Carefully Worded Denials

Nauvoo pluralists, including Joseph Smith, tried to avoid bearing a false witness while avoiding any acknowledgement of the practice of celestial plural marriage.

  • Abraham introduced his wife Sarai to the king of Egypt as his sister in order to save his life (Genesis 12: 10-12).  
  • Later Abraham repeated the approach with King Abimelech, not disclosing Sarah was his wife (Genesis 20:1-7).
  • Leaders could truthfully deny John C. Bennett's "spiritual wifery," legal polygamy, and polygamy as practiced by the Turks. 
  • Many Latter-day Saints considered celestial plural marriage to be so different from polygamy that denying polygamy was not bearing a false witness.
  • Multiple authors acknowledge the sincere attempts of leaders to technically not lie while denying polygamy:
  • Danel Bachman observed:  ‘Most of these denials stressed semantical and theological technicalities.  That is, the language of the defense was carefully chosen to disavow practices that did not accurately represent Church doctrines.” (A Study of the Mormon Practice of Plural Marriage Before the Death of Joseph Smith." M.A. thesis, Purdue University, 1975, 197. )
  • Todd Compton concurred:  “Faced with the necessity of keeping polygamy secret, the Mormon authorities generally chose to disavow the practice, sometimes using language with coded double meanings.” (In Sacred Loneliness, 643.)
  • Lawrence Foster wrote:  “Smith himself most characteristically made indirect denials of polygamy in which he said simply that such statements were too ridiculous to be believed.  But he always carefully refrained from saying that such statements weren’t true.” ("Between Two Worlds," Ph.D. dissertation, 1976, 208 fn1.) 
  • Fawn Brodie agreed:  “The denials of polygamy uttered by the Mormon leaders between 1835 and 1852, when it was finally admitted, are a remarkable series of evasions and circumlocutions involving all sorts of verbal gymnastics.” (No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith, the Mormon Prophet, 2nd rev. ed. New York, 1971, 321).
  • Plural marriage wasn’t Joseph Smith secret teaching, but a principle he sought to introduce to the Saints as soon as they were capable of receiving it.
  • When asked in 1892:  “Did you agree with Joseph Smith when he was teaching you this principle, that you would guard it as a secret?”  plural wife Lucy Walker answered:  “I entered into no such agreement.  There was no such an arrangement.”
  • In the right setting, Joseph taught the principle to sincere inquirers. Cyrus Wheelock, who held no significant leadership position, reported that on a “rainy and chilly” day in a forest setting about a mile west of Montrose, Iowa Joseph taught a small group of men regarding plural marriage: "His teaching was not specially directed to me, but to all who were in the company.  We talked about it as we might here. . .  I understood it as a . . . principle that would be fully and openly revealed to the Church when the proper time came for it to be revealed.”
  • Exactly one month after it had been written, the revelation on celestial marriage was read to the Nauvoo High Council. Other priesthood quorums heard it read as well.
  • Jesus did not always respond to inquirers:  “And when he was accused of the chief priests and elders, he answered nothing” (Matthew 27:12). “But Jesus yet answered nothing; so that Pilate marveled” (Mark 15:5).
  • In 1883, as Church President, John Taylor recounted that “he was present at a meeting of the leading authorities of the Church in Nauvoo, at which the subject of the revelation on celestial marriage was laid before them and unanimously received as from God." 


“Thou Shalt not Lie” and Denials of Polygamy