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Church: Mormon founder had teen bride during days of polygamy

Published Oct. 25, 2014

SALT LAKE CITY — The Mormon church acknowledges in a new essay that founder Joseph Smith had a teenage bride and was married to other men's wives during the faith's early polygamous days, a recognition of an unflattering part of its roots that historians have chronicled for years.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints says most of Smith's wives were between 20 and 40 years old. One of them, however, was a 14-year-old girl who was the daughter of Smith's close friends.

The essay posted this week on the church's website marked the first time the Salt Lake City-based religion has officially acknowledged those facts, though it also has not denied them.

The article is part of a recent push by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to open up about sensitive issues within the faith, many of which are uncomfortable to discuss.

Other writings posted in the past couple of years have addressed sacred undergarments worn by devout members; a past ban on black men in the lay clergy; and the misconception that Mormons are taught they'll get their own planet in the afterlife.

The new article about Smith's wives during the 1830s and 1840s in Kirtland, Ohio, and Nauvoo, Ill,, comes about 10 months after the church acknowledged polygamy was widely practiced among its members in the late 19th century.

"As a collection, these are remarkably revealing articles, continuing the new open and transparent philosophy of historical writing," said Armand Mauss, a retired professor of sociology and religious studies at Washington State University. The information will be surprising to many Mormons who either didn't know or were encouraged to dismiss speculation as anti-Mormon propaganda, Mauss said.

Mormons don't practice polygamy today. Splinter groups who call themselves fundamentalist Mormons still practice plural marriage, including Warren Jeffs' sect on the Utah-Arizona border.

Latter-day Saints began practicing polygamy after Smith received a revelation from God. He took his first plural wife in 1830 in Ohio, three years after he married his first wife, Emma, the article shows. He and his first plural wife separated, but he renewed the practice a decade later in Illinois. That's where he married the teenager.

Polygamy continued when Latter-day Saints trekked cross-country to Utah in 1847.