Joseph Smith: Innocent of Polygamy
By Richard Price
History affirms that the Prophet Joseph Smith was innocent of the teaching and practice of polygamy. This false doctrine was introduced into the Church in the early days of the Restoration Movement by men who conspired to use his name to create a theology that would cover their own sins.
It is a very simple matter to determine that Joseph was not a polygamist: He fathered no children by plural wives, even though his wife, Emma, bore him nine. It would have been impossible for Joseph to have had at least twenty-seven wives, as the Mormon Church in Utah claims, without having fathered at least one child by a polygamous wife—especially when the only purpose of polygamy (according to its advocates) was to have children born of polygamous parents. And yet Joseph fathered not one such child! This fact alone proves that he did not practice that doctrine.
The truth is that Joseph Smith was “framed”— that is, the doctrine of polygamy which found its way into the Church came in through the Cochranites. It also came through three different groups of men who falsely claimed that Joseph was its author in order to justify their own evil activities.
The Prophet Israel A. Smith understood this “framing” of his grandfather and wrote, “Joseph Smith was the greatest victim of fraud and conspiracy of the last 500 years. Nothing like it in recorded history. He was simply lied about when something had to be done to justify the filth and rottenness of Utah Mormon Polygamy” (letter to Mrs. Richard Price, September 17, 1956).
Polygamy Began With the Cochranites
A study into the origins of polygamy among the Latter Day Saints reveals that this accursed doctrine actually had its beginning with members who were converted from the Cochranite denomination as early as 1832.
About 1816 a man named Jacob Cochran started a small denomination which later centered at Saco, Maine. This denomination became known as the Cochranites and is best known for its practice of polygamy. By the early 1830’s this group had developed a theology and some ritualism to enhance its practice, calling it “spiritual wifery” (Cochranism Delineated, by A. Watchman).
In 1832, the Church’s missionaries, including Orson Hyde and Brigham Young, began converting these people. A number of them moved to Kirtland, bringing their polygamous theology with them.
This is why Joseph Smith and the committee which published the Doctrine and Covenants at Kirtland in 1835 included the “Article on Marriage,” which said, “Inasmuch as this Church of Christ has been reproached with the crime of fornication, and polygamy: we declare that we believe that one man should have one wife ...“ (Doctrine and Covenants 111: 4).
Two years later the Quorums of Seventy at Kirtland also published a statement against polygamy, in an effort to put down the Cochranite influence within the Church. The Seventies adopted a resolution which stated, “That we have no fellowship whatever with any elder belonging to the quorums of the Seventies who is guilty of polygamy ...“ (Messenger and Advocate 3: 511, May, 1837).
The First Polygamy Conspiracy—Bennett and His Followers
The first organized effort of a group of men which tried to implicate Joseph in polygamy to cover their own evil deeds was headed by Dr. John C. Bennett who came to Nauvoo in 1841. Dr. Bennett, who was mayor of Nauvoo and an assistant to the First Presidency, seduced several women by teaching them the Cochranite plural wife doctrines. He did so by convincing them “that Joseph had such revelations and commandments, and that they were of God” (The Wasp, July 27, 1842).
Dr. Bennett taught several men to practice polygamy also, including Chauncey and Francis M. Higbee, sons of the Church’s historian. When their seductions came to light, Joseph labored with the men and expelled Dr. Bennett.
Joseph also sued Lawyer Chauncey Higbee for teaching that Joseph was the author of polygamy. On May 24, 1842, he signed an affidavit to take Chauncey into court in Carthage (the county seat). Joseph’s affidavit declared, “That at sundry times, in the City of Nauvoo, county aforesaid, one Chancy (sic) L. Higbee has slandered and defamed the character of the said Joseph Smith, and also the character of Emma Smith, his wife, in using their names, the more readily to accomplish his purpose in seducing certain females." (The People Versus C. L. Higbee, Hancock County Courthouse Archives). If Joseph had been the author of polygamy, he certainly would not have sued a lawyer in a nonmember court, for fear that he would be exposed, rather than Chauncey!
The Second Conspiracy—Dr. Law’s Group
When Dr. Bennett was expelled from the Church in 1842 he left Nauvoo, but the youthful Higbee brothers remained. Soon others joined them—men who were angry with Joseph for various economic and political reasons—and because Joseph had disciplined some of them in Church courts for adultery, thievery, and other crimes. Dr. William Law, a member of the First Presidency, joined this group and became the head of it.
Animosity developed between this group and Joseph. A conspiracy was formed and they tried to kill him. In a court case in which one of the conspirators sued Joseph Smith, A. B. Williams gave affidavit saying, “Joseph H. Jackson said that Doctor (Robert) Foster, Chauncy Higbee and the Laws were red-hot for a conspiracy, and he should not be surprised if in two weeks there should be not one of the Smith family left in Nauvoo” (Times and Seasons 5:541, May 15, 1844).
Dr. Law tried to depose Joseph and replace him as the head of the Church. He declared himself the head of the “Reformed Mormon Church,” called Francis Higbee and others to be apostles, and called for the elders to come and have their licenses renewed under him. This group published the Nauvoo Expositor, which claimed that Joseph was a polygamist. After their paper was destroyed, they went to Carthage and raised the mob that killed Joseph and Hyrum.
This group constituted the second conspiracy which accused Joseph of polygamy in order to further their own selfish aims. Their aims were different than Dr. Bennett’s, however, in that they wanted to remove Joseph—not to institute polygamy.
The Third Conspiracy—The Apostles
A third group which tried to link Joseph’s name with polygamy was headed by several apostles, who had spent considerable time between 1837 and 1844 ministering in England without their wives. During this time, polygamy was a common topic of discussion, both in England and America.
Under these circumstances some of the apostles had “manifestations” about polygamy being of divine origin. As an example, Brigham Young said, “While we were in England (in 1839 and 1840, I think) the Lord manifested to me by vision and His Spirit, things [about polygamy] that I did not then understand. I never opened my mouth to anyone concerning them, until I returned to Nauvoo; Joseph had never mentioned this; there had never been a thought of it in the church that I ever knew, anything about at that time;—but I had this for myself and kept it for myself." (Deseret News, July 1, 1874).
Another who had polygamy “revealed” to him in England was Lorenzo Snow (Deseret Semi-Weekly News, June 6, 1899). In addition to having these adulterous conceptions, some of these men including Orson Hyde and Brigham Young had preached among the Cochranites.
Brigham returned from England and sat as a judge on Dr. Bennett’s case when he was tried and expelled in 1842. There Brigham learned more about the workings of polygamy and took his first plural wife one month later.
In 1843 he preached in the Boston area among the Cochranites and returned to Nauvoo that fall. He brought with him Augusta Adams Cobb, a married woman, who had been baptized amid the Cochranites (Journal of Orson Hyde, pp. 16–17; American Heritage, Feb. 1965, pp. 50–55). Before Joseph’s death Brigham had secretly married four polygamous wives, including Augusta. Several other prominent men, including apostles, also had taken plural wives by this time.
As these men began practicing polygamy, it became necessary to find some theological cover for their sins—and of course it was easy to take the same route that Dr. Bennett had done—to use the Cochranite, and perhaps other polygamous theologies, under Joseph’s name. Of course, they had to denounce Bennettism and had to make it appear that Joseph was the author of the system. This was a big undertaking, but they had some advantages—Brigham Young was president of the Quorum of Twelve, Apostle Willard Richards was one of the secretaries for the Church, the Church historian, and a clerk of the Nauvoo Municipal Court. John Taylor was editor of the Church paper Times and Seasons and also the city’s newspaper, the Nauvoo Neighbor.
Joseph’s brother, Apostle William Smith, who saw through the conspiracy of this group of apostles, was in Nauvoo in April to June 1844. He later wrote to Joseph Smith III explaining, “The Church was robbed of her prophet and patriarch, by a most hellish plot that had been in vogue for not only months, but years previous to the time of their deaths.” He further explained that “I wish to here name the fact that the principal instigators in getting up that ordinance [to have the Nauvoo Expositor destroyed] were men who feared the revelations that this organ (the Expositor) was about to make of their secret and ungodly doings to the world. The persons who were most conspicuous in this work . . . were no other than John Taylor and Willard Richards, who by constant importunities prevailed upon your father to sign his own death warrant. . . . Thus these men . . . ensnared the prophet from off his watch tower, and led him like a lamb to the slaughter.“ (Saints Herald, April 15, 1879, p. 117).
In the same letter, Apostle William stated that the apostles were secretly teaching polygamy among the Saints at that time. He explained that he “took breakfast” with Joseph and Emma, at which time Emma said that “some complaint had been made to her by females whom she had visited, that John Taylor, Willard Richards, and Brigham Young, had been teaching some doctrines among the Saints privately that was going to ruin the Church.“
Joseph’s answer was that “he would attend to the matter as soon as he got through with his trouble with the Laws and Fosters.” It must be remembered that this happened immediately following the publication of the Expositor’s first and only issue. But Joseph did not wait until he settled the Law conspiracy to start on the apostles’ conspiracy. Joseph went to William Marks and asked him to start prosecuting those who were practicing polygamy—the apostles and their friends.
The true origin of polygamy becomes clear as the picture emerges of the influence of the Cochranites and other polygamous cults, and the betrayal of the Prophet by the groups of conspirators under Dr. Bennett, Dr. Law, and Brigham Young. With this background, it becomes evident that Joseph and Hyrum (neither of whom had polygamous children) were innocent, while the real culprits were Brigham Young and others.
For a more in-depth discussion of this subject, read the book, Joseph Smith Fought Polygamy, by Richard and Pamela Price. You can purchase it at the Restoration Bookstore or from our online store.