There is a lot of controversy and misunderstanding surrounding Helen Mar Kimball, the 14-year-old that Joseph Smith polygamously married when he was 37. Anti-Mormons use the facts about Joseph’s relationship with her to attack his character. This article will summarize writings from FAIR Blog as well as from Mormon Scholar, Brian C. Hales, to shed light on this controversial chapter in Mormon history.
During Joseph’s lifetime, very few people actually knew about plural marriage, and Helen was no exception. When confronted about it by her father, Heber C. Kimball, her first impulse was anger. Later, after hearing her father out, she ” . . . knew that he loved me too well to teach me anything that was not strictly pure, virtuous, and exalting in its tendencies; and no one else could have influenced me at that time or brought me to accept of a doctrine so utterly repugnant and so contrary to all of our former ideas and traditions.” The next morning Joseph visited the Kimball household, explained to her that “If you will take this step [marriage], it will ensure your eternal salvation & exaltation and that of your father’s household and all of your kindred.”
Some use this story to ‘prove’ that Joseph was not only a manipulator, but a pedophile. For these claims to be true, we must examine the following questions:
- At the time and at Joseph’s age, was it normal to marry young teens?
- Was the relationship sexual in nature?
- Might Helen have been sexually mature?
Please note that not everything the anti-Mormons say is untrue, but we do need to separate the truth from the lies and look at the entire picture to understand the situation.
Was it Normal to Marry Teens in the 1840’s?
To answer this question, we turn to this FAIR article titled 19th Century Nuptiality and Propaganda II.
The graph shows that in the 1840’s approximately 40% of all marriages were to brides ages 14 – 19, though only a small percentage of those were as young as 14.
As you can see, 14-year-old marriages between 1840 and 1880 hovered right around 1%. Though rare, marrying a 14-year-old was not entirely unheard of. We must also examine who was marrying whom.
It shows that men married between the age of 34 – 38 on average married women 10 years younger than themselves. Though it’s impossible to determine an exact number, we should be able to come up with an estimate. If 19% of 37-year-old men married teens and of those teen 2.62% were 14, we see that less than 1/2% of men Joseph’s age would have married a 14-year-old (Please note that this is a high estimate as the likelihood of the teen being 14 goes down as the man’s age goes up).
Based on this data we see that no, a 37-year-old marrying a 14-year-old was far from normal. The critics are correct in this point, but this is still just one part of the picture.
Was the Marriage Sexual?
Though Helen’s age on its own may seem damning, it’s only relevant if Joseph Smith and Helen actually had sex. For this question we turn to Brian C. Hales, a prominent LDS apologist and author who specializes in the topic of polygamy.
In an article titled Sexuality in Joseph Smith’s Plural Marriages, Brother Hales does provide evidence that Joseph had a sexual relationship with at least 9 of his 33 wives, but not necessarily all of them. He contends that a busy schedule as well as a vigilant, jealous wife would likely have kept him from participating in any sexual activity. He was always under Emma’s watchful eye. If his other wives and he were unaccounted for even for a few minutes, Emma was known to search the house as well the neighborhood.
Helen married Joseph about a year before the end of his life when he was incredibly busy and Emma was at her most jealous state, making opportunities for sexual encounters few and far between. Though lack of opportunity and lack of evidence don’t necessarily prove that the relationship wasn’t sexual, it’s not a sure thing either.
Is it a Problem if it was Sexual?
Even though it was rare and even if it was a sexual relationship, does that make it wrong? In another FAIR Blog article called Nuptiality and Propagana counters enemies of the Church who claim that Helen was a pre-pubescent victim. He cites the following statistics:
Age at menarche (first period) in France
1750 – average of almost 16 years
1850 – a little over 15 years
1900 – 14 years
2000 – 12.5 years
Though there’s obviously no definitive proof that Helen had already entered womanhood at 14, it’s not impossible. Even today many girls have their first period before the age of 18, but does that mean they’re sexually mature enough for marriage?
Yes, a 37-year-old marrying a 14-year-old was very uncommon, there’s no child and therefore no definitive proof that they had sex. Whether or not this was an appropriate marriage all comes down to whether you feel a 14-year-old is mentally prepared for a marriage.