On October 22, 2014, LDS.ORG posted three essays dealing with the practice of plural marriage by members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints between the 1830s and 1904. Perhaps the most controversial essay is the one dealing with the earliest period, which discusses Joseph Smith’s practices and teachings as he introduced plurality to fellow Church members.
It appears that some readers’ expectations were not met by this essay. It is true readers did not receive:
- An apology for polygamy.
- An explanation for why polygamy was not discussed openly in the past.
- A defense of polygamy.
- A declaration labeling plural marriage as adultery.
- A portrayal of Joseph Smith as a hypocrite or libertine.
- A statement that D&C 132 was not a true revelation.
- A declaration that polygamy was an historical mistake.
- A lengthy discussion of Emma’s trials because of the practice.
- A list of injustices suffered by Joseph’s plural wives and an exhaustive detailing of their pain and suffering.
- A concise and accurate history (according to available documents) of the introduction of plural marriage by Joseph Smith.
- A brief discussion of all major controversies dealing with this subject.
- Permission to discuss these topics in Church meetings without being viewed as delusional or an apostate.
- Another evidence of the transparency the Church is striving to achieve regarding its history.
Thoughts for the Critics
The omissions in the essay have elicited scathing criticism. However, as authors who have extensively researched this topic, we might offer a few observations of our own for those who criticize:
(1) Many critics seemed to have little grasp of the historical record of the period. Therefore, it is not uncommon or surprising that glaring historical errors are promoted in their assessments.
(2) Many criticisms seem more focused upon the practice of polygamy than upon the essay itself. It might be said the essay has opened the pressure-release valve for venting about the practice.
(3) Observers who are complimentary to the essay are often labeled as “apologists,” perhaps implying their assessments could not be accurate. This argumentum ad hominem is one of the most overused logical fallacies and undermines the ability to carry on reasonable, articulate discussions.
(4) Joseph Smith’s theological teachings regarding plural marriage are universally ignored.
The Essay Addresses All Major Controversies
Several major controversies have been generated in conjunction with the introduction of plural marriage in Nauvoo in the early 1840s. All of these are briefly discussed in the introductory essay:
Polyandry (paragraphs 20–23, endnotes 29–30). The essay acknowledges that “Joseph Smith was sealed to a number of women who were already married,” estimating the number of these sealings at 12–14 (endnote 29). Several possible explanations for this curious practice are provided. Significantly, it provides a plausible line of reasoning that he did not practice polyandry except in a ceremonial sense. The essay states, “Polyandry, the marriage of one woman to more than one man, typically involves shared financial, residential, and sexual resources, and children are often raised communally. There is no evidence that Joseph Smith’s sealings functioned in this way, and much evidence works against that view” (endnote 30).
Emma Smith’s involvement (paragraphs 25–28). The essay explains that plural marriage was “an excruciating ordeal” for Emma. It also recounted: “Joseph and Emma loved and respected each other deeply. … Emma approved, at least for a time, of four of Joseph Smith’s plural marriages in Nauvoo. … In the summer of 1843, Joseph Smith dictated the revelation on marriage, a lengthy and complex text containing both glorious promises and stern warnings, some directed at Emma.”
Denials (paragraph 16, endnote 23). Public denials, reflecting special verbal gymnastics, is conceded. George A. Smith is also quoted: “Any one who will read carefully the denials, as they are termed, of plurality of wives in connection with the circumstances will see clearly that they denounce adultery, fornication, brutal lust and the teaching of plurality of wives by those who were not commanded to do so.”
The essay also discusses these controversial issues:
Fanny Alger (paragraph 9).
Sexuality (paragraphs 12, 17–18).
Children with plural wives (endnote 25).
Number of plural wives (paragraph 18, endnote 24).
Young wives (paragraph 19).
The Pain Remains Despite the Essays
While the essay addressed many never-before, publicly-addressed issues, the outcry on the blogosphere has shown it did not sufficiently address some of the issues that really bother people. Therefore, if people were upset and confused about these issues before the posting of the essay, its contents may not have assuaged their pain. Of the issues, three will be discussed here:
(1) No official church publication has explicitly discussed the introduction of plural marriage by Joseph Smith, the number of wives he had, or his participation in ceremonial polyandry, including Seminary, Institute, Sunday School, or Priesthood/Relief Society manuals.
The other day I was meeting with a former CES educator, whom I greatly respect. He shared that a friend had approached him with surprise at the essays presenting “new” material. This man, he commented, must not know his Church history. In the surprised man’s defense, I stated, “It was new material to me when I read Brian’s trilogy.” I am well-versed in Church history, took early Church history at BYU, and had an ancestor who took a plural wife in the Nauvoo period, but I had no idea that Joseph practiced plural marriage to the extent and in the manner he did (a). Many people have told us that when they first heard the details of Joseph Smith’s practice of polygamy they felt betrayed. Joseph was presented as one person at Church, yet this aspect of his life was conspicuously avoided. This at times is a faith-shaking experience.
In recent years, the Church has been quick to correct misconceptions in the media regarding other issues such as the consumption of caffeinated drinks (b), but they have refrained from addressing fallacious comments regarding the practice of polygamy (c). While grateful I no longer need to keep my Diet Coke in the bedroom closet, it might be noted that a correction of the misinformation regarding Joseph and polygamy may have comforted readers who first heard of the details from unfriendly sources.
(2) The thought of sharing one’s husband with another woman is horrifying to most women. In the twenty-first century, true intimacy that involves more than physical relations is at the heart of mutually satisfying marriages and true companionship. How that dynamic could exist with the existence of a second, third, fourth, or fifth woman involved is incomprehensible in an earthly venue. That polygamy is no longer commanded in this life is not comforting to those who fear they will need to practice it in the next life.
Brigham Young acknowledged the difficulty in understanding eternal marriage (with or without plurality): “The whole subject of the marriage relation is not in my reach, nor in any other man’s reach on this earth. It is without beginning of days or end of years; it is a hard matter to reach” (d).
Within the context of Joseph Smith’s teachings, a few eternal polygamists are needed, but certainly all worthy men and women will not need to enter polygamous unions. Tears have filled the eyes on men’s and women’s faces as Brian and I have explained that nobody needs to be a polygamist in the celestial kingdom who doesn’t want to be. Lucy Walker, one of Joseph’s plural wives, explained that Joseph taught: “A woman would have her choice, this was a privilege that could not be denied her” (e). Women and men get a second chance to choose their eternal companions even if they are married monogamously in this life. Agency doesn’t disappear with death. The keys that bind can also loose (Matt. 16:19).
(3) The perception that D&C 132 is misogynistic.
One young woman voiced that she was experiencing cognitive dissonance after the release of the essays. On the one hand, she was being told that she was a daughter of her Heavenly Father who loved her (f), but on the other she was reading in D&C 132 that she could be “given” as if she were chattel to a man as a plural wife.
When studying D&C 132, one must keep in mind that Joseph Smith dictated revelation in the language of the Bible. “Given” is not a term used today to describe the choice of a woman to marry a certain man. Similarly, the term as used in D&C 132 does not indicate that a woman would not have a choice to participate in a plural union. Lucy Walker’s statement is again applicable here: “A woman would have her choice, this was a privilege that could not be denied her” (g).
Wording that on the surface may seem to be overly strong, such as “damned” and “destroyed,” when interpreted by its scriptural meaning and applied in context to what it is referring, may not seem so shocking as it may initially appear. D&C 132 primarily concentrates on the doctrine of eternal marriage as opposed to being the “plural marriage section” as it is often labeled. The first 33 verses concentrate solely on monogamist relationships and express doctrine presented in the temple endowment ceremony.
When the section discusses eternal marriage, it is clear that women are not subjugated to men in their eternal privileges. Joseph Smith taught that couples who are sealed in eternal marriage, not exclusively plural marriage, “shall inherit thrones, kingdoms, principalities, and powers, dominions, all heights and depths … and they shall pass by the angels, and the gods, which are set there, to their exaltation and glory in all things, as hath been sealed upon their heads, which glory shall be a fulness and a continuation of the seeds forever and ever. Then shall they be gods” (D&C 132:19–20). A plurality of wives allows all worthy women to be sealed to a husband and become eligible for these blessings in heaven. If a single woman is sealed to a single man after death, she will also be able to partake of these eternal blessings through a monogamous eternal marriage. Other parts of the section are harder to understand, so we wait for the further clarification promised in D&C 132:66.
In lauding the Church’s effort to explain this difficult topic, some may assume that in defending the essay we are in fact defending polygamy. We are not. As historians, we seek to explain what happened. The essays are a good first step in conveying historically correct information to the members of the Church. Perhaps a positive response would encourage even more openness. One of Joseph’s plural wives, Helen Mar Kimball, remembered: “The Prophet said that the practice of this principle would be the hardest trial the Saints would ever have to test their faith” (h). Ironically, simply trusting that God commanded them to do so in the past is a test of faith for some Saints today.
Brian and Laura Hales
(a) For a more comprehensive discussion of the nuances of Joseph Smith’s practice of polygamy, see JosephSmithsPolygamy.org.
(b) The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, The Newsroom Blog, “Mormonism in the News: Getting It Right,” August 29, 2012, accessed November 1, 2014, http://www.mormonnewsroom.org/article/mormonism-news–getting-it-right-august-29.
(c) Craig L. Foster, “Separated but Not Divorced: The LDS Church’s Uncomfortable Relationship with Its Polygamous Past,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 10 (2014), 45–76, accessed November 1, 2014, http://www.mormoninterpreter.com/separated-but-not-divorced-the-lds-churchs-uncomfortable-relationship-with-its-polygamous-past/.
(d) Brigham Young, in Journal of Discourses, 2:90 (October 6, 1854).
(e) Lucy Walker Kimball, “A Brief Biographical Sketch of the Life and Labors of Lucy Walker Kimball Smith,” LDS Church History Library; quoted in Littlefield, Reminiscences of Latter-day Saints, 46.
(f) The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, “Young Women Theme,” accessed November 1, 2014, https://www.lds.org/young-women/personal-progress/young-women-theme?lang=eng.
(g) Lucy Walker Kimball, “A Brief Biographical Sketch of the Life and Labors of Lucy Walker Kimball Smith,” LDS Church History Library; quoted in Littlefield, Reminiscences of Latter-day Saints, 46.
(h) Jeni Broberg Holzapfel and Richard Neitzel Holzapfel, eds., A Woman’s View: Helen Mar Whitney’s Reminiscences of Early Church History (Provo: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1997), 140.
Brian C. Hales is the author of six books dealing with Mormon polygamy—most recently the 3 volume, Joseph Smith’s Polygamy: History and Theology (Greg Kofford Books, 2013). He has presented at numerous meetings and symposia and published articles in The Journal of Mormon History, Mormon Historical Studies, Dialogue, as well as contributing chapters to The Persistence of Polygamy series. He served a mission to Venezuela for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and sang with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir for fourteen years. Brian works as an anesthesiologist and has served as the president the Utah Medical Association. He is currently President-Elect of the John Whitmer Historical Association. Brian has an almost insatiable appetite for both learning and movie theater popcorn. He is also an avid runner and enjoys running half-marathons with his four children and their spouses.
Laura Harris Hales earned a BA in International Studies from BYU and an MA in Professional Writing from New England College. She works as an educator and freelance copy editor. Recently Laura and Brian co-authored Joseph Smith and Nauvoo Polygamy: Separating Fact from Fiction, which is scheduled for release by Greg Kofford Books in early 2015. She and Brian are co-webmasters of JosephSmithsPolygamy.org. Though comfortable with her polygamous roots, she was initially disturbed when she learned some details of Joseph Smith’s practice of polygamy. Her work on the website and the book is an effort on her part to contextualize the events of the 1840s for others who may be troubled by what they learn. Currently she is compiling an anthology addressing sixteen controversial topics regarding LDS history and doctrine. Chapters are written by leading LDS scholars and are directed toward members of the LDS Church seeking answers to difficult questions. The anthology is expected to be released in the winter of 2015.