It’s kind of a strange family history claim to fame: My great-great-great-great aunt, Nancy Winchester, was one of Joseph Smith’s youngest teen brides. She was fourteen or fifteen years old in 1842(3?) when she married the prophet; he was in his late thirties and was killed a year or so later.
I’ve wanted to write about Nancy for some time, but I’ve held off because I imagine it comes off as some sort of sick bragging rights. Among Mormons, to be able to say you’re descended from one of the prophets (or at least from someone fairly important in early church history) is a point of prestige. So when other people are talking about their early church pedigree (being descended from Brigham Young or from one of the Kimballs or something), this teen bride of Joseph Smith is essentially the closest thing we’ve got to a famous figure from the early church. Someone in our family was touched by greatness. Only it was, y’know, bad touch…
Since I was a faithful Mormon up through my teen years (and then left the church), I tend to think of the Mormon experience in terms of teenagers. When I try to imagine what it was like to be Mormon back in the days of Joseph Smith, my own great-great-great-great aunt’s experience naturally comes to mind. As a kid, I dreamed of being prophet myself (see girlhood dreams), but it’s more likely I would have ended up in a role like Nancy’s. So I’ve been curious about her ever since I learned about her.
Actually it was only a few years ago that I learned that we had one of the wives of Joseph Smith in our family tree. My brother John pointed it out while making some nice charts for our family reunion. He’s posted the charts to BCC here. Nancy would fit into this one as the daughter of Stephen and sister of James Winchester. I think it was news to most of the family at the reunion as well, though our family is very big on family history and loves passing down family lore. Perhaps the most faithful Mormon genealogy buffs in the family knew this story but chose not to emphasize it. It obviously leaves a Mormon asking: should we be proud of this? or ashamed?
Personally, I just wish she had left some writings; that someone had saved her journals, if she kept any. On my recent trip back to the U.S., I ordered the weighty tome In Sacred Loneliness in hopes of learning more about Nancy and about her life. Unfortunately, she only warranted five pages — not much more than her entry on the wives of Joseph Smith website.
The most disturbing part of her story (to me) was the fact that when Joseph Smith died, she was passed along to Heber C. “I think no more of taking another wife than I do of buying a cow” Kimball — in a batch with six other widows of Joseph Smith. But a few more details (from In Sacred Loneliness) make the situation look a bit less tragic and sinister. Instead of joining Heber C. Kimball’s family, Nancy continued to live with her parents until adulthood, when she divorced H. C. Kimball to marry Amos Arnold (a guy who wasn’t already married to any other women). I’d like to imagine that this was by her own choice.
Was she forced into her marriage to Joseph Smith? Did her parents take her back (instead of insisting she stay with HCK) because her (later polygamist) father regretted making her do it? Was she was happy to have been married to Joseph Smith and did she look forward to spending eternity with him?
Since we don’t have the story in her own words, we’ll never know. Yet I can’t help but wonder…