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

Woman Win: The Story of Menstruation

Many of us have an impression that the days before the 1960’s were completely dark for women. Certainly popular culture was rife with sexism and misunderstanding about the female body, but I ran across The Story of Menstruation, commissioned by feminine product manufacturer Kotex and created by Disney, to educate women about how their own bodies work. It’s remarkably factual, sensible, and affirming regarding the reproductive system. It is a little dated; all of the girls are in skirts, but that was the norm in those days. There’s also only one brief and visual implying that marriage happens before babymaking, but seeing as that’s still the most common order things happen in, it’s hard to nit pick. This film is believed to be the first to use the word “vagina” on a screenplay, and was seen by over 100 million American students when it was released.

Among the filmstrip’s highlights:

  • A simple and scientifically accurate description of the menstrual cycle
  • An explanation that girls get their periods at different ages, and that is perfectly okay
  • An explanation that girls come in all shapes and sizes, and that is normal
  • The shattering of myths that women shouldn’t shower or exercise during menstruation
  • Sensible advice on exercise, sleep, and nutrition throughout everyday life
  • Advice on dealing with the negative side effects of the menstrual cycle, such as feeling bluesy or having digestive difficulty
  • An affirmation of a woman’s importance in perpetuating life.

If not for the caustic smiles it would surely draw from the Facebook generation, I’d recommend this video to remain in use today. I salute you, Kotex, for not only making reliable products that promote women’s health, but also for being brave enough to tell the truth in an era of misinformation.

Oh. That’s Too Bad.

This weekend I went to a baby shower for an LDS friend of mine. The party was almost entirely made up of what you usually see in Relief Society — slightly overweight, harried looking mothers with threadbare smiles and enough neuroses to prevent conversation about anything more complicated than quiche recipes. Other than myself, there was only one other apostate present — a dear friend who thought her way out of the church after too many engineering and philosophy courses at university. She hasn’t formally resigned her membership yet, but it’s been some time since she attended church and won’t be going back.

Neither of us mind attending LDS events. Baby showers, baby blessings, wedding receptions and the like are important enough that everyone should be able to look past differences and help each other celebrate the milestones we cross in life. I must confess to getting a bit fidgety at this event. Although I got to cuddle the newborn for a good long while, I was having trouble striking up conversation with the vapid Aryan hausfraus present. They couldn’t talk about themselves. They didn’t seem to have passions, interests

I was getting rather annoyed with myself. I didn’t want to think that I’m incapable of relating to Mormons any more, but I worried that I’ve drifted too far. Still, I stubbornly hoped that I’d find some way to be charitable toward these women and find a way to connect with them.

And then I walked up to my fellow apostate, who was conversing with Sister Soccermom.

Sister Soccermom had recently discovered that my friend had just become engaged to her boyfriend, who is a wonderful, intelligent, hard-working man of excellent character. He’s also non-white and non-Mormon. Sister Soccermom made the usual inquiries. She also learned that he was very dedicated to ensuring that both partners in the relationship finished their advanced degrees. She learned that they met in their robotics class. She learned that he was a brilliant engineer who had proposed to my friend by taking her on a romantic dinner cruise and popping the question at the bow of the ship under the stars.

Not that any of that mattered, because she then asked the only question that an LDS woman seriously considers. “Where did he serve his mission?”

Sister Soccermom was informed that my friend’s fiancé was not Mormon.

“Oh,” said Sister Soccermom disdainfully, within hearing of everyone in the room. “That’s too bad.”

It was a good thing I was holding a sleeping newborn at the time, because only the fear of dropping the baby prevented me from bitch-slapping Sister Soccermom. My friend and I were both appalled. The woman knew nothing about my friend or her fiancé. To say that to anyone, let alone a complete stranger, was beyond inappropriate. But the very sad thing is that it was not shocking. That sort of reaction is par for the course. Nobody seemed offended by the remark other than myself and my friend.

It was a moment that confirmed something I’ve sensed for a very long time: I’m not Mormon any more. I used to think that part of me would always be Mormon. But other than making jam and changing my own tyres, I can’t think like a Mormon any more. It’s all slipped away. And thank goodness.

Beat Your Wife and Children Properly

Not a good day for Islamic political figures today. The newest black sheep in the Saudi Royal family was convicted in London of murdering his servant after a lengthy history of abusing him. Islamists held in prison with Prince Saud Abdulawhatever have also been making threats at him because the prince has now been outed as not only a sadistic psychopath, but also a party boy who loved to carouse with alcohol and rentboys. Solitary confinement in a British prison never looked so good; if he ever gets back to Saudi Arabia, I doubt even his family connections will keep him from being executed for the capital crime of being very, very gay.

The real story boiling my blood is the case of two battered women in the United Arab Emirates, where after a man brutally attacked his wife and daughter he was told it’s just fine to beat them, but he went a bit too far by leaving physical marks.

The Koran does specify proper procedure for wife beating. I consulted a recovering Muslim friend, Fatima (not her real name), and she agreed that it is impossible to read those verses in a way that does not give tacit approval to a man being violent toward his wife, both psychologically and physically. Keep in mind that Muslims are obligated to accept the Koran as the pure unadulterated actual words of god. At least other faiths acknowledge human beings as intermediaries. For Islam, the Koran is much less negotiable than other forms of scripture. The only way around the teaching is to move into a reformed or post-Muslim mindset and ignore these verses, the way many modern Christian sects view the unsavoury parts of the Old Testament, but to openly advocate this would be viewed as apostasy by most Muslims. Essentially, all non-new-age schools of Islamic thought agree that a Muslim man has the right to humiliate his wife. What they argue over is how hard she should be hit. It’s astonishing to see people miss the point that any form of humiliation, even symbolic, is still harmful to the woman and her abuser.

Problem one with this so-called word of god: It ignores the lasting damage done by psychological abuse. Mental scars take longer to heal than physical damage. Even if a man taps a woman under his power lightly, the purpose is still to humiliate, control, and demean. It tells a woman, “I may not be really hurting you now, and you owe me gratitude for that. Just remember that if you really displease me I’ve got the right to put you in your place, you stupid cow.”

My second problem is the almost laughable conclusion that the daughter in the case was “too old” at the age of 23 to receive physical discipline from her father. Clearly her mother wasn’t too old, so the issue is that really the daughter should have had her own protector and maintainer husband to do the beatings himself.

This kind of story needs intense scrutiny in the news. It’s disturbing to see papers like The Guardian pulling the story “for legal reasons.” I expect more backbone from a British news source. Religion does not deserve immunity from criticism. Beliefs that are barbaric should not be tolerated in any way, shape or form. Islam is such a hot-button issue that many people instantly shy away from any legitimate criticism of the system, lest they be painted “Islamophobic.” As Fatima pointed out to me: “All religions have serious problems: violence, magical thinking, misogyny, superstition, or truth denial. Islam has all of the following. We need to stop lying to ourselves. When Islam is in the wrong, it is an imperative to say so.” I couldn’t agree more.

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.

What’s next, aesthetically perfect ovaries?

Today a friend forwarded me a link to an article about a journalist who got
vajazzled on camera. I was left with the following thoughts: Bizarre, Why, and why is it that a man would never do something so ridiculous, but it’s expected and encouraged for a woman to do it, preferably in public?

Women worked so hard to enter the public sphere, and there have been some hard-earned gains with regards to jobs, earnings, and civil rights. But as far as women as sexual objects, women’s entry to public life has only taken private male sexual ownership of women’s bodies and sexuality and make it a public spectacle.

It’s downright disturbing to see the creeping effect of demands to be perfect. In the past, just your face and figure had to be perfect; now a woman’s lady parts have to be picture perfect as well. The rise of cosmetic labial reduction and insane products like Vajazzle and My New Pink Button are an obsession that make Wonderbras look downright feminist.

Rubbish like this makes me want to bang my head against the wall. The concern I now have is “what’s next?” We’ve figured out a way to wax, pluck, plump, enhance, compress, paint, botox, liposuction, dye, and augment every visible inch of the female body. What’s next? Vital organ modification? Stripping the pituitary gland so that women don’t grow body hair or sweat in the first place? I’ll have to remind myself not to be surprised when I read an article a few years from now describing an exciting new procedure to give women aesthetically pleasing ovaries.