The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which officially disavowed polygamy in the 1890s, has tried to portray Smith as a loyal spouse to his wife, Emma. But the church has been making an effort to be transparent about the more troubling aspects of its history, and finally revealed the truth about Smith's marriages in an essay on its official website.
According to the essay, the prophet had not wanted multiple wives, but was convinced after three visits from an angel, who threatened him "with destruction unless he went forward and obeyed the commandment fully."
Smith's wives were mostly between the ages of 20 and 40, although he had one as young as 14 and another as old as 56.
A number of the marriages, including some to women already wed, were not consummated. They were "for eternity alone," meaning the marriage was reserved for the afterlife, while others were "sealings for time," or for this life.
"These sealings may have provided a way to create an eternal bond or link between Joseph's family and other families within the Church," the essay explains.
"Joseph Smith's sealings to women already married may have been an early version of linking one family to another. In Nauvoo, most if not all of the first husbands seem to have continued living in the same household with their wives during Joseph's lifetime, and complaints about these sealings with Joseph Smith are virtually absent from the documentary record."
The revelations are shocking to many Mormons, a large number of whom are descended from plural marriages. They knew Smith's successor, Brigham Young, had multiple wives.
"We need to be truthful, and we need to understand our history," church historian Elder Steven Snow told the New York Times. "I believe our history is full of stories of faith and devotion and sacrifice, but these people weren't perfect."