"Nauvoo Polygamy" awarded "Best Book" by historical association
Nauvoo Polygamy book cover

Winner of the "Best Book" award by the JWHA

A book on Mormon polygamy was given the "Best Book" award by a conference of Mormon scholars earlier this week.

The John Whitmer Historical Association held its annual conference with historians presenting their latest research on Mormon history to several hundred attendees.

This year's award went to George D. Smith for 'Nauvoo Polygamy: "... But We Called It Celestial Marriage" published by Signature Books.

Bill Russell, Awards Committee Chair said "Polygamy has been the stickiest issue in the history of Mormonism ... Mormon polygamy defied the norms of Western Christianity."

The John Whitmer Historical Society is sponsored mainly by the Community of Christ (formerly RLDS Church), but opens its doors to all scholars interested the history of the restoration.

"Though civilly married to Emma Hale, Joseph Smith married some 37 additional women" says Tom Kimball of the book. "Some of the prophet’s 'celestial' wives included mother-daughter pairs, sisters, girls in their teens, women in their late fifties, and most controversially women already married to living husbands." Kimball is the publicist for Signature Books.

The Community of Christ denied that Joseph Smith practiced polygamy for over a century. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints continued the practice under Brigham Young, ending it under difficult circumstances around the turn of the 20th century.

"But today both of our churches would like to forget that it ever existed" joked Russell.

Reviews have been mixed. Newell Bringhurst felt the book "significantly broadens our understanding of plural marriage as practiced during the 1840s" Bringhurst was part of a panel of scholars critiquing the book.

However Craig Foster thought the tone and language presented the story in a sensational and scandalous manner. He found the book disappointing and would not recommend it to a general audience. Bringhurst and Foster will co-edit a forthcoming book on polygamy.

Former Community of Christ Historian Richard P. Howard liked the kindness the author showed towards Joseph Smith and his difficulty dealing with complexities of his life. On a scale of 1 to 10 he gave the book 9.78.

Linda Newell, biographer of Emma Smith highly recommended the book saying "I think it's the definitive work on polygamy."

All reviewers were particularly impressed with the 87 page appendix providing details of Nauvoo's 200 known husbands and 717 wives.

George Smith is the president of Signature Books and has published articles in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Sunstone, The John Whitmer Historical Association Journal, The Journal of Mormon History and Free Inquiry. He edited Faithful History: Essays on Writing Mormon History and An Intimate Chronicle:The Journals of William Clayton. He spent 15 years researching and writing the book.
Originally published September 28, 2009