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

Rapist? Yes. Paedophile? No.

My post on Rape Apology and Joseph Smith keeps generating really interesting discussion. It’s nice to see so many people using their brains on this subject, because it’s incredibly tricky and will require investigation for some time.

I received a comment from Jack Steele that asked for a response too lengthy for comments, so here we are once again. You can read the whole thing in its original context if you like, but the summary is: “Many of Joseph Smith’s wives were young — probably young enough that they had not reached menarche. Does this make him a paedophile?” Jack’s sources for data regarding average age of marriage (20-24), eligibility (19) and onset of menses (16.5) for Joseph Smith’s time are reliable. Age of menarche is tied to nutrition. Modern girls have been experiencing earlier ages of menarche over time, topping out at around 12-14 years of age, because their bodies aren’t stressed and nutrient-deprived the way they were in preindustrial societies. Women didn’t marry young, because a man looking for a good, fecund wife would have been crazy to take a woman who hadn’t proved that she could bear a child. However, Joseph Smith not only “married” girls too young for marriage, but there is strong evidence that he had sex with them as well.

The very, very short answer to “was he a paedophile?” is no, at least not in the way we think of paedophilia in the modern day. Keep in mind that this is before child psychology, child development, and the study of the mind. The earliest beginnings of the study of mental illness would not come for at least fifty years. We take the risk of being merely sensationalistic if we just slap that label on him with no caveats. If that’s all you were looking for, stop here. For more details, read on.

We’re safe calling Joseph Smith a rapist, because both in the present day and in Joseph Smith’s time coercive sex is considered to be rape. Refusing sex, these girls were told, meant damnation for the girl and her family, or the responsibility for The Prophet’s death when an angel murdered him for not shagging comely coed parishioners. That’s rape, deflowerment, or whatever Victorian euphemism you would like to use. Sex with a young unmarried woman rendered her damaged goods and almost unmarriageable. Non-virgins had a poor to zero chance of finding a good husband. Even if the sex were the result of seduction and not coercion, Smith would have known all too well how irresponsible his behaviour was.

It’s impossible to know for sure exactly why Smith chose prepubescent girls to “marry” and have sex with. It’s possible that it was a strategic decision, made to avoid getting caught. The overwhelming majority of his first dozen or so wives were married to and living with other men. Any pregnancy resulting from his action could have been easily disguised. (Incidentally, kings generally favoured married mistresses for exactly this reason if their situation did not accommodate a maîtresse en titre.) Smith then moved into a stretch of women who were both too old and too young to give birth. Elizabeth Davis Durfee was 50; Sarah Kingsley Cleveland was 53; Delcena Johnson was 37; Eliza R. Snow was 38. In 1840 it was very possible that women of nearly 40 were no longer menstruating, and this was definitely the case with those over 50.

It wasn’t until he’d gotten away with two dozen or so serial marriages that Smith began his wedding bonanza of 1843, grabbing any woman he could get his hands on and bedding her after a proper courtship of threats of hell and bloodshed. He even nabbed two pairs of sisters, which makes sense as he’d already collected a mother and a daughter. Lots of his wives were young and most likely virgins. Many of them were too young for sex from medical and social viewpoints. But I still have to hold off on calling him a paedophile.

The term paedophilia didn’t exist until 1886. Does that mean Smith wasn’t a paedophile? Not necessarily, but we can’t apply a modern term willy-nilly to a person from a far-off land in the ancient days before psychoanalysis. We also need to add to this that a person is not considered to be a paedophile unless they are attracted to a person with the body of a child and not an adult.

It’s extremely likely that the two fourteen-year-old girls Smith bedded were not fully developed. But it’s also pretty likely that they were somewhat developed, meaning growth of breasts and hips. Although neither would expect the onset of menses for at least two more years, they probably would have begun the process of looking like an adult woman. It’s a gray area, but I must consider that he was generally regarded as being good with children and there is not one allegation of child rape in any document I’ve heard of, not even in the hysterical exposés written by the most ardent enemies of Mormonism. I believe his attraction to the girls was that of a raging narcissist, who seized any impressionable vagina that walked by, whether society would have deemed that woman inappropriately young or inappropriately old for his interest. My gut instinct is that he really just wanted to get laid, and that bedding dozens of women bolstered his need to feel powerful and godlike, with total control over his followers.

My conclusion on Joseph Smith: Rapist? Definitely. Raging megalomaniac? Absolutely. Schizotypal, antisocial, narcissistic and histrionic personality disorders? Yes. Paedophile? Possibly. But in the absence of a sexual relationship with a girl of unquestionably child-like form, I’ll have to lean toward no.

Is there a way out?

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:

  1. Publicly disavow it and make the necessary changes to LDS scripture, teachings, and rituals to remove polygamy as a doctrine
  2. Publicly accept it as a doctrine and cease attempts to whitewash the issue
  3. 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.

Rape Apology and Joseph Smith

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.