You have probably heard about Joseph Smith’s Polygamy: Toward a Better Understanding (Greg Kofford Books, 2015; publisher’s page) by Brian C. and Laura H. Hales. It has been getting a lot of attention, coming as it does in the wake of the recently released polygamy essays at LDS.org. Furthermore, the book follows the three-volume treatment of the history and theology of Joseph Smith’s polygamy, authored by Brian C. Hales and (for volumes 1 and 2) Don Bradley and also published by Kofford. Not having read the three volumes, I assume the 100 pages of narrative text in this shorter volume, along with the 75 pages of biographical sketches of the 35 women who were, in one sense or another, plural wives of Joseph Smith, are something like a summary of the material discussed at greater length in the three longer volumes. An abridgement, if you will.
The book is also a gentle apology of sorts for Joseph Smith’s polygamy, although the authors attempt to keep the discussion historical, honestly conveying facts and context, rather than apologetic, defending and justifying the events portrayed. As an active, practicing Latter-day Saint, I am rooting for the home team: I want the book to succeed in its attempt to both accurately recount Joseph Smith’s actions and also to make those actions understandable to a modern reader. I think the book is largely successful on the first count; whether it succeeds on the second is up to the judgment of individual readers. At the very least the book gives mainstream Latter-day Saints an accessible, accurate, sympathetic source for reliable information about Joseph Smith’s practice of polygamy. I will discuss what I liked (there is a lot to like) and what I didn’t like about the book below.
What I Liked
First, the authors take a refreshingly optimistic view of learning the facts about the practice of polygamy. In the Prologue, the authors explain:
Incorporating challenging new information into existing religious convictions is not an easy process, but it may be needed. Asking questions does not necessarily equate with having a crisis or displaying a lack of faith. … Doubt is not the enemy of faith any more than faith is the remedy for doubt. The genuine antidote for doubt is more knowledge, which is gained through the continual search for truth no matter what its source ….
Second, the authors present dozens of quotations from source documents in the 100 pages of narrative discussion, as well as a terribly convenient matrix showing the 35 women married or sealed to Joseph Smith during his lifetime and, in columns, summarized data for each (at p. 103-04). The “legal husband” column, for example, shows that six of the eleven women married or sealed to Joseph Smith during 1841-42 had legal husbands, whereas only three of the seventeen listed for 1843 had legal husbands. The “involved sexuality” column shows less than half listed as either “yes” or “possible,” although a Latter-day Saint who is troubled by the sexual side of polygamy is probably not comforted to know that Joseph had sex only with plural wives Louisa Beaman, Sylvia Sessions, Flora Ann Woodworth, Emily and Eliza Partridge, Almera Johnson, Lucy Walker, Sarah and Maria Lawrence, Olive Frost, and Malissa Lott (these are the “yes” entries). There are three columns given for “probable sealing type”: time only, time and eternity, and eternity only. Some readers will object to that menu of sealing options, given the lack of authoritative statements and the variety of terms participants used in the sources to describe any particular sealing or marriage, but it is at least handy summary of the authors’ view of the range of possible sealings and which type applied to the various plural wives.
The authors also provide detailed discussion of women who declined invitations to practice polygamy, in particular Nancy Rigdon and Martha Brotherton (declining an invitation from Brigham Young). These cases show that women could decline invitations, putting an upper bound on the degree of persuasion or coercion that accompanied invitations. As the authors note, based on Martha Brotherton’s own account, “Brigham’s proposal to Martha was offered without coercion or threats against her safety, her reputation, or her membership. … [W]hen Martha refused the proposal, no recourse against her resulted” (p. 53). The discussion of Nancy Rigdon’s refusal to Joseph Smith includes three paragraphs from a letter Joseph Smith wrote to her, including the troubling claim, “That which is wrong under one circumstance, may be, and often is, right under another” (p. 56). So in terms of the facts presented, the authors didn’t shy away from difficult episodes.
Third, the authors devote two full chapters to Emma Smith, who carries the dubious distinction of being the first first wife. Given the continuing popularity and relevance of Newell and Avery’s biography of Emma Smith, coupled with the prominence given to Emma — invariably a happy, smiling, faithfully supportive Emma — in LDS art depicting Joseph’s life, the coverage seems appropriate. She remains an enigma, as shown by the somewhat discordant, even jarring, comments sprinkled throughout these two chapters. “Polygamy is difficult to accept. Polygamy behind a wife’s back is even harder to understand” (p. 77). “As the first (and for most of their marriage, only) wife of the Prophet, Emma Smith’s pathway through polygamy was different from that experienced by other plural wives” (p. 89). And this: “Some of Emma’s emotions may have resembled the feelings of a woman who just learned her husband was cheating on her” (p. 89). Resemble? I think her feelings *were* the feelings of a women who just learned her husband was cheating on her, the natural wifely response to the “polygamy behind a wife’s back” acknowledged ten pages earlier. All of this Emma more or less suffered silently. As the authors remind us, “Joseph never publicly acknowledged any wife other than Emma” (p. 88). The authors absolve Emma of the alleged confrontation with Eliza R. Snow, suggesting that in this tale “folklore has supplanted actual history” (p. 84), but never deal directly with Emma’s later denials of Joseph’s practice of polygamy.
What I Didn’t Like
The trick here is to distinguish between the subject of polygamy, which is easy to criticize and dislike, and the authors’ treatment of the subject. For a faithful LDS reader, an honest treatment of Joseph’s polygamy triggers at best feelings of ambivalence. As I noted above, the authors deserve credit for tackling this tough issue and trying to provide some context for the modern reader to understand it while, at the same time, being fairly candid with difficult facts. They are, in a sense, doing work the Church should have done decades ago. The authors note, “During the last few decades the Church has issued few, if any, statements discussing the theology supporting the nineteenth century practice of plural marriage by Church members” (p. 1).
The first thing I think the authors failed to provide is a serious discussion of the fact that Joseph’s practice of polygamy was a secret not a public practice, largely unknown by the general membership at Nauvoo and entirely unknown to the Mormons living in the East or in England. In Chapter 1, “Reasons for Practicing Plural Marriage,” the authors ask, “Why did Joseph Smith establish plural marriage among the Latter-day Saints?” The correct response is that he didn’t — how can one suggest Joseph “established” plural marriage among the Saints when it was never publicly acknowledged and the vast majority of the membership of the Church was not aware of the practice? The authors instead list four reasons drawn from D&C 132, dated to July 12, 1843, why Joseph “establish[ed] plural marriage among the Saints”: to restore all things, to provide a trial for the Saints, to multiply and replenish the earth, and to give every worthy Mormon woman an eternal husband.
Let’s set aside the question of whether these four reasons, drawn from the revelation, are adequate reasons for practicing polygamy. The problem is that Joseph never published that revelation: he died in 1844 and the one manuscript carried to Utah was not published until 1852. If Joseph had given a public defense of the practice of plural marriage in a Nauvoo sermon, what would he have said? Well, who knows? The private justifications he gave (to Nancy Rigdon, situational ethics; to Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner, an angelic visit and command) do not even appear in the 1843 revelation, which was itself directed primarily to Emma, not to “the Latter-day Saints.” Given that Joseph’s practice of polygamy was secret, he had the luxury of saying different things to different people at different times. It appears his views of the practice evolved over time. Consequently, what he would have said publicly to justify initiating the practice of polygamy is largely speculation because he never provided *any* public teaching on the subject. The authors’ discussion along these lines is therefore a hypothetical discussion rather than a historical discussion.
Second, given that Joseph’s views on and practice of polygamy clearly evolved over time, a particularly relevant question is what Joseph thought about polygamy in June 1844. The authors address this question in the last chapter under a section titled “Did Joseph Smith Intend to Abandon Polygamy?” William Marks claimed (in 1853) that Joseph had a conversation with him in June 1844 in which Joseph acknowledged that polygamy “is wrong” and that it “will prove our destruction and overthrow” unless stopped (p. 97). The authors argue that Marks’ account of the conversation is not credible, and it is certainly reasonable to argue that if Joseph had wanted to terminate the practice he would not have needed to repudiate it publicly (because he had never acknowledged it publicly, and such a public acknowledgment would be counterproductive if the goal was to protect the Church) and he wouldn’t really have needed Marks’ help to do so. But even Brigham Young acknowledged that “Joseph was worn out with it” (with polygamy, p. 98) and the fact is that Joseph did not take any additional plural wives after November 1843. He did authorize some associates to take plural wives right up to May 1844 (the text erroneously states “into May of 1843” at p. 98; I checked the source, George D. Smith’s Nauvoo Polygamy, cited by the authors), but many fewer than in 1843. I think the facts strongly suggest that if Joseph had not died in June 1844, he may have terminated the taking of additional wives or at least would have kept the practice private and limited rather than dramatically expanding it as did subsequently happen under the leadership of Brigham Young and the apostles from 1844 to 1846. The authors conclude otherwise, stating: “Joseph’s continued eternal sealing proposals, his authorization for others to enter polygamous unions, and his persistent promotion of plural marriage among his followers support that his feelings regarding polygamy did not change prior to June 1844” (p. 98).
A third point I found problematic in the book was the prominent role given to the unnamed angel of polygamy. The authors rather confidently identify three angelic visits in which Joseph was instructed to practice polygamy. “The 1834 angelic command prompted Joseph’s marriage to Fanny Alger, but that relationship turned into a huge debacle. Sometime during the next seven years the angel appeared again, but Joseph apparently demurred” (p. 19). Chapter 9 is titled “Changes after the Angel’s Third Visit,” which the authors assign to February 1842 (“with sword in hand,” p. 50). In the authors’ view, that angelic visit explains Joseph’s shift from primarily sealings to already married women prior to February 1842 to primarily marriage-and-sealings to single women and teens after that date. While there are a few passing references to Joseph’s encounter with the angel of polygamy (all second hand), the primary source is Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner, who left several accounts. Here is from a 1902 statement:
In 1834, [Joseph] was commanded to take me for a wife. I was a thousand miles from him. He got afraid. The angel came to him three times, the last time with a drawn sword and threatened his life. I did not believe. If God told him so, why did he not come and tell me? The angel told him I should have a witness. An angel came to me — it went through me like lightning — I was afraid. Joseph Said he came with more revelation and knowledge than Joseph ever dare reveal. (p. 149)
The angel of polygamy claim merits discussion because it also appears in the recent LDS.org essay on Nauvoo polygamy, as follows:
When God commands a difficult task, He sometimes sends additional messengers to encourage His people to obey. Consistent with this pattern, Joseph told associates that an angel appeared to him three times between 1834 and 1842 and commanded him to proceed with plural marriage when he hesitated to move forward. During the third and final appearance, the angel came with a drawn sword, threatening Joseph with destruction unless he went forward and obeyed the commandment fully.
So apparently the Church is fully endorsing Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner’s account as the primary explanation for Joseph’s practice of polygamy. [It has to be the primary explanation: If you provide a list of several reasons to initiate the practice of polygamy, “an angel of the Lord commanded Joseph to do it” is not going to be number 4 on the list.] My problem with this is that D&C 132, the canonized scriptural basis for the practice that comes from Joseph himself, makes no mention of an angelic visitor. Joseph certainly knew how to give credit to angelic messengers in his revelations, as for example in D&C 110 and in the accounts of priesthood restoration. And these were always named angelic visitors rather than anonymous generic angels. So I find the Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner account problematic at best. Her accounts answer the question what Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner thought about polygamy, not what you or I should think about polygamy. You can make your own determination as to Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner’s credibility as a historical source. The authors provide lengthy excerpts of her various accounts at pages 149-153.
Despite the problems I note above, here’s the bottom line: Joseph Smith’s Polygamy: Toward a Better Understanding is a badly needed treatment of Nauvoo polygamy as practiced by Joseph Smith that does an admirable job covering the facts and providing many quotations from actual sources. It is sympathetic to the LDS position while not being overtly apologetic. Coming in at less than 200 pages and carrying an endorsement from Robert L. Millet on the back cover, the book will likely be read by many mainstream LDS who would ordinarily avoid book-length treatments of difficult historical issues. As the blurb at the Deseret Book page notes, “Brian and Laura Hales provide readers with an accessible, forthright, and faithful look into this challenging topic so that we can at least come toward a better understanding.”
[Note: Let’s keep the comments relevant to the book and the review, rather than becoming an open thread on polygamy issues. If you feel a need to vent on the topic, use Facebook.]