Polygamy, What Will We Do With You?

Warning: long post. However, if you carry on you’ll get to the part where I use the word “shagging”.

If the LDS Church is a house, polygamy is the creepy clown doll sitting on the top shelf of the spare room that you can’t discard because your granny gave it to you way back when. It’s also the trending topic in Outer Blogness this week thanks to the fact that it gets a prominent mention in this month’s copy of the Ensign. Filed under the heading “irrelevant issues,” Ballard encourages Mormons to avoid thinking about what used to be considered an absolute requirement for exaltation:

Why are we still talking about it? It was a practice. It ended. We moved on. If people ask you about polygamy, just acknowledge that it was once a practice but not now and that people shouldn’t confuse any polygamists with our church.

I suppose it takes a used car dealer to sell that hunk of junk. Mrs. Jack does a bang-on job of calling out Mormons who try to sweep their plural wives under the rug, but I’d like to address the more direct fallout this has on the membership. Ballard’s statement is incredibly misleading, and this approach to LDS history is exactly the cause of so many Mormons feeling anxiety, anger, and frustration when they find out history is more complex than the Church Office Building wants us to believe. Ballard was born in Salt Lake at a time when there were still living LDS polygamists, is a colleague with the polygamously sealed Dallin H. Oaks, and is an apostle of the LDS church. He should know better. Yet, he wrote an article about Joseph Smith’s family that makes no mention of any wife but Emma Smith, in keeping with the current policy of sanitising polygamy from LDS history. Either he’s a maestro of Doublethink or unforgivably dishonest.

Mormonism used to be much more clear, assertive, experimental, and creative with its doctrine. Since the formation of the Corporation of the Presiding Bishop a century ago, there has been no innovation in doctrine, merely a blanding down and consolidation of belief and ritual. The establishment of Correlation in the 1960’s was the first nail in the coffin of doctrinal innovation in Mormonism, and ongoing correlation efforts have tried to muddle and mix and sanitise what Mormonism used to be until what is left is a bland, globally palatable spiritual gruel. This process is not without difficulty when it comes to awkward historical artefacts such as polygamy. Consider:

  1. 19th century Mormons called polygamy “the Capstone of Mormon Doctrine” and considered it as essential as temple ordinances to progress to godhood. Polygamists fled from authorities, went to prison, and gave up personal property because their religious convictions were so strong.
  2. Modern Mormons dismiss polygamy as a “practise” and either believe it was only temporarily commanded as a test of faith or to “build up the kingdom”, or that it was a mistake and never should have been practised at all.
  3. Either 19th century Mormons were wrong or modern Mormons are.
  4. This leads to an uncomfortable conclusion that the modern church can’t be “true” because it was either wrong to establish polygamy as a point of doctrine or wrong to abandon it.
  5. In response to this problem, a lot of Mormons rely on materials pumped out by the Ministry of Truth to help them Doublethink it away, and the rest hope it will all just go away.

The “ignore it and hope it goes away” stance, which the Church has been clinging to for the last several decades, is not paying off as a good long-term strategy. It makes Mormons angry, confused, and/or neurotic. I’ve seen four basic types of response to this issue, which will continue to fester until the Church makes an open, clear declaration on the subject:

1. Ignorance or Indifference

Thanks to the careful manipulation of history that takes place in Sunday school, many Mormons are ignorant of the fact that polygamy was ever practised by LDS people. Some are vaguely aware but don’t take interest in the subject. The danger is that ignorance can lead to Mormons saying misinformed things that reflect badly on the Church. I was told for years by LDS teachers and priesthood leaders that rumours of polygamy were just vicious lies made up by anti-Mormons, and felt quite the fool when I found out I’d been repeating their lies for years.

2. “Please Don’t Let it Be True”

Many Mormons, particularly women, find polygamy a source of great anxiety. (Men, because they don’t get quite the shortest end of the stick, tend to worry less about it.) Faithful Mormon feminists, who have enough cognitive dissonance to deal with, are usually stretched to the limit when considering polygamy, as reflected in The Exponent’s latest musings on polygamy. The author believes that polygamy will be disallowed in the next life, which is a bit of a slap in the face to many people, Mormon and not, who were polygamous or polyamourous for personal, cultural and religious reasons. More telling is this bit:

“I view polygamy in this life as the result of a fallen world”

This is a rather narcissistic creation of God agrees in the image of the author’s personal views of modern liberal egalitarian Western-style monogamy. (An utterly new and uncommon marital arrangement in history.) But I have compassion for this position as it was the one I held when I was desperately trying to force my beliefs in Mormonism to coexist with my hopes for equal treatment. It ended up not working because the deity of Mormonism, a male who sent his male offspring to redeem humanity and have his male worshippers oversee women everywhere, even in their own homes, didn’t seem likely to turn out to be someone “who appreciates and acknowledges the fundamental equality of human souls, who values men and women of various races and classes equally.”

3. Acceptance

Some Mormons realise what polygamy means in LDS doctrine, see that it has gone away for now, but believe that it did work in some way as part of God’s plan and yet has a part to play in the future. These types accept that LDS Apostle Dallin H. Oaks is sealed to two women, making him a polygamist. (The first wife happens to have died before #2 was added, but that’s irrelevant in the eternal scheme of things.) There are plenty of LDS who have studied and accept all of the following:

  1. Early Mormons asserted polygamy as a civil right and an important point of doctrine.
  2. There is a subtle difference between salvation and exaltation. Salvation means having your soul saved by Jesus. Exaltation means the process of becoming a deity, which requires temple ordinances, and as taught for the first 80 years of Mormonism, with three wives per man being the popularly held requirement for godhood.
  3. When LDS authorities say we are the literal offspring of God, they understand that this refers to Brigham Young’s teaching that souls are created through “natural action,” which is why a god would need lots of baby factories exalted wives to help him populate his worlds without end with worshippers.
  4. Sexual relations are an important part of the Mormon concept of godhood, so important that to be the Saviour, Jesus needed to be literally half god. LDS authorities have consistently taught that Elohim was married to Mary and shagged her in order to produce Jesus. Oh, and there are temple records listing Mary as God’s wife.
  5. The Proclamation on the Family, the temple ceremony, and the temple marriage ceremony use very carefully chosen words that do not disallow polygamy by God or man. Women give themselves to men, who receive them. Our spirits are the offspring of God and one of his wives. There are currently practicing polygamists in the form of male divorcés and widowers who marry additional women in the temple.

I’ve found that Mormons who hold this view point tend to be pragmatic and sex-positive. Those with immature or squeamish views of sex and bodies don’t want to think about Heavenly Father shagging Mary but I don’t know how you can get around the word “literal” and the frequency of its use by General Authorities when speaking of the creation of human souls and the body of Jesus. Which is what brings me to the final category:

4. Denial. Sad, pathetic denial.

This is an old technique, one used by Emma Smith herself in a pitiable and understandable attempt to preserve her dignity from her philandering husband. These are people who cannot come to terms with the idea that they could ever share time with other spouses, or who refuse to accept that Joseph Smith might have abused his position to, er, get into other positions. The ever-witty Eliza Snitch quipped:

I revered and idolised Joseph Smith as a child, and how angry I was when I found out about the glass-looking, money-digging, womanising stuff. I felt like a dupe. It’s embarrassing. Analogy: it’s like if Hitler had been my favourite painter, and then one day somebody said, “Hey, ever heard of the Holocaust?” Obviously that would be a whole new level of ignorance, but you catch my gist.

She was addressing the oh-so-sad claims of the hilariously titled blog “Pure Mormonism” which was jumping on the obscure and easily dismissed conspiracy theory bandwagon that claims Joseph Smith was framed by Brigham Young and never practised polygamy. The theory is as laughable as the writing is dull, but feel free to look into the minds of these sad, self-deluded wankers if you’ve got a few minutes to kill this afternoon. I’ll also repeat my sentiments that polygamy denial is a horrible insult to the men, women and children who endured so much because they believed it was so important.

So let’s consider: why does polygamy still matter so much? Well, that’s the only easy part of the polygamy debate, and here it is:

Mormons believe they will have bodies and they will be shagging with them in the afterlife.

Polygamy, serial monogamy, polyamoury; it’s all the same if you don’t believe people will have bodies or shag after they are dead. To my knowledge, only Mormons and suicide bombers believe they will be able to have a little rumpy pumpy after they kick off. Mainstream Christians believe that heaven will be populated by our souls all dwelling together in the bliss of God that transcends sex, because procreation (and therefore the social institution of marriage) serves no purpose any longer. If grandpa remarried a lovely woman after grandma passed away, in traditional Christian Heaven he can be with all of his family and there’s nothing odd about it. But for Mormons it all gets a bit dodgy because you have to think about how many women grandpa will be bonking.

Some things modern LDS people need to get a grip on:

1. Polygamy is not a dirty word. Polygamous relationships are an important part of human history. There are polyandrous societies and cultures that eschew the idea of marriage altogether. Polygamy is not the same thing as child rape or inbreeding unless you are talking about cultural oddities like the FLDS.

2. The modern LDS ideal of one happy heterosexual lifelong true love government-recognised marriage per person is very much a product of the Victorian era in which Mormonism emerged. This viewpoint of marriage is utterly new in human history. It bears no resemblance to virtually every other cultural attitude toward marriage in history. Even European Christians saw marriage as a perfunctory civil contract until the industrial revolution enabled social mobility and class systems broke down. Yes, that’s right. Marrying for love destroyed society as we knew it. And yet we soldier on. (You can extrapolate this to modern times and see how the LDS crusade against gay marriage is a load of bollocks.)

The LDS Church’s current approach to its unwanted historical artefacts is dishonest. The doctrine of polygamy exists, has never been disavowed, and is still practised by unwitting temple attendees. Denial of its relevance and importance is a betrayal of the immense sacrifices, personal battles, and legal trouble that Mormons endured for almost a century. It treats Mormons’ grandmothers just as poorly as they were treated as second-class plural wives, unable to publicly claim their status and personal property. Treating polygamy as a practice and not a doctrine is a radical departure from what Mormonism originally was, and a student of Mormon doctrine could easily make the case that it constitutes apostasy, which is why the Fundamentalist LDS Church exists in the first place.

Only one thing has remained consistent about the LDS approach to polygamy: lying to protect it. Joseph Smith lied about it to his closest friends, setting off the chain of events that led to his murder. Church leaders lied about it to keep from getting arrested during Brigham Young’s reign. The Church claimed to renounce polygamy in 1890 but kept marrying people and lying about it. Now it’s bad for PR so leaders lie about it to make it go away. I doubt an honest, open approach will be forthcoming, but it certainly would be a breath of fresh air to so many who struggle to understand just why that creepy clown doll won’t stop staring at them.

42 thoughts on “Polygamy, What Will We Do With You?

  1. Seconded.

    My deal with polygamy is, the fact that people who were Mormons thought it was necessary for exaltation doesn’t mean that, at any time, it actually was–only that, perhaps, being mere mortals with desires of their own, they were mistaken. Sort of like the whole “oh, whoops, we’re not racist after all” swing in ’78. I think people spend way too much time trying to justify a doctrine that was a) of it’s time, and b) clearly flawed. So, Mormons are misguided. So, Mormons change their minds. So, Mormons are just like regular human beings. Where’s the big, frightening revelation, here?

    Moreover, sure, all Judeo-Christian sects have polygamy in their backgrounds. I don’t see Episcopalians fleeing the church in droves, because it turns out that Moses was a polygamist. Which he was, along with most Judeo-Christian “founding fathers”, although most Christians, anyway, aren’t conversant enough with the actual Bible to realize it.

    I don’t dig the whole “let’s sanitize our history” program, either. It’s pretty lame and will, I think, ultimately, drive many, many people from the church. But at the same time, there’s a real danger in exchanging one pleasant, overly sanitized doctrine for another. No religion, or epoch of church history, is flawless. I guess the question I’ve always had is–and I mean no disrespect by this, I’m being entirely honest; I’ve just never been that intellectually curious when it comes to this particular issue–why are we so concerned about our history, instead of, say, how we’re living our lives now?

    If this doctrine helps me (or whoever) live the life I want to live, what does it matter what previous people, with whom I’ve no connection, did or thought? And if it doesn’t help me, why shouldn’t I just chuck it? Ultimately, whether God exists or not, religion is utilitarian: its driving purpose is (supposedly) in helping us become better people/living Jesus’ teachings/whatever. Whether that’s to just, you know, be better (Theravada Buddhism) or earn salvation (most Christian sects) seems pretty irrelevant, in the final analysis. Jim Jones was a Methodist, but (to the best of my knowledge) nobody’s arguing that he’s tainted Methodism as a sect, or made its core teachings less legitimate.

    PS: I changed my website’s URL, because, evidently, somebody out there is stupid enough to take me seriously.

    • CJ, your take on religion is very post-modern (I believe that’s a good thing — the more post-modern religion gets the less we’ll all be blowing one another to bits) and shields you from a lot of the conflicts history-oriented believers go through. Polygamy and other problems of history do matter in Mormonism. I’ll use the Book of Mormon as an example.

      Cognitive Dissonance: The Book of Mormon is largely disproved as a real history of Jewish people who emigrated to the Americas because of archaeology, anachronisms, DNA studies, written histories of genuine indigenous Americans, and all scholarship not written by an LDS apologist.

      Post-modern Mormon: I don’t care if the Book of Mormon is historically accurate or not; it contains a lot of valuable things that, while maybe not factual, are “true” in the sense of “enlightening”.

      Cognitive Dissonance: If the Book of Mormon is not a literal history, that means there was no Angel Moroni to appear to Joseph Smith, there were no Golden Plates, and Joseph Smith (or somebody else) fabricated an blasphemous false history of the activities of Jesus Christ.

      Post-modern Mormon: But it’s still such a useful book and the church makes me happy. Do the methods need to be based on 100% reality if the results work for me?

      Cognitive Dissonance: So it’s okay to base a religion on Jesus fan fiction and make massive additions to Biblical Christianity based on lies that make you feel good?

      Post-Modern Mormon: Umm . . . wow. I guess if Joseph Smith was lying about something as essential as the Book of Mormon, he could have been lying about everything else too. It might make me feel good, but it’s still based on lies.

      You get the same problem with polygamy. It matters because the way polygamy was taught and practised in the 19th century had a massive impact on our understanding of the essential nature of God. If LDS doctrines of polygamy are true, then they reveal some of the most important information we can get on how a man becomes a Deity. If it is a true doctrine, as was taught for 80 years, to brush it off as “a practise” is blasphemy, which is why polygamists and modern-day FLDS cling to it so faithfully. If it never was doctrinal, then the entire foundation of Mormonism gets yanked out from underneath. If the early prophets could get something that was at the centre of all religious practise so very, very wrong, how is it even possible that the current Church is on the right track?

      This stuff creates pretty serious questions without convenient answers, which is why people just try to ignore it and hope enough time passes that people forget it and never bring it up again.

      • My ultimate question is, why does the literal truth of history seem to matter so much more to Mormons than to other Christians? Belief in Christianity, as a whole, doesn’t hinge (for most Christians, anyway) on, say, the literal truth about whether Noah built the Ark. Although obviously, for some, it does–but outside of Mormonism, we generally recognize them as, well, a fringe element. Within Mormonism, this absolutism seems to be mainstream. Why?

  2. I suppose that a few definitions are in order.

    Polygyny – One man, multiple wives
    Poyandry – One wife, multiple husbands
    Polygamy – BOTH polygyny and polyandry
    Polyamory – multiple lovers but without necessarily being married

    And a bonus:

    Serial Monogamy – the preferred mode of marriage in modern America.

    I don’t have a problem with polygamy. Actually, I think it highlights some of the better aspects of Mormon theology.

    • First, I’m not sure how definitions (definitions we’re all obviously aware of) are relevant, here.

      Second, how does it? While we’re on the subject of definitions, Seth, polygamy doesn’t “highlight” other doctrines; so-called celestial marriage is a doctrine in of itself. And while you might not have a problem with it, surely you’re aware that the church would have a problem with you?

  3. Molly, thank you for your honest wrestling with big questions.
    I would sincerely like to know a couple of things, and hope you are willing to help me out (as other LDS bloggers are apparently not willing…)
    First, I’m wondering about the more recent practise of sealing women, once they have died, to a second husband. Have heavenly policies changed? Or just church policies? Does the woman have to have expressed a desire for this before dying? Or does her family decide? I don’t get it!
    Second, the New Testament is pretty clear about not being married in Heaven. “At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage…” (Matt. 22:30). But not only will all good sealed Mormons be married, they will apparently be polygamous in their marriages. How is this reconciled with the Matthew passage?

    • Andrea,

      To my knowledge that is a more recent practise and highlights what I think is the #1 problem with the LDS Church as an institution: lack of transparency. Since the Church Office Building is a fairly large, brick-like structure whose inner workings are kept invisible to the proles of the church, we don’t know for sure why this started happening. I have had speculation from reasonably well-placed acquaintances who have gotten information second hand from people who work in the COB or have GA relatives.

      With the disclaimer that this all may be hearsay, my understanding is that the church began sealing people to every spouse they had in life out of a desire to cover all possibilities. (It’s also very common for deceased people to have temple baptisms, endowments, and sealings performed for them multiple times.) One of the marriages will be valid; the other sealings will be effectively harmless. When you are performing family history work for people who lived hundreds of years ago (when it was very common for people to be married several times due to high mortality rates) you cannot know for sure which husband a woman would choose, given the option. The woman’s consent is consistent with women in polygamy under Brigham Young; while women were under the authority of their husbands, they did have a certain amount of choice in the matter. Forced marriages are mostly unheard of. A man who wanted a divorce from a plural wife was usually told to deal with it and be a better husband. A woman who wanted a divorce was generally granted her request. Brigham Young and Wilford Woodruff even had wives divorce them. (How many LDS people know that, I wonder?)

      Really, the best answer to your question is WHY isn’t there open, transparent, clear communication available with the church leaders on any subject? Why do they stick to a policy of avoiding controversy and accepting confusion as the price? This issue is a big part of how I got fed up with Mormonism altogether.

      @CJ I think your question is big enough to warrant a second post. Stay tuned!

  4. I personally think there is a trend toward women being allowed sealings to multiple husbands – same as the men today. But I agree with Molly that the change is likely to be gradual, and kept as quiet as possible by the LDS Church.

  5. @ Andrea, as I understand it, this isn’t so much a recent practice, but a return, at least in the abstract sense, to a more individualized, less rigid relationship with the Temple. In the early days, many different kinds of “sealings” were performed, i.e. between men who wanted to become brothers. It’s kind of too bad this “create your own family” approach to the Temple died out, replaced by what we have today. I wonder if part of the church’s reticence to discuss changes in sealing practices stems from either 1) an unwillingness to address other, related issues (why can’t best friends be sealed as siblings anymore?), 2) an unwillingness to discuss anything that might even tangentially be related to polygamy, or 3) fear of increased judgment over the “changing Temple”. The fact is, it’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation: churches are supposed to grow and change over time, to reflect modern mores and values, but if they do, they’re frauds.

    And, a lot of the Mormopod blogging community is pretty disappointing, I agree. But there are some of us out there who, to varying degrees, are open to controversy and like to discuss real issues.

  6. Naw CJ. I don’t advocate doing it in mortality.

    So the LDS Church and I are doing just fine, thanks.

    Definitions are relevant. Polygamy I have no problem with. Exclusive polygyny or polyandry I would have a problem with just out of a general sense of fairness to people.

    • I agree with what you’ve implied; Mormon polygyny was incredibly unfair to women (and the men who felt compelled to mistreat them) because these were people who had been raised to believe they’d be entitled to a single undivided home. That doesn’t make all polygyny bad. A mistake a lot of Mormons make is in thinking that their flavour of polygamy is common. Most of the time when polygamy was practised, lots of single young men were used up in battle, and higher ranking males used up the excess women. It’s the old sociological adage; sperm is cheap. In premodern cultures, keeping women out of battle so they could reproduce was critically important to keep the society going. In that sense, polygyny was the most advantageous scenario for everone. The idea that polygyny is inherently unfair is a pretty modern/Western/middle class perspective.

      • Well, it’s a bit more than that actually.

        At this stage, I’ve kind of gotten over worrying about how polygamy has actually been implemented by mortal human beings during the course of world history. So questions of how polygamy under Joseph Smith or Brigham Young was practiced no longer interests me greatly.

        What I’m after is getting beyond the flawed implementations and the murk of historical nuance, and going straight for what polygamy means to the LDS Church as an eternal and theological matter.

        So I’m not really focusing on whether allowing guys or girls to take more spouses right now would be a good idea. I can go either way on this score. I’m willing to conclude that polygamy is bad in our modern social context, or even possibly OK. But that’s not my concern.

        What I’m interested in is what polygamy would mean AFTER mortality. So you have to entertain the possibility of all that stuff about birth rates, mortality rates, financial burdens, jealousy, insecurity, etc. not being in play. After all, we’re talking about heaven. So the question becomes – what would polygamy mean and symbolize in heaven?

        That’s were my current interest is. Joseph Smith’s efforts, attempts, and failures don’t interest me much anymore. Likewise the FLDS don’t really interest me either. I’m trying to get beyond all that and place this concept theologically.

        • Two thoughts:

          “So the question becomes – what would polygamy mean and symbolize in heaven?”

          If you take the traditional 19th century Mormon interpretation, it means men-turned-deities copulate with their multiple wives to populate their very own worlds without end with spirit babies/worshippers/future deities and baby factories. If you take the postmodern spiritual approach, it means that people who had multiple spouses in life will be, in some way, allowed to be “with” their spouses, likely in a non-physical way. If you’re a modern member of the LDS church, it’s all confusing and slightly creepy and you’d rather just not think about it.

          “Joseph Smith’s efforts, attempts, and failures don’t interest me much anymore.”

          Even if his actions included statutory rape?

        • Molly, I disagree with your characterization of 1800s polygamy and Joseph Smith’s actions. But I’m not sure I’d have much luck convincing you otherwise, so I’m not sure it’s something worth me responding to here.

          You might want to be more careful with your terminology here. “Statutory rape” for instance.

          Do you know why it’s called “statutory” rape?

          It’s because the ONLY thing that makes it “rape” is that the law says it is. It has nothing to do with force, abuse, or anything else. The STATUTE decided to draw a line in the sand, and call everything on one side of it “rape.”

          There are 20 year old guys who have been sent to prison for having willing and non-coerced sex with a 17 year old girl, just because her father was pissed enough to ruin a young guy’s life over the issue and press charges.

          That sound particularly abusive and “sick” to you? Or just what’s portrayed in half the popular movies out there today?

          If you want to call Joseph’s actions wrong, you might want more accurate terminology (plain “rape” might work for you). Statutory rape obscures more than it illuminates here.

        • I think rape is really the only word for it when a religious leader leverages women for sexual purposes, especially young, economically disadvantaged women.

        • 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.

        • I don’t understand what it is you’re trying to convince me of. If you’re trying to convince me that it didn’t matter that Joseph Smith raped women by using their faith in his divine calling to manipulate them, then, no, I will never be convinced.

          Rape apology is a pretty serious thing, Seth.

        • I would simply dispute that there ever was any rape. Everyone involved in these events is dead. We have little way of determining whether anyone was coerced, whether Joseph Smith’s proposals were actually unwanted, whether there was any sex involved at all, and whether Joseph Smith was nice about it or not.

          It’s mostly speculation. The historical records sometimes indicate certain things – but never conclusively establish much. This is further complicated by the fact that Joseph Smith’s actions with one wife do not indicate his actions with all other wives. So you can’t take the testimony of the women in Utah who testified that they consummated their marriages with Joseph and automatically assume it applied to young Helen Mar Kimball. Nor can you take the courtship of one woman, and extrapolate a pattern for all women.

          Further complications arise for the cultural context. You’ve already noted that young marriages were more common back then. While you note that 14 year old marriages were not a common occurrence, they were hardly the scandal then that they are today. When people were calling for Joseph Smith’s death, they didn’t care about the age of the wives – only the number of them. It certainly wasn’t unheard of then, and definitely not illegal (nor would it be illegal for almost 100 years in most parts of the country).

          Add in that women tended to grow up faster back then. A 14 year old girl in 1830s Ohio could birth a calf, churn butter, run an entire small farm homestead on her own, and probably deliver a baby if she had to. The 14 year olds back then were more “adult” than most 20-somethings on college campuses today. We baby our youth these days – the reality was entirely different back then. A 14 year old would have been capable of being a farmer’s wife back then. The same cannot be said of our teenagers today. It has been duly noted that many 14 year olds are simply physically incapable of a pregnancy without serious damage to their bodies. But this really depends on the body type of the girl in question – which again, we don’t know. By age 15, a girl can be physiologically an adult for all intents purposes.

          But all that said, I see little evidence there was any sex in the instance of Helen Mar Kimball. The pattern of proposal, the interactions with the family, etc. I personally believe the marriage to have been primarily dynastic in nature. Not really romantic, but rather an attempt by Joseph to seal blessings upon another valued family in the church. There was a sense in the early LDS Church that marriage to a righteous family would somehow associate your own family with the blessings of that family. This is further supported by Joseph Smith’s own constant theological concerns with unity among the saints as a means for securing the blessings of heaven. Concepts like Zion, consecration, marriage and such were all a part of Joseph’s overall vision of a body of saints perfectly united both on earth and in heaven. Almost everything he did in life had this theological and temporal aim.

          I believe that Joseph saw polygamy – first and foremost – as a way of sealing people together in a Zion community. Such communal thinking is, of course, utterly alien to our almost self-centered and selfish culture of individualism. It is also alien to our modern prejudices about what marriage means.

          To us, marriage can only ever mean romantic love – and in the last couple decades, it has come to mean only sex for some poor victims of our popular culture. But this is not what marriage has always meant. Marriage as being solely a vehicle of romance and sex is a rather recent development in human views of marriage. Before it was about family alliance, financial security, and social status in the community.

          People today simply aren’t equipped in their worldview to really understand what Joseph’s marriages were about. Saying Joseph Smith married women because he wanted to bed them is nothing more than a declaration of modern prejudice. It sheds little light on the historical record.

          None of this is helped by outright distortions of the historical record that seem to be going on. For instance, Joseph Smith married two sisters – but they were NOT his “wards” in the sense you were thinking of when you wrote about it. He was basically guardian of their inheritance estate. He was not their parental guardian and they lived quite independent of him. They way you’ve reported it, it almost sounds like Joseph was some sort of foster dad who married his foster kids. This is complete distortion of the actual reality.

          Likewise, critics will commonly try to use language implying that Joseph Smith married “lots of 14 year olds.”

          Actually, there were only two 14 year olds, and one of them may have been as old as 15 (the record isn’t clear). There were also two 16 year olds (by this point the girls are old enough that marriage wouldn’t have even seemed odd back then), four 17 year olds, and three 19 year olds (marrying at that age wouldn’t even be odd in rural America today). That’s out of a possible total of 35 wives (Todd Compton includes a few women we aren’t sure Joseph Smith was actually married to) ranging from ages 22 to 58.

          Percentage-wise, it the age spread of Joseph Smith’s wives was actually comparable to a cross-section of ALL marriage ages in frontier America in the 1800s. The ages weren’t really the unusual thing about his marriages. The unusual thing was how many of them he had.

          Again, though – I’m more interested in the theological implications of polygamy than whether Joseph Smith and Brigham Young did or did not do it right.

        • Eliza R. Snow under oath when people expressed doubt as to whether or not Joseph Smith shagged his wives: “I thought you knew Joseph Smith better than that.” Joseph Smith threatened his victims with damnation and threatened his wife with death in D&C 132 in order to get them to comply. There’s plenty of documentation. You are a rape apologist.

        • Well, now you’re upping the ante with inflammatory language like “shagging” and taking it to the level of personal attacks (“rape apologist”).

          So I think we’re done here.

        • Something needs to be said on my end. Trivializing this issue by calling it like “whether Joseph was nice to kittens or not” was rather tactless on my part.

          I don’t agree with Molly’s views of Joseph’s polygamous relationships. But that is no reason for me to trivialize her viewpoint on something that even I acknowledge is an incredibly tough issue for people to deal with.

          My main point with the “kittens” remark was to declare that I am not primarily interested in Joseph’s moral character or whether he was a good or bad person – but rather in the theology he produced and how it interacts with my life.

          I should also note, that I did NOT have Joseph’s wives in mind when I used the word “kittens.”

          I used the same phrase on another blog a while back in reference to a discussion about whether Joseph cheated people with the Kirtland Safety Society, or some other non-female related topic. I honestly didn’t even see how the word “kittens” could possibly be construed as a slur on females. But looking back in hindsight, it is a rather bone-headed choice of words.

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  8. I am in favor of it as an option for people. I just don’t care particularly whether it is this life or the next.

    I’ll get back to you on the theology bit.

  9. The heart of all Mormon theology is the unity we achieve with God the Father. Christ is considered to be the exemplar of how this is achieved.

    The LDS concept of the Trinity is one of three distinct personalities perfectly united in purpose, thought, and love. In this sense, they are one God. The Greek word best describing this relationship is “perichoresis.” The word has overtones of a “divine dance.” When you see a couple ballroom dancing, both are quite different – both in dress and in movement. But the distinctiveness merges together into one united message. Perichoresis is sort of like that. Mormon scripture and theology (whether your average LDS is aware of it or not) posits this kind of unity between the members of the Godhead.

    Where we differ from other Christians is that we believe this unity has been extended to each of us in turn. We believe that we can become one with God in the same way Jesus Christ is. This is the Mormon notion of theosis. Humans becoming one with God.

    What does this have to do with marriage?

    The scriptural language of marriage is steeped in imagery invoking the sort of unity found in heaven. Man and woman are directed to become “one flesh” – unified in an intimate and radical sense. Like us and God – the Genesis imagery speaks of a union at first that is broken by the realization of male and female. As we are estranged from God – man and woman are initially estranged from each other. But they are commanded – through marriage – to reunite. And reunite in purpose, thought, and love. Same as with the Godhead.

    In fact, you can actually view marriage as a mortal sacrament representing the unity we all are shooting for with God. Sex itself, is a holy sacrament of unity between two distinct individuals. And just as the love of God gave birth to all creation, the love between husband and wife has a creative outlet as well.

    Marriage is a symbolic recreation of the sort of exalting love that will make gods of us all. A radical union of two distinctives.

    But what about polygamy?

    If marriage to a single person is a ritualized covenant approximating God’s own perichoresis here on earth, polygamy is an acknowledgment that it may be extended. It makes a strong declaration that the human heart has place for more than one person. That perichoresis is not limited to just one person.

    In mortality, we have rules and restrictions on love to prevent people from being hurt or abused. Sexual union is an incredible act of vulnerability, and the potential to hurt one another through it is considerable. This is why sex has to be managed. This is why we have notions of fidelity, and restrict people from freely going out and having intercourse with whomever we want. Even people who reject traditional notions of marriage try to create structure and safeguards to protect themselves and others.

    Due to these concerns, polygamy may or may not be socially appropriate for modern practice. I give no opinion on this here.

    But in the hereafter, the same concerns do not apply. And it seems small-minded to restrict the love that people hold with prejudices crafted by watching too many reruns of “Sleepless in Seattle.” The idea that there is a one and only person that you will love above all others is, in my opinion, a complete myth. It makes a good Hollywood production, but poor theology.

    Are we supposed to ask the man who lost his young wife to a car accident and then remarried to choose which wife he loves more in heaven. Are we supposed to ask the women who remarried at 50 after losing a husband to cancer to choose between husbands. And what about my friend whose young wife had an extreme emotional breakdown and demanded a divorce in the throes of paranoid delusions that he was trying to have her assassinated? He’s trying to remarry himself. Should he be forced to abandon the first woman he loved. Many divorcees are still in love with each other. Is there no hope for them?

    I think the very idea is distasteful. It’s like asking me to pick which of my three young children I love best. There is no best. I love all of them in unique ways.

    The way I see polygamy is that it was a radical pushing of societal conventions by God. It was his way of forcing the Church to reexamine what love really means, and how it can be shared and extended.

    Of course it was messy. Love always is. But we need to keep firmly in mind God’s willingness not to respect our own personal prejudices and preconceptions. And his willingness to let us hash things out amongst ourselves – no matter how messy the result.

  10. My blog “Pure Mormonism” is “hilariously titled”? Ouch, that hurts.

    Of course I largely agree with your thesis that “the LDS Church’s current approach to its unwanted historical artefacts is dishonest. ”

    However, I have a concern that you lump me in with those in the denial camp. I don’t deny that polygamy was practiced in Nauvoo. It was clearly introduced into the community by the hundreds of Cochranite converts. Terms later used by Mormons to describe polygamy such as “spiritual wifery” and “the patriarchal order” were the same as those in use by the Cochranites as early as 1819.

    The question for the historian then becomes whether Joseph Smith adopted their practices and lied about it, or whether he lead a vigorous campaign to stamp it out as all the contemporary evidence strongly suggests. Evidence that he opposed the practice is voluminous and compelling, while the claims that he was personally involved are based on later hearsay accounts by people who desperately needed his name attached to the practice in order to give themselves legitimacy.

    The theory may be “laughable” as you put it, but I have yet to see any point-by-point refutations. Believe me, I want to see argument to the contrary. But it is not enough to simply assert that Joseph Smith lied about everything else, so he had to be lying about this, too.

    Some have accused me of attempting to rehabilitate the reputation of Joseph Smith. I have no interest in doing so, but I am interested in following the facts wherever they lead.

    I concede, for example, that if one accepts the thesis that Joseph Smith fought polygamy, questions will arise over the authority of his successors, even throwing doubt on the legitimacy of those administering the church today. I don’t care. Truth matters to me more than religion.

    Most of my LDS readers don’t seem to care, either. Response from believing Mormons has been less heated than that of some post-Mormons, who seem to be heavily invested in laying every crime imaginable at the feet of Smith to the point that denigrating Joseph Smith becomes a religion in itself.

    (The reason, by the way, that I titled my blog “Pure Mormonism” stems from my conclusion that the religion founded by Joseph Smith was, by and large, refreshingly libertarian for its time. Since then, the church has taken on a decidedly authoritarian tone. If you concluded from the title that I consider anything about modern Mormonism “pure”, you have misread my intent.)

    As to my personal feelings about the practice of polygamy, I gather from your comments that we are in agreement. It’s one thing for any society to consider plural marriage permissible for those wishing to practice it; it’s quite another to insist that it is a mandatory commandment of God. I can tolerate the former but I reject the latter.

    Rock Waterman


  11. Before I even read the rest of the post, I have to say this. When a Mormon says the same thing that you quote Ballard as saying in the Ensign article, my question back to them is, “Well, then, if the church no longer accepts polygamy, then why is Section 132 still in the D&C?”

    I think it is a valid question.

    • Or better yet Elaine, ask them why Elder Dallin H. Oaks is practicing it.

      He’s remarried – sealed to both women. And he has spoken of both as “my eternal companion.”

      • Well, I think that Dallin Oaks is responsible for his own actions, and even though he holds a position of responsibility in the church, the church can’t be held responsible for his actions as an individual. Of course, I assume that he wasn’t speaking for the church in an official position when he was sealed to the second wife.

        However, the Doctrine and Covenants is one of the official volumes of scripture for the church. By leaving Section 132 in there, the institution is saying, “This is what we believe.” It, of course, conflicts with the declaration that disavows plural marriage. My feeling is that if they had really meant that disavowal, they would have yanked Section 132 from the D&C. That they haven’t, in all these years, speaks much more loudly than the actions of one man, General Authority or not. The church as an institution is much to anal for that (not removing Section 132) to have been inadvertant or an oversight.

        So, while I think it would be interesting to see reactions to the question you propose I ask, I still think the one I ask is the more important and valid of the two.

        • I don’t really have a problem with Dallin H. Oaks being sealed to two wives. That is his business, and if the wives are fine with that, that is their business. You are bang on in saying that it’s silly to keep D&C 132 as scripture, have an apostle with two wives, and then have another apostle telling us we shouldn’t concern ourselves with such matters.

  12. Pingback: Rape Apology and Joseph Smith « Molly Muses . . .

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  14. I appreciate your articles. They have helped me get through a difficult part of my life. You worded exactly what I was thinking in the rape apology one. Press on.

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