I want to end my discussion of polygamy on a constructive note. I’ve elaborated on my belief that polygamy is a problem because Joseph Smith engaged in sexually inappropriate activity and leveraged his position as a religious leader for personal benefit. (Perhaps at some point in the future I’ll also tackle it from a theological, LDS belief-based standpoint rather than the social angle.) My conclusion was that the LDS Church is in a massive bind when it comes to polygamy, and that its current approach to the issue is dishonest. A question I’d like to look at now is whether or not there is a way out.
There are three options for the LDS Church in dealing with polygamy:
- Publicly disavow it and make the necessary changes to LDS scripture, teachings, and rituals to remove polygamy as a doctrine
- Publicly accept it as a doctrine and cease attempts to whitewash the issue
- Attempt to deflect attention from it, conceal it whenever possible, and make no attempt to deal with the issue
Option 3 is what they’ve been going with since the 1920’s, and this means the issue rears its ugly head every few years and causes a PR headache. It’s also the most dishonest approach and causes damage to the Church’s reputation and the well-being of its members. To demonstrate an example of how the LDS Church does this, I’m going to use a very simple and high-profile example. The LDS Church recently launched a makeover of mormon.org, which now includes member-submitted testimonials and introductory information about the religion. This is a fair source for me to analyse because:
- It’s public-facing and intended to be a point of first contact for people interested in Mormonism
- It reflects the most up-to-date policy on how to present information about Mormonism
- This official source represents what the LDS Church wants its members, investigators, and the general public to believe
Let’s have a look at the page that introduces Joseph Smith to outsiders. It’s a simplified version of Sunday School stories we’ve all heard plenty of times. The first few sections provide good background, and although the section “A Prophet of God” can be quibbled over due to cherry picking from the multiple accounts of the First Vision, it sticks more or less with the 1838 account, which has been considered the official version for quite some time.
The section “A Leader of Christ’s Church” glosses over the basics of church structure but slips in the one-sided, vague reference to “persecution” that early Mormons suffered. We could quibble some more here over the fact that much of the “persecution” was deliberately provoked by Mormons who barged in on neighbourhoods, disrupting the locals’ way of life, and were nasty to people who asked them to quit it. However, there were incidents where innocent Mormons who had not engaged in provocations were harmed, so I can let that pass as a statement with a pro-LDS slant rather than a total lie.
Until now, I can’t really take mormon.org to task for failure to include nuanced discussion of Danites, the Salt Sermon, and whether there were angels, one personage or two personages present at the First Vision. It’s an introductory document, and I can hardly blame them for condensing information and putting their best foot forward. But now we arrive at “A Devoted Husband and Father”. Here is the entirety of the text of that section, with my comments in boldface. I’ve marked lies (meaning factual errors and misrepresentations of fact) with numbers in superscript.
“The heavy burden of leading the Church did not distract Joseph from his responsibility to his wife and children1, it increased his love for them2.”
It’s fair to say that Smith did love his family, but without a statement from Smith supporting this, implying that the mantle of leadership increased that love makes this misleading and falsely sentimental.
“One of the later Prophets of the Church told the members, ‘No success can compensate for failure in the home.’ The statement came more than a century after Joseph Smith died, but Joseph had exemplified the idea all his life.3“
All his life? He didn’t fail Emma when he was tried for vagrancy for a treasure hunting scam and had a “revelation” telling her to quit grumbling about his dodgy activities? When he and Emma had to live with the Whitmers, Newel K. Whitney and Isaac Morely because he couldn’t make enough money to pay the rent? When he took plural wives without the other wives’ consent? When his sexual relationship with Marinda Johnson riled up a mob that broke into his house to tar and feather him and left the door open, causing his adopted child to die of exposure?
The bar must be fairly low if engaging in socially unacceptable actions that causes a chain of events resulting in the death of a baby isn’t failure in the home. I would accept a statement that said Smith did the best he could, or that he never stopped loving his family amidst the chaos of his life, but to say he is the perfect example for family life is a lie. This is hero-worshipping propaganda.
“Even though Joseph was constantly persecuted4 and imprisoned on false charges,”5
Liberty Jail is the best example of the “false imprisonment” claims Mormons make. When Smith was arrested, it was after a series of escalations involving many Mormon provocations of native Missourians that came to be called The Mormon War. Mormons had caused a massive amount of trouble in Missouri, and vigilante action on both sides left the state government utterly fed up with the presence of violent religious extremists. As the official leader of the Mormons and their militia, Joseph Smith was responsible for the violence and provocations of his people. He could have been executed as a military combatant, but another general intervened and decided he should be tried as a civilian. He was held for four months without charges in Liberty Jail, which is improper legal procedure, but given Smith’s involvement with Sidney Rigdon and the Danites, not necessarily unjust. Considering the brutal winter’s effect on travel and the fact that Missouri was only semi-civilised at that time, it’s not shocking that he wasn’t brought to court right away. Had Smith been tried for his role in the 1838-39 conflicts, he would probably have been convicted of many charges such as destruction of property, conspiracy to commit murder, inciting others to commit murder and destroy property, disturbing the peace, and so on.
Let’s not forget that Smith was in Missouri in the first place because of his illegal activities with the Kirtland Safety Society. Fleeing money troubles or looking for a bailout wasn’t unusual for Smith; when he moved from Palmyra to Harmony, he was only able to avoid arrest for debt default because Martin Harris had bailed him out. When he was murdered in Carthage Jail, he was awaiting trial on 100% legitimate charges of destroying a printing press. Joseph Smith was often in legal trouble, but it was almost always a situation of his own making due to mismanaging assets given to him by others or by encouraging Mormons to be a nuisance in a new neighbourhood. There were occasions where action taken against him was illegal, such as when he was tarred and feathered and when he was shot to death. But these actions didn’t take place in a vacuum, and they were conducted by people who felt their property, way of life, or family honour was at stake and did not feel the law was doing enough to protect them. It takes considerable provocation to actually be chased down by an angry mob, and Smith provided plenty of provocation.
So this sentence is only halfway completed, but it’s already a blatant lie and will mislead newcomers to Mormonism into thinking that Joseph Smith was never guilty of the crimes for which he was legitimately arrested.
“his first thoughts were always for his family.”6
This is a bit of a generalisation, as his letters from Liberty Jail focused on many things beyond his family. I would move on and say that I had bigger fish to fry, but it seems by “family” mormon.org is only referring to Emma Smith and her offspring. What about the rest of his family? Do the plural wives not matter? Are they less important than Emma, or worse, are they inconvenient people who need to be deleted from the record? Do their lives, sacrifices, and contributions mean less than Emma’s? Even if Smith’s first thoughts were always for his family, his actions were generally for himself.
“He wrote to his wife, Emma, while he was imprisoned in Missouri, ‘Tell the children that I am alive and trust that I shall come and see them before long. Comfort their hearts all you can, and try to be comforted yourself all you can’ (‘’I Was with My Family’: Joseph Smith As Husband, Father, Son, and Brother’ Brent L. Top, Liahona, December 1992).”
I don’t doubt that Smith probably felt wretched whilst in jail and probably missed his family dearly. But the effect this had on the rest of his family is omitted. Joseph Smith also wrote some rather tender things to his plural wives. Presenting Emma as his only wife is lie by omission #2 about polygamy.
“Facing unjust punishment,7 he only thought of his family’s well-being.”8
This is just a repetition of the previous misleading statement about Joseph Smith’s criminal record.
“Joseph lived the doctrine he preached9 — that strengthening our families should be the focus of our lives because they are the only things we can take with us when we die.”
Smith wasn’t living the doctrine he preached, because he preached monogamy and practised polygamy. I don’t think Smith was really strengthening his family when he used deception to marry his one legal wife and then failed her so thoroughly. He threatened her with death in D&C 132, and completely failed to provide a stable home environment or steady income during their entire marriage. He was not strengthening his family when he failed to inform Emma about taking additional wives, and he was not strengthening his family when he had her publicly lie on his behalf in the wake of the John C. Bennett scandal. When Smith died, he left his wife a pregnant impoverished widow. By the standards of his own day, he was not a particularly competent husband and father, even without taking polygamy into consideration.
The only positive spin we can put on this claim is that although he did frequently abuse his privileges, it does seem that Smith may have genuinely believed that he was the key to getting into heaven, and that by sealing as many people as possible to him he was guaranteeing their salvation. The whitewashing in this statement steals the focus from the revolutionary doctrine of families that last forever.
“When his life was in jeopardy, Joseph relied10 on his faith in Christ not only to sustain himself, but his wife and children as well.”
And his wife . . . and his wife . . . and his wife . . . and his wife . . . and his — oh, sod it. This is lie by omission #3, as well as a misrepresentation of the reasons his life was in danger. It must be incredibly important to the LDS leadership that people believe their lies about polygamy, because they’ve repeated them several times in a very small and important document. Smith appropriated people’s wives, their daughters, their money, and their trust, and frequently mismanaged them. Angry mobs in frontier cultures have killed for far less.
Goodness, that’s ten lies in 219 words. The next section, “A Martyr of the Restored Gospel” is equally problematic, but since I’m focusing on public, official LDS lies about polygamy I won’t use the same level of scrutiny. The worst part is this:
He did not die in public with the sympathy of the world, he was shot by a mob while he was locked in a jail on false charges.
This is splitting hairs, but he did die in public, propping himself up against the well outside the jail. It is correct to say that the world at large had no sympathy for him, and he was shot by a mob that probably believed he would escape the legal process — again — and took matters illegally into their own hands. But he was not in Carthage on false charges. Smith ordered the destruction of a printing press, which is a violation of the First Amendment. Telling prospective Mormons that Smith was innocent of any crime on the day he died means that when they repeat that lie, they will look like fools to their friends and families who know better. Lying to prospective members about this issue only strengthens the arguments of counter-cultists who say that the LDS Church brainwashes its members into believing whatever they say. There is one gem in the muck:
He was not a perfect person, not a deity.
If only the anonymous copywriting drone at the Church Office Building had kept that in mind when writing the rest of this rubbish. The Church is not obligated to put its dirty laundry on display, but if it claims to be God’s One True ChurchTM, then it had better not use lies to draw people in.
So there we have it; strategy number three seems to be a massive failure in terms of its ability to be honest with prospective and current members, as well as the ammunition it provides to opponents of Mormonism. However, it’s mostly effective. Many members learn to Doublethink past the issue, or remain ignorant because of the strong unspoken taboos that exist around non faith-promoting speech. But what of the other two paths available?
There are two ways to come clean on polygamy: embrace it or reject it.
A total rejection of polygamy would require the following actions, all performed in public and all officially announced by the President of the Church. They’d have to strip section 132 from the Doctrine and Covenants, acknowledge that Joseph Smith was mistaken to ever introduce the practise in the first place, and acknowledge that while the Church still believed he restored the Gospel, he abused his privilege and for that God allowed him to be removed from his office. They’d need a rewrite of all language in the temple marriage ceremony and the Proclamation on the Family that alludes to men or God having multiple spouses and establish a policy that permits people to be sealed to only one spouse at a time. This would ripple out to negate other doctrines, such as the idea that women give birth to spirit babies in the afterlife. Sealing couples and families together would become a metaphorical rather than physical reality. Families would be together in the sense of all being in heaven at one never-ending barbeque, but the doctrine of men would going on to become creator-gods of their own worlds without end would probably be sidelined or discarded altogether, as the traditional doctrinal explanation for how those worlds are populated would disappear. Mormon heaven would start to look like Christian heaven, except 99% of the world’s population would be in the Telestial Kingdom and not in Hell.
Without the doctrine of polygamy and the way it affects Mormons’ understanding of the characteristics of God, man’s destiny to become a god, Mormonism would be a plain vanilla variety of Protestantism with their work of Bible fanfiction and horribly ugly knickers to add flavour.
The other option is for Mormons to embrace polygamy and their role as peculiar people. This may not necessarily mean a return to the doctrine, as it is still illegal in most countries where Mormons are found. A return to honesty could mean richer histories and discussions, as the lives of polygamous families would no longer be a taboo subject. Plural wives in the family tree would not be a cause for confusion or shame but would be accepted as just another part of the family. Modern Mormons who chose to could probably live the principle, as society is at a point where state-mandated heterosexual monogamy is no longer enforced. It would destroy decades of PR work done by the Church to convince the world that Mormons are mainstream and probably cause a lot of people to leave but it would mean acceptance of a doctrine that has always been part of Mormonism.
Positive upsides could include a reconciliation with the FLDS which might make that community less closed and vulnerable to their abusive leaders, a cease-fire on the gay community due to now being part of the alternative marriage crowd, and embracing Mormonism’s history with no apologies. (Except for the big apology about being so neurotic over it for the last century.)
Either approach would cause massive upheaval in the Church, so it won’t be addressed any time soon. Accepting or rejecting polygamy would cause social and doctrinal earthquakes, but if Mormons really want to “do what is right, let the consequence follow,” they’ll stop lying about it.