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:
- 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.
- 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.
- Either 19th century Mormons were wrong or modern Mormons are.
- 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.
- 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.”
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:
- Early Mormons asserted polygamy as a civil right and an important point of doctrine.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.