Justifying Polygamy Part 2: Smith’s Doctrine

This is the second of three planned posts regarding Mormon polygamy, the misconceptions Mormons have about the reasons for it, the actual reasons for it, and the consequences of doctrine and practise. You can read Part One here.

Mormon Polygamy, referred to as Plural Marriage or The Principle by those in the know, is one of the least understood yet most central doctrines of Mormonism. I previously discussed common misconceptions that modern Mormons often have regarding plural marriage, which include nonsense such as a surplus of women that needed looking after (census records do not indicate a surplus), increasing the number of offspring (polygamy doesn’t increase the overall number of children, just the proportion of children fathered by polygamous males), and an effort to revive an Old Testament society (in which raping teenagers is fine, but they kept right on eating bacon). Since the mythconceptions are bollocks, I’m now moving on to the actual doctrinal reasons that Mormons who practiced in the past and at the present give for The Principle.

This post will focus on the reasons developed by Joseph Smith for the practise of polygamy, which I describe as a theory of breeding better blood into fallen races and ensuring the more rapid dissemination of the “good blood” of righteous men such as himself.

The eugenics that would plague the Western world in the 20th century focused on eradicating undesirables who had the audacity to be born to the wrong tribe or with a less-than-perfect body or mind. Joseph Smith was by no means exempt from the reprehensible ideas about women and minorities that were common in his day, but at the least we can say that he felt everyone could be redeemed. He may have been influenced by the ideas of Lamarck1, who taught that heredity was a result of mixing. Under the common knowledge of Smith’s day, bad blood could be diluted and eventually bred out through liberal doses of good blood.

This was back before anybody knew what DNA was, and it was thought that blood was the conveyer of genetic information. We still use expressions like “it’s in the blood” to describe hereditary traits that are actually conveyed via DNA, which can preserve certain traits intact no matter how many generations pass. So when Smith wrote his very earliest possible revelation on polygamy in 1831, the idea was likely that by appropriating the wives of the less righteous, upstanding saints like Smith and his cohorts could breed out the bad blood:

[I]t is [Jesus Christ’s] will, that in time, ye should take unto you wives of the Lamanites and Nephites [i.e., Native Americans], that their posterity may become white, delightsome, and Just, for even now their females are more virtuous than the gentiles.3

Once again, keep in mind that this was before Mendelian genetics, before Darwin, and before the discovery of DNA. Humanity had figured out that too much interbreeding by close kin was a bad thing, but the idea of purifying blood lines through selecting superior males to act as sires was commonly practised with livestock. The burgeoning population of Europe and problems associated with increasing urbanity and industry spawned thinkers such as Malthus and satirists like Swift to experiment with unorthodox ideas about improving the human race. If the goal is to improve humanity as rapidly as possible, there is a logic to Smith’s idea of appropriating virtuous females, shutting out unwanted bad-blooded males, and increasing the rapidity with which good blood could be distributed to the next generation.

There are obviously numerous problems with this ideology, but they only come to light when we have the benefit of modern understandings of evolution, psychology, and genetics. Joseph Smith did not have any of the information we now take for granted. We cannot fault him for theorizing about using breeding to reshape humanity to his liking. We can fault him for the utter disregard for ethics that he displayed in actually experimenting on human subjects.

Something of this idea was echoed years later, when Brigham Young openly advocated the idea of a woman ditching her current husband in favour of a man with a better spiritual pedigree. This too was preached at General Conference, giving it the full force of doctrine:

“If the woman preferred a man higher in authority and he is willing to take her and her husband gives her up. There is no bill of divorce required, in [this] case it is right in the sight of God.”4

This idea is positively Darwinian, encouraging females to mate with the most advantageous male, presumably passing on the benefits of a higher pedigree to her offspring.

Lamarckian breeding philosphy has carried down in less expected ways as well. At the October 1960 General Conference future prophet Spencer W. Kimball cheerfully reported on missionaries who were donating their blood to Native Americans in the hopes of assisting them in being transformed from dark and loathsome to white and delightsome:

“There was the doctor in a Utah city who for two years had had an Indian boy in his home who stated that he was some shades lighter than the younger brother just coming into the program from the reservation. These young members of the Church are changing to whiteness and to delightsomeness. One white elder jokingly said that he and his companion were donating blood regularly to the hospital in the hope that the process might be accelerated.”5

DNA had only been discovered seven years before this talk was given, but I am not certain that ignorance of science can it does anything to diminish the astonishingly ugly racism that runs through the text.

It’s likely Smith had been dabbling in polygamy 1831, as reported in several “hypothetical” conversations on the subject, and in 1832 the Mormons began converting the followers of the Christian polygamous sect led by free love advocate Jacob Cochran. It wasn’t until 1843 that Smith produced a revelation that is still regarded as doctrine by practising Mormons:

And again, as pertaining to the law of the priesthood—if any man espouse a virgin, and desire to espouse another, and the first give her consent, and if he espouse the second, and they are virgins, and have vowed to no other man, then is he justified; he cannot commit adultery for they are given unto him; for he cannot commit adultery with that that belongeth unto him and to no one else. . . . And let mine handmaid, Emma Smith, receive all those that have been given unto my servant Joseph, and who are virtuous and pure before me; and those who are not pure, and have said they were pure, shall be destroyed, saith the Lord God.6

The fire and brimstone tone of the revelation makes it very unlikely that this was a brand new issue for Joseph Smith. I sincerely doubt that “God” would have felt the need to threaten Emma Smith with so much damnation had she not been grumbling about the very young girls and married women her husband was shagging.

There did always seem to be a spiritual component to Smith’s theory of polygamy. His modus operandi for persuading young women to become his concubines involved approaching them through compliant relatives or sending troublesome relatives away on missions before bringing the girls under his roof as his wards or employees. The girls would then be told that if they submitted to his wishes, they would attain high glory for themselves and all their family in heaven, and that if they did not they would suffer certain damnation. I firmly define this sort of coercion as rape, but for the sake of argument, if polygamy truly was “God’s will” then it would have been the case. Smith consistently seemed to view families rather than individuals as the basic spiritual unit. If a teenaged girl became his wife, she would have access to the spiritual country club in the sky, and through her her family would gain access as well.

This idea was further elaborated by Brigham Young, who preserved the idea of polygamy being a vehicle to more rapidly distributing superior blood and the accompanying spiritual superiority that comes of being sired by a high-ranking Mormon. But in the next generation Smith’s Lamarckian ideas of improving blood was combined with a sort of spiritual pedigree that created a justification for polygamy in the next life as well as this one.

1. Wikipedia: Lamarckism
2. Wikipedia: Origin of Mormon Polygamy
3. Arrington, Leonard J. (1992), The Mormon Experience: A History of the Latter-Day Saints, University of Illinois Press, ISBN 978-0-252-06236-0. pp. 195
4. Brigham Young, from Conference Reports, 8 Oct. 1861.
5 Kimball, Spencer W. “The Day of the Lamanites.” Conference Report October 1960, pp. 32-37.
6 Doctrine and Covenants, Chapter 132

2 thoughts on “Justifying Polygamy Part 2: Smith’s Doctrine

  1. Sexism? Check.
    Racism? Check.
    Ignorance? Check.
    Arrogance cloaked as piousness or “better spiritual pedigree”? Check.
    Quite an honorable legacy.

    Thanks for another very informative post.

    In your research have you found any doctrinal justification for taking wives as young as 14? Or was that culturally acceptable at the time?

    • There is ample research on this question. Average age of first marriage for women in Joseph Smith’s day was well above 14, and this is easily provable from census records as well as that ever-flowing font of apologetic hilarity, FAIR:

      FAIR – Age of Wives

      By their own reckoning, an unremarkable, ordinary, average marriage of the day would have consisted of a woman around the age of twenty and a man a few years older. Marriages with girls as young as 13 or 14 did take place, but they were considered exceptional and often frowned upon because they were usually the result of economic pressure on an impoverished family that could do with one less mouth to feed. Teenagers of both sexes from poor families were often hired out, but marriage was often a more attractive option to a groom who was keen to gain a housekeeper and bedfellow but didn’t want to have to pay wages for the work.

      For me the key to understanding why Smith’s actions were awful rests on three points: Firstly, his methods for persuading women to engage in sexual activity with him constitute clerical abuse. He groomed his targets in the same way that cult leaders and Catholic priests did: by establishing relationships of trust, sending away relatives who might object, and turning his victims into accomplices for further recruitment. Regardless of the social morés of a given time, this behaviour is impossible to defend. Secondly, although marriages between girls in their early teens and men in their late thirties (or older) did take place, American frontier culture of the 1830’s and 1840’s did not view these relationships as ideal or ordinary. Anecdotal accounts as well as hard census data backs this idea up. Lastly, both in Smith’s day and the present secret marriages were regarded as bizarre or even suspicious. Elopement and secrecy were regarded as reprehensible. Need an example? Just look into Smith’s first marriage to Emma Hale, which caused her family a great deal of grief. (Ten points to Mr. Hale, who recognised a twat when he saw one.) The nature of the relationships Smith engaged in would have left his sexual targets ruined in larger society had their relationships been exposed. The attitudes of his peers regarding secret sexual relationships with groupies can be clearly seen in the reactions of Oliver Cowdery and William Law, who were among Smith’s closest confidants but recoiled with anger and horror at the discovery of his actions. If Smith’s best friends would have become so angry, one can imagine the reaction of the larger community. Like the blokes who tarred and feathered him because he went after a teenage girl with a protective brother.

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