When polygamy was introduced into the Latter Day Saint movement is uncertain.
Possible revelation in 1831
A photograph of part of W. W. Phelps
' transcript of a claimed 1831 polygamy revelation by Joseph Smith. The original is held by the LDS Church's historical department.
Some scholars believe that Smith transcribed a revelation recommending polygamy on July 17, 1831. This alleged revelation is described in a letter to Brigham Young written in 1861 by an early Mormon convert, William W. Phelps, thirty years after the supposed revelation. This was during a period when LDS Church leaders were justifying the practice and origins of plural marriage, particularly to Mormon splinter groups who did not agree with the practice.
The key portion of the revelation proclaims:
||[I]t is [Jesus Christ's] will, that in time, ye should take unto you wives of the Lamanites and Nephites [i.e., Native Americans], that their posterity may become white, delightsome, and Just, for even now their females are more virtuous than the gentiles.
This wording is comparable with the portion of the 1830 edition of the Book of Mormon, which corresponds to today's 2 Nephi 30:5–6, which states that when Native Americans receive the gospel they will become a "white and a delightsome people." Unlike the 1831 revelation, the 1830 version of the Book of Mormon does not specify that the Native Americans would become "white and delightsome" through plural marriage. A note from Phelps in the same document explains how the conversion of the Native Americans coincided with Smith's plan for a new system of marriage:
||About three years after this was given [i.e., about 1834], I asked brother Joseph, privately, how "we," that were mentioned in the revelation could take wives of the "natives" as we were all married men? He replied instantly "In the same manner that Abraham took Hagar and Keturah; and Jacob took Rachel, Bilhah and Zilpah; by revelation—the saints of the Lord are always directed by revelation.
A reference was made to this revelation five months after its alleged date in a letter by Mormon apostate Ezra Booth to the Ohio Star on December 8, 1831, in which he refers to the "revelation [that the Mormon Elders] form a matrimonial alliance with the Natives", but the letter makes no reference to polygamy. This letter is significant in that it confirms the authenticity of the revelation, but some regard it as problematic because had it mentioned polygamy, Booth would have mentioned it in his anti-Mormon agenda. Three authors assert that a second record of the revelation exists, believed to be in the LDS Church's historical department, though its existence has not been confirmed by the church.
The LDS Church never published Phelps's note or letter, nor has it been canonized as part of Mormon scripture, which was done with many of Smith's other revelations. The church also never adopted a policy requiring or recommending that its members marry Native Americans. In 1943, historian Fawn Brodie stated that LDS Church historian Joseph Fielding Smith told her that a revelation foreshadowing polygamy had been written in 1831 but never published, and that although its existence in the church library is acknowledged, "in conformity with the church policy" Brodie would not be permitted to examine it.
Though the 1831 revelation is cited by Mormon historians, non-Mormon historians, and critics, there are dissenting opinions, and no consensus has been reached.
Early teachings and practice
After Smith's death, many early converts, including apostles Brigham Young, Orson Pratt, and Lyman E. Johnson, said that Smith was teaching plural marriage as early as 1831 or 1832. Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner, Smith's ninth wife claimed that Smith had a private conversation with her in 1831 when she was twelve.
||[At age 12 in 1831], [Smith] told me about his great vision concerning me. He said I was the first woman God commanded him to take as a plural wife. ... In 1834 he was commanded to take me for a Wife ... [In 1842 age 23] I went forward and was sealed to him. Brigham Young performed the sealing ... for time, and all Eternity. I did just as Joseph told me to do[.]
Pratt reported that Smith told some early members in 1831 and 1832 that plural marriage was a true principle, but that the time to practice it had not yet come. Johnson also claimed to have heard the doctrine from Smith in 1831. Mosiah Hancock reported that his father Levi W. Hancock was taught about plural marriage in the spring of 1832.
William Clayton, Smith's scribe, recorded polygamous marriages in 1843, including unions between Smith and Eliza Partridge, Emily Partridge, Sarah Ann Whitney, Helen Kimball, and Flora Woodworth.
Latter Day Saint historical sources indicate that as early as 1832, Mormon missionaries were converting followers of religious leader Jacob Cochran, who went into hiding in 1830 to escape imprisonment for practicing polygamy. Mormons held two conferences at Saco, Maine, the center of Cochranism, on June 13, 1834, and August 21, 1835. At the latter conference, at least seven of the twelve newly-ordained Mormon apostles were in attendance, including Brigham Young. Young became acquainted with Cochran's followers as he made several missionary journeys through Cochranite territory from Boston to Saco, and later married Augusta Adams Cobb, a former Cochranite, as one of his plural wives. Others who spent time among the Cochranites were Orson Hyde and Smith's younger brother, Samuel.
Among Cochran's marital innovations was "spiritual wifery". Ridlon wrote in 1895, "tradition assumes that [Cochran] received frequent consignments of spiritual consorts, and that such were invariably the most robust and attractive women in the community." Some new Cochranites remained polygamists, and moved from the east coast to the Mormon community of Kirtland, Ohio. Rumors of Mormon polygamy began to become public, enough to be denied in Mormon publications and mentioned in Mormon scripture in 1835, which noted:
||"Inasmuch as this Church of Christ has been reproached with the crime of fornication and polygamy, we declare that we believe that one man should have one wife, and one woman but one husband, except in the case of death, when either is at liberty to marry again."