[This post has been cross posted from Joseph Smith’s Polygamy.]
On October 22, 2014, LDS.ORG posted three essays dealing with the practice of plural marriage by members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints between the 1830s and 1904. Perhaps the most controversial essay is the one dealing with the earliest period, which discusses Joseph Smith’s practices and teachings as he introduced plurality to fellow Church members.
It appears that some readers’ expectations were not met by this essay. It is true readers did not receive:
A theological examination of plural marriage
An apology for polygamy.
An explanation for why polygamy was not discussed openly in the past.
A defense of polygamy.
A 1500-page or 350-page or 20-page treatise on plural marriage.
A declaration labelling plural marriage as adultery.
A portrayal of Joseph Smith as a hypocrite or libertine.
A statement that D&C 132 was not a true revelation.
A declaration that polygamy was an historical mistake.
A lengthy discussion of Emma’s trials because of the practice.
A list of injustices suffered by Joseph’s plural wives and an exhaustive detailing of their pain and suffering.
What did readers receive?
A concise and accurate history (according to available documents) of the introduction of plural marriage by Joseph Smith.
A brief discussion of all major controversies dealing with this subject.
Permission to discuss these topics in Church meetings without being viewed as an intellectual or apostate.
Another evidence of the transparency the Church is striving to achieve regarding its history.
The omissions in the essay have elicited scathing criticism. However, as authors who have researched this topic exhaustively, we might offer a few observations of our own for those who criticize:
(1) Many critics seemed to have little grasp of the historical record of the period. Therefore, it is not uncommon or surprising that glaring historical errors are promoted in their assessments. To some degree, this undermines the usefulness of the discussions.
(2) Many criticisms seem more focused upon the practice of polygamy than upon the essay itself. It might be said the essay has opened the pressure-release valve for venting about the practice.
(3) Observers who are complimentary to the essay are often labelled as “apologists,” perhaps implying their assessments could not be accurate. This argumentum ad hominem is one of the most overused logical fallacies and undermines the ability to carry on reasonable, articulate discussions.
(4) Joseph Smith’s theological teachings regarding plural marriage are universally ignored.
Several major controversies have been generated in conjunction with the introduction of plural marriage in Nauvoo in the early 1840s. All of these are briefly discussed in the introductory essay, which contains 35 paragraphs and 55 endnotes:
Polyandry (paragraphs 20–23, endnotes 29–30). The essay acknowledges that “Joseph Smith was sealed to a number of women who were already married,” estimating the number of these sealings at 12–14 (endnote 29). Several possible explanations for this curious practice are provided including that the sealings were “for eternity alone” or that the “sealings may have provided a way to create an eternal bond or link between Joseph’s family and other families within the Church.” Another option was that the “women may have believed a sealing to Joseph Smith would give them blessings they might not otherwise receive in the next life.” For those troubled about the possibility that Joseph practiced polyandry, it provides a plausible line of reasoning that he did not. The essay states, “Polyandry, the marriage of one woman to more than one man, typically involves shared financial, residential, and sexual resources, and children are often raised communally. There is no evidence that Joseph Smith’s sealings functioned in this way, and much evidence works against that view” (endnote 30).
Fanny Alger (paragraph 9). The discussion of Fanny Alger is limited to one paragraph, reflecting the thin historical record regarding the union. “Fragmentary evidence suggests that Joseph Smith acted on the angel’s first command by marrying a plural wife, Fanny Alger, in Kirtland, Ohio, in the mid-1830s. Several Latter-day Saints who had lived in Kirtland reported decades later that Joseph Smith had married Alger, who lived and worked in the Smith household, after he had obtained her consent and that of her parents.10 Little is known about this marriage, and nothing is known about the conversations between Joseph and Emma regarding Alger. After the marriage with Alger ended in separation, Joseph seems to have set the subject of plural marriage aside until after the Church moved to Nauvoo, Illinois.”
Sexuality (paragraphs 12, 17–18). Despite controversy surrounding religious discussions of sexuality, the essay recognizes: “Sealings for time and eternity included commitments and relationships during this life, generally including the possibility of sexual relations. Eternity-only sealings indicated relationships in the next life alone. Evidence indicates that Joseph Smith participated in both types of sealings.” “The procreation of children and perpetuation of families,” the essay explains, “would continue into the eternities.”
Children with plural wives (endnote 25). Acknowledging the possibility of children, the essay states: “Despite claims that Joseph Smith fathered children within plural marriage, genetic testing has so far been negative, though it is possible he fathered two or three children with plural wives.” Those not satisfied with phrase “possibility of sexual relations” in the discussion of sexuality in time-and-eternity sealings can be placated by the admission of the possibility of children, which would require sexual relations.
Number of plural wives (paragraph 18, endnote 24). The number of women possibly sealed to Joseph is briefly mentioned: “The exact number of women to whom he was sealed in his lifetime is unknown because the evidence is fragmentary.” However, the estimate of the number of wives was relegated to an endnote: “Careful estimates put the number between 30 and 40.”
Emma Smith’s involvement (paragraphs 25–28). The essay explains that plural marriage was “an excruciating ordeal” for Emma. It also taught: “Joseph and Emma loved and respected each other deeply … Emma approved, at least for a time, of four of Joseph Smith’s plural marriages in Nauvoo. … In the summer of 1843, Joseph Smith dictated the revelation on marriage, a lengthy and complex text containing both glorious promises and stern warnings, some directed at Emma.”
Young wives (paragraph 19). Exposing itself to criticism, the essay euphemistically refers to Helen Mar Kimball’s sealing as occurring “several months before her 15th birthday” rather than at age 14. But it frankly acknowledges: “Marriage at such an age, inappropriate by today’s standards, was legal in that era, and some women married in their mid-teens.”
Denials (paragraph 16, endnote 23). Public denials, reflecting special verbal gymnastics, is conceded: “The rumors [of seductions] prompted members and leaders to issue carefully worded denials that denounced spiritual wifery and polygamy but were silent about what Joseph Smith and others saw as divinely mandated “celestial” plural marriage.22 The statements emphasized that the Church practiced no marital law other than monogamy while implicitly leaving open the possibility that individuals, under direction of God’s living prophet, might do so.” George A. Smith is also quoted: “Any one who will read carefully the denials, as they are termed, of plurality of wives in connection with the circumstances will see clearly that they denounce adultery, fornication, brutal lust and the teaching of plurality of wives by those who were not commanded to do so.”
In lauding the Church’s effort to explain this difficult topic, some may assume that in defending the essay we are in fact defending polygamy. We are not. On earth, polygamy expands a man’s sexual and emotional opportunities as a husband as it simultaneously fragments a woman’s sexual and emotional opportunities as a wife. The practice is difficult to defend as anything but unfair and at times emotionally cruel.
However, within the context of Joseph Smith’s teachings, a few eternal polygamists are needed. This reality is routinely ignored by almost all critics who often declare or imply that libido drove the process. That is, they allege the implementation of plural marriage occurred because Joseph wanted to expand his sexual opportunities. Those authors seem confident that any of the Prophet’s associated teachings were simply a cover up, so there was no need to take them seriously and it seems none of the critics of the essay do either.
Yet, this may be the greatest weakness of most of the critics’ arguments—they are simply incomplete. Joseph Smith taught that couples who are sealed in eternal marriage, not plural marriage, “shall inherit thrones, kingdoms, principalities, and powers, dominions, all heights and depths … and they shall pass by the angels, and the gods, which are set there, to their exaltation and glory in all things, as hath been sealed upon their heads, which glory shall be a fulness and a continuation of the seeds forever and ever. Then shall they be gods” (D&C 132:19–20). A plurality of wives allows all worthy women to be sealed to a husband on earth and become eligible for these blessings in heaven. Any woman who is not sealed will: “remain separately and singly, without exaltation, in their saved condition, to all eternity; and from henceforth are not gods, but are angels of God forever and ever” (v. 17).
It is easy to denounce polygamy on earth, but for believers, the discussions should also include the importance of plurality in eternity. As described in section 132, it allows all of God’s children to receive His promised blessings by making eternal marriage available to everyone who seeks it. As the essay explains: “Joseph Smith’s revelation on marriage declared the “continuation of the seeds forever and ever” helped to fulfill God’s purposes for His children. This promise was given to all couples who were married by priesthood authority and were faithful to their covenants” (paragraph 12).
It appears that readers of the essay may only be able to appreciate its value if they are able to appreciate Joseph Smith’s teachings about eternal marriage. Without that understanding, they will see only an unjust earthly practice that is easily condemned. The fact that the eternal contributions of plurality have not been addressed by virtually any critic suggests that additional study on the topic might result in different critiques of this watershed essay.
One of Joseph’s plural wives, Helen Mar Kimball, remembered: “The Prophet said that the practice of this principle would be the hardest trial the Saints would ever have to test their faith.” Ironically, simply trusting that God commanded them to do so in the past is a test of faith for some Saints today.