The Mormon Church quietly dumped a series of essays on its website today, including one in which leadership officially admits that the church's founder, Joseph Smith, had as many as 40 wives, including one who was only 14-years-old.
The passel of 12 essays were apparently released in effort by the church—formally called the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—"to be transparent" about unsavory elements of its history. One is on the church's ban of blacks.
"There is so much out there on the Internet that we felt we owed our members a safe place where they could go to get reliable, faith-promoting information that was true about some of these more difficult aspects of our history," Elder Steven E. Snow, the church's historian, told the New York Times.
The revelation that Smith, a venerated figure in the faith, practiced plural marriage, will come as a shock to some Mormons. From the essay "Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo":
During the era in which plural marriage was practiced, Latter-day Saints distinguished between sealings for time and eternity and sealings for eternity only. Sealings for time and eternity included commitments and relationships during this life, generally including the possibility of sexual relations. Eternity-only sealings indicated relationships in the next life alone.
Evidence indicates that Joseph Smith participated in both types of sealings. The exact number of women to whom he was sealed in his lifetime is unknown because the evidence is fragmentary. Some of the women who were sealed to Joseph Smith later testified that their marriages were for time and eternity, while others indicated that their relationships were for eternity alone.
A footnote appended to the above paragraphs designates that "careful estimates" put the number of women "sealed" to Smith to be "between 30 and 40." Some of the women were already married to other men when they were apparently also wed to Smith.
The essay notes that most of the women Smith married were between the ages 20 and 40, but he also married Helen Mar Kimball "several months before her 15th birthday."
According to essay, plural marriage was "an excruciating ordeal" for Emma, Smith's first, and long believed to be only, wife. "After Emma opposed plural marriage, Joseph was placed in an agonizing dilemma, forced to choose between the will of God and the will of his beloved Emma," the essay reads.
The Mormon Church ended the practice of polygamy in 1890 (ceding to pressure by the U.S. government), though this new essay admits that many, including leadership, continued in plural marriages for years after.