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Mormon church says founder had about 40 wives

The Mormon church says that founder Joseph Smith married about 40 women, including a 14-year-old, according to an essay on the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints website.

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Sayon Ang, a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints missionary, holds up a sign signifying she speaks Cambodian at a two-day Mormon church conference Saturday, Oct. 4, 2014, in Salt Lake City, Utah.

(AP Photo/Kim Raff)

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The Mormon church has admitted that founder Joseph Smith married about 40 women including a 14-year-old and others who were already the wives of his followers, having maintained for nearly 200 years that he was monogamous.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has tried to gloss over aspects of its history, including the polygamy practiced by Smith and Brigham Young, who helped found Salt Lake City, Utah, the headquarters of the Mormon church.

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"After receiving a revelation commanding him to practice plural marriage, Joseph Smith married multiple wives and introduced the practice to close associates. This principle was among the most challenging aspects of the Restoration—for Joseph personally and for other Church members. Plural marriage tested faith and provoked controversy and opposition," a church essay entitled "Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo" published on the church website last month.

"Joseph married many additional wives and authorized other Latter-day Saints to practice plural marriage," the essay said, noting that "careful estimates put the number between 30 and 40".

The church has been criticized for its treatment of women, black people, who it barred from the higher priesthood until 1978, and gays, who were banned from its temples if they were sexually active.

Smith's wives were mostly between the ages of 20 and 40, but Helen Mar Kimball, the daughter of close friends, was "sealed" to him several months before she turned 15.

"Plural marriage was difficult for all involved. For Joseph Smith's wife Emma, it was an excruciating ordeal," the essay, part of a collection issued over the past year, said.

Mormon writer Lindsay Hansen Park, who has spent a year profiling LDS polygamist women for Feminist Mormon Housewives, an online blog, told the Salt Lake Tribune that the church essay was "mostly fair" and praises the Utah-based faith’s effort to come to grips with a troubling element of its past.

"I really, really appreciate that it acknowledges some of Joseph’s unions were sexual," she says. "It also validates the voices of women who risked their reputations and dedicated their lives to express their experiences."

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The church, founded in 1830, banned polygamy in 1890 when the U.S. government threatened to deny Utah statehood.

(Editing by Louise Ireland)