I originally started this post as a look at the new correction on the Church’s website under the "Mistakes in the News" category. It’s one of the few places where we can see official Church reaction to how the Church is portrayed around the world. This month, after over a year without an update, a new correction appeared involving polygamy. After touching on a few subjects, only to erase what I’d written, I thought I’d focus on Joseph Smith as polygamist.
My basic question: How do we reconcile what we know about Joseph Smith as a prophet and Joseph Smith as polygamist? The facts, undisputed by most of Joseph’s biographers and those who study polygamy (regardless of their faith), are that Joseph married roughly 30-35 women besides Emma, that he kept most of these marriages secret from her and lied about them to others, that around 10 of these women were already married to other men, that some of those men had no knowledge of these polyandrous relationships, that some of these wives were under age 18, including a fourteen-year old girl, and that some of the marriages were sexually intimate. What is more disputed by historians is Joseph’s reaction to those few women who rebuffed his proposals. Many argue that Joseph threatened those (such as Sarah Pratt) who declined his offers of marriage with public humiliation or official censure. Others suggest a more sympathetic view of Joseph – I’ll admit, however, that I find them less compelling. The women who turned Joseph down had nothing to gain and everything to lose if they were lying about his advances, while he had every reason to be concerned if someone were to go public with his propositions.
I don’t like it when critics of the Church portray Church history as if it’s a hidden secret that once members uncover, they leave the fold in drones. It’s insulting and it isn’t my intention. Smarter and more educated people than I have dealt with this issue and remain in the Church, their faith intact. But I’ll confess I still struggle with it from time to time. Just when I think it’s not an issue, I start to mull it over again, thinking about the pain caused to people like Emma Smith, Sarah and Orson Pratt, and to Joseph himself.
Let’s assume that polygamy came straight from God to Joseph Smith and leave aside questions about why polygamy was necessary or whether its origins were divine. Even that assumption doesn’t answer questions like, why fourteen-year old Helen Mar Kimball, why women that were already married, and why young women that Joseph knew as little children 8-10 years earlier? And although we can cook up creative answers for why Joseph hid this from Emma, it doesn’t make it any less disturbing to me.
Should this simply not be a troubling issue for people like me? Or even if it is troubling, does faith in Joseph overrule tough information like this? Is it enough to put it on the shelf and say we don’t have enough facts, or are you like me and find that response unsatisfactory?