Joseph's Teenage Sealings

CES Letter Core Question

Was Joseph Smith sealed to seven teenage women? Was the sealing to Helen Mar Kimball, age 14, shocking by 19th century standards?

Out of the 34 women, 7 of them were teenage girls as young as 14-years-old. Joseph was 37-years-old when he married 14-year-old Helen Mar Kimball, twenty-three years his junior. Even by 19th century standards, this is shocking.


CES Letter, Page 53

Observations today claiming that marriages to fourteen-year-olds in the 1840s were scandalous are manifestations of “presentism,” where currents standards are superimposed upon other times.

A review of marital patterns in the United States during the nineteenth century shows that the average female age for first marriages was around twenty. However, weddings to women as young as sixteen were not uncommon and as young as fourteen were eyebrow-raising, but not shameful or shocking.

An 1846 article in the Millennial Star spoke of a sixteen year old girl in England who was married by a priest without any apparent problem.

A study from eighteenth-century Andover, Massachusetts, showed that one third of the women wed before their twenty-first birthday. One sampling from the 1850 U. S. census of 879 marriages showed that more than forty percent of the wives were under the age of twenty.

William Clark (of the Lewis and Clark expedition) wed sixteen-year-old Julia Hancock in 1808. Jesse Hale, brother to Emma Hale Smith, the Prophet’s wife, married Mary McKune when she was fifteen and he was twenty-three. Martin Harris, one of the Three Witnesses of the Book of Mormon, married his wife Lucy when she was only fifteen. Illinois Governor Thomas Ford (1842–1846), the state official who forced the Prophet to appear at Carthage where he was murdered, married Frances Hambaugh in 1828; she was fifteen and he was twenty-eight.

LDS scholar Gregory L. Smith explained:

It is significant that none of Joseph's contemporaries complained about the age differences between polygamous or monogamous marriage partners. This was simply part of their environment and culture; it is unfair to judge nineteenth century members by twenty-first century social standards. . . . Joseph Smith's polygamous marriages to young women may seem difficult to understand or explain today, but in his own time such age differences were not typically an obstacle to marriage. The plural marriages were unusual, to say the least; the younger ages of the brides were much less so. Critics do not provide this perspective because they wish to shock the audience and have them judge Joseph by the standards of the modern era, rather than his own time.

Utah Policy was to Wait to Begin Sexual Relations with Young Plural Wives. While we have no firsthand accounts outlining the Prophet’s counsel on marriages to women in their teens, it is probable that the marriage patterns established in Utah by Brigham Young were based upon teachings he had received from the Prophet. Young taught polygamous husbands that young wives should be allowed to mature physically before beginning a family with them. One study showed that the average age for plural wives married in one area of Utah was around twenty. Eugene E. Campbell described Brigham’s instructions given in Utah: 

One of the more distressing developments was the number of men asking Young for permission to marry girls too young to bear children. To one man at Fort Supply, Young explained, ‘I don't object to your taking sisters named in your letter to wife if they are not too young and their parents and your president and all connected are satisfied, but I do not want children to be married to men before an age which their mothers can generally best determine.’ Writing to another man in Spanish Fork, he said, ‘Go ahead and marry them, but leave the children to grow.’ A third man in Alpine City was instructed, ‘It is your privilege to take more wives, but set a good example to the people, and leave the children long enough with their parents to get their growth, strength and maturity.’ To Louis Robinson, head of the church at Fort Bridger, Young advised, ‘Take good women, but let the children grow, then they will be able to bear children after a few years without injury.’ Another man in Santa Clara was told that it would be wise to marry an Indian girl but only if she were mature. Still another man wanted Young to counsel him concerning a sister who proposed to give him her twelve-year-old daughter. For example, C. C. Rich took a bride of fourteen years though he did not live with her until she was eighteen years old.

A few accounts of brides as young as fourteen can be identified in historical documents dating back to the pre-1900s. Stephanie Coontz, author of Marriage, a History, acknowledged that “in the area of classic patriarchy . . . girls are married at very young ages.”

Elvina Apperson Fellows was only ten years old in 1847 when her family journeyed the Oregon Trail to Portland. Her father died along the way and her mother finished the trip alone. Elvina left a memoir describing her marriage at age fourteen: “In 1851 Mother was pretty hard run to earn enough money for us to live on, so when a man named Julius Thomas, a cook in a restaurant, offered to marry me, Mother thought I had better take him, so I did. He was 44 and I was 14.”

In 1842, the Nauvoo City Council passed an ordinance specifying the minimum age for marriage, which recited Illinois State law verbatim: “All male persons over the age of seventeen years, and females over the age of fourteen years, may contract and be joined in marriage, provided, in all cases where either party is a minor, the consent of parents or guardians be first had.”

The 1896 Dictionary of the Bible by William Smith observed: “With regard to age, no restriction is pronounced in the Bible. Early marriage is spoken of with approval in several passages (Prov. 2:17–18; Isa 62:5); and in reducing this general statement to more definite one of years, we must take into account the very early age at which persons arrive at puberty in Oriental countries. In modern Egypt, marriage takes place, in general, before the bride has attained the age of sixteen—frequently when she is twelve or thirteen and occasionally when she is only ten.”

 


See:

Joseph Smith and His Young Wives