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

Justifying Polygamy Part 1: Debunking

Approach the average Mormon and ask the following question: “What was the purpose of the practice of Polygamy in early Mormonism?” First you’ll get a whole lot of awkward silence, then some flustered attempts to avoid the question and change the subject. The reason for this silence and embarrassment will be for one of two reasons. You can look up online discussions, and the ignorance is telling. Most Mormons haven’t got a clue as to the doctrinal or practical function of LDS polygamy, and they’ll be too embarrassed to admit this. A very select few will know the reasons and they’ll be too embarrassed to say them out loud because when you do that you sound absolutely barmy.

Like most LDS doctrine that is more controversial than admonitions to avoid swearing in the nude in the presence of small children, there is a great deal of misinformation on this topic, so I can’t even begin discussing the actual justifications for polygamy before I disembowel the false reasons that many Mormons unwittingly circulate.

The Theory: There were too many women when Mormons moved west, and so men married up the surplus to ensure that widows and single women would be cared for.

The Problems: Isn’t it possible for a close-knit society to ensure the well-being of orphans, widows, and singletons without assigning them into sexual relationships? This theory promotes the idea that some sort of sexual relationship is required for a man to provide for a woman, turning marriage into more of a form of prostitution than a partnership. Also, this theory is rubbish as polygamy began over ten years before the trek west began. Once Mormons got to Utah, there was still no surplus of women according to the detailed census records from the period, none of which indicate a surplus of women. If anything, there was a surplus of unmarried men because for every woman added to a polygamist’s harem, there is a single man who will be unable to find a wife.

The Theory: Polygamy enabled Mormons to “raise up righteous seed” more quickly than if they were monogamous, increasing the population to allow for better growth of the religion.

The Problem: Polygamy does not increase the number of faithful Mormons in general. It increases the number of children born to a specific male. Women can only produce a finite number of children, whether they are in polygamous or monogamous relationships. While Mormon missionaries did become famous in Britain for marrying wives and then bringing them back to Utah where they learned that there was a harem waiting for the husband, early converts were not disproportionally female. So while polygamy would not have increased the overall number of births, it was an excellent way for individual males to guarantee a high number of their own children. There is a direct correlation between number of wives and rank in the LDS church. Common members who practiced polygamy rarely had more than two wives, whilst general authorities had several to dozens, with very few exceptions.

The Theory: Polygamy was necessary because God needed the Mormons to restore the “fullness of all things.”

The Problem: If polygamy was restored because Mormons needed to bring back Old Testament lifestyle, then we have a problem. At no point is polygamy identified as a religious doctrine in the Bible. Every mention of polygamy is within the context of a common social practice. God spends an awful lot of time talking about sex in the Old Testament: with whom you can have sex, how often you can have sex, and what you can’t do whilst having sex. You would think that a deity as sex-crazed as Yahweh would mention how many wives a man ought to have if he cared, but he didn’t. Sex, and not marriage, is the primary concern of the Old Testament, and I imagine this has to do with the fact that illicit sex was disruptive to society and property ownership. Also, if Mormons were looking to re-create Old Testament society, they would have also started keeping kosher and would not have kept pigs, which they did.

The Theory: Mormons didn’t want to engage in Polygamy, but God made them do it to teach them discipline and faithfulness.

The Problem: Joseph Smith’s laughable account of an angel with a flaming sword ordering him to marry his groupies on pain of death notwithstanding, this is bollocks. We need only turn to the most married Mormon of all time, Heber C. Grant, for a quote on how much polygamists hated doing their duty:

“I have noticed that a man who has BUT ONE WIFE, and is inclined to that doctrine, soon begins to WITHER AND DRY UP, while a man who goes into PLURALITY looks fresh, YOUNG AND SPRIGHTLY. Why is this? Because God loves that man, and because he honors his word. Some of you may not believe this, but I not only believe it but I also know it. FOR A MAN OF GOD TO BE CONFINED TO ONE WOMAN IS SMALL BUSINESS,… I DO NOT KNOW WHAT WE SHOULD DO IF WE HAD ONLY ONE WIFE APIECE.”

Deseret News, April 22, 1857

“God Made Us Do It” is the theory that the church is currently clinging to. However actual studies of polygamy indicate that it is almost exclusively practiced because it is beneficial to elitist, male-dominated, undemodratic political structures. What is more probable? That Mormon men reluctantly took on surplus wives out of the faithfulness of their hearts, or that they enjoyed being rewarded with their own little genetic empires that made them rock stars in their society?

In my next post I’ll address the doctrinal justifications that Mormons have used in the past and at the present time for the practice of polygamy. In the meantime, please do share any other justifications that you may have heard of that you suspect are bollocks.

At least I won’t be a polygamist

I resigned from the LDS Church in November. I’m more grateful for that now than ever since a busybody acquaintance from the old days felt it their duty to forward me a link announcing that my ex-husband is engaged once again.

I know very little about his current life, which is the way I like it. Based on his behaviour when I left (which consisted mainly of false piety), I believe he is still going on with his pretense of being a righteous LDS man, however much the permanent flag on his church records might say otherwise.

All I know is that, because I am no longer a member of the LDS church, my temple sealing is no longer valid, and I will not have to be bothered by any arseholes in cheap suits asking my permission for my celestial husband to take on Wife Number Two. Of course, I’m not sure that they bother asking any more, as that draws rather painful attention to the fact that polygamy is alive and well in LDS doctrine. In either case, the closest I want to get to polygamy is watching Big Love.

It will be hard for some of you to believe, but I feel only pity toward these two. No hate, no anger, no bitterness. Just pity. I wish the best of luck to the future Mrs. Ex-Mr. Molly. She’ll need it being wedded to a repressed homosexual ex-felon.

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.

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.