“These women are what’s good and right about Mormonism.”
When the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints dropped a bombshell statement last November confirming that founder Joseph Smith was a polygamist, one faithful follower was shocked.
Leslie Peterson, a 60-year-old Mormon, had always dismissed the rumors about her faith’s founder, and believed that those who spread them were engaging in anti-Mormon propaganda, which is what her spiritual advisors had told her. They were adamant that Smith had just one wife, Emma Smith.
But the church’s confirmation that Smith was in fact a polygamist came with the admission that Smith had about 40 wives — including a 14-year-old child and other women who were already married to some of his followers.
The revelations were part of a series of essays the church has released over the past few months in an effort to clarify the more controversial parts of its doctrine and history. The statement on polygamy didn’t come as a surprise to many members, but for Peterson, a fifth-generation Mormon from Cottonwood Heights, Utah, they were truly startling.
“I realized the history I’ve been told all my life isn’t the history I’m learning about now,” Peterson told The Huffington Post.
Instead of shaking her faith, the news about Smith fueled her curiosity. She set out to learn as much as she could about these women, diving into family genealogies and historical research, like historian Todd Compton did in his book, In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives Of Joseph Smith.
For nearly 200 years, the church tried to “gloss over” the polygamous practices of its founders, including Smith and his follower Brigham Young, according to Reuters. While some splinter sects, such as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, still practicepolygamy, the mainstream church officially banned it in 1890.
“Plural marriage was difficult for all involved. For Joseph Smith’s wife Emma, it was an excruciating ordeal,” church leaders wrote in the essay explaining polygamy.
Peterson wishes she’d heard about Smith’s many wives sooner.
“By not talking about these women, [the church] really robbed us of the heart and soul of Mormonism,” she said. “These women are what’s good and right about Mormonism, and that they have kept this quiet was really disturbing to me.”
Peterson turned to art to help her process this journey of discovery. She created a series of 34 vivid portraits of Joseph Smith’s wives, finding inspiration in old photos or in descriptions she found about them.
“I fell in love with these women, and I fell in love with Mormon history,” she said. “I wanted to bring them to life. In the original pictures, they were so stoic, they never smiled, it was black and white. But after reading their stories, I knew these women were vibrant.”
Scroll down to see Peterson’s portrait series.
HuffPost Religion also did a deep dive into the lives of Joseph Smith’s wives. Click here to read about what we found out.