice polygamy, whatever others may have done who went wrong (Saints’ Herald 66:228).


Emma’s struggle against polygamy was long and difficult, but it was well worth all her labors—for it brought the truth of Joseph’s innocence to her sons and to the Saints for all time to come. In a day when the Utah faction and others were claiming that Joseph instituted polygamy, Emma’s voice was first and foremost among the faithful remnant, the early Reorganization, which proclaimed his innocence.

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