Nothing is more controversial in Mormonism than polygamy. Nothing is shrouded in more secrecy, both in how it came about, and how it left the LDS Church than polygamy. Nothing has caused more sectarian dissension in Mormonism than polygamy. You have progressives who discover moral outrage at the discovery of Joseph Smith’s marriages to teenagers, becoming a tipping point to belief shelves breaking. You have purists who seek for an original Mormonism deciding to leave the Church in order to practice the original doctrine with other break-off groups. You have people who use past practices by “true prophets” to justify their own moral sexual meanderings. Then you have the schizophrenic treatment of polygamy by the Church over the past century in how it has constructed its own narrative that confuses its members. Ironically, the development of the doctrine of LDS leadership infallibility was attached to the Manifesto, the first attempt by the Church to distance itself from polygamy. Yet nothing has “led church members astray” more than polygamy, in the implementation, abandonment, and later obfuscation surrounding the practice.
Polygamy is a mess.
It is also a very deep pool to go wading if you want to figure it out. The rabbit holes are prevalent. Trying to construct a simple historical narrative is almost impossible because there is no simple timeline. This author went on a journey listening to the Year of Polygamy Podcast by the venerable Lindsay Hansen Park this year in an attempt to construct such a narrative. Park takes many of her queues from Todd Compton’s treatment, In Sacred Loneliness, the Plural Wives of Joseph Smith, along with the help of Jon Hamer of the Community of Christ fame, Brian Hales, and other Mormon historians. What I came away with is a complicated construct that has been pieced together over decades, with later material filling in the gaps that originates the practice with Joseph Smith. Before I undertook Year of Polygamy, I read Quinn’s treatment of polygamy, both in his essay, and in his books, Origins of Power, and Extensions of Power, as well as parts of Brian Hales website and three-part volume, Joseph Smith’s Polygamy. Finally, I have digested David and Pamela Price’s Book, Joseph Smith Fought Polygamy, the Anonymous counter-narrative research paper, and Denver Snuffer’s essay on the topic.
I believe to be as well-versed on the subject as any amateur historian including counter-narratives.
And the fact of the matter is, I don’t care if Joseph Smith originated the practice, which I’ll explain shorty. But what I have discovered is more troubling . . . the problem of SECRECY.
The idea of secrecy in Mormonism evolved over time, and it started with the establishment of a hierarchy. Simply allowing for a hierarchy of any kind encouraged teachings and ideas that were discussed in that group but not passed on to the the greater body of the church. When the Church re-established itself in 1834 as the “Church of the Latter-day Saints” instead of the “Church of Christ,” following the failures at the Morley Farm gathering and the Lord’s condemnation in 1832, the grand vision of Sydney Rigdon’s “restored Church” hierarchical narrative began fully taking shape, intended by Joseph Smith as a schooling system, the same way Moses set up carnal commandments to school the children of Israel (D&C Section 84). The officers, while anointed to power, were still yet not endowed with power, which was the purpose of the commanded establishment of the School of the Prophets in 1833. Yet, even with the establishment of the School and later equally-balanced priesthood quorums in 1835, the more charismatic Quorum of the Twelve soon began to take upon itself more implied authority and leadership. With their mission successes in England and the sheer number of immigrants that would come to Kirtland, Missouri, and later Nauvoo, they were held in high standing among the English converts. Joseph Smith then began to rely more heavily upon the Twelve, as opposed to the High Council, to conduct internal church affairs, despite the revelation in Section 107 which states that the Quorums in the Church were to be equal in authority with the body of the church having veto power. I believe the slow corruption of Section 107 was simply a practical response to the reality of things and their standing among the people as leaders. But this exclusive standing would guarantee some abuses of insider secrets that would be hard to prove or manage if they were ever passed along. These leaders could always point to secret teachings that would get bona fide acceptance due to status, but would be hard to prove. It would be tempting to pass along personal beliefs in such a manner if you held such a high seat. I’m not necessarily accusing the early Brethren at this point, simply pointing out how human nature works. I would have been no stronger were I to have been in such a position. Thus, simply having a hierarchy invites secrets. It’s the nature of power.
But things get even more complicated.
The first inklings of Mormon secret combinations came to pass with the establishment of the Danites in Missouri. While Joseph knew of their existence, the extent of their depravity was arguably unknown to him, and here is where we get the first known secret oaths and combinations entering the Church. After Joseph’s escape from Missouri, I believe he was nervous about who he could trust, as his most trusted companions in Missouri, Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and others, turned on him, which ironically, was partly in response to the Danite harassment. I speculate this contributed to the establishment of the Anointed Quorum in 1842, a place were he could pass along teachings, beliefs, ideas, and ordinances to his most trusted companions, as a way to test loyalty. As far as my understanding is correct, I believe this was an error on Joseph’s part that came from a place of fear and experience in Missouri. Joseph apparently received a revelation in 1842 to set up the “Kingdom of God,” the impetus for the eventual Council of 50 in 1844 (although this was not canonized at the time and we must rely upon later documents and recollections here). It appears, however, that he set up something different than was directed, done with secret oaths, gestures, and promises of deathly retribution, things explicitly condemned in the Book of Mormon. I believe it was the catalyst for his ultimate undoing, which brings us to our first principle.
Principle 1: Prophets Aren’t Perfect.
I know this oft-repeated phrase is used to justify behaviors from repeating historical errors on talk shows to marrying and statutorily raping children, but I don’t know if we have fully absorbed this truth. We tend to give Joseph Smith a pass on almost everything, and I believe that sets us up to be disappointed and to perhaps lose any trust in the Lord’s servants when we inevitably find their warts. The right way forward is us wading through their teachings to find what is true and what is of the Lord, and to have a bit of discretion when learning about their behaviors. According to my interpretation of Moroni 7, There are no such things as true prophets, or “good” prophets. People aren’t true or false or “good,” only their messages and deeds are. We need to expel that narrative from our minds. There ARE false prophets, insomuch that there are people whose total intention is to deceive; they bear mostly false fruits. However, some deception can come about through simple human error. It is why we are not to trust in the arm of flesh. But we ought to work on finding bona fide messages, not bona fide people. The only bona fide person I know of is Jesus Christ. He is the only one who is truly “good.”
And since prophets aren’t perfect, I am allowed to make the case that the Anointed Quorum was NOT approved by God, at least in terms of scriptural direction for such efforts, without impugning Joseph Smith. Some have attempted to lay out the case that Joseph didn’t establish this body, that he merely allowed it, but that’s not the point. The fact is that simply because he purportedly established it does not mean we have to own it as being God’s will. We can point to it as good-intentioned but ill-begotten efforts at solving a trust deficit problem in the 1840’s by whomever established it as one possible reason.
Principle 2: Reject SECRET Teachings because they aren’t Reliable and Often Dangerous
Isaiah tells us: “Woe to those who go to great depths to hide their plans from the LORD, who do their work in darkness and think, “Who sees us? Who will know?” This scripture is a warning to those who are trying to seek to set up Zion. Any who try to hide their plan from the Lord, or in other words, create secrets that only THEY know, believing that no one will ever find out, in order to ingratiate themselves, their power, even to protect their beliefs and institutions, is hiding their plans. A woe is pronounced, a warning. They will eventually be found out by the Lord. Nephi states that “the father of lies stirreth up the children of men unto secret combinations.” Helaman tells us that “Satan put it into the hearts of the people to form secret oaths and covenants.” Moroni gives us a key that “The Lord worketh not in secret combinations,” that that those that uphold secret combinations “shall be destroyed.” You can’t turn a page of the Book of Mormon without a prophet sounding a warning about secret combinations.
One may say that the purpose of the Anointed Quorum was to teach things that were “sacred, but not secret.” Indeed, the outgrowth of those efforts have developed into modern temple ceremonies that aren’t to be discussed with outsiders, using that oft-repeated phrase. I would counter that if something is too sacred to be discussed, it ought not be discussed with ANYONE, except the Lord. By opening up the discussion to others, including close companions, the mysteries of the Lord can be distorted through miscommunication and misrepresentation by them, no matter how carefully the teaching is given. It is best to get the mysteries of the kingdom directly from the Lord yourself, and possibly teach by parable to others if commanded. On one hand, people with good intentions can misrepresent righteous teachings and turn them into something wicked, simply because they do not understand. There is no reason to throw the early Brethren under the bus for conspiring to do wickedness in changing anything Joseph gave them. They could have simply done it out of ignorance, or had the inability, or refusal, to acquire the teachings directly from God. Thus, based on their own darkened minds and the lack of their own revelations, I find it difficult to place any reliability on later teachings that are said to have come from Joseph, because we have no record of them coming from Joseph’s mouth. That includes polygamy, temple ceremonies, garments, and the like . . . all fruits of the Anointed Quorum. We must therefore approach all of those issues with caution. Furthermore, the system under which these things were taught could allow a wicked and vain person to purposefully change such teachings to fit their own agendas, desires, and impulses. There would be no way to check them; we are only relying upon their closeness to the originator for a true teaching. Brigham Young did this masterfully for two decades, expressing teachings that could not independently be verified as coming from Joseph Smith, simply relying upon his proximity to the prophet and the trust of the Saints. Were they true teachings that were improperly communicated, misunderstood teachings that were misapplied, or intentionally wicked reworkings of a sacred principle? We have no way to know other than going to the Lord ourselves. The very genesis of these teachings (polygamy, temple ceremonies, Adam/God, etc.) coming forth in secret make them unreliable at best, wicked at worst, the most wicked part being oaths of death that they took were they to divulge these secrets. Whether intended to be symbolic or not, Masonic-based death oaths could be explicit tied to secret combinations, and they invited murder among the secret societies. Some took this seriously and literally over the years.
So what teachings originated in the Anointed Quorum as it formed May 4, 1842? The ideas of celestial marriage (or spiritual wifery, or polygamy), garment coverings, washing and anointing, the early endowment, and the second anointing (which is still an open secret among Latter-day Saints). Scores of women were inducted into this quorum who would be “wives” of Joseph Smith, who he supposedly approached between 1842 and 1843, inviting them to partake in some of these ceremonies, including 1840’s celestial marriage rites. He also purportedly taught others to do likewise and gave them permission to approach women the same, all while denying these rites were taking place.
What were the purpose practices associated with these rites of these rites? They were secret at the time and the recollection later could have been changed, altered, misremembered, etc. in order to protect the secrets of the order, or simply because memories fail over time. Even though they were explained later once Joseph Smith died as they were expanded to the wider church body through the interpretation of his followers, the secret implementation caused problems with reliability later on. Let’s say we have a good idea that Joseph was doing something in sealing women to himself during that time period. Yet at the same time he was exposing and kicking out those practicing “spiritual wifery,” like John C. Bennett and the Higbee brothers, and as late as February 1844, excommunicating a man named Hiram Brown, who was preaching polygamy in Michigan. He was also vehemently denouncing “spiritual wifery,” both in his public statements and in his private journals. The most common theory considering that dichotomy comes from the idea of religious compartmentalization, that Joseph was practicing “Celestial Marriage,” or Godly-authorized polygamy, which was approved, but denouncing non-authorized polygamy . . . unapproved. The other common theory is that he was simply covering his tracks in a deliberately deceptive fashion simply because he was a cheating liar. Both of these explanations are hard to digest and have led many from the Church because not only would it prove Joseph Smith lied, but that he lied damnably. This example was added upon by the deliberately deceptive practices by Brigham Young, John Taylor (who would vehemently preach against polygamy during his mission to Europe right up until Section 132 was released in 1852), to the fishy tactics of Joseph F. Smith, who was beginning to excommunicate known polygamists, while secretly winking and nodding at other polygamy ceremonies AFTER the Second Manifesto in 1904. It’s also been used by other sects such the FLDS Church, who knowingly lie to protect their beliefs, to the consternation of those who are abused by their leadership. The term, “lying for the Lord” has been popular, both in excusing this kind of behavior, and in lambasting derelict leadership of the Church by its dissenters.
Principle 3: Don’t Lie for the Lord.
“You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” John 8:44
Lying for the Lord is lying to protect yourself, your institution, or your beliefs. It doesn’t do much for the Lord, who can manage His own work without any lying tongues. We must have greater faith than to lie to protect the Work. That’s not to say you won’t be asked to believe or do something that goes against society, your church, your government, etc. But in those instances, the best practice is to do it anyway, and let the chips fall where they may, including any consequences you must incur. Take the example of the Savior. He would teach truth, truth that ultimately got Him executed. And if he had a mystery to teach, he used parables so those that would “have ears to hear.” He did not go around explicitly teaching that he was God, but he implied it, even though it was a damnable heresy. Joseph’s purported actions, if he really indeed did lie, would have violated that example. A man with a message from God about the value of such a practice would have gone about it differently, teaching the beauty of the practice of polygamy in parable, not outright denying his own involvement, but not necessarily going out of his way to shout it from the rooftops. The idea of Joseph Smith darting about, lying profusely on one hand to the public and his wife, secretly romping around in the woods against his Emma’s wishes on the other hand, needs to be roundly repudiated, whether it is true or not. That is never appropriate behavior. That yields poor fruit. It does not follow the example of the Savior.
Contemporary evidence that Joseph practiced polygamy comes primarily from three sources. He was accused by Nancy Rigdon and Sarah Pratt of marriage proposals which they turned down through the medium of John C Bennett. Pratt also gave conflicting testimonies decades later as she divorced Orson Pratt and became an anti-polygamy crusader. Most historians prattle on about the reliability of Bennett’s and Pratt’s exposés because of the flip-flops and inconsistencies. The response from Joseph Smith to these women (specifically in the spurned case of Martha Brotherton) was to label them “harlots.” Later on, William and Jane law came out and accused Joseph Smith of polygamy due to Joseph’s purported advances on Jane. His response to the Laws’ exposé in the Expositor was to destroy the printing press. In both of these cases we learn a cautionary tale.
Principle 4: Don’t retaliate against your accusers, particularly women.
Principle 5: Don’t violate others’ civil rights.
Joseph may have felt he was caught in a no-win situation, but this goes back to the Anointed Quorum and the secret teachings. Had these teachings not been secret, it would not have been difficult 1) for these women through Bennett to accuse Joseph Smith because everyone would either know that Celestial Marriage was NOT what Pratt and Ridgon claimed was happening or 2) they would have seen them as opposing a principle that was openly being preached and accepted by the Lord’s servant. Instead, Joseph Smith may have felt like he had to protect his secrets by retaliating against the character of these women and outright denying their claims. Whether the claims of sexual advances are accurate or not, he should have simply denied their claims and turned the other cheek. Again, the lesson from the Savior here is in the Beatitudes:
“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” And then there is the warning of “But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.”
There is also the sensitive nature of accusing a woman. Cultural hindsight gives us a platform of judgment, so we cannot always know the context, but given our platform, we must realize that women in the 19th Century were treated as chattel in many instances. They had very little in the sense of rights. Compassion towards them would have been a better response, regardless of the truth of the accusation. I tend to cover sins of women in such situations much more than any man. In terms of agency, theirs was a world devoid of much agency. Thus, if there is any real scoundrel here, the lion’s share must fall upon the men.
In the case of the destruction of the Expositor, I’m sure Joseph Smith sitting in Carthage jail would have agreed that it would have been better to have argued the points in the Expositor instead of destroying it. His temper often got the best of him. Because of the actions he took against the printing press, it ended up killing him. Destroying the printing press was an abuse of power, and abuse of a Constitutional right, and the wrong approach to accusations, false or true.
Summary on the Anointed Quorum
We can conclude that Nauvoo-style secret groups helped caused the chaos and confusion, gossip and dissension, that ended the life of Joseph Smith, set up the controversial and destructive doctrine of polygamy, set up the Twelve Apostles as the new hierarchy since they were the main adherents of the Anointed Quorum, and in hindsight is seen as a bad idea that should be repudiated in its implementation. Furthermore, the actions taken to clear the air and cover secrets decades later added fuel to fire and should be avoided by all those who are followers of Christ. At the same time, we can forgive Joseph Smith, and should, for these obvious mistakes. He was not perfect, and shouldn’t be expected to always act in perfect comportment, especially given the stresses he was under and the PTSD he was possibly suffering from in the aftermath of his Missouri incarceration. William Marks, then President of the High Council in Nauvoo, illuminates the Joseph Smith was possibly considering giving up his secret ordinances, quorums, and councils right before he died, essentially realizing that his secret systems weren’t working, that were they being misinterpreted at best, bastardized by Judases at worst. Perhaps he was repenting of this folly at the time of his death. We may never know.
Some may argue that my facts are wrong, that he is clear even of the charges of secrecy and retaliation, or even that he is a rascal, predator, and scoundrel. Again, that’s not the point. Historical facts can change at any moment, and often do. We shouldn’t have to get a testimony of history. What we need to do is develop conscience of righteousness that can answer any historical fact or narrative. If the narrative and facts clear Joseph Smith in your mind, then you have nothing to worry about. If they do not, or if damning evidence comes forth that reverses things, will you change your mind and support Joseph’s actions, or can you divine righteousness apart from actions any man could take? This is part of developing a mindset regarding Mormon history, and polygamy specifically. We need to be able to discern right from wrong, no matter the circumstances, the historical facts, or the persons involved, be they Joseph Smith, Moses, or Abraham. Joseph’s translations of the Book of Mormon, his teachings in the Lectures on Faith, the Words of Joseph Smith, his revelations, are unparalleled in the truths they import and can be parsed from this difficult time in his life and some of the disturbing retaliatory actions he undertook upon his detractors. In that sense, Joseph continues to be a messenger from God, a seer unprecedented in world history with his translation efforts, a mystical visionary who was attempting to show us the way.
But did Joseph Practice Polygamy?
Well . . . define “Polygamy?”In 1841, the idea of spiritual wifery was being promoted by John C. Bennett. This was understood as an implicit excuse by holy men to have sexual relations with any women, as long as it was kept SECRET, and the couple consented. It was not a new idea, and had been circulated among the Cochranites in Maine decades earlier, among other sexually licentious ideas from the Shakers, the Oneida Group, and others 19th Century groups prior to Joseph’s private teachings on celestial marriage beginning in 1842; these ideas could help explain what people would think when they heard about the idea of celestial marriage, how these other ideas would inform their thoughts on the subject, whether in advocacy or detraction. The first accusations of “spiritual wifery” came from John C. Bennett after he left the Church and published his expose, The History of the Saints, an Expose of Joe Smith and the Mormons. It was this exposé that I believe Joseph Smith was fighting against when he began preaching specifically against against polygamy in public. Even though the exposé was over the top, some of the more subtle ideas seem to line up. That dichotomy is a hard pill to swallow, and even strains credulity at some points, because what he taught in public and what he purportedly did in private were hypocritical in minds of his followers and later historians. Yet there are other narratives of this dichotomy, some of which I believe are more plausible. It’s possible that others in his secret quorum misinterpreted, or purposefully misused his teachings to practice a variation thereof, through their interactions with Bennett, with the Cochranites, even believing what they were doing would have been blessed by Joseph. It would not be hard to do, given that the teaching was called “Celestial Marriage” and the rights of civil marriage came with sexual intercourse. It could also be justified by the Biblical narratives of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, held in great reverence among Mormons and Christians in general. They, along with Moses, practiced polygamy and Levirate marriage. However, this is explicitly condemned in the Book of Mormon in Jacob 2 unless the Lord commanded it for the purposes of building up seed (which BTW wasn’t happening pre-1844).
“Behold, David and Solomon truly had many wives and concubines, which thing was abominable before me, saith the Lord. Wherefore, thus saith the Lord, I have led this people forth out of the land of Jerusalem, by the power of mine arm, that I might raise up unto me a righteous branch from the fruit of the loins of Joseph. Wherefore, I the Lord God will not suffer that this people shall do like unto them of old. Wherefore, my brethren, hear me, and hearken to the word of the Lord: For there shall not any man among you have save it be one wife; and concubines he shall have none; For I, the Lord God, delight in the chastity of women. And whoredoms are an abomination before me; thus saith the Lord of Hosts. Wherefore, this people shall keep my commandments, saith the Lord of Hosts, or cursed be the land for their sakes. For if I will, saith the Lord of Hosts, raise up seed unto me, I will command my people; otherwise they shall hearken unto these things.”
If Joseph uncovered others practicing this sort of behavior among his closest followers, it could have spurred him to greater lengths to repudiate the doctrine in public, as it was being preached in private by individuals who he couldn’t identify. Some say he could have simply excommunicated them. By the time period of Nauvoo, however, it may not have been that easy. With power increasingly being shifted toward the Quorum of the Twelve due to their popularity in England and the massive influx of English immigrants, he may have felt embattled and losing control over his church secretly, despite any pretense of unity publicly. It would have been the ONLY way to combat the error without giving away his secret ordinances or risking a revolt. In Joseph’s mind, “Celestial Marriage,” and “spiritual wifery” could have been wildly opposing principles, not simply a parsing of language or authority. Thus, the fight could have been real, not simply a way to cover tracks, or to compartmentalize. The lengths at which he went to repudiate “spiritual wifery” would indicate this possibility, even in his own private journals. If he was trying to cover his tracks, there are easier ways to do this without having to invent a new doctrine that you were eventually going to expose anyway. And if you were going to expose it, a careful parsing of language would have been the way to go, easing people into the practice. Yet we see no parsing. He never seems to mince words.
And this language problem persists.
Principle 5: Don’t get Caught in Arguments over Language
The Church continued to repudiate the term, “Polygamy” or more commonly “spiritual wifery” until Orson Pratt published the Seer in 1853. Then the term was embraced with gusto as a “cat being let out of the bag! (JD:1:188) They may have preferred the terms, “Celestial Marriage,” or “Plural Marriage,” but they equated the terms together by the 1850’s. “Celestial Marriage” was now synonymous with “Polygamy.” Later, when the Manifesto was passed in 1890, and then the Second Manifesto in 1904, the Church returned to disusing the term, “Polygamy,” for the term, “Celestial Marriage,” since they could interchange the two without getting into too much trouble. Finally, in the 1930’s, in what is sometimes known as the Third Manifesto, J. Reuben Clarke defined “Celestial Marriage” only in terms on ONE marriage, in the temple, the term the Church uses today. It could not be polygamous in any way possible. This was done to distance the Church from the growing influence of new fundamentalist heresies who were disabusing Church authority, who were using the “Celestial Marriage” term to equate to polygamy. Today, Mormon fundamentalist sects still use the term, “Celestial Marriage” as synonymous with “Polygamy.” Often when people argue over this history, they are playing with terms not defined and can easily be adjusted to their own internal definitions. I find it useful to use the term “sexual polygamy” or “temporal polygamy,” in order to keep things straight.
Aside from semantics, were the practices and beliefs different over time? What we call “Celestial Marriage” in the LDS Church, how has it changed in terms of doctrine, understanding, practice, or implementation? I think in seeing this, we can get a clearer idea of whether or not it underwent a radical change upon the death of Joseph Smith, opening the possibility that we have misinterpreted the secret practices of Nauvoo.
From all records collected on Nauvoo polygamy, and from the new practices we see almost immediately after Joseph’s death, we can draw a line between practices and see some stark differences.
|Joseph Smith||Brigham Young and successors|
|No evidence of children||Lots of children|
|Polyandrous - married other women married to men||Only married virgins or Levirate widows|
|Did not live with his "wives" with the exception of those boarding with him||Organized his wives into a "harem" system|
|Was primarily for spiritual purposes||Was primarily for temporal purposes|
Aside from these basic differences, the changes happened almost overnight. In 1844, celestial marriage was a closely-guarded secret, with attempts to retaliate against leakers, gossips, and accusers, including the destruction of a printing press. By 1845, it was almost an open secret among Latter-day Saints. The amount of plural marriages skyrocketed in 1845, as did the children. Brigham and Heber C. Kimball split all of Joseph’s “wives” among themselves in mostly a Levirate fashion (the practice of marrying a brother’s widow), and in these instances they were married for time only (another innovation), instead of being sealed for eternity. The rest of the Twelve followed suit if they hadn’t already. The idea of virginity became important and critical to the new order of polygamy, and new household structures began taking shape. Before, it seemed to be more of a dynastic quality that attracted Joseph Smith to enter into his celestial unions, and the practical aspects were completely absent. When one considers the speed of change that took place with regards to polygamy, along with the relaxing of the secrecy, the one variable that seems to be the lynch pin for change was Joseph’s death. The Mormons were still living in hostile country where the secrets were ostensibly instituted to protect the Church. The threats from Carthage and Warsaw were still ever present. Polygamy/bigamy was still a serious crime. So either Brigham felt that the need for secrecy was a bad idea in 1845 and was moving to declassify the practice, he had a firmer hand with malcontents so he didn’t need to keep things secret anymore, or he wasn’t worried about secrets since the clash of polygamy styles had been won upon the death of Joseph, Brigham favoring the style of polygamy Joseph “fought against.” Either way, he felt more secure to start living it more openly. And then he began making lots of babies, justifying the monogamy escape clause in Jacob 2.
The dominant narrative tends to assume a more seamless transition, but we need to be very cautious of that interpretation.
As well, if people want to study Joseph’s intentions for celestial marriage “sealings,” it may be helpful to study his doctrinal concepts of sealing, his understandings of Elijah’s return (see Denver Snuffer’s treatment on this subject), Moroni’s charge of “sealing the hearts of the children to the fathers, and the hearts of the fathers to the children” from Malachi may have influenced his ordinances. Knowing this was part of Moroni’s charge, it would have weighed heavily upon Joseph’s mind to grasp a system for doing such a thing since the beginning. Who was a “father?” What would it mean to be “sealed?” What role do the Lectures on Faith and the King Follett Discourse play on helping flesh out those ideas? Was Joseph privately doing something that only he truly understood but was attempting to teach in public (see Words of Joseph Smith) in a way to slowly expose his secrets? There are all sorts of mysteries here to explore. We take it for granted thinking that we know what Moroni meant because modern Mormonism has interpreted that charge as temple work for the dead. However, the sealing of the unbroken chain of families from father to son, back to Adam, was largely an invention of Wilford Woodruff in the 1890’s. Before that, people were sealed to men who were considered “saved,” and had their “calling and election sure,” and it’s possible that the sealings performed by Joseph Smith were meant to solve this charge by Moroni. It would have been an act of salvation, not a temporal system to spread seed. If Joseph felt he was “saved,” then perhaps he felt that if he sealed himself to other women, and those women were sealed to their other husbands, or to their parents, who were also sealed, he could drag a few people with him into heaven in this world or the next.
The only evidence we have of Joseph’s idea of “Celestial Marriage” is D&C Section 132. We know through RLDS sources that there was “a” revelation. It was read by Hyrum Smith to the Nauvoo High Council in 1844 according to James Allred (years later) and appears to have been poised to become public before the martyrdom. However, that section was not presented until the Saints were safely in Utah in 1852. Witnesses state that it was the same document they had heard earlier. However, the language and flavor of the document seem to be more closely aligned to Brigham Young’s writing style than Joseph Smith’s. It’s possible some parts were altered or changed over 8 years, just enough to make it seem like the same document to align with eight-year memories, but with a new interpretation of some things. There was precedent for that. In 1835, parts of the D&C were changed to reflect offices and priesthood authority in earlier D&C sections, where they were absent in the 1833 edition of the Book of Commandments. It would not be unheard of for a later rendition to be adjusted to be more in line with the new order of things. To hear Section 20, for example, from earlier extant manuscripts, the core ideas are the same, but one could easily misremember the second rendition for the first unless they were extremely observant about where the offices of the Priesthood were inserted. It’s for this reason I find Section 132 problematic. It’s not reliable, despite witnesses to the contrary.
I contrast Joseph’s vision of celestial marriage with that preached by Orson Pratt’s Seer pamphlet in 1953, which argued that polygamy was a solution to keep holy men from committing fornication, a stop-gap measure to ensure that lusts from those in the high seats would have an appropriate channel for their sexual desires so they could go on being holy men of God. Or contrast Brigham Young, who argued that a man could collect or steal wives from other men if he had more keys (and Brigham Young had the most keys). Then you have Heber C Kimball, who demanded that the missionaries bring all the women home and not marry the prettiest ones first, so that the Brethren would get a fair shake. It’s apparent to me there were stark ideas with respect to polygamy that changed over time. The later harem-like collection of women by LDS leaders, and the treatment of some of their wives, help us to deliver another principle:
Truth 6. Don’t objectify women, treat them like property, and don’t steal them from their husbands.
Often Brigham Young is given a pass because he was more transparent about polygamy in the 1850’s as compared against the secrecy and manipulation that we find in the Nauvoo/Joseph period. We get most of those stories, however, courtesy of William Clayton, Joseph’s personal scribe, an English convert loyal to Brigham Young. Clayton’s journals, which are late entries into the polygamy narrative, but essential to understand Nauvoo polygamy, have Joseph hiding wives and trysts from Emma Smith, making her an enemy, a jealous and almost violent creature who burned Section 132 in the fireplace, poisoned Joseph, and pushed Eliza R Snow down the stairs. We also have Joseph seemingly nagging and manipulating women into marrying him. Later affidavits from Zina Huntington and others have Joseph being threatened by “an angel with a flaming sword” if he did not relent to polygamy, and Joseph passing along that explicit threat to other women who refused to marry him. There are other reports of him similarly pressuring them with their salvation, or simply using his high status as prophet to help the women understand that is was the right thing to do. Finally, we are confronted with his “marriage” to Helen Marr Kimball at 14, which has been a favorite button to poke for ex-Mormons, branding Joseph a pedophile. Unfortunately, this example (whether correctly understood) was followed by Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, and Lorenzo Snow, and in our day the Kingstons, Warren Jeffs, and Tom Green. The result of this practice or misunderstanding of a practice has been sickening.
I do have problems with Clayton. His journals that detail Nauvoo polygamy are written out of order, almost as if they were inserted later into his other journals. They are also inaccessible for true scrutiny. He also has been caught recently changing Joseph’s journals to represent Brigham’s order of things (Joseph Smith Papers) on polygamy in one of Joseph’s journals. I think people are too trusting of Clayton’s version of things. Nevertheless, we need to develop two more principles related to polygamy here if we are to give Clayton the benefit of the doubt:
7. Don’t lie or cheat on your wife and keep secrets from her.
8. Don’t use power, authority, threats, age, intimidation, gas-lighting, etc. to pressure people into doing things. Honor agency.
9 Don’t Marry Children. Or very young women if you are old. Especially when there is a power differential.
Brigham Young took this to greater lengths. When it was apparent in the 1850’s that not all the wives liked polygamy, Brigham would talk about “setting them free.” This meant that the women were free to divorce and leave their husbands easily. They could simply walk away. However, it’s never that easy when you are economically tied to someone. Living in the harsh environment of the early Mountain West, the prospects of walking into the desert would seem pretty dire. Furthermore, if your marriage disaffection was seen as on par with a disaffection of faith, you could risk your life, as Blood Atonement was being preached and covertly practiced upon apostates by some, including Church secret police known as “Brigham’s B’Hoys.” The divorce rate in Deseret was moderate among polygamists for this reason. Women hated the lifestyle for the most part. By 1857, polygamy reached a fever pitch during the Mormon Reformation with almost no single women left in the territory, the greater portion going to leaders who were wealthier and higher up in the hierarchy. When a woman did leave, or dissent, consequences could be dire. With brings us to another principle.
10. Don’t abandon or kill your disaffected wife (or wives).
Many people do not know that Brigham Young appears to have wearied of his polygamy experiment by the 1860’s. For being such a holy and high principle, the effects of the principle had been more dire. As noted before, the divorce rate had skyrocketed, and women were largely unhappy in their circumstances at this time. Brigham also seemed besieged by his own household at times, some of his wives were leaving him and going on writing tours to expose him. He also wanted statehood, and the recently-passed anti-polygamy legislation (Morrill anti-bigamy act of 1862) ensured that statehood would be a pipe dream while the Saints were living polygamy. He seemed to make some tepid statements toying with abandoning polygamy for statehood, go so far as stating that if it were required of the Saints to live in celibacy or as Quakers to fulfill God’s command, they should do so. One wonders had he lived to the implementation of the Edmunds Act in 1882, would he have abandoned the Principle at that point without putting up much fight? While this is all speculation, we do know John Taylor’s feelings on the subject when he took over in 1877 upon the death of Brigham Young. His was an attitude of “from my cold, dead hands.” He seemed willing to sacrifice all, including the Church, to obey what he thought was God’s will. Indeed, by dying in hiding, he seems to have sacrificed a bit of himself for his beliefs. While I believe his zealotry was misguided, Taylor’s beliefs were what catapulted polygamy as the capstone doctrine for the Church at the time, and was the hotbed fire that ignited later fundamentalism. His belief were that the Church and Polygamy were synonymous, that living polygamy was required for exaltation. Brigham Young gave similar statements but he dithered. There was no equivocation from Taylor. You were either all in, or you were damned. Because of earlier secrets, this led later fundamentalists to decree that Taylor had produced a secret revelation in 1886 that would give some cover to continue practicing polygamy if the Church was forced to abandon it. Yet this also violated the principles laid out by the Savior in the Book of Mormon considering the Doctrine of Christ. Polygamy is NOT a requirement of salvation (defined here as exaltation). Section 132 assigns “Celestial Marriage” as part of the New and Everlasting Covenant of the Gospel, yet in other areas of scripture, that Covenant is defined as something else: Following the direct dictates of the Savior to yourself once you get past the “strait and narrow gate.” through baptism. It can’t be both. Indeed, if “Celestial Marriage” is true in some sense, where a man and woman are sealed together (which does have some scriptural base), then it would be an effect of living the New and Everlasting Covenant, not necessarily the cause. Yet so is caring for the poor and living a saintly life. Yet by the 1880’s this had been conflated astronomically by John Taylor to mean ONLY polygamy. Curiously, there is no example of commanded polygamy in scripture. I believe the conflation of the “Principle” was motivated by political pressures and persecution in a way to save polygamy by tying it to the foundation of Mormonism, thereby strengthening its court cases at the Federal level . . . not revelation.
Principle 11: There is no requirement for Polygamy to achieve salvation or exaltation. It is NOT the New and Everlasting Covenant of the Gospel. It’s importance in the Church was developed due to politics, not theology.
At the same time while polygamy was coming under greater pressure to be abandoned, both internally and externally, there was a heroic effort to protect its legacy, mainly though the efforts of then Apostle and nephew to Joseph Smith, Joseph Fielding Smith Sr. (JFS). The Church was coming under intense pressure from the efforts of the newly-minted Reorganized LDS Church from the Midwest, who was sending missionaries, namely, the two sons of Joseph Smith, to convert them. The testimonies from those in Nauvoo, including Emma Smith, that Joseph did NOT invent polygamy, would have been impressive. Add to this the presence of Joseph and Emma’s two sons, Joseph Smith III (JFIII) and David Hyrum Smith, and you have a powerful counter-narrative to fight. The modern story of Joseph Smith’s polygamy narrative essentially begins with the efforts of JFS. By 1869 he was alarmed at the lack of primary evidence for Joseph Smith starting polygamy and he needed evidence to combat the efforts of JSIII. The William Clayton journals were still largely unknown, unavailable, and perhaps even not existent as we know them today. What you basically had were some oral histories that would be dying off by the 1890’s. Thus, JSF went about collecting affidavits from Joseph’s “wives” and other witnesses in order to cement the legacy of polygamy into the far future. Many historians credit JFS for their dominant consensus narrative, and indeed, his collection is impressive. But like Clayton and others, can his affidavits be completely trusted? It wasn’t as if JSF went through the estates of these wives and found written journal testimonies. These were interviews from a biased standpoint. How many of their testimonies were encouraged, cajoled, or even threatened? How many of their memories can be trusted as these events happened decades later? How did they view their efforts in light of protecting a Church they loved and cherished? How many of them were conflicted in their loyalty of Brigham Young or Heber C. Kimball, who they married after Joseph’s death? Indeed, this game was not limited to JSF. His cousin, JSIII would interview some of these women and get conflicting accounts. Although he would notarize some of his statements. Could he have used similar tactics? In reality, a counter-narrative testimony (and there were some) that came through JSIII would have been more impressive due to him coming into the lion’s den and asking these women to testify against the lions. Accusations of changing testimonies after the fact abounded on both sides. Some like to accuse and point fingers at these women, calling them liars, and “slut-shaming” them for their loyalty to Brigham Young and the Church. The principle of how we treat others, especially women in history, who were as likely victims of an inherently abusive power structure, is the heart of the matter. It is one of the things that irritates some historians most . . . when someone accuses one of of these women of polygamy history of lying. And it’s possible that may have occurred, it is likely they would have done it to save their family’s reputation, to testify on behalf of a Church they loved, than outright lying. They were pawns in a game to protect the power of institutions run by men. Let’s recognize that.
Principle 12: Don’t use powerless people as pawns to prove your point.
But what about the sex?
As part of this effort to prove or disprove polygamy in the late 19th Century, the proof of defining terms ran into the problem of discussing sexual intercourse in an era when such things weren’t spoken of. The attempts to interpret “wink and nod” expressions are difficult to parse because they can either be taken as evidence such things occurred, or in a different tone of voice, completely the opposite. The best example comes from Eliza R. Snow’s account where when confronted about her relations with Joseph being sexual, repeated in a private gathering “I thought you knew Joseph Smith better than that.” Depending on the tone of voice, this can be taken several different ways. It is unreliable.
More pointed are the testimonies that were given in the Temple Lot trial in 1894.
This strange case comes to use due to a legal suit between the RLDS Church and the Temple Lot (Church of Christ) over land in Missouri in the early 1890’s. The LDS Church got into the game on the side of the Temple Lot to disprove the RLDS Church and keep those lands from the hands of the RLDS Church. Joseph III, being a trained lawyer, was interested in using the case to vindicate his father as a monogamist. The stakes being set, the LDS Church sent witnesses to testify about their relations with Joseph Smith, specifically, the “carnality” of that relationship (mind you, 50 years later). Several women were called to testify. Among them, Melissa Lott, Lucy Walker, and Emily Partridge indicated they had a sexual relationship with Joseph Smith. The first two seemed to squirm and obfuscate, beating around the bush, but in the end, they stated they did live with him as “husband and wife.” Emily Partridge directly answered the question and indicated she slept with Joseph one night and that they had “carnal” relations. Could they have lied? It’s possible. The judge seemed to think so and in the end, ruled against the LDS Church. One must think of the amount of pressure these women were under, sent as emissaries from the Church to uphold its entire succession narrative. Could they have been telling the truth? That’s always possible, but in the end, the strongest case for Joseph practicing sexual polygamy comes from Partridge and none else. She almost stands alone. The rest equivocated, and other testimonies that had been given were second- and third-hand.
Principle 13: Sex isn’t really the most important issue; it’s how women are treated.
This includes both how women in history were pressured by men to say and do things they would otherwise not have done. Polygamy, or lying about polygamy, or whatever they may have said or done to please a man in power, is the crux here. Sexuality in the 1900’s was a tool of power and control. Had Mormon polygamy been a sort of an experiment with open marriage or free love, where consent was king, the morality of it may have been in question, but not from the standpoint of cruelty or control. We need to always remember that even while we are looking for evidence of any carnal relations. The sex is only part of the equation.
The penultimate piece in the sex puzzle is the physical proof, the evidence of children sired by Joseph Smith and NOT from Emma. We have several testimonies that have indicated certain individuals were Joseph’s children through one of his wives. Over the past decade, DNA scientists have tested the paternity of the boys in some of these cases, and they have come up with nothing that would prove they are Joseph’s, and in fact, that they were not Joseph’s. Likely the most famous story, however, is a daughter of Silvia Sessions, Josephine Lyons. Silvia was married to her husband when it seems she was also “married” to Joseph in 1842-3. There was a famous quote from Silvia to her daughter, testifying on her deathbed that Josephine was Joseph’s. Until recently, DNA testing was unable to do much with daughters. But Ugo Perego did a DNA test in 2015 that showed she was NOT Joseph’s daughter. Why would Silvia lie on her deathbed? Well, perhaps she was so convinced by the end of her life due to Church narratives that she WAS a sexual wife to Joseph even though she wasn’t. Perhaps her testimony to her daughter was an indication of how she felt about the power of the ceremony and that her sealing to Joseph would mean that her daughter was also sealed to Joseph. Perhaps she thought Josephine was Joseph’s because she was having sexual relations with BOTH Joseph and her husband at the time, and she believed or hoped her offspring was Joseph’s. Regardless, another hope for physical evidence of Joseph’s sexual polygamy had bit the dust. The physical evidence has been the strongest quiver for the case of Joseph being sexually monogamous. I’ve been appalled at how casually this is swept under the rug by academics (who BTW, embrace DNA evidence with gusto when it bolsters their case against the Book of Mormon being historical). It doesn’t PROVE Joseph didn’t have offspring. It’s actually a little more difficult to have children with polygamy than monogamy, perhaps due to the fact that conjugal relations are less frequent and under normal circumstances, conception still being only 30% possible in any given month. But it IS strong evidence that he did not have sexual relations as widely as some have reported, and that Joseph’s version of “polygamy” should be less tied to the spiritual wifery of Bennett or temporal polygamy of Young. This should not be marginalized. It should create a more nuanced conclusion from anyone seeking to understand this issue from an historical perspective.
So was Joseph a polygamist?
Yes and no. Terms matter and depending on the context, you can answer this either way. Evidence matters but it’s not conclusive. You can build a narrative that he was a polygamist, and that he wasn’t, all apologies to those that believe a consensus has been reached. There is simply too much evidence that contradicts, and you MUST rely upon the good graces of record-keeping and research motives of the LDS Church to completely trust the evidence they have produced, which is problematic. Willard Richards, George A Smith, William Clayton, JSF, have all been shown to alter official records to make things look better for the LDS Church. BH Roberts would complain when he was compiling the Comprehensive History of the Church that JSF would have him change and adjust things to look more favorable. To think that this sandbox is clean is highly presumptuous. But in the end, regardless of what you think of WHAT Joseph Smith did, it is better to analyze what he SHOULD have done. And moreover, we ought to spend more time in the debates on polygamy looking at the ethics of actions reported to have been taken and decide whether they are right . . . or wrong. And that includes ALL of Mormon Polygamy, not simply Joseph’s.
So let’s spend some time looking at polygamy post Joseph Smith.
I have already examined some of the disturbing ways women were treated by Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball. That’s duly noted. However, there was a welfare benefit to I don’t want to gloss over. Women were taken care of for the most part in their basic temporal needs. For that, I suppose, we have a bright light in an otherwise sea of darkness. Women who were were widowed and women who could otherwise not get married (for whatever reason) could get married and be supported and have children. We should credit Brigham Young for that effect, even if it was one of the few benefits that came from his version of polygamy.
Principle 14: There are some bright spots in Mormon polygamy. The welfare aspect was the primary benefit. If you are going to practice polygamy, marry women who are widows, or have a hard time marrying and take care of their economic needs.
I have lightly touched on the methods of interrogation by men upon women such as Joseph F Smith and his cousin, Joseph Smith III. I have also been critical of the behavior of lying and secrecy by Wilford Woodruff and Joseph F Smith as it has pertained to polygamy leaving the Church. However, the efforts to sanitize the history of polygamy are also suspect and should be scrutinized. Heber J Grant was the first to begin seriously expunging polygamists, excommunicating them, marginalizing them, and pushing them to the fringes of society where they held prominence in the Church before. Much of that was do, I believe, to his own troubled past with the principle. While I sympathize with his efforts in that it was almost necessary to take a hard line against them due to the secrecy efforts of the Church in the past, and the winking and nodding that would take place when people were being told no, the human factor was ignored. Punishing and excommunicating people who “err in doctrine,” and even in practice is harsh treatment. It was an overreaction, a Pharisaical response to bad behavior. One imagines there could have been a better way to treat heretics. Indeed, if they would have been shepherded and fellowshipped instead of persecuted and marginalized, they would not have been kicked to fringes of Mormonism and one would be hard-pressed to see groups such as the FLDS, the Kingstons, Laffertys or LeBarons (Church of the Lamb sect) rising to power and infamy. Even more, the Church was engaging in active cooperation with the police and government to persecute the polygamists, just as they were persecuted a few decades earlier by the Federal government. The Short Creek raid was a particularly tragic event where the Church collaborated with the Arizona government to round up polygamists and jail them, thereby splitting up their families. The hypocrisy in that act was stark and is a shameful stain on the emerging monogamist church.
Principle 15: Don’t be a Hypocrite. Allow people to worship according to their own conscience. Yes, that even means polygamy.
A concerted effort was undertaken in the 1940’s onward to whitewash the history of polygamy, with a narrative that it was only practiced in Utah for a short period of time simply to have a few more children. The Church was in the process of cleaning up its image, trying to tie itself to mainstream American values, casting itself as the proverbial Ozzie and Harriet nesting ground. This narrative in my mind, tells us something about the truth, however, while it glosses over other aspects. I also view it as an attempt to correct history, in that the onus was placed rightly in my opinion, on Brigham Young, but for all of the wrong Victorian sentiments. It does not mention the conflicts in Nauvoo over the issue nor discuss the doctrinal emphasis on polygamy in the late 1800’s as essential. There is this false sense of a seamless transition going from Joseph to Brigham, because the most important issue in the Church’s mind, it appears, is to protect the narrative of succession. Until the Church can be circumspect about how tenuous succession was, it will have a hard time dealing with other historical issues in a more forthright manner. For example, it’s clear to me in my own studies that Brigham Young wasn’t quite as chummy with Joseph Smith as he is portrayed in Church history. There were some disagreements, particularly over the funding of the Nauvoo Temple, and he wasn’t quite in the bosom of Joseph, so-to-speak. There are second-hand statements from Joseph recalled later on, where he felt Brigham would be the wrong kind of leader for the LDS Church. Joseph seems to have left the idea of succession wide open, with several different possibilities, including his own son. This is merely an example, but shows how the Church likes to deal with its history. Today, everything is written as faith promoting and seamless. If mistakes are acknowledged, it’s merely cursory. Prophets, you know, cannot lead the Church astray. The most important thing is to protect is priesthood keys and the succession of those keys. I believe this sets people up with a straw man that causes many to lose their faith when they discover things weren’t as copacetic as is portrayed in LDS seminary films. Being honest with your history, including your mistakes, is a key part of repentance. We are all human and even our best leaders with their best intentions, will err in doctrine and sometimes produce poor fruit. The key response in my mind, is to acknowledge those mistakes, repent for them, and try to do better in the future. This should particularly be done with issues surrounding polygamy and the treatment of women, minorities, “apostates,” and other marginalized people.
Principle 16: Acknowledge your mistakes and repent of them.
Now there are some that see no mistake in polygamy. They take a fundamental approach to the issue and see the idea of polygamy as sacrosanct and holy. I’m not going to argue with them, although I disagree. I think there are righteous ways to approach the practice of polygamy. I don’t think those methods were employed within the context of LDS history. Nevertheless, I will give them a wide berth in preaching the gospel as they see fit with an inclusion of polygamy. I do believe there are ways to practice polygamy that are in line with God’s will, and in line with honoring human rights and respecting women.
- Does God command you?
- As a suggestion, has God commanded the wives before the husband? That’s a good check against getting the wrong answer form the wrong source.
- Does the man treat each wife with respect and love, as if each were his only wife? Hard to do, but the only way to make it work.
- Do the wives love and support each other?
- Is there a limit to wives? I have a hard time seeing happiness in polygamy past two or three wives.
These are some examples. I’m sure there are more. But it helps for those who feel this is their calling. I’m also apt to NOT limit it to gender. Is it possible for women to have more than one husband? If Joseph’s alleged polygamy is to be accepted, that was part of his practice. We ought to be very careful in judging others whose families don’t look like ours. We have no idea what the Lord has commanded them to do. This may have implication to our understanding of gender and sexuality as well. We ought to tread very carefully.
Principle 17: If you are going to live Polygamy, do it the right way, with love and support, and with God’s blessing
Principle 18: Don’t judge families that don’t look like yours
Finally, I want to comment on the belief about polygamy within the LDS Church today, which is to say it’s all over the place. There is much speculation. What I would request however with the LDS Church, is some honesty in how it approaches the principle. There are conflicting statements. Gordon Hinckley seemed to gloss over the practice as something useful for temporal purposes that have largely been abandoned in the 1990’s, and that it’s not doctrinal. However, statements from both Dallin Oaks and Russell Nelson, as well as their marital actions, seems to imply that the Church still believes in polygamy; they simply don’t practice it because it’s currently not the law of the land. Several of the post-manifesto prophets and apostles have been “celestial polygamists,” meaning they have taken unmarried “virgin” wives after the deaths of their first wives and have married them for eternity. In essence, they expect to have all their wives with them in the next life. These include Joseph Fielding Smith and Howard Hunter. They seem to want it both ways. They want to repudiate the practice, distance themselves from groups like the FLDS, but still wink and nod at their own practices that sell polygamy. Because of this, many wonder if the Church will go back to the practice if it becomes legal once again. The Church owes it to its members to have a solid statement on what it really believes, and it seems to be that they whisper that it MAY come back. They keep D&C 132 in its place without modern modification. They perform temple rituals that implicate its return. If that’s the case, the only real difference between their practices and the break-offs have to do with authority and NOT polygamy. They ought to line that out. It’s confusing to many people, especially women in the Church. But then again, there is a history of saying one thing and doing another. For this reason, some believe that polygamy is still happening inside the LDS Church at the highest levels, under a bar of secrecy. While that may seem silly, there is precedent for that sort of behavior. The last example we have evidence of is during the tenure of JSF. One can never be sure. The lack of disclosure on such things as the Second Anointings, the Church Handbook of Instructions, changes in the Temple ceremonies, seeing Christ, revelations given but not publicized, all indicate that secrecy still plays a huge role in the LDS order of things. It started in Nauvoo but hasn’t gone away. If anything, it has expanded into other areas and has helped to develop a cult of personality surrounding its leaders because one can endlessly speculate what they really know and how they know it. It allows for any LDS member to believe something with the understanding that their secret beliefs are doctrine at the highest levels. I speak here of members of the Church who believe that the Brethren have audience with Jesus Christ every Thursday in the Salt Lake Temple, that He meets with them regularly, that Jesus is in control of all things, despite any evidence, direct witness, or indication that He is, other than the cursory testimonies given with hints to possible encounters. It can create an army of people that would do anything for these men, simply because they believe they are inside heaven’s circle of trust. It makes it extremely difficult to challenge their teachings or statements. Those that do are considered heretics and apostates, or at least being “critical of the Brethren.” It’s many times worse than it was under Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, and Joseph was OPEN about his communion with the other side. The modern church has taken the idea of secrecy and reversed it. While before, secret things were going on but weren’t shared, now because of this practice, one can merely imply secret things going on, even if they aren’t. It’s a very useful tool to control people and make them believe something that’s simply not true. You don’t even have to lie about it. Their imaginations will fill in the rest. This is the fruit of secrecy and it’s not good. The other problem with secrets is that it allows your enemies to paint you in the most horrible light, with accusations of blood oaths and sexual encounters taking place in secret. While it seems in credible to think that these sorts of things still take place, the secrecy allows the speculation to grow and grow. Secrecy is a double-edged sword.
I therefore return to my original statement about secrecy and conclude by an appeal to all those affected by Mormonism. It doesn’t matter where you are a mainstream believer, fundamentalist, nonmember or disaffected. The principles can apply to everyone.
Principle 19: To REPEAT: Reject SECRET Teachings because they aren’t Reliable and Often Dangerous.
I know people will start posting the “what about” either here or on other social media sites. I’ll give you my two cents on points that are bound to arise:
- What about Fanny Alger – The hard part about Fanny Alger is that IF she was Joseph’s first wife (1833), it came BEFORE he had the sealing keys (although later Church leaders have tried to walk that back to 1831). So if he did do something with Fanny, it would most likely have been an old fashioned affair, long before his ideas of plural marriage were fleshed out. Regardless, the case of Fanny Alger is case of the cherry on top of the ice cream. Absent polygamy in later Nauvoo, it would have most likely been passed off as a one-off event of either a misunderstood situation that was flamed by gossip and then into accusation by Oliver Cowdery, or . . . a “filthy, nasty, affair,” that was a mistake by a young prophet. I don’t buy that she was his first plural wife. The William McClellin statement decades later I have grown to distrust, since he had a penchant to say things that would hurt the Smith family, who he despised.
- What about Sarah Ann Whitney – The documented letter to Sarah Ann is often used as a contemporary “gotcha” on Joseph Smith, along with the 1842 marriage rite document to Sarah that is attributed to Joseph. The letter seems to confirm Emma’s jealousies, secret trysts at night, and all that comes with that. However, it requires so much narrative filler that I have a hard time taking it seriously to prove Joseph’s “sexual” polygamy. If anything, it’s merely good contemporary evidence that Joseph was performing secret ceremonies. Yet, the inclusion of Sarah’s parents in the letter seem to indicate that this was a dynastic ordinance taking place, not a sexual tryst. The Emma statements are linked to our imaginations that build from later caricatures. Emma may not have approved of his secret rituals. It does NOT need to be an affair. The 1842 revelation also has problems with it’s verification, there are two major different copies of this revelation, and if it IS true, why is it so markedly different than the language used in the temple sealing ceremonies that came latter? Regardless, the Sarah Ann Whitney does nothing to prove to me that Brigham and Joseph’s practices were the same. If anything, it creates a greater tie to the dynastic nature of his secret ceremonies.
- Abraham practiced polygamy – Yes . . . yes he did. But he also lived in a tent, raised sheep, and owned slaves. If you want to go ahead and do all those things, then by all means, marry more than one wife. In all seriousness though, we have no Biblical reference telling him to be a polygamist, that it’s the “New and Everlasting Covenant.” It’s just as likely Abraham was exalted DESPITE his polygamy, not because of it. Most stories surrounding Biblical polygamy are filled with sorrow and despair. It’s introduction in Genesis was started by Lamech, a son of Cain. If anything my takeaway about Biblical polygamy is that the Lord can save anyone, even those living in a world practicing cultural conditions that are not the Lord’s way.
- The Lord told me to live polygamy – Okay, go for it. Just remember these principles when you do it. And make sure it’s truly from the Lord. If the Lord ever asks ME to live polygamy, I suspect it will come through my wife . . . because she’s got more at stake. We ought to set up some stakes to do things that are in our own self-interest or could invariably be seen as consuming our own lusts. It’s a check and balance. Otherwise, the more difficult thing to do may simply be to live in monogamy . . . faithfully.
- Saying the Twelve lied about Joseph Smith is a Conspiracy Theory – If you believe Joseph Smith lied about polygamy while living it . . . that’s also a conspiracy. So is believing the Church lied about still doing it when they were trying to ditch polygamy. There are conspiracies all over the place and there has to be at least one. I’m merely proposing a possible conspiracy headed by Brigham Young. Conspiracies don’t need lots of people to work, including one where Brigham Young invented his own idea of polygamy then pinned it on Joseph Smith and took 20 years to flesh out his narrative. Much of the evidence and testimonials don’t necessarily come from people that were “in on it,” but people that understood the truth a certain way, and explained it how they saw it or interpreted it in their own lives (wives of Joseph Smith, John D Lee, etc.). The larger conspiracy, which can be had either way, is the cover-up on how this practice was implemented and abandoned. THAT conspiracy works whether or not the foundations were built by Joseph or Brigham.
- But other early break-offs also practiced polygamy, not just Joseph Smith, so it had to come from him, not Brigham Young. Well that may be true, except ALL of the groups that practiced polygamy, did so beginning with the Twelve Apostles, who was headed by Brigham Young. That includes Lyman Wight, Alpheus Cutler, and William Smith, who later took it to James Strang. By 1845 all of these men were involved in living polygamy secretly as a body. What they didn’t like and eventually split over, was the leadership of Brigham Young.
- But there is a consensus about Joseph being a sexual polygamists by historians – History is NOT science, so it’s always hard to have a consensus on anything. The best you can have is a preponderance of evidence that points in a likely direction. Many Mormon polygamist historians are LDS, and they have an interest in protecting the narrative of succession, which would include a polygamous Joseph Smith seamlessly passing his craft to his followers. Those that are ex/post/progressive-LDS have an interest in the the straw man narrative since it would disprove the Church in totality and allow for more nuance in their own religious beliefs. All it takes is a reference to Joseph and his child bride, Helen Marr Kimball, and entire belief shelves can come crumbling down. Who wouldn’t want to keep that ace in the hand? Secular academics have largely been taking their queues from the data-mining of JSF, and the journals of William Clayton, who had the time, talent, motive, ability, and have been caught adjusting certain evidences to look more favorably on the succession of the Church, even if that damaged the credibility of their founder. It’s an interesting unholy trinity. But you don’t trust evidence from the wolf when he has feathers in his mouth. But for some reason, JFS is held up as a proto-historian hero. As well, secular academics have an interest in humanizing and sometimes demonizing heroes. So it’s really all about what parts of the sandbox are important to dig for these academics. I’ve seen historians be dismissive of Emma Smith’s testimony, or evidence that points to polygamy originating out of England apart from Joseph Smith, through Cochrane-esque practices that were incubated there (Brigham Young, Heber C Kimball, and Lorenzo Snow all inadvertently show their hands here). I struggle with some of these historians since they like to nurture their favorite pet theories while ignoring or dismissing others. It also happens on the counter-narrative side. I would be more inclined to respect someone who sees the nuance of the entire matter as an historical mystery. The thing I’m interested in is how the consensus narrative will shift since the onset of the scientific DNA evidence has seemed to fall flat in vindicating the testimonial evidence that was once at the heart of the consensus. So far, I’m not impressed. Just like all people, academic historians don’t like being wrong.
- The RLDS Changed their minds about Polygamy, even though it wasn’t in their best interest – Like that last point, I’ve seen this used as a trump card to give credence to the consensus argument. It’s true the RLDS changed their minds, and that does tend to give them more credibility since they don’t have stakes in that narrative. But at one time, they advocated and promoted the theory that Joseph Smith was a monogamist. The evidences they gathered simply didn’t go away or become non-evidence simply because the church changed its mind. The question is . . . which narrative is the right narrative? The first one or second one or neither? The fact is, there are also beneficial motives for the change in the RLDS narrative. Those relate to political progressivism, to growing Protestant ecumenicism, to becoming more academic-oriented in general. The Community of Christ has also recently owned global warming, feminism, social justice, and other progressive issues as well. Embracing historical polygamy of Joseph Smith could be seen as a way to bolster their credentials with academics as they are trying to move away from their Mormon roots and fully embrace “New Mormon History.” To be fair, on their website, they state that they haven’t taken sides on this debate, or find it unimportant since they don’t believe prophets are infallible (which was one of our principles discussed). It’s funny who when you can remove the crux of the straw man, that there is no need to vehemently defend your historical point of view.