Entrenched in Mormon Culture
I am a 7th generation Mormon who grew up in Utah County. I attended church all my life, had regular family scripture study and FHE. My dad was a BYU math professor and my mom a devout scripture scholar. I graduated from seminary and graduated from BYU (with all its required religion courses) and married a 5th generation, returned missionary in the temple.
And I didn’t learn that Joseph Smith personally practiced polygamy until I was in my 20s.
I had heard the story about Emma pushing Eliza down the stairs, causing a miscarriage in her jealous rage. But it was all fabricated nonsense created by anti-Mormons trying to defame the prophet. Like everything else that looked or sounded unsavory.
Everyone knew about the public polygamy in Utah. Every year our elementary class toured the Beehive House, complete with all the wives’ bedrooms and fairly open discussion about managing the logistics. Polygamous ancestors were a dime a dozen (or two).
Whenever the topic of plural marriage came up it was usually swept away with a Gordon-B-Hinkley-like flick of the wrist. “It’s behind us.” We don’t practice it. Move on. Nothing to see here.
When specifics were brought up—I asked questions because the whole thing bothered me so much and I wanted reassurance—the answers I always heard (from seminary teachers, religion teachers, ecclesiastical leaders) was along the lines of, “Joseph Smith restored it, but didn’t practice it.” Joseph’s and Emma’s repeated denials were cited as proof and their “love story” was held up as an example of fidelity and support.
In this context, the explanations made sense and I believed them. I had no reason not to.
Fuzzy Presentations About Polygamy
What are the post-correlation, pre-internet sources that a typical, non-CES employee, non-historian member would come across? I’m sure there are some, but specifically what sources do we expect members to have learned this information?
In my experience, polygamy was addressed on occasion, mostly as circumstance demanded. The references were usually vague. From one of my BYU religion manuals, Church History and the Fullness of Times: Religion 341–43, p.424:
The law of plural marriage was revealed to the Prophet as early as 1831, but he mentioned it only to a few trusted friends. Under strict commandment from God to obey they law, the Prophet began in 1841 to instruct leading priesthood brethren of the Church concerning plural marriage and their responsibility to live the law.
It was revealed to Joseph, he told those closest to him, he instructed some priesthood leaders. As long as one of them isn’t my husband—and as long as it’s just instruction—I can quietly put it back on my proverbial “shelf.”
Skip forward to current Gospel Doctrine lessons. Yes, D&C 132 is included in the curriculum. (I’ve been called to teach GD four times, I actually do know this.) But in the context of the discussion of Joseph Smith’s polygamy, the portions of this section that actually address plural marriage are generally glossed over or skipped entirely and certainly do not include much elucidation of his still unexplained practice.
The material covered in the most recent lesson includes Doctrine and Covenants 131:1–4; 132:4–33. The first reference discusses the need for marriage in order to obtain celestial glory. The second talks about eternal marriage while skipping the items listed below (among others) in the reading assignment and main lesson outline:
- Joseph ask about Biblical polygynists.
- Those who receive the law of plural marriage must obey it.
- God commands Abraham to take another wife.
- Abraham free of sin in taking another wife.
- Abraham justified in breaking other explicit commandments because of specific direction.
- Abraham being called righteous for having concubines.
- David, Solomon, and Moses receiving wives and concubines in righteousness (mostly).
- Joseph to “restore all things.”
- Declarations about adultery.
- Joseph giving women to other men “for he shall be made ruler over many.”
- Emma to accept plural marriage and all additional wives.
- Joseph “shall be made ruler over many things.”
- Emma to be faithful to Joseph.
- If Emma will not be faithful to Joseph she will be destroyed.
- Emma will be destroyed if she doesn’t accept “my law.”
- If a man marries a virgin and she gives her consent for her husband to marry again (and again and…), there is no adultery.
- If a woman who is married sleeps with another man, she shall be destroyed.
- If a man with appropriate keys teaches his wife about polygamy and she she’s not on board, she will be destroyed.
- If a wife doesn’t accept polygamy, then the husband can still marry other women righteously.
So what is left in the actual lessons and study of Gospel Doctrine?
- Eternal marriage is essential in Heavenly Father’s plan.
- Youth should prepare now for eternal marriage.
- After a husband and wife are sealed in the temple, they must abide in the covenant to receive the promised blessings.
Additional Teaching Ideas
- Faithful Saints will not be denied the blessings of eternity
- Examples of happy, enduring temple marriages
- Assignment for youth and young single adults
- Avoiding worldly trends
- “Temples and Families” video presentation
The last of the “additional teaching ideas” is “Plural marriage.” It is described thusly (emphasis mine):
The following information is provided to help you if class members have questions about the practice of plural marriage. It should not be the focus of the lesson.
This is followed by:
- Mostly this isn’t good but once happens once in a great while to “raise up seed.”
- A very few early leaders “were challenged by this command” but did it anyway.
- We stopped doing this in 1890 with the Manifesto. (Ahem.)
In this Gospel Doctrine discussion, if you go outside the actual reading assignment, if you get to the “additional ideas,” and if someone in the class asks about it, you might correctly parse this sentence (if, in fact, it is given accurately by the teacher):
The Prophet Joseph Smith and those closest to him, including Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball, were challenged by this command, but they obeyed it.
And there you have the official Gospel Doctrine teaching on and explanation of Joseph’s brand of polygamy.
Why the Misinformation?
I understand the duck and cover from the teachers and leaders I interacted with. Who wants to talk about something so uncomfortable? I sure don’t. I don’t want a class (particularly a youth class!) to ask me what the heck was going on with the polyandry and young women and secret marriages other wives didn’t know about. I have no answers and the church essays don’t either.
But why did so many I encountered give false responses? I don’t know. I trusted them and didn’t question them. These people were, in my estimation, decent and sincere (or I wouldn’t have asked them). Given that multiple “authorities” gave similar responses, the answers seemed credible. Happy to have an answer I could (mostly) deal with, I moved on.
Thinking back, today, here are a few guesses as to why I was mislead so often:
- Some thought what they said was true.
- Some felt protecting the prophet’s character was more important than defending polygamy(or God?).
- Some didn’t want to address polygamy as it challenged their belief system.
- Some didn’t know how to explain it so wanted to change the subject.
Not Just Me
It wasn’t until I moved to Florida in 1991 and my (faithful-till-death) parents sent me Mormon Enigma that I learned that Joseph Smith practiced polygamy himself. I was horrified at what I read. I stopped reading for a few months and later forced myself to finish. I didn’t want to believe it because it made no sense and the implications were awful, but the citations were solid.
I tried to have the most generous response I could muster, “Wow. I must have been absent (or asleep or daydreaming or staring at boys…) every single day this was discussed! What a coincidence!” Everyone knows this stuff and they are fine with it, so I just need to get some context.
Soon after, while introducing a hymn written by Eliza R. Snow in Relief Society (in the Boca Raton Ward in South Florida), I mentioned the obviously well-known fact that Eliza R. Snow was one of the few people on earth to be married to two different prophets. Cool!
I was met with confusion. So I said, “Well, she was married to both Joseph Smith and Brigham Young.” You know, obviously.
Not only did my statement garner surprise, but also anger. Vocal anger. Not one single person in our very large Relief Society acknowledged any notion that Joseph Smith married multiple women. The claims were horrific and offensive to them. The suggestion was heretical.
Myriad experiences since then have convinced me that, at least until the essays were published, enormous numbers of believing Mormons didn’t believe stories about Joseph’s polygamy and many who did didn’t know the details. As Julie Smith said:
I think the root of the problem is that virtually nothing was said by the church (i.e., through official channels) for decades, which means that the one or two times a teacher went rogue and said something about polygamy, that something—whatever it was—loomed large for the hearer. This is how you get people stunned that others hadn’t heard anything and others stunned that people had heard anything.
After the sometimes contentious discussion following Julie Smith’s post “New Polygamy Essays,” Kaimi Wenger ventured forth on social media to create a completely non-scientific poll, just to get a feel for the climate. Here are the choices given and the votes cast:
- 133 – By about age 20, I was aware that Joseph Smith practiced plural marriage.
- 95 – By about age 20, I was not aware that Joseph Smith practiced plural marriage.
- 11 – Other, if applicable.
As of this writing, approximately 40% of those participating in that poll did not know. That’s a chunk of change for a topic that supposedly obvious and universal and the result is likely skewed by the makeup the group in which it was posted. As one person noted:
I found out about this stuff about eight years ago. At that time there was a lot of news about Warren Jeffs going on and I pretty much considered him to be a scumbag, when I found out that JS was doing the same things and I was disgusted! It rocked my world! I went to my Brother in Law to ask him about it, he has worked for the Church Historical Department for probably 32+.years now, he said he had never heard of it. I think that he was probably told to say that if anyone asked. I went to my Brother and he outright dismissed it as anti-Mormon stuff. That discovery lead to many many other disturbing and testimony destroying info that I continue to research. It has been quite a ride with lots of sleepless nights and conflict. It’s kind of nice to see that the Church is sort of trying to be “honest with your fellow man”. Of course this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Have the essays changed the lack of knowledge among the typical, non-historian, church-going member?
I saw the garment video pop up in my Facebook feed about a thousand times, posted by devout members and not-so-devout. I was seriously pretty sick of seeing that thumbnail of male garments (do they know they can pick a different one?) all spread out on display.
To date, the polygamy essays I’ve seen have been shared almost exclusively by ex-members, disaffected members, agitating members, or at least members willing to rock the boat (heh). The few times I have seen them promoted by what we might call “conservative members” it has been done so along with a raft of rather nonsensical declarations.
Many claimed they have known the info for-freaking-ever, but then seem to have conflated general Utah polygamous practice with Joseph Smith’s particular mix of polyandry/polygyny behind Emma’s back. Others said it doesn’t matter because he was a prophet. End of discussion. Many have tried to rationalize the practices with mental contortions. For example, an old friend of mine posted this:
Interesting that Joseph Smith never had any offspring from any of those marriages, except with Emma, his first wife. That makes not one grain of sense, since most women were very fertile in those days, as evidenced by the norm of family size during that time period … unless those marriages were never consummated, which is completely consistent with the Gospel that Joseph was trying to restore. And a further evidence that he wasn’t in the marriages for sex. Very interesting.
The message here (and elsewhere) is that Joseph was faithful to Emma (and therefore his polygamy was fine and dandy) because (in their claims) he didn’t have sex with anyone else. But how does that notion play out with, say, Brigham Young (who, for the record, also had three or more polyandrous marriages) and his 55 wives and 56 children? Polygamy was good for Joseph because he was (supposedly) sexually faithful and it was good for Brigham because he wasn’t? (And how good it was for the wives is rarely discussed, but I digress…)
Another common response was denial/blame. One person chimed in with this:
I have a friend that’s been serving a mission with LDS tech. He’s told me that many articles he’s written were changed due to that insidious legal division at church headquarters. Let’s look at the article on blacks and the priesthood, where it denies cursings. Not only it had distortions regarding the past, but it was completely anti-doctrinal. To say otherwise is to deny both the bible and the Book of Mormon.
Groups like FAIR are some of the wicked that’s [sic] been trying to change church policies. God does not change according to man.
One of the distortions from this publication I have issue with, is saying that Joseph married other men’s wives. Which is simply not true. Then again it is the legal division of the church that publishes things online.
If I don’t like it, it’s not true. Even if it’s on the church website it’s not true because the legal department is the public face of the church and they are a bunch of heathen liars.
Some members got angry:
I’m glad the church finally came clean about it. It seems like I always knew he practiced it but I could never figure out why the church actively hid it for so long. The thing that really got to me were all the “carefully worded statements.” That really pissed me off. And then I read some wise words about how some people lessen Martin Luther King Jr. And Ghandi because they did things that were not morally upright. That doesn’t negate the good they did, it just shows that they were men, pure and simple. Joseph Smith was a man, pure and simple. I strongly believe he was a fallen prophet because of the polygamy and all the lies. He wasn’t martyred. He got his just reward.
Some created supposedly apologetic posts, got the facts wrong, rewrote, removed comments, and moved on like nothing ever happened.
You Could Have Known
Could I have found out that Joseph Smith practiced polygamy and learned at least some of the details about how he did it? Obviously. Even pre-internet (shock!) there were places to get a lot of the information. If I had thought I was given misinformation and/or had a burning (or even moderate) interest in church history by my 20s, I might have. But neither applied.
Yesterday even Meridian published an anonymous (often convoluted, possibly multi-authored) post admitting:
Strictly speaking, the Church has acknowledged many times that Joseph Smith had been sealed to more than one woman. Church Historian Andrew Jenson collected affidavits from women near the end of the 19th century who attested to the fact that they had been married to Joseph Smith. Various Church periodicals and priesthood manuals have published references to Smith’s plural marriages. Available resources do not mean, however, that every person would have found the information. Regardless of the information’s availability, it is still a difficult topic for many Mormons who are only now hearing the information to digest.
Unmoved by such statements, Daniel Peterson declares all this info readily available:
First of all, many of these things [Joseph Smith’s polygamy, Mountain Meadows Massacre, multiple First Vision accounts, Joseph Smith’s using a stone in a hat for translation] have been taught by the Church. The four items above, for example, are, respectively, (1) obviously implicit in Doctrine and Covenants 132 (what on earth is it talking about in the early 1830s, if not plural marriage?), (2) discussed in Seminary and Institute manuals, (3) published in Church magazines and in books printed and distributed by the Church’s wholly-owned publishing company, and (4) mentioned in at least one General Conference talk that I can think of just off the top of my head.
In other words, Joseph’s marrying already married women under threat of destruction should be obvious from section 132. (What else could it possibly mean?) All you “newly-minted apostates” are simply intolerable.
[Double spaces in Peterson’s quote were removed because they make my head explode. I don’t fault Peterson for not being up-to-date on 30-year-old proportional typeface protocol. I’ve publicly lamented the fact that bloggers by and large don’t know their way around computers, and I know and readily admit that many such bloggers of the Bloggernacle are far better writers and grammarians than I am. What I object to, though, is when certain people loudly demand that their own area of expertise should also be everyone else’s. This simply isn’t true. Ahem.]
Then Peterson defers to M* as The Source so Geoff Biddulph (after “Heavenly Father [very Joseph Smith vision-like] hit him over the head with a two-by-four (wielded by the Holy Ghost)”) can resort to the aforementioned conflation, call anyone troubled by the revelations “naive,” patronize them about for not reading scripture enough to suit him, and then spend a number of paragraphs to explain that it’s not taught because there just isn’t time.
Given the role of the Church, and indeed the history of Jehovah’s prophets in every dispensation of time, it is not at all surprising or alarming to me that the Church has recent history that is difficult to understand. This is where faith comes in. If there is something about Church history you do not understand, you are being challenged to find a faithful way to respond. Many people try to find out more information (this is what I did), but others just file away the difficult information until another time and concentrate on the joy of the Gospel. I know it is hard to believe, but some people prefer to concentrate on the eternal joy of knowing that families can be linked together forever than, say, how many wives Joseph Smith had.
Biddulph doesn’t offer to share the “more information” that cleared up all the issues for him if, indeed, he had any. But I would love to know the specifics of the eternal family revelry we should be marinating in. Is it to be lucky enough to be included as one of the many wives of some esteemed man? Is it to be a queen (among many queens) to one’s husband? Is it to be an invisible being who probably does something or other, but certainly has no connection with her spirit children? It’s hard to indulge in the “eternal joy” of having families sealed without acknowledging the actual practice of sealing and eternal doctrine about women.
You Should Have Known
Should I have found this information? I spent my time in college studying accounting and business and musical theater (and men). After college I had six kids and taught myself to program. I have spent over 20 years doing web tech. Would it have been a better use of my time to distrust the answers I got and look for “further light and knowledge” about Joseph Smith’s polygamy? Which activities should I have given up to do so? I don’t know.
But the fact that many of us went through years of typical church education and activity and never heard anything about it is meaningful. And it shouldn’t be surprising that those who find out such things later without thorough explanation, are a bit taken aback.
As Kaimi Wenger said:
The often condescending response “you should have known” misses the point that a lot of members don’t know. Members who have attended church their whole lives, held callings, read scriptures, gone to seminary and Institute.
I’m one of them. I lived in half a dozen wards growing up, in several different states. I attended four years of seminary, earned scripture mastery awards, read the scriptures and other church material regularly, took several Institute classes, served a mission, served as Elders Quorum President. And I didn’t realize that Joseph Smith was a polygamist.
The idea that one should be able to discern this from the elliptical and bizarre language of D&C 132 is silly. D&C 132 is taught, like most scripture in the church, through use of a few cherry-picked verses as prooftexts of current practice. That is, it’s taught as, “here, read a few lines, that means families-are-forever, the end.”
Even people who read the whole thing don’t necessarily pick up the details about Joseph Smith. It’s a weird section and not enlightening.
What adds insult to injury is the amount of what we label “education” that we give to people. Church members think that they know the important things. In fact, much of the time education is simply catechism, where a teacher asks a question and the class recites pre-approved answers.
Amen, Brother Wenger.
[For the curious: On January 7 I scheduled this post to auto-publish on January 8, since there was already a new post on the 7th. In the hours between the scheduling and the publishing, Dave Evans published a fabulous guest post and this post bumped it off the top spot only a few hours later. I pulled this post to give Dave the top spot for a longer period before reposting. Sorry if it caused inconvenience. (And if you haven’t read Dave’s post, check out Laughing Through General Conference. You’ll be glad you did.)]