Milo Debates Plural Marriage with Joseph Smith III

Josephsmith3 In the later years of his life while living at Oxford, Idaho, Milo had a public exchange of views with Joseph Smith III, the oldest son of the Prophet Joseph Smith, on the subject of plural marriage. Joseph III repudiated the practice and denied that his father had anything to do with establishing it.

Events Leading Up to the Debate

Joseph Smith III refused to accept clear evidence that on 12 July 1843, nearly a year before his martyrdom, the Prophet dictated to his clerk, William Clayton, the revelation that put the law of plural marriage into effect. Clayton testified to this fact in sworn statements. Joseph Smith III also refused to accept sworn statements by many women Joseph Smith married, statements that attested to their marital relationships with him. Neither would he believe the testimonies of a number of men who performed marriage ceremonies, which united Joseph Smith with his plural wives, or the fact that, under the authority that the Prophet gave many men at Nauvoo, they married plural wives before his death.

Joseph III had officially stated his opposition to plural marriage by accepting the leadership of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in April 1860. “I have been told that my father taught such doctrines,” said he. “I have never believed it and never can believe it. If such things were done, then I believe they were never done by divine authority.” The rationale of the Prophet’s son was: “I believe my father was a good man, and a good man never could have promulgated such doctrines.” When the Prophet’s brother William began to write down his memories of Joseph’s martyrdom, Joseph III wrote him a warning letter stating the following: “I have long been engaged in removing [the stigma and blame from peoples’ memories of my father and the early church. This] stigma and blame were thrown upon him because he revealed polygamy…Therefore, … if you are the wise man I think you to be, you will fail [to] remember anything [except] that which refers [to the] lofty standards of character… [of] those good men.”  Zenas H. Gurley, an Apostle in the Reorganized Church, stated in a letter to Joseph III: “You absolutely refuse to believe the evidence which would convict [your father].” The point became an issue that finally caused Gurley and others to leave the Reorganized Church.

In 1869, the Prophet Joseph Smith’s sons Alexander and David came to Salt Lake City to claim that Joseph III (their brother) should have been the President of the Church. They argued that the office was rightfully his by heredity and because of a father’s blessing that the Prophet game him prior to his martyrdom.  (Neither in this blessing nor in any other did the Prophet ordain Joseph III to succeed him in his calling.) The Saints in the West were naturally interested to see and to hear the sons of their martyred Prophet, and they crowded into their meetings. But there is no evidence that Milo met Alexander and David or that he attended their meetings. He filled a mission for the Church to the United States from 1869 to 1870, and he may have been away when the Prophet’s sons were in Utah.

During their visit in the West, Alexander and David had the opportunity to investigate the origin of plural marriage more closely. On 27 July 1872, David wrote to a Brother Sherman: “The testimony is too great for us to deny… When I was with you, I did not know as much as I do now in regard to my father’s life.” In spite of the evidence, Joseph Smith III was still not convinced, so he went to Utah in the late 1880s. In the course of his travels, he went to Oxford. There he was informed that he could use the church building for a meeting if he would permit one of the local elders to speak after he was finished addressing the people.  The arrangement was agreed upon, and Milo was chosen to be that person.  Informed of the selection, Joseph Smith III wrote of Milo:

“From what I had been told of his history and from seeing his name in print as an elder in Mormon circles, I very naturally expected that he would not only put up a good fight for his side but that he would be of very high character. I also expected that he would doubtless present the best and strongest defense and argument in support of the theory [of plural marriage] that I was likely to hear anywhere.”

The Great Debate

Hundreds of people gathered in the large church on the appointed evening. In his written report, Joseph III called Milo “a Venerable Antagonist.” After he observed that Milo “was well along in years,” Joseph III said that “He seemed a magnificent specimen of ripened physical manhood, fully six feet or a little more in height, broad-shouldered, well formed, with a finely-shaped head and a brightness of countenance which indicated an intelligence well above average. If I remember rightly, his eyes were blue in color and,  even at his age, were very brilliant and animated when he spoke. His voice was deep and resonant, and he uttered his words slowly and distinctly as if he had his thoughts and ideas well in command.”

Joseph III spoke critically of the beliefs of the Utah church on marriage, especially plural marriage. As a basis of his argument, he used a sermon that Orson Pratt gave in the Salt Lake Tabernacle. In this sermon, Elder Pratt pointed out that marriage for eternity was the order of God. He established it when he united Adam and Eve as man and wife in the Garden of Eden, before the Fall introduced the temporal state on earth. Thus, clearly, the length of their union was not to be limited to the mortal state. Joseph III used this sermon not to argue the eternal nature of marriage, as Elder Pratt did, but to project the point that like Adam, each man was to have but one wife. “I dwelt upon these statements of Pratt’s,” the Prophet’s son said of his argument for monogamy. “I enlarged upon them, and went back to them often enough to get them clearly before my audience.” He carefully skirted the issue of eternal marriage, and the position he took on plural marriage repudiated the full law of marriage as given in the Book of Mormon. This law states that if God deigns to depart from the basic program of monogamy, he can and will do so “command” his people. (See Jacob 2:30)

In his published account of the exchange, Joseph III did not discuss any of the points that Milo made in his address, which lasted nearly an hour. He merely stated that “I fully expected to hear him make some personal statements involving, to some extent, the life or teaching of my father. But he spoke only in defense of the position of their church, as it opposed that of mine, without touching upon the more personal matters.” But while omitting a report of Milo’s arguments, Joseph III stressed his view of how the exchange favored his position. At that time, in emphasizing the doctrine of eternal marriage, Milo voiced pity for the Prophet’s son by declaring, hypothetically, that if in the hereafter, Joseph III were placed on “a new world as was our father Adam, how very, very lonely and helpless he would be!” When the people responded with a ripple of laughter, from his seat, Joseph III retorted, loud enough for all to hear, “No sir, I would not be one bit lonesome or bewildered, for I would be given an Eve to take with me.” With another round of chuckles, the exchange ended.

With the Edmunds-Tucker Law, which denounced plural marriage as illegal cohabitation, Idaho put into operation “the somewhat celebrated” Idaho Test Oath, which was approved for the territory by the governor in February 1885. After its constitutionality was affirmed by the courts of Idaho, the result was the disfranchisement of the Latter-day Saints in Idaho. In the election of 1888, large numbers of Mormons temporarily withdrew their membership from the Church in order to qualify as electors. They did so by taking the test oath, in which they said they were not members of any religious body that taught or encouraged the practice of plural marriage. They then voted against Fred T. Dubois, the bitter anti-Mormon candidate for congress, who, as the United States Marshall in Idaho, boasted in open court that “he had a jury impaneled to try unlawful cohabitation—a jury that would convict Jesus Christ if he were on trial.”



Barrett, Ivan J. (1992) Trumpeter of God. Provo, Utah, Covenant Communications, Inc. (p. 299-302).


Wikipedia entry on Joseph Smith III.


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