“Mormon leaders admit church founder Joseph Smith practiced polygamy” – Fox News
“The Mormon church finally acknowledges founder Joseph Smith’s polygamy” – Washington Post
“It’s Official: Mormon Founder Had Up to 40 Wives” – New York Times
“Joseph Smith Had Up to 40 Wives. Why Is the Mormon Church Finally Admitting It?” – Slate.com
These headlines are both incendiary and incorrect. The fact is that Doctrine and Covenants section 132, the revelation to Joseph Smith that commands him to enter into plural marriage, is canonized LDS scripture and has been in print for well over 150 years. To say that the Church’s new essay on polygamy is the first time the church has ever acknowledged that Joseph Smith was a polygamist is to say something demonstrably false.
But some members are acting like this information has been hidden or suppressed. The New York Times quotes a blogger in Farmington who laments that “This is not the church I grew up with, this is not the Joseph Smith I love.” Even a regional authority in Europe abandoned the church because he had previously considered statements about Joseph’s polygamy to be the “whisperings of Lucifer” and was shocked to discover they were true.
Except they aren’t true, at least not in the way the critics are coloring them. Yes, Joseph was a polygamist, but his actions require a great deal of history and context to adequately understand. Yet understanding history and context is tedious and requires effort, whereas inflammatory accusations provide instant results. I saw this on Thanksgiving, when an old friend posted a link to an article about the Church’s essay commenting about how we in the church “have been lied to on a massive scale” with regard to Joseph’s polygamy. “Joseph married, shagged them and then dumped them on their old husbands and left them to fend for themselves,” he said. “[It’s] hardly a story of married bliss…”
And it’s not the true story, either. But while it takes seconds to make the accusations – “Joseph married and then slept with other men’s wives! Joseph was a pedophile who molested 14-year-old girls!” – it takes paragraphs, pages, or even books to provide the context that disproves them. I’ve made several attempts on this blog to provide some of that information – see here, here, here, here, and here – and, I should note, I have never faced any kind of church discipline, formally or informally, for publicly acknowledging Joseph’s polygamy. (One of the accusations in that Facebook thread was that those who spoke openly about Joseph and polygamy were branded as anti-Mormons and booted out of the church prior to this recent essay’s publication. I am living proof that this is simply not true.)
So here’s what I’m going to do. This post will have two parts. The first part will be an attempt to provide adequate context to refute the more sensational accusations against Joseph Smith. That part will likely be dry and plodding, and if it doesn’t interest you, I understand. But I feel it is necessary to get some of this on record in order to reassure any bloggers in Farmington who don’t love Joseph Smith anymore that their image of the Prophet isn’t as far off the mark as these accusations would have you believe.
One caveat – Joseph wasn’t a perfect man, so if you want perfection, I can’t help you. But he was a good man, and that’s the best any of us can do.
The second part of this will be more accessible and personal than the first. It will give you a personal context for why I stand by Joseph Smith. I know he was a polygamist, and I know the available details surrounding the more sordid accusations against him, and yet I still revere him as a prophet of God. How do I reconcile those facts with a clear conscience? The answer comes in Part Two.
So let us begin with Part One. (Skip down to Part Two below if you’re already bored.)
BEHOLD! PART ONE!
Revelations often came to Joseph as answers to his direct questions. The most famous example is the Word of Wisdom, which counsels Latter-day Saints to avoid alcohol, cigarettes, coffee, and tea. As I was taught in Primary, Emma Smith was sick of cleaning up tobacco stains after church leaders would meet, so she asked Joseph about tobacco’s purpose, and Joseph, in turn, asked the Lord. He received a response that said, among many other things, that “tobacco is not for the body, neither for the belly, and is not good for man.” (See Doctrine and Covenants section 89.)
That was how the process usually worked.
The wording of Doctrine and Covenants section 132, the revelation that commanded Joseph to take additional wives, suggests that it came in response to a direct question about Old Testament polygamy. That’s clear from how the revelation begins:
“Verily, thus saith the Lord unto you my servant Joseph, that inasmuch as you have inquired of my hand to know and understand wherein I, the Lord, justified my servants Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as also Moses, David and Solomon, my servants, as touching the principle and doctrine of their having many wives and concubines—
Behold, and lo, I am the Lord thy God, and will answer thee as touching this matter.”
So when would Joseph Smith have been asking this question? Most likely when he was reading about the Lord’s polygamous servants in his own translation of the Bible, circa 1831. There is additional historical evidence that this revelation was received early on, not long after the church was organized, yet the revelation itself wasn’t recorded until over a decade later. And, with one important exception, Joseph didn’t marry any additional wives for another ten years.
So why the delay?
The answer is that Joseph was not the predatory Lothario his critics try to pretend he was. He was not eager to take additional wives. Documents demonstrate that his devotion to Emma, and her devotion to him even after his death, was real and powerful and did not waver throughout his life. According to Joseph, he was visited three times by an angel who rebuked him for dragging his feet on taking another wife, and the third time, this angel was brandishing a drawn sword. If you take his word for it, Joseph was a very reluctant polygamist indeed.
Of course, critics are quick to dismiss Joseph’s own account as a self-serving rationalization, but there is no other adequate explanation for the existence of the revelation a decade before Joseph was willing to fully abide by it. If the revelation was a fraud perpetuated solely to satisfy the cistern of his lust, why wait ten years? Why wait at all?
The evidence strongly suggests that Joseph viewed plural marriage as a religious principle that was part of the “restoration of all things” that had been practiced anciently. He accepted it as a trial of his own faith, as well as the faith of his fellow Latter-day Saints. Western culture, then and now, has largely viewed polygamy as aberrant, and Joseph’s sensibility was largely the same as the culture in which he was raised. The caricature of him as an insatiable wanton simply doesn’t jibe with what we know of how he both received the revelation and how he put it into practice.
I mentioned the exception to his self-imposed “wait-a-decade” rule, and it’s a significant one. His first plural marriage likely took place around 1833, about two years after he received his revelation. He married a girl named Fanny Alger, who was a serving maid in his house. Reliable details about Joseph’s marriage to Fanny are few and far between, and most of what we know of their relationship comes from third-hand sources. A few facts, however, need to be noted at the outset.
In their recent article, the New York Times referred to her as “15-year-old Fanny Alger.” But Fanny Alger could not have been only 15 when she married Joseph Smith. Her birth certificate states that she was born on September 30, 1916. If she married Joseph in 1833, she was either 16 or 17 at the time of the wedding. This would place her above the 21st Century age of consent in roughly half of the United States and all of Canada. In the 19th Century, English Common Law placed the age of consent at between 10 and 12 years of age and didn’t raise it to 13 until 1875, which was 31 years after the Prophet’s death. Those who would cite this marriage as evidence of Joseph’s pedophilia ignore the fact that a 16 or 17-year-old girl, while admittedly younger than the average bride of the day, was still considered to be of age in the 19th Century.
I do not wish to be misunderstood here. As the father of two daughters roughly the same age as Fanny was on the day of her nuptials, I readily admit that my stomach turns at the prospect of either of my girls today marrying a 26-year-old man, which is how old Joseph was at the time of his first plural marriage. I’m not applauding Joseph’s actions; I’m simply trying to provide historical context for them. While polygamy certainly violated 19th Century mores, a monogamous marriage between a 26-year-old man and a 16-year-old girl did not.
It’s also important to note that sources indicate that Joseph approached Fanny’s parents and asked for their consent, which they provided. Even anti-Mormons who hated Joseph acknowledged that there was a wedding between the two and that this was not just a sexual indiscretion on Joseph’s part.
We know no details about this marriage, as neither Joseph nor Fanny offered any, and we do not know Emma’s reaction, although most understandably assume it was negative. Fanny left the Smith household in 1836, married another man soon after, and never said another word about what happened between her and Joseph. We do know, however, that Oliver Cowdery considered it to be a “dirty, nasty, filthy affair” and not a legitimate marriage. When Oliver confronted Joseph on this point, Joseph did not deny a relationship with Alger, but instead denied that the relationship was adulterous. Oliver then left the church, and he never provided any information about the facts that formed the basis for his opinion. After Joseph’s death, Oliver was rebaptized and regained full fellowship with the Saints, but he never spoke on the record about Fanny Alger again.
That’s pretty much all we know.
I confess that of all of Joseph Smith’s plural marriages, I find this one to be the most unsettling. How could he not have realized that polygamously marrying the serving girl in his own house would be a bad idea? I imagine a young man given the near-impossible commandment to take another wife without having the slightest clue how to go about it. After a couple of years of self-doubt and ambivalence, I think he ultimately decided to marry the girl he saw every day, thinking that might be the simplest way to obey. I also think he may have not been as clear as to the purpose of the revelation as he was later in life.
But all of that is pure conjecture. We simply don’t know what happened, except to say that it was eight years before Joseph took another wife. My guess is that he realized he’d botched things the first time out and was gun shy about making the same mistakes again. Were Joseph’s later marriages different from the one with Fanny Alger? Evidence suggests that they were.
First, keep in mind that of the 40 wives that the New York Times is talking about, 39 of them were married after 1841. By June of 1844, Joseph Smith was dead. All of these weddings, then, took place during a compressed three-and-a-half year time frame that was the busiest period of Joseph’s life. This was when he was building the second-largest city in Illinois and the largest religious building in the country, as well as leading a rapidly expanding church and, oh yeah, running for President of the United States. For most of these weddings, the wives got a ceremony and not much else.
It’s noteworthy, too, that Joseph fathered nine children with Emma, yet he had no children with any of his other wives. That alone is the basis for the specious RLDS claim that Joseph couldn’t have been a polygamist after all. While that doesn’t prove any such thing, it does suggest that sex was not the only or even the primary motivation for these marriages.
It’s also important to note that current critics make no distinction between a “wedding” and a “sealing.” It is a distinction that is lost even for many contemporary Latter-day Saints, but it’s a crucial element in understanding Joseph’s behavior.
By 1841, Joseph saw plural marriage more as a way to bind families together in the eternities than as a license for sexual adventurism. This explains his relationship with women who were sealed to him even as they continued their marriage to other men, including many who were active Latter-day Saints. Thus the accusation of “polyandry” exemplified by my friend’s comment that “Joseph married, shagged them and then dumped them on their old husbands” just doesn’t hold water. These “polyandrous” women never left their old husbands, and, to make matters even more confusing, the husbands were fully aware of the sealings to Joseph. The simplest explanation is that when there was another husband involved, these were sealings, but they were not marriages. There is very little information about any of these marriages, but what information exists suggests that sex was not involved in them at all.
That’s not to say that none of his post-1941 sealings included sexual relations. Some of them clearly did, but it’s likely the majority did not. That includes, incidentally, Joseph’s sealing to Helen Mar Kimball, the 14-year-old girl sealed to Joseph in an instance that many see as conclusive proof that Joseph was a pedophile. Helen herself, later in life, stated that the relationship was “for eternity only,” which implies a celibate arrangement.
So if so many of these marriages were sexless, why would Joseph Smith even bother with them if his only aim was to bed as many helpless young maidens as possible? While the critics have no answer to that question, neither do believers, but for a different reason. The problem with plural marriage is that critics misunderstand it and the Church, by and large, ignores it. It’s not an active campaign of suppression so much as a cultural squeamishness to address something so easily misunderstood and so contrary to conventional morality.
What many modern church members ignore is that so much of the modern church’s theology is still tied to the principles in D&C 132. When primary children sing “Families Can Be Together Forever,” they’re referencing D&C 132. The concept of sealing families together, as well as the doctrine of theosis, trace their theological roots to the revelation on plural marriage. The modern church compartmentalizes the plural marriage part of the revelation and embraces the other good stuff, but to Joseph, the two were inextricably linked. Joseph saw the sealing power as the fulfillment of the Savior’s promise to Peter in Matthew 16:19 – “whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven.” He viewed plural marriage as the way to build heavenly bonds, and, rightly or wrongly, the doctrine bound the church together here on earth, too. Rather than simply reject the whole thing out of hand, it’s much better to try to understand its place in Joseph’s thinking and in church history.
Which leads me to PART TWO:
I begin Part Two by quoting a previous blog post of mine on the subject:
Many anti-Mormons take delight in pointing out that the Book of Mormon rails on polygamy with more ferocity than anything in the Bible. The Lord condemns the unauthorized practice of polygamy as an “abomination” and refers to the taking of multiple wives as “whoredoms,” and then says the following:
“Wherefore, my brethren, hear me, and hearken to the word of the Lord: For there shall not any man among you have save it be one wife; and concubines he shall have none.” (Jacob 2:27)
That seems to be a pretty clear-cut standard, which makes you wonder how Joseph Smith could possibly lead the church to go contrary to the plain language of the scripture he himself translated.
Until you read on to verse 30:
“For if I will, saith the Lord of Hosts, raise up seed unto me, I will command my people; otherwise they shall hearken unto these things.”
In other words, monogamy is the norm, unless commanded otherwise by the Lord to “raise up seed” unto Him. That’s exactly what happened when the Church practiced polygamy in the 19th century. The doctrine bound the church together through a torturous time and raised up a large second generation to carry the gospel forward. And now, when it is no longer necessary, the Lord has commanded us to revert back to the norm.
There’s more to this, though. Many are surprised that Mormons stand by Joseph Smith even knowing all of the above information. The reason they do, or, at least, the reason I do, has little or nothing to do with affection or loyalty to Joseph Smith as a human being. For the unavoidable fact is that he was a human being, flawed like all of us, and those who seek to deify him misunderstand the fundamental principles he taught. The doctrine of agency, central to Joseph’s teachings, requires all of us, even prophets, to learn from mistakes. Joseph needed to do this as much as anyone, and, indeed, many of those mistakes are referenced in the revelations he received and published.
To a degree, those revelations form the basis of my faith. I have read the Book of Mormon, a book which the most accomplished 19th Century scholar could never have produced, let alone an uneducated 23-year-old farmboy named Joseph Smith. I have read Joseph’s other revelations, which provide a cohesive and glorious vision of the universe that has no equal in the other religions and philosophies of the world.
But as marvelous as the ideas are, they wouldn’t matter if God weren’t at the heart of them. But He is. My confidence in Joseph Smith is due to the fact that I have encountered Jesus Christ in an intimate and personal way as a result of what Joseph accomplished, which is why I believe he’s earned a few benefits of the doubt.
Thanks for reading this all the way through.