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Secret Polygamists in Nauvoo 

          Believing that he was commanded by God to practice plural marriage, Joseph knew that intense persecution would follow.  In a monogamist society, polygamy might easily be seen as a form of licentiousness.  Doubtless he worried about the reactions of friends, strangers, enemies and government officials, should they come to know and in response, the Prophet kept the principle secret.  To this date, historians are still unsure about the exact time that Joseph Smith learned about plural marriage and first entered its practice.  

          In the face of public denials, the practice of polygamy secretly expanded as Joseph taught the principle to trusted friends and Church leaders.  Scholar Rex E. Cooper explained that “All these ceremonies were performed in secret, and the rank and file membership of the Church was not aware that such ordinances were being performed.”[1]  By the time of the Prophet’s death in June 1844, around 200 of the 15,000 Latter-day Saints had a first-hand knowledge of the secret doctrine.[2]  William Clayton, who served as a private secretary to Joseph Smith, referred to Nauvoo polygamists as “Brethren of the Secret Priesthood.”[3] 

          During the two years after the Prophet’s death, the number of plural marriages expanded five-fold, involving up to ten percent of all Latter-day Saints.[4]  Once the westward migration was well underway, most Church members were aware of the doctrine.  Living outside the confines of the United States largely eliminated the need for secrecy as polygamy was lawful in U.S. Territories until 1862.

[1]   Bergera “Earliest Eternal Sealings,” 47.

[2]   George D. Smith, “Nauvoo Roots,” 12.

[3]   Italics added.  William Clayton referred to polygamists as “Brethren of the secret priesthood” in his journal 23 May 1843.  See discussion in Ehat, “Introduction of Temple Ordinances,” 57 en 165.

[4]   George D. Smith, “Nauvoo Roots,” 35.