In the Reuters interview with Elder Christofferson, the interviewer asks, “There is historical evidence that suggests Joseph Smith took a 14-year-old bride, Helen Mar Kimball, when he was 38 years old. In today’s terms, that would make him a pedophile. Does this bother you or other LDS church members?” Elder Christofferson replies, “It would depend on what all the facts were and the context. In those days, of course, was that it was not so uncommon in the society of the time.”
Just how factually accurate is this defense?
I often hear it proffered with examples from family. People will say, “my Mormon great-great-grandmother also married when she was fourteen,” and so forth, as evidence of the widespread acceptability of such unions.
Those kinds of examples don’t seem to be much of a defense, though, to the underlying concern. After all, if the underlying concern is that Mormon leaders created an aberrant society where underage marriage was the norm, then citation to one’s own Mormon great-great-grandmother seems to be a brief for the prosecution, not the defense.
In addition, I wonder about this defense, because (as some of my co-bloggers note), the “it was normal at the time” argument relating to young brides is sometimes used in the context of other polygamy apologias (such as “it was all about the widows”) which are not factually accurate. This makes me wonder whether “it was normal at the time” is equally ungrounded in fact.
It seems to me that the best evidence for this argument would be statistics. I’ve looked a little, but can’t really find much. If it’s really true that some significant percentage of women married at age fourteen (or fifteen, or sixteen) during that era, and that can be shown statistically, I’d be interested in seeing those numbers.
In the alternative, anecdotal evidence could be used to support the argument. As noted earlier, I don’t think that anecdotal evidence of young bridal age among Mormons is particularly helpful. But anecdotal evidence of young bridal age among respectable, non-Mormon society, during the time period around Joseph Smith’s life, would seem to be highly relevant.
I’m aware of one good example. Chief Justice John Marshall, one of the great Supreme Court justices, the architect of Marbury v. Madison, began courting Mary Willis Ambler (Polly) when she was thirteen and he was twenty-four. They married when she was sixteen, and he was twenty-seven. (See Jean Edward Smith, John Marshall: Definer of a Nation, 70-86.)
Are there other good examples? Can this statement be rebutted by saying, “no, here are several respectable non-Mormon figures who married at that age?” (And if so, who are those figures?) Or is it possible (or likely) that this is another popular, but factually inaccurate defense?