What would you say if I told you the story of a man who declared himself to be God’s messenger, published and circulated a document threatening his legal wife with death if she did not allow him to have sex with other women, told his male followers that their teenage daughters or legal wives needed to become his sexual partners or they would all be shut out of heaven, had sex with teenage girls living in his home as wards, and allowed his best friends to unwittingly defend him against all of this in a public setting? Chances are, if you are a practising member of the LDS Church, you would angrily tell me not to talk about your prophet that way.
While we’re on the subject of polygamy, I want to touch on the other big reason the LDS Church tries to avoid the subject: the entire approach of the LDS Church with regards to Joseph Smith’s behaviour has involved nothing but rape apology for 150 years. Polygamy practised in Utah was downright puritanical, with husbands and wives demonstrating the sort of Victorian prudery that you’d expect in a Brontë novel. Polygamy from 1852 to 1904 generally involved clearly defined relationships of choice. Threats of damnation to convince a prospective bride were unheard of, and unhappy plural wives were generally granted divorces when they asked for them. Joseph Smith’s activities, however, are difficult to describe without using the word rape. The rest of his relationships range from consensual to coerced to rape.
Rape! Well, then that’s a serious word. Is it really fair to call Joseph Smith a rapist?
Is there any evidence that Joseph Smith skulked down an alley and pounced on a girl in the darkness? Absolutely not. But rape includes coercing someone into sex through threats of violence. In Smith’s case, he abused the trust of his followers by threatening them with spiritual death if they did not provide him with sexual favours. A true believer in Mormonism would fear being shut out of heaven far more than mortal death. In the case of his wife, Emma, Smith was so serious about his threats of spiritual destruction that he had them canonised as scripture, adding spousal abuse to the mix. There’s no debate in my mind as to whether or not his sexual relationships with teenage girls taken into his home constitutes rape.
Women in Joseph Smith’s day were at greater disadvantage than they are now. They could not vote and had no legal existence apart from their fathers or husbands. They could own property in only limited circumstances, and could be socially and economically ruined by an extramarital affair. Divorce was difficult, sometimes illegal, and left a woman without financial resources. On top of all this, abuse of spiritual power is a horrific crime that does lasting damage to individuals and religious institutions. You would think this would bother the average LDS person, and that they would be in favour of getting the information out there and setting the record straight. I firmly stated my belief that Joseph Smith’s crimes need to be acknowledged as such, but I was told that they just don’t really matter:
Well, again… would anything I say here change your mind? I’m not really interested in having this out today if it’s not going to make any difference.
Like I said below, I’m more interested in the theological implications than whether Joseph Smith was nice to kittens or not.
Well done, SethR. You have compared women to animals and rape to failing to be pleasant. You also aren’t interested in having the discussion unless I change my mind to agree with you. If only we all had your sense of humanity. At first I thought you seem a bit too intelligent to make such a callous, misogynistic statement. But then you went on to say it’s okay for a spiritual leader to have sex with only two fourteen-year-olds. How many fourteen-year-olds would it take for you to be shocked? Let’s take a look at how Joseph Smith treated his “kittens,” if that’s how you want to speak of the women he sexually abused.
The LDS owned and operated FamilySearch lists twenty-four women as being married to Joseph Smith, Jr., the founder of Mormonism, which would evolve into the LDS Church and other denominations. This number is on the low side of the thirty-odd women commonly accepted by Mormon historians. But even if you take twenty-four as a low number that is two dozen women that he bagged and shagged in the course of a decade and a half. Hugh Hefner never had it so good.
In a long, agonising, involuntary, nearly all-night conversation I once had with my Dad in which he did his very best to convince me that I needed to just forget everything that troubled me about Mormonism, he confided that he believed Joseph Smith’s death was not actually a martyrdom as the Church tries to make us believe. In a telling statement about the level of honesty tolerated in LDS meetings, he also asked me never to tell anybody he believed that. He said that while he believed that the scripture and temple rituals established in Mormonism were the key to God’s plan, he also believed that Joseph Smith had abused his privilege. He believed that polygamy was invented because Smith had a raging ego with a libido to match, and that because of his sexual transgressions, God had allowed him to be removed from his office. Damage had been done to the Church as an organisation, but the essential things were the Book of Mormon and the Temple, and although the Church would continue to suffer for Joseph Smith’s sexual crimes, as long as we had the Book of Mormon and the Temple things would work out over time.
This is a pretty reasonable way to resolve the conflict between Smith’s allegedly divine mission and his definitely unorthodox sex life. But my dad’s position didn’t resolve any questions for me; it only created more:
- If he could lie about all of that, how can I believe anything he said about the Book of Mormon or the Temple?
- If it was okay for Joseph Smith to lie, cheat and manipulate his way into the beds of dozens of women who had everything to lose from these sorts of relationships, then what does that mean when he is called a role model for all Mormons, or Jesus Christ’s right hand man in the plan of Salvation?
- If polygamy was never supposed to be part of the Mormon faith system, why hasn’t the LDS Church ever just come out and said that?
- Why do Mormons defend Joseph Smith so furiously against what can only be called rape?
- Why do Mormons perpetuate made-up or skewed stories about people such as Oliver Cowdery and William Law, whom Joseph Smith sold out to protect himself?
Rape apology is a very serious problem, and victim-blaming is still common. “She was dressed like a tart; what did she expect?” “She walked out to her car alone; what did she expect?” “She was a prostitute; she deserved it.” In the case of Mormons who defend Joseph Smith’s behaviour, they say it’s okay to overlook it because, as SethR put it, “Joseph Smith’s efforts, attempts, and failures don’t interest me much anymore.” It’s easy for someone like SethR because his comments sprinkled over the firmament of Outer Blogness reveal him to enjoy the privilege of being a white, middle-class male. He doesn’t have to concern himself with silly things like women who are sexually exploited, as “the ability to opt-out is indicative of privilege”. Considering that the LDS Church is owned, operated, and run by white middle-class cisgender men, is it any surprise that they choose to opt out of discussion of abused women? Or opt out of discussion about women being treated as equals?
If you say that it doesn’t matter that Joseph Smith did these things, you are a rape apologist. If you have trouble swallowing that bitter pill, imagine what your reaction would be if today we found out that the current LDS prophet had been bedding married women and teenage girls after telling each woman God would kill him or that refusing sex would mean going to Hell. Would you feel it was “persecution” when he went to prison? Would you think for a moment that he deserved continued veneration?
Teaching children that Joseph Smith is an example of choosing the right and neglecting to mention that he shagged married women and Mia Maids is not going to help staunch the flow of young adults away from the LDS Church. It would be painful and difficult, but publicly acknowledging that Joseph Smith engaged in sexually inappropriate behaviour would go a long way in alleviating the confusion and anger many Mormons feel over this issue. Hero-worship and misrepresentations of “persecution” that was triggered by his own actions will not.
When a religious leader fails to handle sexual abuse properly, the public demands that the person is removed from office and criminally charged when possible. A sexual abuser or rape apologist cannot be regarded any longer as a spiritual guide, even if the perpetrator is a woman. When US President Bill Clinton engaged in an unethical sexual relationship and lied about it, he was impeached. When Tiger Woods’ squeaky clean image turned out to be a deception, his sponsors dropped him and the public stopped buying his merchandise. It was not the business of the United States government that Joseph Smith and Warren Jeffs are considered to be prophets by their followers. It was the business of the US government that they had broken laws, and society punished them both for being rapists. In this day and age, Joseph Smith would have wound up in prison. In his day and age, vigilantes got to him first because he’d managed to piss off every bloke in the state of Illinois.
Sexually unethical behaviour is has never been acceptable in human society. Rape creates physical and mental scars, children that dwell in social limbo, and social trauma. For Mormons, Joseph Smith’s transgressions caused lingering trauma, and apologising for those actions makes it worse. Joseph Smith may not have been as bad as a priest who abused 200 deaf boys, but he’s worse than plenty of others who endured the consequences of their bad behaviour.
You are a rape apologist if you think that Joseph Smith’s sexual transgressions have no impact on his credibility as the founder of Mormonism. It is hypocritical to think that abusive Catholic priests get what they deserve when they are publicly shamed, but that since Joseph Smith was founding The True ChurchTM his crimes can be overlooked. Even in our post-modern culture where consensual relationships between adults take many forms, everyone agrees that those relationships must be ethical. A religious leader leveraging his divine calling to get laid is not ethical. Defending that behaviour is just as bad.