Woman Versus Prophet by David L. Kent (June/July 2003)

In my half century in Mormonism, I was often amused by my Catholic acquaintances’ ignorance of the history of their church. Later I was embarrased to realize the same charge could be leveled at Mormons themselves. The half-dozen cases itemized in Freethought Today (April 2003, p. 6) are typical of polygamous Joseph Smith/Brigham Young wannabe prophets. But the character of the founders of the Mormon church is a sandy foundation for the ambition of their imitators.

Joseph Smith

In his life-long prowl, Joseph Smith collected 33 documentable surreptitious “wives.”1 The fifteenth was Sarah Ann Whitney (1825-73), married to Smith by her father on 27 July 1842. Three weeks later, in hiding from the law, Smith directed her parents to bring Sarah to him.

To her he wrote: “My feelings are so strong for you. . . . Come and see me in this my lonely retreat. . . . I have a room entirely by myself. The only thing to be careful of is to find out when Emma [his legitimate wife] comes then you cannot be safe, but when she is not here, there is the most perfect safety. . . . Burn this letter as soon as you read it; my life depends upon it.”2

On 29 April 1843, Smith publicly married Sarah to Joseph C. Kingsbury in what the latter called a “pretended marriage,” in order to throw Emma off the track. On one occasion, he posted a lookout to make sure no one saw him climb through a back window for a night’s tryst with another of his “wives.” And he disguised his first polygamous wife in men’s clothing, so that she would pass unobserved.

In 1877, John Doyle Lee blew the whistle on another cruel practice: “In Nauvoo [Illinois] it was the orders from Joseph Smith and his apostles to beat, wound, and castrate Gentiles.”

He instanced the case of Bishop Warren Stone Snow of Manti, San Pete County, Utah. “He had several wives, but there was a fair, buxom young woman in the town that Snow wanted for a wife. She thanked him for the honor offered, but told him she was then engaged to a young man, a member of the church, and consequently could not marry the old priest. He told her it was the will of God that she should marry him, and she must do so; that the young man could be got rid of, sent on a mission . . . that, in fact, it was contrary to do the wishes of the authorities, so a promise made to the young man was not binding.”

The girl and her fiance both refused to give her up. Ordered to go on a mission, the man refused. Snow decided that he should be castrated, saying, ‘When that is done, he will not be liable to want the girl badly, and she will listen to reason when she knows that her lover is no longer a man.’ “

The bishop called a meeting of the priests. The young man refusing again, the lights were put out, and an attack was made. “He was severely beaten, and then tied with his back down on a bench, when Bishop Snow took a bowie-knife, and performed the operation in a most brutal manner, and then took the portion severed and hung it up in the school-house on a nail.” The man dragged himself away to some haystacks, where his friends found him the next day.

Later Snow talked to the people about their duty to the church, and their duty to obey counsel, and the dangers of refusal, and then publicly called attention to the mangled parts of the young man . . . and stated that the deed had been done to teach the people that the counsel of the Priesthood must be obeyed.”3 The young woman was then forced to marry him.

A few weeks later, a Bishop Blackburn shouted in a Sunday meeting of all ages and both sexes, “I want the people of Provo to understand that the boys in Provo can use the knife as well as the boys in San Pete. Boys, get your knives ready, there is work for you!”

According to Young’s counselor Wilford Woodruff, “When the circumstances were told, President Brigham Young sustained the brethren who presided at Provo.”4 Historian D. Michael Quinn (excommunicated in 1993) discovered that Young also approved the castration by Warren Snow: “In May 1857 Bishop Warren S. Snow’s counselor wrote that twenty-four-year-old Thomas Lewis ‘has now gone crazy’ after being inflicted by Bishop Snow. When informed of Snow’s action, Young said ‘I feel to sustain him.’ ” Snow was continued in office, given a personal blessing by Young in 1861, and in 1867 was given the opportunity to preach in the Mormon tabernacle. So Lee’s conclusion that “Brigham Young did nothing against Snow” has been proved to be truthful.5
If such evidence concerning Smith and Young were more widely known, perhaps excitable opportunists in the Mormon church would be less inclined to imitate the pattern of these exemplars of integrity and honesty, who never hesitated to exploit and oppress any women who crossed their paths, all the way from Emma Hale Smith to . . . Elizabeth Smart.

1Todd Compton, In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1997), pp. 1-23, 342-63, passim.

2Dean Jessee, editor, The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1984), pp. 539-42, with a photographic reprint of the letter.

3Jerald and Sandra Tanner, editors, Salt Lake City Messenger (P.O Box 1884, SLC 84110) No. 92 (April 1997), “Mormonism’s Early Secrets,” pp. 11-13, citing Lee’s Confessions, first published as Mormonism Unveiled.

4Wilford Woodruff’s Diaryfor 2 June 1857 and later (vols. 5:54-55, 571, and 6:319), quoted in Tanner.

5D. Michael Quinn, The Mormon Hierarchy: Extensions of Power, Vol. 2 (Salt Lake City: www.utlm.org, 1997), pp. 250-51.

David L. Kent is a Texas Foundation member, father of five thriving atheists, author of Barbados and America and other genealogical source books, and patron of the book arts. He was a Mormon from 1948 to 1999.

Freedom From Religion Foundation