It’s hard to piece together, with any certainty, exactly how many (if any) plural wives Joseph Smith had before 1841. He had learned the doctrine of plural marriage as early as 1831, see, e.g., the heading to D&C 132, but he was very reluctant to practice it, and may have even hoped that it would be a principle he could “restore” as an ancient truth without having to actually practice it.
The most credible probability is, in my opinion, that Joseph took only one plural wife (Fanny Alger), before 1841. And the experience seems to have confirmed all of his worst fears about plural marriage. His reputation was tarnished, Emma was incensed, close friends apostatized, and the marriage itself was apparently an abject failure: Instead of going to Jackson County, Missouri with her uncle as Joseph hoped, Fanny left Kirtland with her parents, and in Indiana, she met and married Solomon Frank Custer. To this day, Fanny Alger does not appear on the records of the church as one of the dozens of women sealed to the prophet Joseph Smith (interestingly, she has since been sealed by proxy to Mr. Custer). Even more curiously, the family did not leave Kirtland on bad terms with Joseph Smith. Fanny’s parents moved on to Nauvoo, and eventually followed Brigham Young to Utah.
After 1836, Joseph may have been soured to the whole thing. From his perspective, he had yielded (reluctantly) to the will of the Lord, and the results had been disastrous, just as he had feared. After the Algers left Kirtland in 1836, there are no reliable accounts of Joseph making additional forays into plural marriage for more than five years (there are some unconfirmed accounts of one or two additional wives, but the evidence is sketchy at best). Perhaps Joseph felt that this one token marriage was enough to restore the principle, and he could put the whole mess behind him.
But the angel came twice more and rebuked Joseph for resisting the will of the Lord, threatening to depose him and slay him if he did not obey. So on April 5, 1841, Joseph took Louisa Beaman as a plural wife. This is the first plural marriage that is reliably documented and universally agreed on, and is in fact recorded in the records of the church. We see in the Louisa Beaman marriage a pattern that was quite common for Joseph’s later marriages: Joseph approached Joseph Bates Noble, explained the revelation to him, and asked about marrying his wife’s younger sister, who was living with the Nobles. Joseph said at the time that “In revealing this to you, I have placed my life in your hands, therefore do not in an evil hour betray me to my enemies.” Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling at 438 (Vintage Books, 2007). Despite knowing that the Lord had commanded it, Joseph’s fears about plural marriage had not subsided. Already he was holding Missouri enemies at bay. He feared that if word of plural marriage got out, it would be his undoing. (And he was right.)
Some Mormons—if they’re even aware that Joseph Smith had plural wives—have vaguely held the belief that Joseph did not have sexual relations with them; that these marriages were formalities, or “for eternity only.” But that is contrary to all historical evidence. Joseph Noble later testified that the prophet and Louisa spent the night together after the wedding. But Joseph could not have been a frequent visitor. He never lived with Louisa or his other wives. He was busy with Church business and running his publicly-known household with Emma, and the number of wives was eventually too large to permit frequent visits. Louisa and the others did not have a husband to lean on in the traditional sense. In fact, Todd M. Compton has based an entire book, In Sacred Loneliness, on the frustration and disappointment Joseph’s plural wives suffered (I have not read the book, and so can neither recommend nor disparage it). Whatever eternal blessings they had been promised, being a plural wife of the prophet—and especially a secret plural wife of the prophet—was no easy position.
Indeed, the faith shown by these 33 or more women is quite remarkable. A sort of pattern developed around Joseph’s proposals. Joseph would approach the woman herself, or a male relative, explain the revelation, and propose marriage. The initial reaction was usually some combination of shock, disbelief, and outrage, followed by a personal revelation and finally acceptance. Lucy Walker called the prophet’s proposal a “thunderbolt,” and although she “most assuredly” believed Joseph to be a prophet, she forbade him to speak again of the subject for months. Bushman at 491 — 2. In the spring of 1843, Joseph told Lucy that she had one more day to consider, after which “the gate will be closed forever against you.” Lucy said in her autobiography:
This aroused every drop of scotch in my veins …. I felt at this moment that I was called to place myself upon the altar, a living sacrifice, perhaps to brook the world in disgrace and incur the displeasure and contempt of my youthful companions, all my dreams of happiness blown to the four winds. This was too much. The thought was unbearable.
And yet, after a sleepless night and an intense spiritual manifestation, Lucy met the prophet in the morning to accept. Laying hands on her head, he blessed her “with every blessing [her] heart could possibly desire.” Bushman at 492. On May 1, 1843, Lucy was sealed to Joseph, with William Clayton officiating.
These noble women deserve our respect and admiration. To call their marriages to the prophet “loveless” would be unfair. Joseph generously shed avuncular affection on those around him, but that’s not the same thing as an infatuated young husband. There was no pretense of romanticism, no serenading and wooing, not even the traditional claim of exclusivity of affection. All 33 women knew that Joseph was already married and quite devoted to Emma, the choice of his youth. And Emma herself was a force to be reckoned with. She was not a woman to cross, and this would be seen as the ultimate betrayal. (One unverified story has Emma throwing Eliza R. Snow down a flight of stairs in a jealous rage. True or not, many consider the story at least plausible.)
Furthermore, all 33 would know that if the Lord could command Joseph to take her to wife, He could command (or had already commanded) Joseph to take others. This was not a matter of getting swept up in the romantic licentiousness of a charismatic leader. These women entered these marriages knowing that they were sacrificing their mortal hopes of intimacy on the altar of obedience, with the promise that their sacrifices would be repaid with interest in the resurrection. Marrying the prophet was an act of faith on their part; one might even say the ultimate act of faith: offering herself, as Lucy Walker put it, “on the altar, a living sacrifice.” She who gave herself willingly to the prophet yielded up her very soul, giving up—even as the prophet was beginning to reveal the glorious doctrine of eternal marriage—her own choice of romantic partner to enter into an arranged marriage fraught with difficulties. That even one was willing to make this sacrifice, much less 33, is a testament to the faith the early saints had in the prophet Joseph Smith.