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.