Two Irreverent Thoughts about George D. Smith’s New Book

George D. Smith’s massive new book on early Mormon polygamy promises to provide a perhaps unprecedented degree of detail regarding the many people other than Joseph Smith and his wives who engaged in plural marriage before the trek to the west. My reading of the early pages of the volume suggests a few points where the author’s tone is sublime almost beyond belief; let me quickly mention two of these.

On the first page of the book, Smith discusses the marriage of Louisa Beaman and Joseph Smith, framing the event in terms of the following rhetorical questions:

What did this farmer’s daughter think of slipping out of town to this secluded spot for such a purpose? Had romance blossomed between her and the charismatic thirty-five-year-old prophet, or was this a religious calling she felt obliged to accept?

This is a promising vein, in my opinion, but I doubt that Smith has mined it deeply enough. Might I suggest a few additions? Did Louisa Beaman perhaps regard Joseph Smith as a kind of superintelligent ape whose every whim needed to be appeased lest he go on a rampage? Did she believe that “celestial marriage” was a kind of custard, or perhaps a meat-based entree? Did she belong to a nation-wide Whig conspiracy already plotting Smith’s murder three years later? Sadly, history provides no certain answers to any of these important questions.

At a few places early in the volume, Smith has expressed his dismay at the fact that Nauvoo polygamy and Joseph Smith’s role in establishing the doctrine and practice are not widely discussed in official church publications. For instance, on page 5, we read:

Remarkably, Smith’s role in introducing polygamy in Nauvoo has been largely excised from the official telling of LDS history.

I agree that this is a serious problem. After all, how many Latter-day Saints have access to the work of one or more of the following authors: Brodie, Hill, Quinn, Bushman, Daynes, Hardy, Compton, Van Wagoner, Newell and Tippetts? I can certainly understand how locating one of these volumes might pose challenges. Fortunately, George D. Smith’s book, following the highly reputable underwear gnome strategy, will somehow become widely accessible to all those readers who cannot locate one of the other volumes mentioned above.

Comments

  1. Aaron Brown says:

    How is reciting a laundry list of scholarly publications on polygamy responsive to [George D.] Smith’s gripe that [Joseph] Smith’s role in polygamy is absent from the “official” telling of LDS history?

    AB

  2. Also, the question about romance vs. calling seems a fair and honest question, what am I missing?

  3. After all, how many Latter-day Saints have access to the work of one or more of the following authors: Brodie, Hill, Quinn, Bushman, Daynes, Hardy, Compton, Van Wagoner, Newell and Tippetts?

    Which of these constitutes an “official telling of LDS history”?

  4. Julie M. Smith says:

    I’m not following you.

    It seems likely that Louisa would have thought of the event as either (1) romantic or (2) obligatory. Perhaps there are other options, but wouldn’t we think those two are the most likely? If that’s the case, what’s wrong with posing the question?

    Second: It is remarkable that it has been excised from _official_ history, The availability of other sources isn’t his point.

    Am I misunderstanding what you are trying to do with this post? I can’t figure out why you would call these quotes “sublime” or what is wrong with either of them.

    (I would like to hear more about this book, though. Can’t decide whether to get it.)

  5. Add me to the list of readers who don’t follow you…

  6. I’m guessing that JNS is being ironic, folks.

  7. This is one of the more curious posts which I have read this year. It suggests (to me) either very deep and long-held resentment against George Smith, or persecution complex, or maybe just a brain which is lots more smart than my own.
    /s/ Confused

  8. I think the key word in JNS’s post is tone.

  9. Aaron Brown says:

    Stapley, I think everyone gets the ironic tone. They just don’t get what he’s doing with it. Neither of the Smith excerpts seem to be ridiculous in the way that JNS is implying.

    AB

  10. Where may I find this “official” history of which you speak? Surely you don’t mean that the church has “excised” everything that hasn’t been part of an Ensign article or that hasn’t happened to have been used to illustrate a gospel principle in a lesson manual?

    The last “official” history of which I am aware was Roberts’ 1930 set. Since it is still available in its original version, I’m not sure where this “excising” has occurred.

  11. Aaron Brown says:

    Ardis, are you talking to JNS, or George D.?

  12. Whenever I think about Joseph Smith and polygamy I remember Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner’s testimony given at BYU in 1905.

    Joseph Smith told her an angel would visit her so she would know for herself that he was telling the truth about polygamy. Maybe this is the way all or many of the early women of the church acquired a testimony.

    Following is an excerpt from her talk:

    “I asked him if Emma knew about me, and he said, “Emma thinks the world of you.” I was not sealed to him until I had a witness. I had been dreaming for a number of years I was his wife. I thought I was a great sinner. I prayed to God to take it from me for I felt it was a sin; but when Joseph sent for me he told me all of these things. “Well,” said I, “don’t you think it was an angel of the devil that told you these things?” Said he, “No, it was an angel of God. ..Well, I talked with him for a long time and finally I told him I would never be sealed to him until I had a witness. Said he, “You shall have a witness.” Said I, “If God told you that, why does he not tell me?” He asked me if I was going to be a traitor. “I have never told a mortal and shall never tell a mortal I had such a talk from a married man,” said I. “Well,” said he, “pray earnestly for the angel said to me you should have a witness.” …I made it a subject of prayer…I knelt down and if ever a poor mortal prayed, I did. A few nights after that an angel of the Lord came to me and if ever a thrill went through a mortal, it went through me. I gazed upon the clothes and figure but the eyes were like lightning. They pierced me from the crown of my head to the soles of my feet. I was frightened almost to death for a moment. I tried to waken my aunt, but I could not. The angel leaned over me and the light was very great, although it was night. When my aunt woke up she said she had seen a figure in white robes pass from our bed to my mother’s bed and pass out of the window.
    Joseph came up the next Sabbath. He said, “Have you had a witness yet?” “No.” “Well,” said he, “the angel expressly told me you should have.” Said I, “I have not had a witness, but I have seen something I have never seen before. I saw an angel and I was frightened almost to death. I did not speak.” He studied a while and put his elbows on his knees and his face in his hands. He looked up and said, “How could you have been such a coward?” Said I, “I was weak.” “Did you think to say, ‘Father, help me?'” “No.” “Well, if you had just said that, your mouth would have been opened for that was an angel of the living God. He came to you with more knowledge, intelligence, and light than I have ever dared to reveal.” I said, “If that was an angel of light, why did he not speak to me?” “You covered your face and for this reason the angel was insulted.” Said I, “Will it ever come again?” He thought a moment and then said, “No, not the same one, but if you are faithful you shall see greater things than that.” And then he gave me three signs of what would take place in my own family, although my husband was far away from me at the time. Every work came true. I went forward and was sealed to him. Brigham Young performed the sealing, and Heber C. Kimball the blessing. I know he had six wives and I have known some of them from childhood up. I knew he had three children. They told me. I think two are living today but they are not known as his children as they go by other names.”

  13. Aaron, I’m asking you and other commenters who have referred to “official” history — what do you consider official?

  14. Aaron Brown says:

    I assume the commenters, including myself, mean historical literature that is published by the Church and utilized by its curricula for instruction to its membership, or possibly, literature published by the Church that isn’t necessarily actively used in instruction. What it does not include is the literature listed by JNS, regardless of how accessible to inquiring members such literature may be.

    The real question is: how is George D. Smith using the phrase? I suspect he’s using it in the manner I’m describing.

    Of course, if one really wants to argue with George, one could point out that “excise” isn’t a synonymn of “omit”, and that the latter, weaker term would have been more accurate (and less ominous) than the former.

    AB

  15. Curtains will be pulled back, then. I don’t think the substance of either quote is entirely off, but rather the way the material is framed. For the first quote, I agree that these questions of motive and perception are useful and relevant. However, the style used verges on the overheated. “Romance blossomed,” indeed.

    For the second quote, some five or six separate references to the evident “official history” cover-up occur in the first fifteen pages of the book. If the book were a consideration of contemporary Mormon memories of the past, this might be a worthwhile theme. Yet it seems to be instead offered as a (completely redundant) justification for the book. Which is odd given that Smith’s book will no more be a part of official Mormon history than any of the other works whose authors I listed.

  16. P.S., Julie, I’ll be happy to tell you what I think of the book as I get through the bulk of it. I’m not at all predisposed to dislike the book.

  17. In angel training they should warn them that mortals may be frightened at first.

  18. Aaron Brown says:

    OK, so it appears JNS was interpreting Smith’s use of “official” differently than I (and other commenters) did.

    AB

  19. Greg Smith says:

    G.D. Smith lists 6 examples in his footnotes of supposedly LDS histories that don’t mention polygamy as a cause for Joseph Smith.

    Only problem is that every one of them DOES mention polygamy as a cause of Joseph’s death. One, which GD Smith claims doesn’t mention the word “plural marriage,” actually has a chapter called (surprise!) “plural marriage.”

    I have a review on it which should be published soon. This is a bad book in many ways. Some of the distortion is Jerald and Sandra Tanner-worthy.

  20. JNS, I got your post–my wife and I laughed out loud. I wonder whether it would help people reading the post if they asked themselves whether this book would have been groundbreaking in 1985 (probably) and whether anything in the last 20 years has changed that fact (definitely). The custard reference reminded me of Douglas Adams and was delightful.

  21. So unscholarly am I that I laughed aloud at the mockery of said Smith.

  22. I must be slow today, because it took me a little bit before I realized you were being ironic. Until I figured that out, I was really confused….

    I’m with Sam. This work would have been new in 1985; but since this is 2008(almost 9), I have yet to find more than a few new insights in the first half of the book. To say that I am disappointed in how it is written would be an understatement. Good research; horrible scholarship.

    (I’ll have a review up on JI hopefully soon).

  23. Jared* #17 In angel training they should warn them that mortals may be frightened at first.

    lol!

  24. Aaron, George D. Smith a couple of times refers to the Roberts history as an example of “official history.” He also claims that the Encyclopedia of Mormonism entry on plural marriage (which evidently counts)

    …briefly mentions the “rumors” of plural marriage in the 1830s and 1840s, but only obliquely refers to the “teaching [of] new marriage and family arrangements.” (Smith, pg. 5)

    Well, okay. Reading the actual entry, I find about 12 paragraphs dealing with the 1830s and 1840s. Certainly, the entry doesn’t list specific wives, other than possible first plural wife Fanny Alger. I suspect that George D. Smith would have written it differently; I would have, as well. Nonetheless, the content is there. The works cited list also points to at least two sources that provide much more detail about this period: Foster’s Religion and Sexuality volume and Van Wagoner’s useful popular history of Mormon polygamy.

  25. Julie M. Smith says:

    “briefly mentions the “rumors” of plural marriage in the 1830s and 1840s,”

    Oh, dear. I was about to buy Smith’s book, but if he is willing to play that fast and loose with the Encyc. entry, forget it.

  26. FWIW, Signature has some excerpts from the book here:

    http://www.signaturebooks.com/excerpts/polygamy.htm

  27. So I noticed in G.D. Smith’s introduction that he uses the term “gold tablets” to describe the plates. Now, with the church in the news more frequently, I have noticed that several journalists, as they attempt to put basic points of the history of the church in their own words, will also call the golden plates “gold tablets.” Presumably, this is seen as a synonym. I have always thought that this was just a mistake by journalists only vaguely familiar with the history of the church. However, with Smith saying the same thing, it made me wonder: Am I the only one that thinks this is a misnomer for something that was described by contemporaries as thin metal sheets?

    Maybe I’m straining at gnats. Sorry for the tangent.

  28. In angel training they should warn them that mortals may be frightened at first.

    Not to mention not get insulted. Were it me I’d be insulted to get such an incompetent angel.

  29. . However, the style used verges on the overheated. “Romance blossomed,” indeed.

    Guess they don’t consider the D&C part of the official records of the Church either.

  30. Greg Smith says:

    Oh, dear. I was about to buy Smith’s book, but if he is willing to play that fast and loose with the Encyc. entry, forget it.

    Ah, would that this were the only document or fact with which George D. Smith played “fast and loose.”

    The book feels at times as if written by committee. That might be better–then everyone could blame everyone else for its many, many problems. But, it’s GD’s name on the cover, so he’s stuck with it.

  31. I don’t know what is so hard to understand why the polygamy J. Smith was in wasn’t broadcast around, it simple was what it was, the Lord gave a commandment, we know in the old testament that those men had several wives. I am sure the Lord was anxious to populate with children who would have the type of parents that Joseph and the wives he chose would be, faithful people in the church. Although he didn’t want to do so, it is obvious he did, and had several, those wives are sealed to him. This is not so hard to imagine is it. The work was to move as fast as possible, and so having a parentage of J. Smith and being raised in the church or out of it in the case of his children born to Emma, those children were good people and so were the generations that followed for the most part. Some can’t conveive of having more than one spouse, but whatever is comfortable for someone then the Lord can bring his purpose to pass. All this talk now of horrid polygamy families, I am sure it was trying, and the Lord knew how long it would last, one thing for sure, those women, who tried to live right, were able to help their sister wives in their homes and their gardens, and the tending, this is something that was very helpful when this valley was established. If Joseph had told Brigham I can’t do it, and wasn’t setting the example, so many women would have been left behind, as they couldn’t have come here by themselves by the most part. It didn’t last a long time, and people love to speculate, as if his love for his wife had dwindled or that she couldn’t bear it. One thing for sure, she coudln’t bear Brigham Young anymore and if I was her, I would have said, enough is enough and stayed and not come out with the rest of the saints. She was a mortal being.

  32. Donna #31, Your telling of polygamy reminds me of the “folklore” that church leaders and members used to invoke in explaining the priesthood ban.

    That folklore is no longer taught by our church. The folklore of polygamy will also soon go away, and we’ll be left with “We don’t know why it was commanded”.

    Our church leaders are wisely distancing themselves from polygamy and bringing the church into the modern era. They have my full support and faith in this effort.

  33. Your telling of polygamy reminds me of the “folklore” that church leaders and members used to invoke in explaining the priesthood ban.

    That folklore is no longer taught by our church. The folklore of polygamy will also soon go away, and we’ll be left with “We don’t know why it was commanded”.

    …except there are a number of differences between the two, which have to be accounted for. Namely, polygamy has a number of direct ties to revelatory experiences. (See the story mentioned in #12 above, for example). I know of no such complementary experiences or testimonies regarding the black priesthood ban.

    If Randall (or any Church member) wants to maintain that polygamy was a ‘mistake’ and completely contrary to God’s will, then those experiences have to be accounted for. Was Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner lying about the angel visitation? Hallucinating, perhaps? What’s the alternate explanation, then?

    Blindly tying polygamy with the priesthood ban is inherently problematic, as one has a significantly higher body of ‘evidence’ to support it than the other…

  34. John Mansfield says:

    I like G.eorge D. Smith’s use of “farmer’s daughter.” Is “travelling salesman” also found in his book?

  35. JNS, for what it’s worth, I “got” your post and found it amusing.

  36. Hmm, I just bought this for a friend who is into the subject. The early reviews made it sound well researched. (which Ben echoes above)

    Hope it’s not a complete waste.

  37. FHL, from what I’ve read so far, I certainly wouldn’t say it’s a complete waste. A lot of new research is presented in the volume. It’s more a matter of (a) pervasive poor composition decisions, and (b) some questionable interpretations and factual claims. For the properly critical reader, there is clearly a great deal of useful material here.

  38. Kevin Barney says:

    Oh, and the woman didn’t fall for the ROTC naval officer due to a standards night role play the previous week that featured exactly this scenario. Chalk another save up to the YW program.

  39. Kevin Barney says:

    Oops, that was supposed to go on the Police Beat Roundtable thread! My bad.

  40. LOL. Somehow the comment makes just as much sense over here!

  41. “If Joseph had told Brigham I can’t do it, and wasn’t setting the example, so many women would have been left behind, as they couldn’t have come here by themselves by the most part.”

    Actually, the polygamist marriages notwithstanding, most of those women did come here by themselves. Ironically For a great many of the early polygamist wives, polygamy was a solitary experience, and when it finally wasn’t it was mostly a womens club. That goes part and parcel with the concept of God needing a righteous parentage justification for polygamy. Often the children raised in polygamy had an upbringing devoid of any true male influence. They were either raised by their Mother, or by their mothers.

  42. Another pearl of wisdom, scattered heedlessly among the swine:

    “Beyond the issue of having more than one wife, Smith engaged in even more perilous anti-social behavior by indulging in sexual relations with the daughters and wives of close friends, albeit mostly in marital and religious contexts.” Smith 2008, pg. 50.

    Were it not for the guidance of one Al Pacino, I might be left speechless. Hooah.

  43. KMB #33,

    I agree with your assertion that polygamy is tied to revelation to a far greater degree than the priesthood ban. However, these revelations give precious little explanation as to why it was commanded. We have far more “folklore” from the priesthood ban because it was largely adopted from extant other-sect sources.

    The benefit the church has with polygamy is that it’s now been over 100 years since the practice was discontinued. In this time, the LDS population has evolved to the point that few, if any, would desire to practice it in our time. While few would want to admit that it was a mistake, most everyone–especially church leaders–just want it go away.

  44. #42 — better and better.

  45. I heard that George D smells like poo poo! (am I doing this right? Is this what this thread is all about?)

  46. The original post is dripping with such sarcasm that I’m left to think that JNS is hoping to soon write for FARMS.

    Maybe he should have worked in an acrostic stating “Smith is butthead”.

    Daniel Peterson would be proud.

  47. ronito and Kari, yikes! Can I quickly make two points?

    1) I have absolutely nothing against George D. Smith. I’m hugely grateful for his entrepreneurial efforts in developing the independent Mormon literary and scholarly world. I also think that there is a substantial amount of useful material in this book, unfortunate aspects of the text notwithstanding.

    2) Yes, the post is sarcastic. It’s an irreverent blog post. This isn’t a book review; if I were to write one of those, I would certainly discuss a great many positive aspects of the text. What I’m doing here is providing a live, off-the-cuff reaction to a couple of overblown aspects of the early pages in the text. I think this is a genre difference that should be taken into account in thinking about what I’m saying here.

    Nonetheless, it would be novel if Daniel Peterson were proud of me.

  48. JNS–I think it’s not so much irreverent as just mean. Kari’s right–you’re better and smarter than this.

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