in Religion

CES Reply: Even More Polygamy

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

Joseph’s destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor that exposed his polygamy and which printing press destruction started the chain of events that led to Joseph’s death.

Yes. I remember listening to Truman Madsen’s hagiographic Joseph Smith tapes on my mission, where he describes this event in almost your exact words. Elder Ben B. Banks, former member of the presidency of the Seventy, told an audience at BYU Idaho that “both friends and enemies of the Prophet now agree that the act, legal or not, was unwise and inflammatory and was the major immediate factor that culminated in the Prophet’s death.”

Elder Banks was my first mission president and a beloved mentor. He performed my wedding in the Salt Lake Temple. A more kind, faithful – and orthodox – Latter-day Saint has never lived. If Ben Banks agrees with you here, I don’t think there’s anyone who would dispute this.

Marriages to young girls living in Joseph’s home as foster daughters (Lawrence sisters, Partridge sisters, Fanny Alger, Lucy Walker).

We’re back to the idea of “foster children” again, despite this not being a thing in America prior to 1853. None of these women would have referred to themselves as such. Fanny was a housekeeper, as were the Lawrence sisters. All of them were of marriageable age. You’re putting a modern label on them that they wouldn’t have recognized.

Joseph’s marriage to Fanny Alger was described by Oliver Cowdery as a “dirty, nasty, filthy affair” – Rough Stone Rolling, p.323

He did. (Actually, he said “scrape” instead of “affair,” but that’s as much a quibble as saying Joseph said “light” instead of “fire” in describing the First Vision.) Although, as Rough Stone Rolling makes clear on the same page, Joseph made no effort to deny the relationship, but only to deny that the relationship was adultery.

Oliver’s life has always fascinated me. He was the first person baptized in this dispensation; he was indispensable in the translation of the Book of Mormon; he was one of the Three Witnesses; he saw John the Baptist and Peter, James, and John; he was side-by-side with Joseph when the Savior Himself appeared at the Kirtland Temple dedication. If all these miraculous experiences were nothing but frauds, Oliver could have profited tremendously by bringing down Joseph Smith’s house of cards. Yet even when his anger at Joseph drove him out of the Church, he never denied any of this, and he came back to the Church late in his life, after Joseph was dead and despite having no position of prominence or authority. Apparently, Oliver was ultimately able to accept that Joseph Smith’s character was not so soiled by plural marriage as to invalidate his prophetic role.

Joseph was practicing polygamy before the sealing authority was given. LDS historian, Richard Bushman, states: “There is evidence that Joseph was a polygamist by 1835” – Rough Stone Rolling, p.323. Plural marriages are rooted in the notion of “sealing” for both time and eternity. The “sealing” power was not restored until April 3, 1836 when Elijah appeared to Joseph in the Kirtland Temple and conferred the sealing keys upon him. So, Joseph’s marriage to Fanny Alger in 1833 was illegal under both the laws of the land and under any theory of divine authority; it was adultery.

The best evidence suggests that Joseph received the revelation now recorded in Section 132 sometime in 1831 when he was engaged in his translation of the Bible. Such a revelation would have given him the authority to perform a plural marriage for time only, but not for eternity until the sealing power was restored. So in the case of Fanny Alger, we have a case of a marriage – including sex – that was not a sealing. There were several other cases where this happened even after the sealing keys were restored. In addition, we don’t have a firm date on when the marriage took place, and some scholars place it after the Kirtland Temple dedication.

D&C 132:63 very clearly states that the only purpose of polygamy is to “multiply and replenish the earth” and “bear the souls of men.”

We’ve just been over this, and you got it wrong then, too. These are two very different things. See previous.

Why did Joseph marry women who were already married?

He didn’t. He was sealed to women who were already married, but not married to them. See previous.

These women were obviously not virgins, which violated D&C 132:61.

No violation. They were pure in the eyes of God. See previous.

Zina Huntington had been married seven and a half months and was about six months pregnant with her first husband’s baby at the time she married Joseph; clearly she didn’t need any more help to “bear the souls of men.”

Say it with me now: sealing, not marriage, no sex. See above.

Also, verse 63 states that if the new wives are with another man after the polygamous marriage, they will be destroyed. Eleven of Joseph’s wives lived with their first husbands after marrying Joseph Smith. Most of them lived on to old age. Why weren’t they “destroyed”?

The answer to your question, in a manner of speaking, can be found by taking a detour into the first verse of the Book of Mormon. Unlike the first verse of the First Book of Napoleon, it starts out something like this:

“I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parents…”

This has been the subject of countless sermons about how goodly it is to have goodly parents. It is virtually canonized in songs our young’uns sing every Sunday.

“We have been born, as Nephi of old, to goodly parents who love the Lord…”

Mormons have all bought the idea that “goodly,” therefore, is synonymous with “good.” But if “goodly” means “good,” then why not use the word “good?” Nephi, the guy who calls his parents “goodly,” says it was a “good thing” that the children of Israel were brought out of bondage. (1 Nephi 17:25) After he built his ship, he tells us that “my brethren beheld that it was good.” According to LDS.org, the word “Good” appears 205 times in the Book of Mormon, and it always means what you think it would mean. The word “goodly,” however, never appears in the Book of Mormon again after that first verse.

Of course, you could argue that Nephi never used the words “good” or “goodly,” because the Book of Mormon is a translated document. But if you did that, you’d be playing right into my evilly hands, because “goodly” would therefore be reflective of the translator’s vocabulary, not the author’s. And what did the word “goodly” mean to Joseph Smith in 19th Century America?

The clue is in the next word after the clause in question.

“I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parents, therefore…”

Aha! The word “therefore” establishes causality. The goodliness of Nephi’s parents led to some result, which is revealed in the subsequent clause.

“I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parents, therefore I was taught somewhat in all the learning of my father;”

Nephi’s parents’ goodliness allowed for Nephi to receive a stellar education. How does one receive a stellar education? One pays through the nose for it using one’s goods. “Goodly,” in the 19th Century, meant “laden with goods,” or “wealthy.” But that screws everything up.

“We have been born, as Nephi of old, to wealthy parents who love the Lord…”

I’m sorry, but it just doesn’t have the same ringly to it.

So, to your point, “destroyed” is a goodly example of this principle. The 1830s Webster Dictionary defines “destroyed” as “to cause to cease; to put an end to.” Marital relationships that are not bound by the sealing power will ultimately be destroyed – i.e. ended. That’s goodly enough for me.

How about the consent of the first wife, which receives so much attention in D&C 132? Emma was unaware of most of Joseph’s plural marriages, at least until after the fact, which violated D&C 132.

Can you provide me a number of marriages of which Emma was aware? No, because you don’t know, and neither do I, and neither does anyone else. We know there are some marriages where she was aware and consenting. And D&C 132, as you noted earlier, makes a provision that the man is not subject to the “law of Sarah,” i.e. the consent of the first wife, if the first wife rejects the principle altogether. This put Joseph in the position of having to choose Emma or the Lord, and I doubt either you or I would have fared better in walking that line if placed in a similar predicament.

I’ve been asked once by an LDS apologist if I would be okay with Joseph Smith’s polygamy and polyandry if I received a witness that God really did command Joseph Smith to participate in these practices. The question is not if I would “be okay with” God commanding Joseph Smith to secretly steal other men’s wives and to marry underage and teenage girls.

You’re right; that isn’t the question, because Joseph Smith didn’t steal other men’s wives or marry underage girls. One more time: sealing, not marriage, no sex.

The question is “Do I believe that God did such a thing?” The answer, based on comparing D&C 132 to what actually happened, along with my personal belief that there is no such thing as an insane polygamist god who demanded such sadistic, immoral, adulterous, despicable, and pedophilic behavior while threatening Joseph’s life with one of his angels with a sword…is an emphatic and absolute “no.”

That’s my answer, too. The difference is that I don’t think God did anything close to what you’re describing. No sadism, no immorality, no adultery, strange but not despicable, and absolutely no pedophilia. Also, in many cases, sealing, not marriage, no sex.

The secrecy of the marriages and the private and public denials by Joseph Smith are not congruent with honest behavior.

You and Immanuel Kant have a lot in common.

Kant was the philosopher who insisted that honesty was a “categorical imperative,” and that it was never appropriate to tell a lie under any circumstances. The famous example to illustrate this comes from the story of “Kant’s Axe,” where Kant posits that if an axe-wielding murderer shows up on your doorstep and asks where your best friend is so he can go kill him, the “categorical imperative” of honestly required you to answer him truthfully, even if it were likely to result in your friend’s grisly death.

From my perspective, an honest answer in that situation would be entirely immoral. Yes, honesty is important. But my friend is more important. In that situation, he represents a higher value – love trumping honesty.

There are plenty of other situations, most far less dramatic, where I feel another value can trump honesty. What did you think of my talk, Bishop? Well, Sister Jones, you had nothing interesting to say, and I had a hard time paying attention to you because I couldn’t take my eyes off of that honker you call a nose. Dad, did you enjoy my piano recital? Why, no, son, I thought it was deathly boring, and you may have been the worst one up there. Honey, does this dress make me look fat? Oh my, yes. You look like a whale in that thing!

In those examples, I believe kindness is far more important than honesty. Values are often competing priorities, and they can’t all be satisfied in every case.

The choices in mortality are seldom choices between good and evil. (Should I go to Church this Sunday or rob a bank instead? Maybe I’ll flip a coin.) They’re usually choices between less good and more good. Joseph firmly believed, and not without good reason, that the lives of many good people were in danger if he were to be fully forthright about polygamy. In hindsight, as you read his “carefully worded” denials, you can see the struggle and his attempt to be as honest as he felt was safe. You may have chosen differently in that case, but surely you wouldn’t tell an axe murderer where your best friend was.

Emma was unaware of most of these marriages.

Objection, your honor. Speculative. Also asked and answered.

She certainly did not consent to most of them as required by D&C 132.

Law of Sarah was waived. See previous.

The Saints did not know what was going on behind the scenes as polygamy did not become common knowledge until 1852 when Brigham Young revealed it in Utah.

Given that roughly 25% of the Church was practicing plural marriage as they crossed the plains, this is almost certainly untrue. The 1852 declaration of plural marriage was an announcement to the world, not a statement to the Church, which was living with the doctrine firsthand.

Joseph Smith did everything he could to keep the practice in the dark.

Actually, there are several incidences where Joseph tried to teach the principle and was disheartened by the Saints’ unwillingness to accept it.

In fact, Joseph’s desire to keep this part of his life a secret is what ultimately contributed to his death when he ordered the destruction of the printing press (Nauvoo Expositor) that dared expose his behavior in June 1844. This event initiated a chain of events that led to Carthage.

Nobody denies this.

Consider the following denial made by Joseph Smith to Latter-day Saints in Nauvoo in May 1844 – a month before his death:

“…What a thing it is for a man to be accused of committing adultery, and having seven wives, when I can only find one. I am the same man, and as innocent as I was fourteen years ago; and I can prove them all perjurers.” – History of the Church, Vol. 6, Chapter 19, p. 411

Again, look at the actual text. As Bushman pointed out above, it’s “carefully worded.” Joseph full statement here is vigorously denying adultery, of which Joseph believed he was not guilty, as he was married to the women with whom he was having sexual relations. The seven wives reference in the thing is the only direct reference to polygamy, and Joseph is leaning on the idea that Emma is his only legal wife, which, too, was true. Misleading? Yes. But not nearly as brazenly dishonest as you’re suggesting.

It is a matter of historical fact that Joseph had secretly taken over 30 plural wives by May 1844 when he made the above denial that he was ever a polygamist.

He’s denying he’s an adulterer, not a polygamist, and many of the wives were sealings, not marriages, no sex.

If you go to Familysearch.org – an LDS-owned genealogy website – you can clearly see that Joseph Smith had many wives.  The Church’s new October 2014 Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo essay acknowledges that Joseph Smith was a polygamist. 

Those facts have been openly acknowledged by the Church for over 150 years.

The facts speak for themselves – from 100% LDS sources – that Joseph Smith was dishonest.

See previous. Joseph tried to walk the line between honesty and keeping himself and his family safe, and, like all human beings trying to satisfy conflicting values, he wasn’t always able to do.

The following 1835 edition of Doctrine & Covenants revelations bans polygamy:

1835 Doctrine & Covenants 101:4: “Inasmuch as this Church of Christ has been reproached with the crime of fornication, and polygamy: we declare that we believe, that one man should have one wife; and one woman, but one husband, except in case of death, when either is at liberty to marry again.”

There’s that careful wording again. Notice the use of the word “but” in reference to women, but not to men. Women are therefore explicitly prohibited from having more than one husband, while men “should have one wife,” without the explicit prohibition of having more than one. Also keep in mind that plural marriage, at least in the minds of the Saints, was not “polygamy” as understood by 19th Century folk – i.e. harems and concubines and seraglios. Even after plural marriage became public, the Utah saints went out of their way to distance themselves from those kinds of practices. This revelation is trying to put some distance between those two versions of polygyny, which, in practice, really were quite different from each other.

1835 Doctrine & Covenants 13:7:

“Thou shalt love thy wife with all thy heart, and shall cleave unto her and none else.”

And? A polygamist would be in full agreement with this. A man cleaving unto a woman who is not his wife is adultery.

1835 Doctrine & Covenants 65:3:

“Wherefore, it is lawful that he should have one wife, and they twain shall be one flesh, and all this that the earth might answer the end of its creation.”

Yes. Notably, this uses the language of Genesis, which somehow did not stop many of the ancient patriarchs from practicing polygamy. It states the lawfulness of having one wife but makes no statement on the lawfulness of having more than one.

Joseph Smith was already a polygamist when these revelations were introduced into the 1835 edition of the Doctrine & Covenants and Joseph publicly taught that the doctrine of the Church was monogamy. Joseph continued secretly marrying multiple women as these revelations/scriptures remained in force.

The doctrine of the Church was monogamy. The Book of Mormon makes it clear that monogamy is the standard, and polygamy is the occasional exception. Joseph’s teaching on this subject was therefore correct, as anyone entering into plural marriage without priesthood authorization to do so would be guilty of adultery.

Tomorrow: Polygamy – The Conclusion!

CES Reply: Polygamy (Part II)
CES Reply: Polygamy - The Conclusion!

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  1. Joseph was the was made the legal Guardian to Maria and Sarah Lawrence after the death of their father because they were minor children. He was also made executor of their fathers estate. This was the circumstance that brought them into the Smith home. The term “foster parent” might be misleading because it implies that the placement was temporary. He was made permanent guardian of the Lawrence children. He married the girls in the spring of 1843 but he was in discussions to transfer guardianship of the children to John Taylor at the time of Joseph’s death in 1844.

    The interesting part about the Lawrence children is that their father was dead their mother was alive and after marry Josiah Butterfield(active LDS) in 1842 they began petitioning the courts for custody of the children. They never did gain custody and the transfer to John Taylor never happened. Joseph was the guardian of the Lawrence children at the time of his death.

  2. Still getting caught up….minor typo here:
    “Misleading? Yes. But *not* nearly as brazenly dishonest as you’re suggesting.”

  3. Watch “The Path” on Hulu it will save you alot of time in having to try and defend the indefensible.

      • My grandpa taught me an important lesson, never argue with a fool, the people walking by on the street won’t be able to tell the difference.

        You guys want me to engage in a serious discussion about whether a dude who started a church ended up having sex with all the women was being moral or not in his actions. Seriously, I know Jim is a grown man, I don’t know you Christopher but I’m going to assume you are an adult. It’s time to wake up. Truth doesn’t take this much mental gymnastics.

        I can promise you, after 40 years in the church, mission, temple marriage, seminary teacher, all the callings, I am much happier after just acknowledging whats going on. Its safe, I promise.

        Watch “The Path”

        P.S. I’m not saying either of you are fools, Im sure you are both pretty smart, just saying the discussion is foolish.

        • I don’t see this as a matter of mental gymnastics. I see it as a matter of faith. If that makes me look foolish, then it wouldn’t be the first time.

  4. The Mormon church still gets hammered over polygamy yet no one bats an eye or screams about Muslims that practice polygamy in this country, and marry children under the age of fourteen. Other cultures also practice polygamy. With all the Muslims being brought in I bet the government will reverse polygamy laws.