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Disguised in a man's hat and coat, Louisa Beaman stood on the banks of the Mississippi River on April 5, 1841, and recited vows that made her the plural wife of Joseph Smith Jr.
Over the next 30 months, more secret marriages followed as Joseph Smith added orphaned teenagers, middle-aged spinsters, sisters, mothers and daughters and other men's wives to his burgeoning clandestine family -- all while establishing a community, economy and religion.
The juxtaposition of Joseph Smith's public and private lives are the subject of an ambitious, new book by historian George D. Smith titled Nauvoo Polygamy: . . . but we called it celestial marriage (Signature Books, $39.95). Smith is cofounder and current publisher of the imprint.
Smith documents Joseph Smith's plural marriages as well as those of 196 men and 717 women, many of whom later made their way from Nauvoo to Utah. In doing so, he adds a square to the patchwork portrait that remains a work in progress some 164 years after the death of the charismatic founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Smith's work might be stitched between Todd Compton's exhaustive look at Joseph Smith's plural wives, "In Sacred Loneliness," and Richard Lyman Bushman's cultural biography of the prophet, "Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling."
At 600-plus pages, including a chart of Nauvoo's polygamous families, it is a hefty work that requires a dedicated reader. Smith draws on diaries, letters, marriage records, affidavits, church records and earlier research to piece together these early plural unions that served as a model for polygamy as the faith moved West.
In an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune, Smith said curiosity heightened by the "mystery" and silence surrounding Joseph Smith's plural marriages drew him to the subject. How did Joseph Smith court and marry so many women, "unseen amidst his public life as a religious and community leader," he asks in the book.
Smith said he began compiling lists of the church founder's wives more than a decade ago; his research was spurred on by the limited information offered in the faith's official history.
The LDS Church's online Newsroom, for instance, refers only to the fact Joseph Smith made a "prayerful inquiry" about plural marriage in 1831 that resulted in "the divine instruction to reinstitute the practice" which became "public and widely known during the time of Brigham Young."
"I am taking something that seemed to be part of the story, an essential part of the story but it wasn't addressed," Smith said. Modern-day Mormons and the church itself, he said, are still in the "process of forgetting" this aspect of their history and the role polygamy played in events in Nauvoo.
Historian Carmon Hardy, author of Doing The Works of Abraham: Mormon Polygamy, Its Origin, Practice, and Demise, said he likes Smith's comprehensive, narrative approach.
"George has done some of the best work in the past on early polygamy and Nauvoo," said Hardy, who just received a copy and has so far made a cursory pass through the book. "I think he tries very hard to say it like it is."
Smith sides with historians who believe Joseph Smith first broached polygamy as a tenet of the fledgling church in 1831, though the practice did not take root until the 1840s and was not publicly acknowledged until 1852. He is unflinching about unseemly aspects of the prophet's life, which include stints as a treasure seeker and rumors of sexual indiscretions.
Take Fanny Alger, for instance. Compton is among the historians who conclude that, in the early 1830s, Alger became Joseph Smith' first plural wife. Smith, like historian Fawn Brodie, believes the relationship was merely an affair and gives Beaman status as Joseph Smith's first documented plural wife.
Compton and Smith also offer conflicting counts of Joseph Smith's plural marriages. Compton records Joseph Smith as having 33 plural wives, while listing another five or six as "good possibilities." Smith makes the leap and documents 38 unions.
The youngest was Helen Mar Kimball, who became Joseph Smith's 26th wife at age 14; the oldest was 58. Married women agreed to unions with the prophet to strengthen family ties and, theologically, put themselves at the "head of the line at the gates of heaven." At least five women rejected Joseph Smith's overtures.
The marriages were denied publicly and mostly kept from first wife Emma, requiring the prophet to make furtive conjugal visits. Smith calls the prophet's efforts to enlist others in the practice the spark that eventually left "Nauvoo in flames."
Celestial marriage was synonymous with plural marriage in Nauvoo, Smith writes, and was the "most prominent theological principle of the religion." Since 1890, when the LDS Church first renounced the practice, celestial marriage has been redefined to mean temple marriages that united a couple for "time and eternity," he said.
Smith uses one chapter to review antecedents to Mormon plural marriage, most interestingly a 1500s Anabaptist polygamous biblical community in Munster, Germany. Did Joseph Smith know of the group? Not likely, Smith concludes, though he was probably familiar with John Milton's writings on plural marriage.
Smith makes only passing reference to fundamentalists who engage in plural marriage today, describing them in the interview as the "inheritors of that early practice."
"The public reaction to fundamentalist practices gives us a sense of the adverse public reaction to the Mormon presence in Nauvoo where polygamy was practiced," he said.