in Religion

CES Reply: Polygamy (Part II)

Continuing my reply to Jeremy Runnell’s “Letter to a CES Director,” with Jeremy’s original words in green:

This is not the Joseph Smith I grew up learning about in the Church and having a testimony of.

That’s because this is not the Joseph Smith that is Joseph Smith. The Warren Jeffs-like Joseph Smith that you’re describing here is a grotesque caricature of the real thing.

Keep in mind that of the 34 women you’re talking about, 33 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, when he was doing a great many of the things you were telling people about on your mission. 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 sealings, the wives got a ceremony and nothing more.

It’s noteworthy, too, that Joseph fathered nine children with Emma, yet, as far as has been verified, 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 demonstrates that plural marriage does not negate everything else Joseph Smith was and did, and that you’re condemning him based on a series of assumptions that don’t match the record.

This is not the Joseph Smith that I sang “Praise to the Man” to or taught others about two years in the mission field.

Are you saying that when you served a mission, you didn’t know Joseph Smith was a polygamist? When investigators brought up polygamy, did you assume they were lying? That’s astonishing to me. I don’t know how anyone could spend more than a week in the mission field and not know this information.

A lot of members don’t realize that there is a set of very specific and bizarre rules outlined in Doctrine & Covenants 132 (still in LDS canon despite President Hinckley publicly stating that polygamy is not doctrinal) on how polygamy is to be practiced.

You’re getting very legalistic here. The context of President Hinckley’s statement suggests that he was not disavowing previous polygamy but, instead, drawing a distinction between the past and present. He was absolutely correct in saying that it is not doctrinal to practice plural marriage today. (I can think of no faster route to excommunication from the Church than becoming a polygamist.) His statement is consistent with the passage in Jacob 2: monogamy is the doctrinal norm, but there are periods in history where the Lord requires polygamous exceptions to the rule.

As for the “specific and bizarre rules,” I find that a puzzling construct. Aren’t rules, by their nature, supposed to be specific? There are specific rules as to how to play baseball, for instance. If there weren’t, the game would be unplayable. (“Rule 17: The batter should probably stop batting after he gets a bunch of strikes.”) As to the idea that “a lot of members don’t realize” what these rules are, one wonders why they can’t read the revelation itself, which the Church has been printing as scripture for 175 years or so.

As to whether the rules are “bizarre,” we’ll address those with the examples you provide below.

It is the kind of revelation you’d expect from the likes of Warren Jeffs to his FLDS followers.

No, it is the kind of revelation you’d expect from the likes of Warren Jeffs to his FLDS followers. Or, to be more precise, you provide a flawed analysis of the revelation because you deliberately misinterpret Section 132 to match your own expectations, which are rooted in inaccurate and distorted information. This tells me a great deal about your expectations and nothing about Section 132.

The only form of polygamy permitted by D&C 132 is a union with a virgin after first giving the opportunity to the first wife to consent to the marriage.

This is inaccurate, but before I point out why it’s inaccurate, I want to take several steps back and point out how far down the rabbit hole you’re going here.

Your accusations are premised on the idea that Joseph invented polygamy to have sex with a lot of women, including underage girls. That was John C. Bennett’s M.O. – his “spiritual wifery,” which had no accompanying revelation to justify it, involved him telling married women that they should sleep with him because they were “spiritually married,” so they could do as they pleased with their husbands none the wiser. That strikes me as a far more effective method to achieve easy sexual gratification – no rules, no boundaries, and no responsibility.

Joseph’s plural marriage, however, didn’t operate like this at all. Sex was not a part of most of these relationships. He married old widows who never saw him after the ceremony. He was sealed to married women who never had any significant relationship with him, sexual or otherwise, and who continued to live as wives to their existing husbands. And the revelation which authorized Joseph to do all this set very clear guidelines as to what was appropriate and what was not, including strict prohibition of the kind of polyandry of which you accuse him.

So now here you are, criticizing Joseph for practicing polygamy because of his supposed sexual licentiousness, and then you turn around and lay out reasons why Joseph wasn’t actually following his own revelation. Do you see the exasperating futility of what you’re doing? What if, for instance, it could be demonstrated – and I think it can be demonstrated – that Joseph’s behavior was consistent with the boundaries set in Section 132? Would you be okay with polygamy then? If not, then what’s the point?

You’ve settled on the idea that this is all just Joseph the Fraud creating a flimsy pretext to justify adultery, yet you then nitpick here and adopt a tortured legalistic interpretation of Section 132 to indict him for not living up to the rules of his own fraud. The fact that he made any rules at all is a clear argument against fraud. L. Ron Hubbard, founder of Scientology, once wrote a note to himself in which he said “All men are your slaves.” Surely Joseph could have given himself similar license if Section 132 was solely a product of his imagination. Maybe something like “Verily, I say unto you, my servant Joseph, that all women are given to you to do with as you will.” See how easy that was? Why would a sexual predator make things as difficult as Section 132 did for Joseph?

If it’s a fraud, then the rules don’t matter, and you’re just looking for more excuses to berate Joseph Smith.

This is one of the reasons why so many responses to your letter have been more dismissive than perhaps they should have been. Because all the questions you ask aren’t really questions at all – they’re indictments. They couldn’t get Al Capone on racketeering and murder charges, so they got him on tax evasion. Similarly, if you can’t tear down Joseph Smith on the basis of him being a simple pervert, then you can get him on the contradictory charge of not following his own revelation. You don’t care if people believe that Joseph plagiarized View of the Hebrews or the First Book of Napoleon just as long as they don’t believe the Book of Mormon is what it claims to be. This explode the premise that you’re “just asking questions.” You’re not inquiring; you’re carpet bombing. You’re throwing everything you can find at the Church in the hopes that at least something will stick.

If the first wife doesn’t consent, the husband is exempt and may still take an additional wife, but the first wife must at least have the opportunity to consent. In case the first wife doesn’t consent, she will be “destroyed”. Also, the new wife must be a virgin before the marriage and be completely monogamous after the marriage or she will be destroyed (D&C 132: 41 & 63).

You’re leaning pretty heavily on the word “virgin,” as if God expects every sealing to be preceded by a medical exam a la Princess Diana before her wedding to Prince Charles. I don’t think that interpretation of the word is at all consistent with the context or how the Lord views sexual purity.

Consider a victim of sexual assault, who, medically speaking, is no longer a virgin. D&C 132 still provides the doctrinal template for how monogamous sealings are performed today, and under your legalistic interpretation of this scripture, innocent victims would not be eligible to be sealed in the temple, despite the fact that they have done nothing wrong. The more appropriate contextual understanding of the word “virgin” here is a woman who is sexually pure in the eyes of God.  So even a repentant adulterer would not be disqualified, because the Lord has said that when we repent of our sins, he will “remember them no more.” (D&C 58:42)

As for wives being “destroyed,” no doubt that’s some pretty harsh language. Almost as harsh as “damned.” In the context of what’s being described, however, it has a unique spiritual application that you’re deliberately missing. D&C 132 outlines the nature of exaltation, which is a continuation of posterity throughout the eternities. But when a river is damned, it does not continue. So it is when a person is damned – their posterity is capped. The destruction being talked about here is not being hit by a meteor or run over by a bus. It’s the destruction of the opportunity to have eternal increase.

It is interesting that the only prerequisite that is mentioned for the man is that he must desire another wife: “if any man espouse a virgin, and desire to espouse another…”. It does not say that the man must get a specific revelation from the living prophet, although we assume today that this is what was meant.

Sorry for adding emphasis, but this last phrase is critically instructive. Are we wrong to assume that? Why? Generations of Latter-day Saints have read Section 132 and not reached the conclusion that just wanting more wives was all that was necessary to justify marrying them. But they’re all wrong, and you’re the only one smart enough to get it right? There are so many other qualifiers in this very complex and far-reaching revelation with regard to when marriage is appropriate, but you cherry-pick a single sentence and presume it simply obliterates everything else.

So much of your rejection of the church is rooted in the idea that every word in the revelations has a singular and self-evident meaning, so when anyone else interprets those words differently than you do, they’re obviously wrong. But if that were the case, then there would be no division in the Christian world, as everyone could read the Bible and never disagree about what it means. This is the reason living prophets are essential. Revelation is necessary not just to tell us new doctrine, but to give us greater understanding of the doctrine we already have.

D&C 132 is unequivocal on the point that polygamy is permitted only “to multiply and replenish the earth” and “bear the souls of men.” This would be consistent with the Book of Mormon prohibition on polygamy except in the case where God commands it to “raise up seed.”

There are a lot more words between “multiply and replenish the earth” and “bear the souls of me” that you fail to cite. Here is the text in its entirety, from verse 62: “for they are given unto him to multiply and replenish the earth, according to my commandment, and to fulfil the promise which was given by my Father before the foundation of the world, and for their exaltation in the eternal worlds, that they may bear the souls of men.” [Emphasis added.]

If you want to get legalistic, we can get legalistic. Just for fun, let’s parse the snot out of this.

This phrase begins with multiplying and replenishing as a primary justification. Then we get the word “and” thrown in there. You’re reading this as if it says “they are given unto him to multiply and replenish the earth, according to my commandment, in order to fulfil the promise…” But that’s not what it says. “And” suggests we’re about to get a second reason, not a clarification of the first. In fact, a tight, strict-constructionist reading of this verse reveals three different and distinct reasons for plural marriage, not “only” the replenishment of the earth, as you contend. (You also mistakenly assume that “bear the souls of men” is a reiteration of “multiply and replenish the earth.” That’s a pretty big mistake, as I will shortly demonstrate.)

So what are the three reasons?

1. Multiply and replenish the earth. You’re right; D&C 132 is unequivocal on this point, just as it is unequivocal on the two points that follow.

2. Fulfil “the promise which was given by my Father before the foundation of the world.”

What promise? This seems to have reference to the “restitution of all things, which God hath spoken by the mouth of all his holy prophets since the world began.” (Acts 3:21) Joseph often cited the need to restore ancient practices to prepare for the Second Coming as a justification for polygamy, and this verse provides a credible scriptural context for him to do so.

So just relying on this phrase – plural marriage is acceptable because it fulfills God’s promises – would be justification enough for the practice, at least according to D&C 132.

3. For “their exaltation in the eternal worlds, that they may bear the souls of men.”

Oh, this one’s my favorite. Notice the emphasis I added on the “that.” The word appears there to create a conditional clause. You claim the bearing of souls is the same thing as multiplying and replenishing the earth, but the actual text insists that the bearing of the souls of men will only be made possible by “exaltation in the eternal worlds.” This is a promise of eternal increase, of bearing souls after the earth is no longer around to be replenished. Big, big difference.

And right here, with Reason #3, we have a clear rationale and justification for Joseph being sealed to women with whom he made no attempts to multiply and replenish the earth – i.e. no sex.

Again, looking at how polygamy was actually practiced by Joseph Smith:

Joseph married 11 women who were already married. Multiple husbands = Polyandry.

Sealings, not marriages. No sex. Not polyandry.

These married women continued to live as husband and wife with their first husband after marrying Joseph.

Which is compelling evidence that Joseph wasn’t sleeping with them.

Joseph’s polygamy also included:

Unions with teenagers as young as 14-years-old.

One fourteen year old, to whom he was sealed and not married. No sex.

Unions without the knowledge or consent of first wife Emma.

Also unions with the knowledge and consent of first wife Emma.

Unions without the knowledge or consent of the husband, in cases of polyandry.

Possibly not true. Almost all so called “polyandry” sealings – no sex in any of these – were done with the documented knowledge and consent of husbands. Miranda Hyde is the only possible exception, and the fact she was sealed to Orson, not Joseph, after her death suggests there was no sealing. Also no sex, regardless if it’s true or not.

A union with Apostle Orson Hyde’s wife while he was on a mission (Marinda Hyde).

Again, possibly not true. See above.

A union with a newlywed and pregnant woman (Zina Huntington).

From an interview with Zina Huntington in 1898:

Q. “Then it is a fact, Mrs. [Zina] Young, is it not, that you married Mr. Smith at the same time you were married to Mr. [Henry] Jacobs?”

A. “What right have you to ask such questions? I was sealed to Joseph Smith for eternity.”

Q. “Mrs. Young, you claim, I believe, that you were not married to him for time?”

A. “For eternity. I was married to Mr. Jacobs, but the marriage was unhappy and we parted.”

Married for time and not eternity means sealing, not marriage. Notice Zina corrects the questioner who claims she was married by saying she was sealed to Joseph and married to Mr. Jacobs. Not polyandry, and no sex.

Promises of salvation and exaltation for the girls’ entire families.

Yes.

Threats that Joseph would be slain by an angel with a drawn sword if they did not enter into the union (Zina Huntington, Almera Woodard Johnson, Mary Lightner).

No. Joseph claimed an angel with a drawn sword would slay him if he did not accept the principle of plural marriage in general. He never claimed he would be slain if Zina, Almera, or Mary did not marry him, nor did any of these women say that he did.

Threats of loss of salvation if the woman didn’t agree to the union with Joseph Smith.

No. If you have evidence of such a thing, you ought to provide it.

Dishonesty in public sermons, 1835 D&C 101:4, denials by Joseph Smith denying he was a polygamist,

Richard Bushman in Rough Stone Rolling refers to these as “carefully worded” denials, which is the accurate way to describe them. Joseph’s most vigorous denials were directed at the idea that he was an adulterer, which he insisted – and which he believed – he was not. He also leaned heavily on the idea that his only legal wife was Emma, which was true. I think it likely that a fraud wouldn’t have carefully worded anything and lied with impunity – the John C. Bennett and/or Donald Trump model – and taken no pains to craft evasive answers that were technically true but still misleading.

Understand, however, that I agree with you here to an extent. I don’t think there’s any question that Joseph was not fully honest in these statements. He justified it to himself by the belief that he was protecting himself, his family, and others engaged in plural marriage from physical harm. I like to think he took the “Abraham-said-his-wife-was-his-sister” approach. Even since the beginning, when Adam had to choose between not eating the fruit and having children, human prophets have been forced, like all of us, to make difficult choices between two bad options.

Tomorrow: Still more polygamy!

CES Reply: Polygamy (Part I)
CES Reply: Even More Polygamy

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  1. “I don’t know how anyone could spend more than a week in the mission field and not know this information.”

    I actually made it about 7 months before I got asked about it. Of course I was in Central America, so that may have had something to do with it.