Truman Madsen on Polygamy on Youtube

May 17, 2009    By: Matt W. @ 8:35 pm   Category: Life

I found it somewhat interesting tonight coming across this rather simple video of Truman Madsen frankly discussing Joseph’s Polygamy.


While I can’t speak to the historicity of the video (or the history of the video for that matter). I love me some Truman Madsen, and thought this video was fairly interesting.



  1. The part where Emma approved seems a bit out of character doesn’t it? Sounds a bit revisionist to me.

    Comment by Jerry — May 17, 2009 @ 10:08 pm

  2. Emma did approve, for a brief time, and even “gave” Joseph a couple of sister-wives. She later reneged but that doesn’t mean she never approved.

    Comment by Proud Daughter of Eve — May 18, 2009 @ 5:21 am

  3. I’ll have to check this out when I get home.

    Comment by Eric Nielson — May 18, 2009 @ 8:34 am

  4. This is from a three-DVD collection of Truman Madsen going along Church History sites and “historicizing.”

    It’s exactly what you can expect from Madsen: a mixture of some history and lots of folklore. He’s never accurate on his history, but I’m convinced that he’s never concerned with that anyway; as an old-school philosopher, he is always after the “meaning” of these events, and is therefore only looking at sources that give him what he wants while ignoring all else.

    Not my cup of tea.

    Comment by Emerson — May 18, 2009 @ 8:55 am

  5. That’s interesting Emerson, I generally tend to think of Madsen doing a pretty decent job with History, but that’s just me. I’d never buy the dvd, or anything, but I’m not sure what here is historically incorrect. As far as I can tell, it lines up pretty well, in a 1 inch deep sense, with Bushman and Compton, who I’d consider to be at the top of the game on this one.

    Comment by Matt W. — May 18, 2009 @ 9:05 am

  6. Count me as one who doesn’t think that Madsen is very historical. This comes from the same DVD series where he said (paraphrased): “I think the Second Great Awakening was like water off a duck’s back with Joseph Smith–I just don’t think it influenced him at all.”

    As for historical inaccuracies in this clip: the introduction to Hyrum isn’t correct (JS never actually told him about it because Hyrum refused to hear–until Brigham Young confronted him); the idea that JS’s practice was only to give single women husbands (most of JS’s first polygamous wives were already married); the assertion that Emma consented to Eliza R. Snow’s sealing to JS (she only gave consent to two marriages, and JS had already married about 20 women–including ERS–before that); and the BY story is an old family folkloric legend that wasn’t recorded until a century later and has absolutely no contemporary evidence.

    Comment by Ben — May 18, 2009 @ 9:18 am

  7. Ben, I thought about 1/3 of his wives were already married. (10 out of 30?)

    Thanks for the correction. I appreciate it.

    Comment by Matt W. — May 18, 2009 @ 9:57 am

  8. Ben,

    Thank you for actually providing examples (unlike Emerson) so that your assertion can be engaged. I listened again and I could be missing it but I didn’t hear him say that Joseph introduced it to Hyrum. Rather, he says that Hyrum asked Joseph a question which was the beginning of Joseph’s inquiry. Obviously people usually attribute the beginning to Joseph’s work on the JST so I don’t know about that account, but he didn’t say Hyrum was introduced early on.

    I didn’t hear him say that JS’s practice was only to give single women husbands. Where was this?

    I agree with you about Emma not giving consent to Eliza R. Snow’s sealing.

    I’ll take your word for it on the BY story. Not familiar with the source for that myself.

    I am good with the idea that Madsen has made some historical mistakes in things he has written (who hasn’t?) but I take issue with Emerson’s suggestion that he ignores all the evidence that goes against his pre-conceived conclusion. That is quite a damning accusation to make and it deserves some evidence in my opinion.

    Comment by Jacob J — May 18, 2009 @ 10:43 am

  9. Matt W. ~ According to Compton, of the first 12 women Joseph Smith took as polygamous wives, 9 were already married to living men. 2 were single and 1 was widowed. I think that’s what Ben meant when he said “most of JS’s first polygamous wives were already married.”

    Jacob J. ~ Towards the beginning of the presentation, Madsen says, “At first, Hyrum and the Prophet’s wife Emma and others were struck with astonishment,” making it sound like they were introduced to the principle of polygamy early on. Sure, it can technically mean they were astonished by it when they were introduced to it “at first” later on, but the “at first” is ambiguous at least and its mention at the beginning of the presentation is a little misleading.

    Madsen states that part of the purpose of the ancient Israelite practice was often to give single women husbands in a context that makes it sound like he’s listing Joseph Smith’s reasoning for instituting polygamy. He doesn’t directly say “Smith wanted to give single women husbands through polygamy,” but it still seems like a gloss to me.

    Comment by Bridget Jack Meyers — May 18, 2009 @ 11:16 am

  10. Hi Jack,

    It is one thing to say people could easily misconstrue what he said, it is another to say he said something historically inaccurate. When I listened to it the first time, with an understanding of the history, it didn’t occur to me that it was misleading. He said Hyrum and Emma were struck with astonishment when they were introduced to it, which is correct.

    Same thing on the second point: what he said is accurate and you are concerned that people will infer something incorrect from what he said. Fine, but I didn’t think the concerning implication was actually implied by what he said. Further, if we are going to talk about the “purpose” of polygamy, then we ought not focus on the first 12 wives Joseph took to the exclusion of the vast majority of polygamous marriages over the next 50 years (which were overwhelmingly not with married women).

    Comment by Jacob J — May 18, 2009 @ 11:33 am

  11. Matt: What Bridget said re: JS’s “first” polygamous marriages. I am in accordance with the 10/30 data.

    Jacob: Thanks for engaging my assertions. As for Hyrum, there is no documentation for the discussion that Madsen described, and that is what I meant to infer. The “I could married to both Jerusha and Mary Fielding” bit was a later explanation Hyrum used when he had converted and was converting others. That this mindset may have been part of his conversion to the principle is entirely possible–we just have no evidence that that was the case.

    Re: single wives idea. I interpreted the video just like Bridget did, that Truman was placing JS’s practice of polygamy on the same basis as the ancient Israelites (about the 1:10 mark). That is my interpretation of the video though, but I am just used to so many people giving that as the reason for polygamy (I presented a paper at the Folklore Society of Utah two years back on the folklore of plural marriage). And while you are right that we should not judge the 50 years of polygamy after JS on his first 12 wives, but those first 12 wives offer the best glimpse at the development of JS’s thought on polygamy–why it was practiced in the first place and how they understood it. I think it’s safe to say that JS didn’t see it as a way to give single women husbands.

    Comment by Ben — May 18, 2009 @ 12:13 pm

  12. If the discussion with Hyrum is based on later evangelizing of polygamy, that is definitely problematic.

    those first 12 wives offer the best glimpse at the development of JS’s thought on polygamy–why it was practiced in the first place and how they understood it.

    That seems like an leap. Your assertion here is only true based on an assumption that he could implement it according to his best understanding of it at the time, but this seems like a very problematic assumption. He was under tremendous practical constraints on how he could roll it out, if only from the required secrecy. I agree that it is safe to say he did not see polygamy as a means to give single women husbands. But, all Madsen said is that people had a very hard time accepting it, even though they knew that there was a historical precedent and that historically there were reasonable arguments for it. That part seemed relatively benign to me. I can’t watch it again right now to be sure, but I thought there was some editing at this point in the film so that someone had cut together two statements from the one interview such that these statements appeared back-to-back even if there was stuff in between when Madsen was speaking.

    Comment by Jacob J — May 18, 2009 @ 2:09 pm

  13. Given the way the video is cut one can’t be sure, but it does look to me like at 0:47 there is a discontinuity in the dialog from Madsen.

    Comment by Jacob J — May 18, 2009 @ 4:28 pm

  14. I thought the video was great Matt. Thanks for passing it along. Madsen has a poetic way of putting things.

    Comment by Eric Nielson — May 19, 2009 @ 9:24 am

  15. I have these DVD’s. I don’t really get the sense that they were meant to be anything approaching a detailed documentary-type history, but rather more like a guided tour of church history sites for the layman. Madsen’s style in them is very conversational and he occasionally even chokes up a little. So not really the kind of thing that lends itself well to historical scolding.

    Comment by C Jones — May 19, 2009 @ 4:49 pm

  16. Was this filmed in an aviary?! What’s with all the birds singing in the background?

    Comment by BrianJ — May 19, 2009 @ 6:21 pm

  17. I think its important to note that Emma gave consent to other wives because Joseph withheld the sealing ordinance from her until she did. Hence the great land grant to Emma to secure her future, hence her reason for staying in Nauvoo (she owned it).

    Comment by BEMG — May 20, 2009 @ 8:08 am

  18. Where can I learn more about Brigham introducing polygamny to Hyrum because he refused to hear?

    Comment by Bryan H. — May 20, 2009 @ 12:36 pm

  19. Hi Bryan,

    Someone else may have a different suggestion, but I would suggest Van Wagoner’s Mormon Polygamy as a good place to start.

    Comment by Jacob J — May 20, 2009 @ 2:43 pm

  20. Here’s to you Truman G.

    Comment by britain — May 29, 2009 @ 7:47 pm