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Mormonism and polygamy/19th century attitudes toward plural marriage
19th century attitudes about plural marriage
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- Question: Did Brigham Young and Joseph Smith say that polygamists were allowed to go beyond normal bounds of social interaction?
Joseph’s point is clear—men, like Brigham, who have reached a certain degree of faithfulness may be asked to do even more difficult things
Note: This wiki section was based partly on a review of G.D. Smith's Nauvoo Polygamy. As such, it focuses on that author's presentation of the data. To read the full review, follow the link. Gregory L. Smith, A review of Nauvoo Polygamy:...but we called it celestial marriage by George D. Smith. FARMS Review, Vol. 20, Issue 2. (Detailed book review)
It is claimed that Joseph Smith and Brigham Young admitted that the practice of polygamy meant they were "free to go beyond the normal 'bounds'" and "the normal rules governing social interaction had not applied to" Joseph.
“Sometimes Joseph phrased the matter [of polygamy] in terms of being free to go beyond normal ‘bounds,’” G. D. Smith announces. As evidence, he presents Brigham Young’s account of being taught plural marriage. Brigham worried out loud that he might marry a second wife but then apostatize, leaving his plural family “worse off.” In Brigham’s account, Joseph replied, “‘There are certain bounds set to men, and if a man is faithful and pure to these bounds, God will take him out of the world; if he sees him falter, he will take him to himself. You are past these bounds, Brigham, and you have this consolation.’ But Brigham indicated that he never had any fears of not being saved” (p. 364).
Joseph’s point is clear—men, like Brigham, who have reached a certain degree of faithfulness may be asked to do even more difficult things. They need not fear that they will lose their eternal reward if they falter in these Abrahamic tasks, for God “will take him to himself” before they reap damnation. But G. D. Smith seems to be reading “bounds” in the sense “a limit by which any excursion is restrained; the limit of indulgence or desire.” This is why he conceives of it as being “free to go beyond normal bounds”—that is, beyond normal limits or restrictions. This is clearly not Brigham’s meaning. Bounds should be understood as “the line which comprehends the whole of any given object or space. It differs from boundary.” These bounds are not a limit beyond which one may not go—they encircle and enclose all that one must do. Before polygamy, Brigham had already striven to be faithful to the whole of his duty to God. Having done so, he would not be damned. But he was now being asked to fulfill a task not asked of most. The circumference of his bounds—or duties—was enlarged.
Brigham was thus past the bounds because he had done all that God required and more, not because he would violate moral limits
Unfortunately for G. D. Smith’s reading, polygamy cannot be “the bounds” referred to since Joseph told Brigham that he was already (before practicing polygamy) “past these bounds”—that is, the duties required of all men by God—and thus “you have this consolation.” Brigham was thus past the bounds because he had done all that God required and more, not because he would violate moral limits. He had crossed the finish line; he had not gone “out of bounds” or offside.
G. D. Smith argues that Brigham gave “a telling concession that the normal rules governing social interaction had not applied to [Joseph] Smith as he set about instigating polygamy.” But Brigham is not conceding anything like this. His “bounds” are not limits beyond which one may not go, but duties that one must fulfill before anything else might be asked. The bounds are divine duties, not social rules. G. D. Smith caps his argument by citing Brigham’s belief that Joseph “passed certain bounds . . . before certain revelations were given” (p. 365). Thus G. D. Smith wants to paint Brigham as admitting that polygamy required one to transgress social or moral boundaries.
Brigham was clearly making the same claim about Joseph that Joseph made about Brigham. In Brigham’s view, Joseph had not been challenged by the command to practice plural marriage until he had proved sufficiently faithful to guarantee his salvation. For its first practitioners, the challenge of plural marriage was such that a merciful God would not, in Brigham’s mind, require it of those whose salvation would be at risk in the event of their failure.
Brigham sees the matter as a command that he does not wish to fulfill—he would prefer to be dead—but that God confirms as his will
Immediately preceding the language quoted by G. D. Smith, Brigham tells an apostle that
the spiritual wife doctrine came upon me while abroad, in such a manner that I never forget. . . . Joseph said to me, ‘I command you to go and get another wife.’ I felt as if the grave was better for me than anything, but I was filled with the Holy Ghost, so that my wife and brother Kimball’s wife would upbraid me for lightness in those days. I could jump up and hollow [holler?]. My blood was as clear as West India rum, and my flesh was clear.
In this passage, Brigham sees the matter as a command that he does not wish to fulfill—he would prefer to be dead—but that God confirms as his will. His bounds are duties to fulfill, not limits that he is now free to exceed.
Further evidence: Heber C. Kimball
That this reading is correct, and that G. D. Smith is in error, is confirmed by Heber C. Kimball’s similar doubts and reassurance: “Finally [Heber] was so tried that he went to Joseph and told him how he felt—that he was fearful if he took such a step [to practice plural marriage] he could not stand, but would be overcome. The Prophet, full of sympathy for him, went and inquired of the Lord. His answer was, ‘Tell him to go and do as he has been commanded, and if I see that there is any danger of his apostatizing, I will take him to myself.’”
Kimball’s bounds—the commandments given him—had increased. But having already proved his faithfulness, he would not be damned for failure. Kimball apparently clung to this promise and would soon write to his wife that “my prayer is day by day that God would take me to Himself rather than I should be left to sin against Him, or betray my dear brethren who have been true to me and to God the Eternal Father.”
The Kimball data is absent from Smith’s analysis, but one wonders if it would have helped. To accept it would require a modification of the thesis that polygamy was driven by lust and a violation of barriers, and that Joseph knew it.
- George D. Smith, Nauvoo Polygamy: "...but we called it celestial marriage" (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2008), 364–365. ( Index of claims , (Detailed book review))
- Citing Brigham Young Manuscript History, 16 February 1849, LDS Church Archives. The quoted material is on pp. 19–20.
- Noah Webster, An American Dictionary of the English Language (New York: S. Converse, 1828), s.v. "bound."
- Noah Webster, An American Dictionary of the English Language (New York: S. Converse, 1828), s.v. "bound." (Compare article for "boundary.")
- Church Historian’s Office, History of the Church, 1839–circa 1882, DVD 2, call number CR 100 102, vol. 19 (19 February 1849), 19.
- Whitney, Life of Heber C. Kimball, 325-326.
- Heber C. Kimball to Vilate Kimball, “My Dear Vilate” (23 October 1842), cited in Augusta Joyce Crocheron (author and complier), Representative Women of Deseret, a book of biographical sketches to accompany the picture bearing the same title (Salt Lake City: J. C. Graham & Co., 1884). (accessed 2 December 2008).