Did Joseph Smith Marry A 14 Year-Old Girl?

Helen Mar Kimball says she was sealed to Joseph Smith in 1843, when she was almost 15 years old. She was married “for eternity alone,” for the after-life only. There were no sexual relations. Historians agree, dynastic relations between families was the motivating factor for the sealing.

Not Civil Marriage

Early Mormons carefully distinguished between marriage “for time” and celestial sealing “for eternity.” A sealing for eternity was the promise that two people would be married in the afterlife. But this did not mean they had to be married for earth-life.

With most of his polygamous “wives”–perhaps all of them–Joseph Smith had no earthly relations with these women and were effectively not “married” to them.

Helen described her marriage as “celestial marriage” and “for eternity alone.” (Helen Mar Whitney, Autobiography, p. 2) Anti-Mormons incorrectly equate the eternal sealings with “marriage” to imply sexual relationships, but the truth is Helen continued to live with her parents after the sealing. Joseph Smith was arrested just days later on June 13, 1843 and was martyred in jail the next year. Clearly, they did not have physical relations.

Helen described suffering due to her “married life,” but this all happened while Joseph was either in jail or after he was dead. She suffered not because of Joseph Smith, but because of the pressure from her peers and the cultural restrictions placed on married women. Helen said she resented being kept from dances and other events meant for girls her age. She said her “youthful friends” became “shy and cold.” She said “poisonous darts from slanderous tongues were hurled” from jealous women. Helen resented being treated like a wife, when she actually had no husband around to speak of.

But despite her angst, Helen described her summer of 1843 as “of an exciting nature.” She learned to “bear the stigmas” of it all and enjoy the rest of her early life. She said “all their cruelties and whippings could not crush out nor subdue that spirit, nor make a ‘Mormon’ feel that he was conquered.” (Helen Mar Whitney, Life Incidents)

In 1892, Joseph Smith’s polygamous “wives” were called to testify in the court of law about their relationship with Joseph Smith, after a splinter sect sued another splinter sect to claim the Missouri temple site for themselves. They wanted to prove that Joseph Smith was polygamous. But they did not call Helen Mar Kimball as a witness in this “Temple Lot Case.” The attorney sought for only wives who they thought had sexual relations with Joseph Smith. Everybody knew Helen had not.

No Compulsion

Helen said the purpose of the marriage was for her family “to be connected with the Prophet, Joseph.” A leading historian explains: “The prophet’s marriage to her seems to have been largely dynastic–a union arranged by Joseph and Heber to seal the Kimball family to a seer, church president, and presiding patriarchal figure of the dispensation of the fullness of times.” (Compton, 1997, p.486) Indeed, Helen’s father, Heber C. Kimball, went on to become the first counselor to the president of the church.

Joseph gave Helen twenty-four hours to herself to consider the request, without compulsion. She was not forced or pressured into it. There is a phony quote attributed to Helen Kimball floating around:

“I would never have been sealed to Joseph had I known it was anything more than a ceremony. I was young, and they deceived me, by saying the salvation of our whole family depended on it.”

Helen did not say this. This quote comes from anti-Mormon Catherine Lewis in 1848. Catherine Lewis apparently did have some insight into Helen’s sealing, as Helen herself wrote that Joseph Smith had told her the principle of eternal sealings would “ensure your eternal salvation and that of your father’s household.” He didn’t say Helen’s sealing would save his father’s family, but the principle of sealings would save them. Also, Helen said Joseph Smith had fully explained what celestial union meant, that it was much more than just a ceremony. So she certainly knew it was “more than a ceremony.” Finally, Helen left Nauvoo in 1845, which means she was 16 years old at the most when Catherine would have heard this. Would she really have called herself a young and na├»ve person just a year and a half earlier?

Catherine Lewis was a hateful vindictive apostate, and her book made all kinds of spurious false claims. She played to the racist sentiment of pro-slavery opponents of the church, spreading racist rumors that Indians were “all ready to go through, avenge, and destroy the people of Carthage; they only waited for the word of command from the Church.”

We know Helen must have told her peers about the sealing, otherwise she wouldn’t have gotten blow-back from it. If she knew Helen at all, Catherine was certainly one of the spiteful girls who bullied Helen and made her early life difficult.

Helen Defended Polygamy

Helen wrote that polygamous marriage turned out to be a great blessing for her:

“I did not try to conceal the fact of its having been a trial, but confessed that it had been one of the severest of my life; but that it had also proven one of the greatest of blessings. I could truly say it had done the most towards making me a Saint and a free woman, in every sense of the word; and I knew many others who could say the same, and to whom it had proven one of the greatest boons–a “blessing in disguise.” (Helen Mar Kimball, Why We Practice Plural Marriage)

Helen Kimball became one of the nation’s staunchest defenders of polygamy.

“I have encouraged and sustained my husband in the celestial order of marriage because I knew it was right. At various times I have been healed by the washing and annointing, administered by the mothers in Israel. I am still spared to testify to the truth and Godliness of this work; and though my happiness once consisted in laboring for those I love, the Lord has seen fit to deprive me of bodily strength, and taught me to ‘cast my bread upon the waters’ and after many days my longing spirit was cheered with the knowledge that He had a work for me to do, and with Him, I know that all things are possible.” (quoted in Augusta Joyce Crocheron, Representative Women of Deseret)

Why This Anti-Mormon Narrative Is So Powerful

Like Catherine Lewis, anti-Mormons exploit the issue of polygamy to shame and bully women in the Mormon church, and then turn around and attack the church in the name of “defending women’s rights.” Polls show Mormon women today oppose polygamy more than non-Mormon women do, because of the shame and bullying in American popular culture against them as women. How dare you be part of such a misogynist, patriarchal organization?

As for men in the church, the worst thing a man could be accused of is sexual perversion. Anti-Mormons use Helen Kimball to attack the church in order to embarrass and exploit sexual shame. Who wants to be associated with that kind of man? To make matters worse, there are splinter sects today that really do sexually exploit girls, which makes it easier for anti-Mormons to make this kind of association.

It is not coincidence that church defends traditional marriage and condemns sexual perversions such as homosexual behavior. If anti-Mormons can make Mormons look sexually perverted it ruins their credibility in matters of family and marriage. The LDS church is a stalwart supporter of masculinity and positive patriarchy. Feminists frequently use this issue to attack marriage, patriarchy, and men in the church. If someone uses this attack, you can bet his motivation is to shame men, pervert the family unit, and destroy patriarchy.

Any half-reasonable person would not judge centuries-old events through a modern lens. This was the early 1800’s. Women married much younger in those days. Fourteen-years old wasn’t normal, but it wasn’t unusual either. Marriageability was a matter of a woman’s physical and mental readiness. Most historians agree Mother Mary was only 15 years old when Jesus was born. Girls were marrying at that age all the time, and marriages were often motivated by dynastic relations and other such reasons. A ceremony for a relationship that didn’t take effect until the afterlife is hardly something to worry about for the early 1800’s.

These days are different. Polygamy doesn’t work today, and women should not marry young because their emotional and mental maturity is not yet developed. This is why the Mormon church long ago banned polygamy and no longer offers sealings for “eternity only,” with no civil marriage involved.