Joseph the Polygamist

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?


  1. My dad once said: “Our great forebears in the Church endured many deprivations and suffered many hardships. Frustration due to lack of sexual outlets wasn’t one of them.”

  2. a random John says:

    It is troubling, I am unaware of easy answers, and I find that I struggle with it from time to time without reaching a conclusion but with coming to peace with my own faith. I know that this is not a satisfactory answer.

  3. learning more about joseph smith’s involvement in polygamy was one of the main things that caused me to stop believing in mormonism. it wasn’t merely just that he was a polygamist, but the way in which he did it–behind emma’s back, w/ women who were already married often behind their husbands’ backs, lying to the membership about it, etc. there was just no way i could reconcile that kind of behaviour w/ the statement in d&c 135:3 that “Joseph Smith, the Prophet and Seer of the Lord, has done more, save Jesus only, for the salvation of men in this world, than any other man that ever lived in it.”

    as far as intelligent members who know of JS’s involvement in polygamy and yet still have a strong testimony, i don’t get it. i can understand the todd compton point of view (the church is true, although the whole polygamy thing was not inspired), but cannot understand how anyone can believe that mormon polygamy was divinely inspired.

  4. It’s interesting to me that you’d post on polygamy on Easter sunday…

    “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.”-Thanks for this. It takes the edge off.

    For my own part, I have received enough answers to things that I can put this one on the shelf…

    “its practice necessitated the secret endowment ceremony;” I haven’t seen anyone make this assertion before. Polygamy was sometimes used as a litmus test for receiving the endowment, but polygamy did not require it, nor was the endowment somehow an outgrowth of it.

    “But the bigger issue is the Church’s inability to put these questions behind it by being open, honest, and circumspect about its origins.”

    I disagree with this as well, but it’s not worth arguing over.

  5. I was married to a liar once. I was a liar once. It has colored my entire perception of Joseph Smith’s polygamy.

    Liars will lie about anything. They lie to get what they want. They lie to hide things from others. They lie for no reason at all – just out of habit.

    My personal experience is that lies hurt people, innocent people who have done nothing to deserve it. As a result, I am not able to look upon liars as trustworthy in any regard. “I know you’re lying; your lips are moving.”

    Once someone has proven to be a liar, I no longer have any reason to believe anything they have said. That’s now how I look at Joseph Smith. Seen in that light, everything about him makes perfect sense.

  6. When I was young, a family in the ward ‘adopted’ a young, 20-ish jewish man who had been a rabbinical student until recently before they met him. He caused a minor stir within the stake because each Sunday School lesson or talk he was part of, he would point out at least four or five principles that ‘mirrored’ Jewish theology, or explained Jewish practice, etc. . . He was absolutely the darling of at least a couple of entire wards. He was certainly a ‘dehydrated Mormon’ (just add water. . .)

    I remember sensing several members feeling that their testimonies were validated by principles he explained, and more than a couple of times I heard that some testimonies were strenghtened.

    After about six to eight weeks of investigating, he disappeared, both physically, and from the ward ‘dialogue’. When I finally got an explanation, it turns out that the young man in question was essentially a grifter who made his ‘living’ by sponging off of his ‘fellowshiping’ family. Once he was figured out, he would disappear and find a new family in another stake and repeat the process.

    I remember a lot of the points-of-agreement, or concordance that he made (as reported by my parents) made a lot of sense, and actually agreed with a rational reading of the scriptures. What he said was never actually wrong, and made one think about the gospel in a new way. But once he was exposed, none of his comments was ever mentioned again.

    My point with this is that once this guys character was rightly impugned, his ‘doctrine’ was absolutely rejected. And I don’t think that this was an unjustified course. But it brings me to Joseph.

    Our mythologizing notwithstanding, Joseph was literally ‘with no apparent beauty’; an itinerant, fortune-seeking, uneducated, intemperant, and then, dictatorial, self-aggrandizing, and ultimately (by the legal definitions of the day. . . which haven’t changed much) bigamous rapist, adulterer, and insurrectionist.

    So, were we (as a ward) faithless, apostate, or worldly in rejecting the young man? I don’t really think so; but if not, then where does that leave the rest of the world with regard to Joseph?

  7. These are not easy issues. They were not easy issues in Joseph’s day, and time has not mollified them. I think that the stories of those who struggled are the most inspiring. The Pratt’s were heroes of the restoration. They left, but for some reason they came back. I imagine that when they weighed their experiences with the divine and brought the issue before the Lord things started to rectify.

    We are justified in our struggle; many have struggled before us. The question is what we do when we struggle. Do we stew over it (that would be a resounding yes for me)? do we read and study the history? Do we take it to God? I think the Pratt’s took it to God, and when they did, they were able to work through it. Helen Kimball had to work through it with God (years after she entered the relationship).

    I am sometimes too quick to figure things out by my self. I still haven’t figured this issue out. But looking back at some of these heroes, I have a hope that I will.

  8. Aaron Brown says:

    John H,

    You have no idea how much it pained me to read your post. The reason? I was about to return to formal blogging here at BCC (after my inexplicable absence) with a post entitled “Polygamy and My Discontents,” in which I was going to raise all the same issues you’ve raised. But now that you beat me to the punch, I guess I wasted a bunch of my time. Boo-hoo. I guess the moral of the story is that it doesn’t pay to put off blogging when you’ve got something to say. (You said it all better than I would have anyway, so maybe it’s just as well…)

    Anyway, it’s interesting to me that your post has prompted comments largely from those disaffected by the very issues you raise. (Perhaps the fact that it’s Easter has something to do with it). In any event, here’s my 2 cents:

    My reaction is similar to yours. I have never been bothered much my polygamy itself (though the more I think about it, I’m not sure why), but many of the “details” surrounding Joseph’s practice are indeed hard to deal with. I don’t think I have any good answers. I actually think the fact that he married underage girls is the LEAST bothersome aspect of his practice, given my understanding that marrying teenagers was not as taboo back in the day as it is now (please correct me if I’m wrong here), but Joseph’s duplicity is much harder for me to rationalize away. (I have more to say here, but no time to say it at the moment…)

    Another quick point: Within the past 6 weeks, the issue of Joseph’s polygamy has come up for me in two interesting contexts: First, a member of my former ward, who is very, very faithful and a convert of 9 years, approached me at Church and with a troubled tone, asked me how I deal with some of the more unsavory aspects of Nauvoo polygamy, and how those may or may not affect Joseph’s prophetic credibility in my mind (i.e. he was really wondering how they should affect the prophet’s credibility in his own mind). Keep in mind that this guy is very strong in the Church, but he had run across some websites on the internet which had reminded him of his dealing with these very issues back when he originally investigated the Church. I told him that he and I should speak in depth about this at some later date, but then he went out of town for a month and I moved away, so we never had the follow-up conversation. I’m not sure exactly what our conversation would have been like had we had it. I guess now I’ll never know.

    Second, my wife’s aunt was supposed to call me last Sunday to discuss a number of thorny historical Mormon “issues,” as she’s been having a really hard time with some of them of late. I am still awaiting her phonecall, and I have no doubt that Joseph’s polygamy will figure prominently in the conversation.

    I guess my point is this: Although I don’t have any really good answers, I think we really need some. These issues are troubling for many Church members, not just former managing editors of Sunstone (or those who’ve completely left the Church). I look forward to any good advice from commenters as to how to deal with the issues John raises.

    Aaron B

  9. Julie in Austin says:

    Mosiah 4: 9 reads, “Believe in God; believe that he is, and that he created all things, both in heaven and in earth; believe that he has all wisdom, and all power, both in heaven and in earth; believe that man doth not comprehend all the things which the Lord can comprehend.”

    That last line suggests to me that we have been asked to believe that we will not understand some things in this mortal life. The scriptures never promise mortals that they will be able do understand everything; rather, they suggest the opposite. Sometimes I have to remind myself that I need to stop running around acting like I’ve been robbed every time I can’t understand something. (That’s the sense I get from some of the people who have posted above: they somehow thought they should be able to understand everything and feel robbed when they can’t.)

    We aren’t asked to put blood on our doorposts (seems illogical). We aren’t commanded to establish Zion in one city and then end up getting mobbed out of town a few years later (seems illogical). But if we are never asked to believe something that is illogical, then where is the test of our faith? By definition, a test of faith or obedience required that one be asked to do something that seem illogical. If you could rationally justify the behavior, it wouldn’t be much of a test of faith, now would it?

    From her biography:

    “Camilla [Kimball] had a philosophy about religious problems that helped her children. She said that when things troubled her, she put them on the shelf; later when she looked at them again, some were answered, some seemed no longer important, and some needed to go back on the shelf for another time.”

    I have no rational answers for any of the issues that John Hatch raises. For me, these issues are on the shelf. And believing Joseph to be a prophet (which I do) in the face of the above becomes a test of faith.

  10. Julie, I have always been very appreciative of your comments, and your perspective. I like you previous post. I’m saying this so that I hope I can come across as sincere and not combative, because I would hate for you to think that I am anything but appreciative of you and your ideas.

    In priesthood today, we got to speaking of the changes across the middle east, Kyrgyzstan, and what that would likely mean for the preaching of the Gospel to all the world. There were several very hopeful observations made that portended the eventual spread of the Gospel across the whole face of the earth soon.

    I was troubled, though. Time ran out before I got the chance to ask how the group would react to and the Church might deal with an episode where, for example, a small branch of returned Iraqi ex-pat mormons was machine gunned to death during a service in a member’s home or a local assembly hall by a group of conservative Shi’i from a local mosque?

    Along those lines, your comment is comforting in our McMansions in the suburbs, to think about while the workday passes, but how useful is it when there are real consequences at stake?

  11. Julie in Austin says:


    I’m not entirely sure I understand your point, so please correct me if I am wrong. Are you saying that it’s all well and fine to say “This is a test of my faith” when you are in your living room thinking about polygamy but somehow not OK to say “This is a test of my faith” if you are killed for your faith?

    Because I agree with you that American Saints can be very naive about the consequences of people in Muslim countries accepting the Gospel. But, at the same time, if future Iraqi Saints are forced to lay down their lives for the Gospel, well, let’s just say, it won’t be the first time that God has required someone to do that.

  12. Julie, great scripture, and great ideas. Tough issues, and I wish I had some answers.

  13. To what Julie said, amen.

    Do we really expect that answers to some of these “troubling issue[s]” will suddenly materialize, to everyone’s satisfaction? I am not saying we shouldn’t look for answers, but if tying up all the loose ends–absent all the facts–is our goal, we are destined to be perennially troubled.

    Perhaps a more interesting question is how high can our stack of issues rise before the object of the doubts–at least to questioner–tumbles, Jenga-like?

  14. I’m just a troglodyte, but Joseph’s polygamy (qua polygamy) has never bothered me much. I suppose the thing that I struggle with most is just the sheer quantity of pretty sensible grounds for throwing Mormonism out the window lock, stock, and barrel. But it doesn’t stop there. Christianity (even the parts that Mormonism doesn’t object to; e.g., the New Testament) is so entrenched in the politics and fiction of the 1st four centuries AD, that a dispassionate observer could reasonably conclude that Jesus himself never existed. And then there’s the basic problem with belief in God in general, which I’m still not convinced is quite rational. This can lead one to conclude that there’s no way to meaningfully believe in God. I generally find apologetic treatments to be distasteful; it embarrasses me to see so many otherwise intelligent people desperately grasping at straws.

    In the end, it is not any one piece of evidence. It’s the weight of it all. It’s like the strong circumstantial case against Scott Peterson. There is no “smoking gun,” but the totality of the evidence suffices to squash any reasonable doubt nevertheless.

    I really don’t like it this way, and it often makes me pretty uncomfortable. I’m dispositionally sympathetic to logical positivism, and things work best for me when they’re packaged up in tidy, rational packages. But I believe, and there really isn’t any reason why. I just do—it’s an epistemic primitive. I keep working on trying to build a stronger foundation, and at times I actually make progress.

    But the polygamy issue? That’s just a drop in the ocean.

  15. Daniel the Burnt Sienna says:

    Something I’ve thought for a long time is, I wonder how conclusive our sources are for Church history. Meaning, if we had access to all the sources from which these allegations about Joseph are derived, and we had the ability to go back in time and observe firsthand the people and events we’re discussing, how many of these allegations would leave us amazed at how wide of the mark they are? My personal hunch is that in the next life, Church history will be revealed much more clearly, and many of the romantic stories of heroism, as well as many of the sordid tales of treachery and debauchery, will be shown to have been misunderstandings or outright falsehoods. I’m always amazed at how uncritically people accept some really awful things that are said about Joseph Smith, but I really haven’t studied his life enough to counter those ideas in any convincing way.

    I don’t study Church history because I don’t trust it. My loyalty to the Church is based on experiences I can’t deny, that have proven to me a few basic things:

    1) There is a God who answers prayers.
    2) The Atonement of Jesus Christ is absolutely real.
    3) God desires that people join and remain active in the Church.

    In addition, my study of the Church has convinced me that the Book of Mormon is the divinely-inspired document the Church claims it to be.

    The first three propositions are absolutely verifiable; the fourth is much less so, based on a combination of evidence, witnesses, and my feelings.

    I have decided to base my allegiance to the Church upon things I can actually verify, instead of things people wrote about Joseph Smith and Brigham Young a long time ago that may or may not be true, and in any case I cannot approach with an acceptable degree of context.

    In any case, do we have access to a reliable account of Joseph’s revelation on plural marriage, and if so, what does it say about how he was to implement it, and with whom? And what was the point of plural marriage? Was it simply “raising up seed,” as the Book of Mormon suggests? Exactly how much guidance was Joseph given on the matter?

    Again, I haven’t studied the issue because I don’t feel there is much of Church History, beyond the current basic tenets of the faith, that I can actually verify. But, to answer Ann and XON’s postings, my feeling is that to render a sweeping, categorical judgment that Joseph Smith was either an angel above reproach or a devil based on such limited information, really reflects much more on your capacity for sound judgment and critical thinking than it does on Joseph’s.

    Shortly before last November’s presidential election, a co-worker of mine came to work and told everybody there that they needed to go and see Fahrenheit 9/11 as soon as possible in order to make an informed decision about whether president Bush was a decent man or not. He said that according to this film, Bush is a murderer and it’s very well documented for everyone to see, plain as day.

    I told him to go online and do some research, because the vast majority of the accusations made in that film had already been dissected and refuted, and many of the people Moore has interviewed in his propaganda films over the years have come forward to complain of how he has misrepresented their views of things.

    Unfortunately, Joseph Smith doesn’t have the benefit of this kind of fact-checking; no one can go back and cross-examine his accusers, at least not in this life.

    So in this life, I make decisions based only upon things I can verify, and I’ll put everything else on the shelf to be resolved in due time.

  16. Julie,

    You do grasp the essence of my question, but the point of it is that it’s not only required that we make those severe choices in the suburbs of Baghdad. The same real issues apply in Austin, Fairfax County, Sandy, and Baghdad, Lahore, and Beijing: Do we believe this man’s story, and the implications that carries with it, or not, for an entire spectrum of reasons. . . and how do we make those decisions?

    (But I do like Arturo’s comments. . .)

  17. Can anyone recommend a believing history of Joseph Smith that deals with his polygamy?

  18. Daniel the Burnt Sienna says:

    Responding to Steve’s question, I’m pretty sure Richard Bushman will be publishing something along those lines fairly soon.

  19. I think the hardest part for me is that we’re not encouraged to discuss these issues openly. I was thoroughly confused (and disappointed) with the Brigham Young lesson manual, which left out important information about his family life. And then, on national television, Pres. Hinckley states that polygamy is “not doctrinal”.

    However, polygamy has little to do with my life at the present moment. In order to be happy AND be a Mormon, I have to focus on the practical applications of Church doctrine, and tackle the more obscure issues when or if they arise.

    That said, I truly understand how these issues (and the anti-intellectual atmosphere that shuns the questioners), can drive people away from the Church after a tortured process of trying to reconcile reason with the ghoulish events in Church history. Joseph Smith lying to his wife, Church members, and the outside world about young girls he “married” and had sex with is one of those events.

  20. a random John says:


    About a year ago we had the missionaries over for dinner. Afterwards they asked if we would watch “Finding Faith in Christ” with them. After it was over they asked me what I thought. I told them that while I could see how the movie could be viewed as touching, I found it a bit insulting. They were shocked and asked why. I said it was because I felt that the character that was asking questions was portrayed so negatively for asking reasonable questions that were never answered. The most frustrating thing was that I think there are reasonable answers for the questions being asked but no attempt was made to give them. It seemed that the very act of asking questions was not acceptable. I told the missionaries that I wouldn’t feel comfortable sharing this video with some of my friends because I know they have questions and it might be offensive.

    So how have we created a culture in which such a movie gets made and most members don’t even see this aspect of it? The Sunday School lesson manuals of the past have told teachers to avoid the issues surrounding OD 1 and OD 2 and just talk about the importance of a living prophet. How sad is it that we are told not to dicuss the substance of these revelations? Especially when they were the basis for changes that nearly all members are happy for. I think that there needs to be a forum for people to ask questions. I also think that if some (or even most) members don’t want to participate in such a forum that is ok. Maybe Sunstone and Dialogue and now blogs provide that, but I do wish there was something more. I think that many people have reasonable, answerable questions that could be resolved with some discussion if there were only a church endorsed place to have such discussions. Of course there are also issues such as the details of polygamy that are being discussed now that at their root do not have easy answers. I have no idea how the Church can have a productive open discussion of these issues with the general membership.

  21. Random John-

    I’ve never seen the movie you mentioned, but I can fully understand the situation you describe with the missionaries – and their shock that you (or anyone) would question. I was a fairly obnoxious but reasonably intelligent child, always asking questions about this and that (my favorite was why the YM got to go on a fun “Scouting” trip to Lake Powell while the YW were stuck learning how to make bread – but that’s a story for another day). My motives for asking these questions were not always pure, but I’ll never forget the derision and disgust I felt from Church members responding to my basic questioning. Because of this very negative reaction from Church members, I felt that there was something wrong with me because I had trouble believing what they told me was true. So, pretty soon I stopped asking questions, and learned to find spiritual fulfillment outside the Church.

    So many members of the Church are like this – they have asked questions and been shot down so often that they disengage and just don’t care anymore (or are afraid to call attention to themselves because of the intellectual purges that happen every so often). Finding these blogs in the last few weeks has been such a spiritual boost for me – there ARE people out there wondering about the same issues that trouble me. And I don’t have to believe that there is something wrong with me because I just can’t understand how and why certain things in Church history happened.

    Anyway, your post and other posts out there are so important. We may not ever find the answers to why Joseph Smith told 14 year old Helen Mar Kimball that she should marry him, and keep it secret from his lawful wife Emma, but it is so refreshing to read that thoughtful, faithful people are not comfortable with this and many other difficult issues – and that we’re all struggling to find our own peace as members of the Church.

  22. “Can anyone recommend a believing history of Joseph Smith that deals with his polygamy?”

    Steve, it depends on your definition of “believing.” Todd Compton is a believer in the Church, and In Sacred Loneliness won the Mormon History Associations best book award. However, Todd does not believe polygamy was inspired, but rather suggests that Joseph was trying to institute ancient principles.

    Bushman’s book will indeed address the topic. When he spoke at Benchmark Books a year or two ago, he said that one of his chapters opens by saying Joseph Smith married ten women who were married to other men, and that he sees no way around that fact.

    I’d also recommend Newell and Avery’s biography of Emma for her perspective, and Gary Bergera’s book Conflict in the Quorum for the heartbreaking Sarah Pratt story (which Richard Van Wagoner covers in his Dialogue article, reprinted in Mormon Mavericks

  23. “Something I’ve thought for a long time is, I wonder how conclusive our sources are for Church history. . . . I’m always amazed at how uncritically people accept some really awful things that are said about Joseph Smith, but I really haven’t studied his life enough to counter those ideas in any convincing way.”

    Daniel, I’ll admit I’m really torn by your comments. OTOH, you’re most likely correct. Reconstructing the past is not easy to do. I’m sure we could sit down with Joseph Smith and others and have a chat, and he’d laugh and tell us how many things we got wrong.

    But on the other hand, it is a bit of a cop out. It seems one-sided to reject most anything that makes us uncomfortable (like when people say the recorder probably misunderstood Brigham Young when he preached Adam-God) while readily accepting that which supports our faith. In other words, what if you’re right, but in a different way. What if we go back and view the events and learn that Joseph Smith was a charismatic man who was also a sex addict, who used his position of power to manipulate women and get relationships with them, including 14, 15, and 16 year old women?

    For the record, I think polygamy is more complex than the “Joseph was a perv” argument, but if we’re going to question history as inaccurate, then we have to leave it on the table as a possibility.

    I can respect what you and others have said. Some experiences with Mormonism are so powerful, so affirming, and so life-changing as to negate just about any bad information we come across. It doesn’t mean we just blow it off or pretend it didn’t happen, but some won’t struggle over these issues the same way others will.

  24. Michael R. says:

    This is my first response to a post at BCC, though I’ve lurked here for quite a while. Finally, you’ve lured me into the open.

    This is one of those issues that leave me feeling dissatisfied no matter how the discussion goes. The church seems to work hard to distance itself from polygamy at every opportunity, whether it is Pres. Hinckley saying that it isn’t doctrinal, or the Relief Society / Priesthood manuals that fail to mention it even in the context of a past president’s teachings on the family. I hate to say it, but it is as though the church leaders themselves believe that there was something dishonorable going on. And if a previous prophet could be involved in something dishonorable, well, the implications aren’t so good for church presidents that followed. I’d much rather see a direct and honest attempt to address the history of polygamy. It might make the church look more human, but it would also be more believable. At least it would for me.

  25. Incidentally, Fawn Brodie (who was only a single generation removed from polygamy in her own family (through her mother’s family-the McKay’s never practiced it) was scandalized as a teen when she found out from an RLDS member in Nauvoo that he was married to at least 27 women. Although for a time, many leaders in the church argued that Joseph practiced polygamy (apparently in order to counter the very early RLDS claims that he did not), it has generally been the practice for the church to pass over that aspect of Joseph’s life in silence. In other words, this isn’t something that we can simply blame on correlation.

  26. Great comments, Michael. There is a very strange thing that’s been going on the Church where we’re living somewhere between embarrassment of polygamy and belief that it was inspired. Almost no one wants to see it come back, save for the one or two weirdos who remind us we’ll be practicing it in the Celestial Kingdom.

    We definitely don’t like to talk about it – in fact, one of my original comments that I deleted is that in the Church’s correction I link to above, they say that, “Polygamist groups in Utah, Arizona or Texas have nothing whatsoever to do with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” That’s a huge reach at best, or pretty disingenuous at worst. To say that people who believe Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and John Taylor were prophets, and that the Book of Mormon is true have nothing to do with us just doesn’t cut it.

    Yet no one wants to admit it wasn’t inspired since that could have some mighty unsavory implications for our earliest leaders. So we say it was inspired but rarely talk about it and when we do, act as if it barely existed at all (even President Hinckley quoted the bogus statistic that only 3% of Church members practiced it). Imagine if we did the same thing about temple ceremony or other inspired Mormon teachings and beliefs. In fact, Brigham Young’s teachings that Jesus was a polygamist and that you have to be a polygamist to inherit the celestial kingdom suggest this wasn’t just a blip on the radar screen.

  27. “To say that people who believe Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and John Taylor were prophets, and that the Book of Mormon is true have nothing to do with us just doesn’t cut it.”

    John, I disagree with you on this point. Yes, the fundamentalists and polygamists share several common points of belief, but culturally and as a matter of everyday practice we have nothing whatsoever to do with them. It’s an accurate statement in every way that matters, even if they are a branch off the trunk of our tree.

    That’s a quibble, though, in comparison to your overall point, with which I agree: we don’t know what to do with our polygamous past…. any more than we know what to do with the mormon sisters of our past (see here.

  28. I want to second the sentiment of Michael and a random John about the value of discussion on the matters from the church itself. I have felt exactly as Michael that some sort of acknowledgement would at least make it appear as if the church weren’t trying to hide anything.

    At the same time I don’t know that there a solution to the problem. We all lament the fact that Sunday School and Priesthood/RS lessons fail to address controversial material. But honestly, how could they? Considering the millions of new members all over the world, in addition to the millions of members with weak testimonies in the first place, any such attempts would create much more confusion and chaos than it would peace and understanding.

    I also think, however, that if the church is going to continue to grow in the accelerated rate that it’s supposed to, that certain issues are going to have to be addressed eventually. For the mean time, as Julie points out, it seems it’s going to have to remain a test of faith.

  29. Incidentally, here’s the root connection between polygamy and the temple ceremony (and Freemasonry, for that matter) in a nutshell: By 1841 in Nauvoo, Joseph was basically running two churches. One consisted of his inner circle (basically those who were “in the know” about polygamy, and this did not even include all of the apostles), and the other church included all other latter day saints. Within this context, Joseph needed cover for the inner-circle church and a way to swear them to secrecy. At this time, Illinois Masonic Master Abraham Jonas was looking to the Mormons as a potential political power that could he could use to further his political ambitions. Abraham Jonas approached Joseph, and Joseph jumped at the opportunity to use Freemasonry as cover for his inner circle church and its practice of polygamy. The Masonic Lodge building in Nauvoo gave him a place to hold secret meetings. And he reworked the Masonic ritual to create the temple ceremony and thereby ensure that participants in his inner circle were sworn to secrecy. (This is my theory, by the way.)

  30. Daniel the Burnt Sienna says:

    I would take issue with the notion that we don’t practice polygamy today. I personally know men who are sealed to more than one woman, so we do practice it nowadays if only in a technical/spiritual sense. Strangely, women are not allowed to be sealed to more than one man, even in the exact same circumstances (death, divorce) that, when reversed, result in men being sealed to multiple women.
    This is problematic for me, so I share the feelings of perplexity that many of you have on this board.
    What I won’t do is pass judgment on Joseph Smith in the absence of a really clear picture of what was going on at the time. I don’t consider it a copout to not dwell on these things; it’s just that I don’t feel like I can arrive at any useful conclusions on the matter one way or the other.
    If I arrive at one of the following conclusions:

    1) Joseph Smith had a problem with sexual addiction,

    2) Joseph Smith’s sexual behavior was somehow divinely sanctioned,

    3) Joseph Smith had no sexual deviance, and evidence to the contrary is based on misunderstandings, lies, or efforts at character assassination, or

    4) Some combination of the above,

    How would any of those conclusions affect what I myself have seen and experienced? Do I trust my own knowledge and firsthand evidences over the record-keeping of frontier Americans 200 years ago?

    Consider this exercise. How many religious beliefs that you have, can you say with some certainty are grounded firmly in fact, in sound doctrine, in logic, and are not speculative or wishful thinking? If I were to estimate that for myself and most people I hang out with at Church our thinking is 80% sound and 20% speculation/daydreaming, it is very likely that our 80% are some very basic principles we believe in common, such as the existence of God, prayer, prophets, etc., since those ideas are sound, intutitive, often verifiable, etc.
    On the other hand, the other 20% of ideas we have, may or may not be grounded in reality, such as the girl in my old ward who testified that the Spirit lets her know when to slow down while driving so she can avoid getting speeding tickets. Those 20% of weird and speculative ideas are going to be different for everyone, so if you have 10 people whose thinking is within that 80/20 ratio, the “20%” ideas multiply by 10 while the 80% remains constant. This would result in a 2/5 ratio of sound ideas to speculative ideas among those people.
    Apply that concept to frontier Americans, whose ratio of sound to speculative ideas was probably a lot more lopsided in the opposite direction, and you can see how so much of Church history looks so bizarre. You can also see the need for correlation to sift through things over time and make sense of all this raw data, since so much of what LDS people have done and thought over the years simply is not useful for making us better people.
    Again, I think the most intelligent and efficient approach to Gospel study is to focus on things I can verify. I also have an inquisitive mind, but I think the ability to inquire is useless and sometimes even silly without an accompanying sense of proportion and ability to prioritize different kinds of evidence.

  31. Wonderful comments, all. I remember bringing the subject up with Eugene England after a class my freshman year at the Y as he always seemed to have a novel way to view some of the more controversial aspects of church history. He thought that it was possible, given that there was a real risk to the early church from over assimilation of new converts prior religious beliefs, that polygamy was a practice guaranteed to isolate the developing church from outside ecumenical noise and thus assure some theological space for the church to grow and mature in. Polygamy, as one of the “twin barbarisms,” would sure seem to be an effective way to make sure that nobody simply confused your religion with a simple variation of Methodism, etc.

  32. jayneedoe says:

    Daniel wrote: “Strangely, women are not allowed to be sealed to more than one man, even in the exact same circumstances (death, divorce) that, when reversed, result in men being sealed to multiple women.”

    It’s my understanding that a woman who had two or more husbands during her lifetime can be sealed to them all by proxy once she is deceased. She would then be given the choice of which one to spend eternity with.


  33. I don’t buy it Arturo.

    Joseph Smith’s prime motivation for creating the temple ceremony was to hide polygamy?

    That’s quite a stretch.

    There’s too much continuity in JS thought that culminates in the Nauvoo ordinances to have been an ad hoc solution to hiding polygamy.

  34. Ben S.,I don’t see the Nauvoo ordinances as indicative of any kind of continuity at all. Prior to creating them, Joseph had emphasized that the ordinances he had introduced thus far were sufficient for complete salvation. The way we understand this now is that we qualify it by saying what he really meant was “the ordinances had thus far were sufficient for complete salvation as far as we now know.” But there are several ordinances that Joseph introduced that we don’t practice at all (e.g., the Kirtland “Endowment”). The RLDS, on the other hand, take Joseph at his word, and they practice the Kirtland “Endowment” (or something darned close to it) in their nautilus temple.

    I also don’t see the continuity that you mention in Joseph’s beliefs. It seems to me more like they were all all over the map (this is born out by the sheer number of splinter groups that claim to follow Joseph’s “original” teachings). Moreover, I don’t see any (for example) continuity between the 180 degree turnaround from the anti-Masonic stance of the early 1830s to the pro-Masonic stance of the early 1840s.

  35. Most people in the outside world who have heard of the Church have heard of polygamy. When I’m asked questions about polygamy (especially by friends, or by people who have more information about the Church), I’m not exactly sure how to respond. What is the Church’s actual position on polygamy?

    If you parse the Official Declarations, it seems that the only reason stopping us from practing polygamy is that polygamy is currently illegal.

    But, with the advance of same-sex marriage rights, perhaps the marriage laws will change to accommodate polygamous arrangements. What would happen if polygamy became legal?

  36. Daniel tBS: And what was the point of plural marriage? Was it simply “raising up seed,” as the Book of Mormon suggests?

    I wonder if it was God’s way of making sure that the Saints would be utterly expelled from the United States for a time, so that they would be left completely to their own devices so far as survival went. Would the LDS Church be the same thing as it is today if the Saints had never been forced to go to Utah?

    Of course, that says nothing about the doctrinality of plural marriage. But according to Section 132, Joseph was headed for eternal damnation if he rejected the doctrine of plural marriage. Can we reject section 132 of the D&C without being subject to the same fate? If section 132 is just a big lie, concocted to justify Joseph’s tendencies to adultery, then such a rejection would have to be a good thing, wouldn’t it? But if it’s not a lie…

  37. How many religious beliefs that you have, can you say with some certainty are grounded firmly in fact, in sound doctrine, in logic, and are not speculative or wishful thinking?

    Wouldn’t most athiests claim that one of the central doctrines of Christianity, that of the resurrection of Christ, is nothing more than wishful thinking?

    One person’s sound doctrine is another person’s wishful thinking.

  38. Leave the fold in drones? In unmanned planes, guided by remote control? Heh. I like it.

  39. You make a very good point, The Practical Mormon. I think that John H must be referring to recent apostates, since the technology to take them away in drones was only recently developed.

  40. Arturo: I didn’t say the *ordinances* themselves were around early. You’re reading that in to my comments. Nor am I saying that Joseph knew and understood the ordinces early on. Rather, *the elements* the ordinances are centered around are present from fairly early on in JS thought and revelations, at least as early as 1831 in a few cases.

    I view the priestly and royal initiation as the central framework of the temple ordinances. Joseph knew quite early that those who inherited the celestial kingdom had to be kings and priests. He knew this at least by Sept. of 1832, because it’s explicit in his account of “The vision” in D&C 76:56.
    He knew that there were ordinances that allowed one to (symbolically) ascend into God’s presence. We know this from Joseph’s change to Exo 34:1-4, which tells us that God removed “the holy order and the ordinances thereof” from the first set of tablets. The new book on the JST dates this change to before 1834. Note also on this idea with Moses, that this holy order and the ordinances thereof allowed one to live in God’s presence. Moses tried to teach it to the people, but this higher and last law was removed. (From D&C 84:23, which was received in 1832.)
    Joseph later clarified exactly what this was.

    August 27, 1843, Joseph taught that “god cursed the children of Israel because they would not receive the last law from Moses.” Ehat et al., WJS, 244. Clarifying the meaning of the “last law,” a different note-taker of the same discourse recorded Joseph teaching here that Abraham “received a blessing under the hands of Melchesideck even the last law or a fulness of the law or preisthood which constituted him a king and preist after the order of Melchesideck” Ehat et al., WJS, 246.
    Though the clarification is post-temple, the fundamentals are all there very early. This is not all of JS early thoughts on the topic, by any means.

    I stand by my assertion that the elements that became the foundation of the temple ordinances were present very early on in Joseph’s thought and the revelations.

    Have you read through both “Words of Joseph Smith” and Andrew Ehat’s MA thesis on the Introduction of the Temple ordinances?

  41. With respect to “a believing history” on the subject, there is none. Those who have written on the subject (e.g., Todd Compton’s _In Sacred Lonliness_) go in with predispositions and draw conclusions that can easily be attacked by polemicists (as _In Sacred Lonliness_ was). I find it amazing that there has never been a PhD thesis generated out of BYU that rigorously catalogs all available historical evidence, but the fact is there none to date. Why? Because its really a very messy issue with little substantial evidence and lot of heated emotions.

    What do I mean by “substantial evidence”? I mean first-person accounts and tangible evidence. There are a lot of second and third-person accounts which are hostile, but none of these are substantial. They wouldnt stand up in a court of law today, as they are hearsay, but those already unfavorably disposed towards Smith use it to build a case of circumstantial evidence against him, to paint him in an unflattering light.

    Allow me to cherry pick one glaring example: Fanny Alger. Take the following historical “evidence” offered on this web page:
    All of the accounts are at least second person, most, maybe all, are hostile. No first person accounts from Joseph, Emma, or Fanny. There is the insinuation of pregnancy, but no indication of a child being born to Fanny with Joseph as the father. Insinuation of secret marriage, but nothing but second hand sources to substantiate it (the most reliable [i.e., superficially least hostile] text is the Mosiah Hancock autobiography where late in life he recounts his father’s recollections of marrying Joseph to Fanny). None of this stands up as far as I am concerned, so Fanny gets a check mark in the “unlikely” box. Todd Compton in his book rates the evidence “comparitively reliable” (pg 25). How so? When compared to what? He makes numerous qualifications throughout that first chapter and relies on circumstantial evidence to butress his conclusion that Smith did marry Fanny, and did not just have an afair with her as Fawn Brodie alleges. How is this compelling evidence? Its not.

    What someone needs to do is dispassionately sit down and simply collect and rate all of the available historical records: 1st (witness), 2nd (I heard witness say…), 3rd (rumor has it…) for the type of account; F, N, H for friendly, neutral, or hostile; and P or A for documentation present or absent. Then, once its all laid out, see what comes out in the wash. If all accounts are 2nd or 3rd hand and all accounts are hostile and there is no documentation present, then that gets an “unlikely” rating. If there are friendly first person accounts with supporting documenation, then that is obviously rated as “confirmed”. There can also be “unlikely” and “likely” categories in between.

    As for the heated emotions, those need to be dropped as well, on all sides.

    Finally, when it comes to objective evidence, one thing always comes to my mind: For someone so frequently accused of being a philandering pervert by his detractors, he sired so few (more likely none) children outside of his marriage with Emma. If he were half as busy as his detractors accuse, there would be an awful lot of kids around with Joseph as their father. Where are they? Sure, sure, detractors say he sired them and then fatherhood was attributed to others, but lets see some evidence of that. Accusations from detractors arent substantive.

    Did Joseph have more than one wife? Sure. Did he act like Fawn Brodie or Todd Compton suggest? I doubt either of them got it right. But, those already unfavorably disposed towards Smith will find whatever evidence they present to be compelling evidence, no matter how circumstantial.

  42. Sigh, drones – that’s just embarrassing. Well, the “n” is near the “v”…

  43. “But, those already unfavorably disposed towards Smith will find whatever evidence they present to be compelling evidence, no matter how circumstantial.”

    But isn’t the reverse true as well – those who are favorably disposed to Joseph Smith are just as unreliable? Those who err on the side of faith have just as much unreliable evidence on their side, whether we’re talking about the transfiguration of Brigham Young, the miracle of the gulls, the three witnesses, etc. When the primary evidence is examined, there’s significant problems. Take the first vision, for example: How many of us would believe someone who, twelve years after the fact, claims a vision and changes who was there and what was said?

    Personally, I’ve never had a problem with the divergent first vision accounts, but they wouldn’t come close to holding up in a court of law either. I’d just argue that some level of consistency is important – we can’t systematically reject that which bothers us and accept that which we like, even if both fail our critiera for judging historical accounts.

  44. Ben S, everything that Joseph did tended to synthesize as many elements of earlier belief as it dropped or disregarded. So of course Joseph’s reworking of the Masonic ritual incorporated beliefs he’d accumulated since the publishing of the Book of Mormon (that’s one reason, for example, that the JST is such a mess). None of this has any bearing on Joseph’s motivation for creating the ceremony in the first place.

    Kurt, Fanny Alger in the unlikely category? I don’t think many people would agree with that. I certainly don’t. What about Oliver Cowdery, who left the church after witnessing Joseph and Fanny doing the dirty?

    John H, don’t sweat the typo. We’re no better. It took close to 40 comments before anybody even caught it. I’m grateful to The Practical Mormon for injecting a little humor into the conversation.

  45. Great comment Kurt.

  46. So it’s your opinion that the temple is a messy hodgepodge of whatever Joseph could cram in to it in order to cover for polygamy?

    You need to shave with Occam a little :)

    I have evidence that what became the temple ceremony was around earlier than JS practicing polygamy, which would indicated that he didn’t cook it up whole cloth. You blithely dismissed that in favor of your theory, for which you haven’t presented any actual arguments. You also didn’t indicate whether you’d actually read the sources that lay out my argument more completely.

    Such a discussion can go nowhere fruitful…


  47. Kurt, nicely put. It seems strange to me that we should have a gap in our scholarship when it comes to the life of Joseph Smith.

  48. When I was in a singles ward years ago, our stake president was visiting our elders quorum one Sunday and related his experience with studying Joseph Smith’s polygamy and a resulting faith struggle. He simply stated that the more he learned about Joseph Smith’s wives and secret marriages, the more he was questioning his faith and Joseph Smith’s validity as a prophet. He said he was seriously considering leaving the Church over this matter.

    He then related that during this time he went to the temple and received a fairly dramatic personal revelation where the Lord settled the matter once-and-for all by stating in absolutely certain and sure terms that Joseph Smith is His servant. The issue of polygamy and secret wives was not discussed. The Lord simply made it clear that He esteemed His Prophet and that settled the issue.

    Personally, I haven’t been plagued too much by the question … but I still found hearing this from our stake president to be spiritually satisfying.

    The lives of many prophets (ancient and modern) are quite susceptible to skepticism, doubt and analysis. There are things that prophets do that seem utterly unjustifiable and wrong … but that doesn’t necessarily change the fact that they are prophets. I also think that it is still worthwhile to ask penetrating questions about what we learn about the prophets. If my stake president at this time had been unwilling to question, he wouldn’t have received the personal revelation.

  49. Bob Caswell says:

    I too like what Kurt said. And in response to John H.’s “…we can’t systematically reject that which bothers us and accept that which we like…” I have to agree that this can be a problem but not really to a huge degree. In other words, in my experience, most of what the Church uses as “that which we like” is first person whereas most of what the other side uses as “that which bothers us” tends to be 2nd or 3rd witness. Coincidence? I think not.

    But I do agree that it would be nice if someone would lay it all out on the table so that people like me could quit relying on “in my experience…most of…”.

  50. Kurt: But, those already unfavorably disposed towards Smith will find whatever evidence they present to be compelling evidence, no matter how circumstantial.

    And, those already favorably disposed towards Smith will find whatever evidence presented to be uncompelling evidence, no matter how substantial.

    (John H. made this same point, I just couldn’t resist making a parallelism out of it.)

  51. Nate Oman says:

    John H.: Don’t let the spelling and typo Nazis get you down. The best possible reaction is to simply tell them all to go to hell. ;->

    It seems to me that we have basically three positions on Joseph’s polygamy:

    1. It was all inspired, but it is pretty disturbing. God is a scary guy, it seems.

    2. None of it was inspired, Joseph was a lying, sex obsessed fraud.

    3. Joseph was inspired, but polygamy as a whole was not. This is Todd Crompton’s position, and it was basically the RLDS position, although I don’t know to what extent they still stand by the “Joseph was inspired” claim.

    None of these is entirely satisfactory. I have tended to think that polygamy was inspired — largely for the sorts of isolating, functional reasons suggested by Eugene England — but that not all of Joseph’s actions were inspired. This, however, is a pretty problematic stance for a number of reasons. First, the functional argument essentially abstracts polygamy from virtually all of the contemporary theological arguments offered in its defense. Second, as a practical matter, I suspect that it is virtually impossible to come up with any sort of coherent account of which bits of Joseph’s polygamous marrying was inspired — Alger but not Kimball? Why draw that line rather than another? Everything is very tangled up. Strangely, I don’t think that the claim that if Joseph was lying or mistaken about some portion of his polygamy then nothing he says can be trusted is especially powerful. People — including prophets — are a jumble of mixed motives and complexity. Morally and religiously speaking, the truth of our lives is always messy. I see no reason that prophets should be any different. This generalization, however, doesn’t really do much to work out how one lives with the particular stories. I think that there are pretty good reasons for rejecting the most sensationalistic and salacious version of Joseph Smith’s polygamy, but even a more “friendly” vision is going to be pretty disturbing if it is even basically honest.

    I take that this means that I more or less agree with everything that Aaron Brown said, so there is probably not much point in this comment. My apologies.

  52. John H, sure the reverse is true. Thats why someone needs to dispassionately sit down and do nothing but collect data and rate the data. No editorial comment, no conclusions, just data collection. As for what we do and don’t like, that kind of stuff doesnt come to bear when it comes to determining whether a source is 1st, 2nd, or 3rd person, or whether there is documentary evidence available. If a guy is the eldery son of the guy who claims to have married Joseph and Fanny, that clearly isnt a 1st person account.

    Arturo CareBear, Oliver’s account comes when he is a hostile witness, and he is alleging adultery. I didnt think anyone believed that is why Cowdery left the Church. That quote is what Brodie uses to conclude adultery, and it contradicts Compton’s evidence, which he uses to argue Smith was secretly married. If Joseph was married then it wasnt adultery and Cowdery would have known it. So, shall we orchestrate a debate between Ms. Brodie and Mr. Compton and have them hash out which of the two accounts is more reliable? Let me know how it turns out…/*yawn*/…

    Steve Evans, it seems strange to me as well. Granted its a controversial topic, but since when do college kids shy away from controversy? Are there any MS or PhD candidates out there looking for a thesis topic? This one is pure gold and is guaranteed to publish.

  53. What about Oliver Cowdery, who left the church after witnessing Joseph and Fanny doing the dirty?

    Arturo, this is the second time I’ve seen you assert this (here and at the M*). Would you mind pointing me to the primary sources? Oliver Cowdry referred to the relationship between Joseph and Fanny Alger as “a dirty, nasty, filthy affair,” but where did he say that he had “seen” them involved in a sexual act? All I have been able to find is a second hand account written years later in which the author asserts that Emma once told him that she caught Joseph and Fanny in the barn, but the author was clearly hostile to the church.

    Can you produce a quote from Oliver Cowdry? a quote from Emma?

  54. Ben S: I have evidence that what became the temple ceremony was around earlier than JS practicing polygamy, which would indicated that he didn’t cook it up whole cloth. You blithely dismissed that…

    You seem to have misread me. I believe that Joseph created the Nauvoo endowment by reworking the the Masonic ritual to incorporate Mormon elements, and I don’t see this as terribly controversial. You seem focussed on the source of these Mormon elements, but I don’t think that the source is relevant. I’m saying that one of Joseph’s key motivations for creating the Nauvoo endowment was to allow him to swear people to secrecy about the doctrines he was introducing (this may have, for example, allowed him to introduce them to a larger audience), the most notorious of which was polygamy. Forgive me if I’m being obtuse here, but what does the source of the Mormon elements of the Nauvoo endowment have to do with Joseph’s motivation for putting it together in the first place?

    As far as my opinion of the place of the Mormon Temple ceremony in the plan of salvation, that’s an entirely different matter from its origin. But I think it’s generally a good idea to abstain from offering derisive speculation about people’s beliefs regarding core aspects of Mormonism.

    I didn’t answer your question about reading because I find such credential touting or reading list comparisons to be insulting and distasteful. But lest it appear that I’m dodging your question: (a) I’ve read Ehat’s thesis, and (b) I’ve read through much of Ehat and Cook.

    Kurt, you’ve moved the framework of the discussion about Fanny Alger from plural marriage to adultery. This distinction is only meaningful to those who believe in the legitimacy of polygamy in the first place. And you’re incorrect about Brodie’s account. She considers plural marriage to be a cover for adultery whether a ceremony was held or not. And if you insist on referring to me using the Care Bears or Care Bear imagery, you will soon become the anti-Care bear. At this point, I will have no choice but to refer to you as “Kurt Hate-Bear.”

  55. JMW, AT, et al: please keep the discussion clean. It’s a sensitive topic for many, and off-color or inappropriate comments aren’t welcome.

  56. Arturo:
    Thanks for the un-dodge. We will simply have to continue to disagree on these matters.

  57. Arturo, youre the one who has a care bear link on his name. I was just being tongue in cheek. If youre that thin-skinned, then dont link to something like that. Sheesh.

    As for questioning the legitimacy of polygamy and equating it with adultery, you’ll need to reject the Bible along with the D&C if youre going to that. And if you do, then you and I have pretty much no common ground to work from.

  58. Nate Oman says:

    “Forgive me if I’m being obtuse here, but what does the source of the Mormon elements of the Nauvoo endowment have to do with Joseph’s motivation for putting it together in the first place?”

    AT: It seems to me that you are making a claim about subjective motivation. If it was the case that there were no-pre-Nauvoo elements to the endowment ceremony, then it seems that your claim would be stronger, because there would be no counter-narrative. On the other hand, if the endowment seems to be the culimnation of a whole series of other theological ideas, then the claim about subjective motivation seems to be weakened. The motive might have been to work out a fuller version of the previously explored ideas. Hence, I think that Ben S.’s arguments provide evidence against your claims as to Joseph’s subjective motivations. I really don’t see what is so difficult to undertand about the structure of this argument.

    Ultimately, I think that the either/or nature of the argument you are having with Ben S. is not especially helpful. If you are claiming that the endowment was nothing more than a cobbled together excuse for swearing the polygamy initiates to secrecy, then I think that you are being hopelessly reductionist and simplistic in your reading of the development of Joseph Smith’s theology. On the other hand, I think that you are absolutely correct to point out that the secrecy oaths with regard to the endowment ceremony were tied up with the introduction of polygamy in Nauvoo, and your statements about the existence of two churches in Nauvoo seem basically right to me.

  59. Arturo Toscanini said:

    Kurt, you’ve moved the framework of the discussion about Fanny Alger from plural marriage to adultery. This distinction is only meaningful to those who believe in the legitimacy of polygamy in the first place. And you’re incorrect about Brodie’s account. She considers plural marriage to be a cover for adultery whether a ceremony was held or not.

    i agree w/ this assessment. whether or not there was a marriage ceremony between joseph and fanny is beside the point for many observers. i think that oliver was likely disgusted that joseph was involved w/ fanny in the first place, regardless of whether or not they were married in some polygamous ceremony.

    Kurt said:

    With respect to “a believing history” on the subject, there is none. Those who have written on the subject (e.g., Todd Compton’s _In Sacred Lonliness_) go in with predispositions and draw conclusions that can easily be attacked by polemicists (as _In Sacred Lonliness_ was). I find it amazing that there has never been a PhD thesis generated out of BYU that rigorously catalogs all available historical evidence, but the fact is there none to date. Why? Because its really a very messy issue with little substantial evidence and lot of heated emotions.

    i don’t find it amazing at all that no BYU phd candidate has published a dissertation on evidence of JS’s involvement w/ polygamy. why? because they probably wouldn’t get approval from their departments, and they probably don’t want a file created on them by the SCMC. BYU is one of the few places to get a teaching position in mormon history, so why would anyone who was interested in the subject want to do their dissertation on “true but not useful history?” it would be a sure way to never have a chance to teach at BYU again.

    the evidence that is out there is for the most part too troubling for most members, and the church would love it if the members simply never talked about the whole subject again. they realize that very little edification of members’ testimonies is going to come about by fostering dialogue regarding JS and polygamy.

    the truth is that most members aren’t even aware that JS participated in polygamy, and are happy not knowing about it. and the leadership is just fine w/ this.

  60. JMW, AT, et al: please keep the discussion clean. It’s a sensitive topic for many, and off-color or inappropriate comments aren’t welcome.

    I’m not sure what it was that I said that was off color or inappropriate. Whatever it was, Steve, I am sorry. I did not intend to offend or be insensitive.

  61. Kurt, I appreciate the tongue in cheek nature of your reference to the Care Bears. I thought it was funny, and was responding with faux indignation. You may actually be the anti-Care Bear, but not for calling me Arturo Care Bear.

  62. Mike: BYU has had several “controversial” MA’s in the past, and probably will do so again in the future. I’m thinking specifically of the Adam/God thesis done by a guy who went on to be a religion prof. and write for the Ensign. His thesis advisors were Sidney Sperry and Hugh Nibley.

    Nate: Thanks for clarifying my own argument. Certainly it needed it. :)

  63. reply to Ben S.:

    you’re probably right, i’m sure that there are controversial papers that come out of byu from time to time. there i go again making broad statements that i can’t possibly back up.

    i think it’s probably more of a balancing act over there, trying to figure out what one can and can’t get away with. i know that they’re not near as anti-intellectual as a lot of people who tout the september six would lead us to believe, but at the same time i know that there has to be some thought given to the potential fallout whenever a paper on a controversial topic comes out the byu history or religion departments.

  64. Nate Oman, I see the question of whether Joseph included pre-Nauvoo elements in the Nauvoo endowment to be logically independent of the issue of motivation. Moreover, I don’t see this argument as ultimately resolvable, since it concerns my speculation about Joseph’s motivations in creating the Nauvoo endowment.

    I’m certainly not claiming that the Nauvoo endowment was a cobbled together excuse to swear people to secrecy. Your statement that the “secrecy oaths with regard to the endowment ceremony were tied up with the introduction of polygamy” is a fair characterization. Moreover, the theory I put forth in my comment #29 is meant to tie this in with (a) the creation of the Nauvoo Masonic Lodge, and (b) the use of the Masonic elements in the Nauvoo endowment.

    And Jonathan Max Wilson, I looked it up where I remembered reading it in Donna Hill’s Joseph Smith: The First Mormon (I’ve always wanted to write or edit a multi-volume series called, “The Ordinal Mormons.” We’d use Hill’s book as Volume 1. Volume 2 would be entitled, Oliver Cowdery: The Second Mormon. We’d continue from there.) Just a bit of trivia, in Hill’s first edition (which is published by Doubleday), the first entry in the index for “Alger, Fanny” is page 180. On page 180 of Joseph Smith: The First Mormon there is nothing relevant to Fanny Alger. Fanny Alger is, however, discussed on page 180 of the 1971 revision of No Man Knows My History. Interestingly, through some human error, the index to Joseph Smith: The First Mormon became a surreptitious cross-reference to No Man Knows My History.

    At any rate, you’re right, and thanks for the correction. It was Emma who reportedly saw Joseph and Fanny’s “transaction” (to use McLellin’s word). But there is more evidence (albeit circumstantial) than just McLellin.

  65. I’ve finally made peace with Joseph Smith’s deceit and other oddities regarding his polygamous relationships. I read about polygamy in the Old Testament, and that made JS’s experiences seem like the norm.

    Abraham had a child by Hagar in an attempt to produce his heir that the Lord had promised him. Not only was Hagar’s son NOT the heir, but the polygamous practce eventually ended up driving Hagar and her child out of camp due to the friction between Hagar and Sarah.

    Jacob was tricked into marrying a wife he didn’t want, so ended up polygamous so he could have the wife he really did want. Then he fathered children on his wives’ handmaids in the war between the sisters to see who could give Jacob the most sons. The kids from this relationship were so badly screwed up that they did things like slaughter an entire village, and sell their brother into slavery and then lie to their father about it.

    Elkenah was powerless to stop his younger wife, Peninah, from persecuting his favorite wife, Hannah, for the fact that she didn’t have any children. Hannah eventually solved her own problem.

    Solomon fell away from worshipping the one true God because his many wives from other lands introduced him to idol worship.

    David committed adultery with Bathsheba. This is just my speculation, but I’ve thought polygamy might have been a factor in that if he felt entitled to have any woman he wanted, since he had married so many women already.

    In sum, practicing polygamy is a miserable rotten marriage in which the men suffer as much as the women do. I think it’s great that Joseph Smith had a miserable time with polygamy – it’s just like the Old Testament prophets.

  66. “My basic question: How do we reconcile what we know about Joseph Smith as a prophet and Joseph Smith as polygamist? ”

    So, validity of sources and amissability of testimony taken into account, let me try to put the question in a different way (with due nods to Nate’s previous formulation):

    Either Joseph Smith was a prophet and polygamy is a revealed doctrine, or Joseph Smith was a conniving sexual predator with a gift for organization.

    If one goes with the arguments put forward that “I believe in the church in spite of the problematic evidence because of a personal revelatory experience”, then the correlation, iron-clad orthodoxy in meeting formats and local unit organization, and rigid authority delegations of the sort that the (I forget what the nickname was, but that slew of academics that were ex-ed a couple of years back) spoke out against are completely irrelevant to the legitimacy of the ‘church’. This is important/relevant because I see so little of the churches day-to-day activities referring back to explicit revelation, and a great deal of a deliberate establishment of orthodoxy.

    On the other hand, if you are one of the people who say that “I am a mormon because mormonism is the only rationally explanable religion that I have encountered; and that is no small thing”, then you are forced to confront the contradictions between what the church has said, and what it has done, and I think that seems very near impossible.

    Again, my question is how do we judge? Do we use explicit, commonly held criteria of truthfulness, honesty, and legitimacy? Or are we really obliged to jettison our basic cultural, societal, legal, and even emotional frameworks in preference to revelation, which 99.99 percent of the time seems to come to somebody else?

  67. nice post janey.

  68. Hi, Janey –

    It’s interesting that the women haven’t been chiming in more to this discussion, which has taken a turn in the more scholarly direction, rather than evaluating the emotional consequences of polygamy (which is all speculation, of course).

    I think in a perfect society, polygamy might work (it works well in the animal kingdom), but, like the law of consecration, polygamy is just too difficult in practice. Can you imagine if polygamy were to be reinstated today? I think some women might welcome it, and for some women it wouldn’t be much of a change from the “serial monogamy” already in practice today.

    I think consenting adults should have the option of entering into any relationships they choose – polygamous or otherwise. I think one of the reasons why polygamy in the Church was so distasteful is that it was essentially thrust upon women (and men), who had no choice but to toil under its heavy burdens.

    Anyway, if polygamy becomes legal again, it will be interesting to see how the Church will respond.

  69. I don’t know very much about this issue, but it seems to me very simplistic to say that JS was either a prophet or a sexual predator. Moreover, somebody who enjoys having sex with many different women is not necessary a sexual predator. In fact, it is entirely probable that women LIKED having sex with him (shocking thought, I know). (I hope this post is within the appropriateness bounds…)

  70. Anyway, if polygamy becomes legal again, it will be interesting to see how the Church will respond.

    I may be wrong, but I believe that in countries where polygamy is currently legal, current Church policy is that polygamists who wish to join the church must become monogamists via divorce before being approved for baptism.

    I think that if polygamy were to be legalized in the United States, it is likely that the church would continue with this same policy and that members who entered into polygamous mariages would continue to be excommunicated.

  71. Merciful Minerva!

    I guess I’d prefer for present purposes not to explore whether Joseph Smith was terrific in the sack…

    Janey, for the record: you tha bomb.

  72. Hey, if polygamy became legal and the Church readopted it, at least some of us spinster types would get married…There wouldn’t be so much pressure on Mormon women to be the Perfect Woman, because men could have three or four of us to cover all the bases. Sounds ideal.

  73. Jonathan – I’m not that up to speed on the timeline of events here, but at what point did the Church start excommunicating people who practiced polygamy? I seem to remember hearing that the Church secretly allowed polygamous relationships after the Official Declaration – or encouraged people to move to Mexico or Canada. Was there a specific revelation that forced Church members to be excommunicated for polygamy?

    It seems pretty harsh to excommunicate someone for engaging in a practice that at one point was necessary to get to the Celestial Kingdom (depending on your reading of D&C 132).

    Anyway, I’m thoroughly confused by this issue. It would be helpful if the Church allowed for an open discussion, but, at the end of the day, there’s not much evidence out there that’s reliable.

  74. Yeah! I got called a Nazi on my very first posting! That means I win! This is my proudest Internet moment.

    The Practical Mormon

  75. In reading these posts it seems the modern eye views polygamy in an entirely too prurient fashion, which says more about us than about the practicioners thereof. Its seems likely to me that our society is more perverse (and therefore projecting upon them) than our colonial and pre-Industrial ancenstors.

    In reflecting on polygamy, please consider its utility in propegating the species (which the Lord has stated is His reason for selectively permitting it). Consider the ancient rates of maternal mortality in contrast to the modern rates. Today it is extremely rare for a woman in our society to die at childbirth, then it was not uncommon.

    When Rachel died in childbirth with Benjamin, Benjamin did not die with her for lack of milk. Either Zilpah, Leah, or Bilhah kept him alive. In that kind of ancient environment with primitive medical skills, polygamy has a utility all its own when it comes to keeping the family going. Just ask Jacob, Benjamin was the favored son after Joseph was out of the scene.

  76. I agree with Kurt, but who wants to view marriage that way? Sort of destroys the whole romantic notion of living happily ever after, when at any moment your husband could bring home an 18 year old hottie and start paying more attention to her than to you.

  77. TPM, have you ever heard of Quirk’s Exception? Too bad…

  78. Kurt – our pioneer ancestors were not blind to the sexual benefits of polygamy. I’ve got this little book called “Does the Bible Approve Polygamy” which is a reprint of a debate about polygamy, and also contains a few talks by the apostles of the polygamous era who praise the benefits of polygamy. I don’t have the book with me, but Apostle George A. Smith mentioned two of the sexual benefits to men: (1) decreased need for masturbation because there should always be at least one wife ‘in the mood’, and (2) men whose wife passes her childbearing years can marry a younger woman, and thus not need to resort to prostitutes after his wife’s menopause.

    Obviously, it was phrased in prudish nineteenth century language, but those were his points.

    Note that his reasoning reflects the 19th C Victorian assumption that women don’t like sex.

  79. Steve –

    RE: Quirk’s Exception: Does this mean that the thread is over? Who won?

  80. Rosalynde says:

    Um, Kurt, polygamy did not raise fertility rates in Utah. Furthermore, in the many modern societies in which mortality in childbearing was common but polygamy was not, there was little difficulty in securing a maid or a wetnurse to raise the unmothered child.

    There’s more I want to say on this thread, but don’t have time now.

  81. Christina says:

    I, like many, struggle with the Mormon practice of polygamy in the nineteenth century and what consequences that practice has on our current concept of marriage, particularly temple marriage. I have read the books written on polygamy, on Joseph Smith and Emma Smith, and I have no clear idea of what actually happened. My instinct is that polygamy is not an emotionally fulfilling practice for women, and probably not for men. But this is all theoretical.

    I have been working on a case the past three years that is situated in Sudan, where both the Muslim Arabs and Africans practice polygamy. Only a few of the Christians have switched over to monogamous marriage. A man’s status and wealth depend on the number of women he can marry. A wealthy man will have four or five wives; a very successful man may have thirty. The society, especially in the nomadic South, is centered around cattle and wives as wealth. The more cattle a man has, the more wives he can “purchase” with his cattle. A wife is an investment, and another wife brings with her wealth as well. There are additional nuances to marriage, but simply put, the amount of children a woman produces determines her status. A woman who is unable to bear children will be returned to her family and her purchase price refunded to her husband. The same is true if a woman dies before giving birth to any children; the man gets his money back.

    I haven’t talked to any Sudanese women about marriage, but I have worked with a number of Sudanese men. One chief said to me that he couldn’t understand why I was married- if he were a woman in America, he said, who had the power to become a lawyer, he would never let a man touch him. That said a lot to me about the status of women in those marriages.

    My perception of these marriages is anecdotal, based on my knowledge of a handful of people. I recognize that there are many types of marriages in this world that are sanctioned by society and even God. I just wouldn’t want to take part in most of them. Our current model of marriage as monogamous partnership is in my opinion the most difficult to maintain and potentially the most personally gratifying. If we have a God who loves and cherishes women as well as men, I would hope that marriage in the eternities is monogamous.

  82. Actually, Rosalynde, in 19th century England at least (and there’s little reason to think that things were different elsewhere), the death rate among lower class children whose mother died was quite high. Remember Pip in Great Expectations? Families like the Gargery’s (Pip’s sister and brother in law who take Pip in after he’s orphaned) were not in a position to hire a wet nurse, even though (as a blacksmith) Joe would have been reasonably prosperous tradesman. This is why Pip’s sister brags that she raised Pip “by hand.” Pip humorously ties this to corporal punishment, but what Mrs. Joe actually meant was that she bottle fed him. Since milk was both expensive and unsanitary, babies were usually bottle fed with flour and water. As result, roughly 2/3 of babies “raised by hand” died before they were 5 (vs. the baseline mortality rate of 25%). Of course, someone in Joe’s position would also be hard pressed to support two women (and Pip may not have survived two ticklers), but that’s another issue.

  83. Janey, I am not saying there is no sexual component, or course there is! I am suggesting that our modern eye looks on polygamy with a view that is too prurient and taken out of the ancient reality of primitive medicine. That doesnt mean there is no sexual component, I am suggesting our particular view of it is just too perverted.

    Rosalynde, polygamy didnt raise fertility rates much because it wasnt all that widely practiced (even if 10% of the population was practicing it-which would be a very high estimate-that wouldnt do much to influence a population mean). It was most certainly effective, just look at the preponderance of certain particular last names in Utah associated with polygamous families. Sure, obtaining a wet nurse or maid in a modern society is easy, but isnt what I am addressing. I am asking the modern reader to look at the ancient context and consider a different set of sensibilities.

    Tess, I think you have made my whole point. You right now in this modern context would see an 18 year old “hottie” as competition and unwelcomed. In an ancient context, it seems likely to me you would view her differently, especially if you were in the midst of a difficult pregnancy and you barely survived that last pregnancy.

    Please indulge me: imagine you were living as part of a nomadic sheep herding family. You married late at 18 and over the past 10 years you had been pregnant 4 times, and two of those were difficult miscarriages. The third time was successful and you had a girl, but the delivery was very difficult and nearly killed you. You survived and so did the girl, who is now 2, but the past 2 years have been very difficult as your health has only recently returned to you. Your husband has been doing all the sheep herding and a lot of the domestic chores as well, and is pretty much a wreck. You are now pregnant for the 4th time and are in the 3rd trimester, and things are very difficult for you, between the nausea and keeping up with the 2 year old youre not gaining weight like you know you should. You fear that things could go terribly and are worried about not only the baby, but also the 2 year old. Husband shows up with 18 year old and tells you she is now part of the family.

    Your reaction?

    A) Get this 18 year old homewrecker out of my tent now!
    B) Oh, goodie, a maidservant for me!
    C) Thank heavens, if something happens to me she will be able to care for the baby and 2 year old.
    D) All of the above.

    I think in a modern context the answer is A, in an ancient context it seems likely to me the answer is D.

  84. Christina, a very good fictional portrayal of the life of female polygamous Utah settlers is Maurine Whipple’s The Giant Joshua. It’s difficult at times, but it’s well worth it. A good nonfiction source is Annie Clark Tanner’s autobiography, A Mormon Mother.

  85. Kurt – you forgot

    E) I may as well die, my husband has given up and has already replaced me. Please God, let his second wife be kind to a child who is not her own.

    If you read “A Mormon Mother: The Autobiography of Annie Clark Tanner,” you will meet a plural wife who was very hurt when her husband married again only six months after he married her. She wondered if she had disappointed him, or if he disliked her.

    Why do you keep calling them ‘ancient’? There were polygamous marriages going on in Utah less than a hundred years ago (post-Manifesto). That’s not all that long ago.

  86. Christina says:

    Arturo, thanks for the tip. What I meant by saying I did not “know” what happened was just shorthand for the fact that despite reading and thinking about the topic extensively, I still struggle with understanding the how’s and why’s of the practice, not that I don’t know anything about the historical facts.

    Kurt, you seem so ready to accept the practice of polygamy. I recognize that life 100 years ago was different from today, let alone 3,000 years ago. But I wonder if you would be so ready to accept the practice if the tables were turned and you were the one competing with the 18-year-old hottie.

  87. Hi, Kurt. Great post. If I remember my Old Testament correctly, the children of wives who had died weren’t treated that well, so “C” may or may not apply (especially if the child were a girl). Also, wives who had offended the first wife (or whichever wife was in charge at the moment) were sometimes kicked out of the family. It seems like polygamy might have created more insecurity for almost everyone involved than monogamy.

    That said, I do appreciate your point that modern notions of romantic love sometimes cloud the true purposes of marriage, and that it’s important to keep the proper perspective on this issue. Thanks for your thoughtful responses.

  88. Hellmut Lotz says:

    Dear Kurt,

    I am reading “In Sacred Loneliness” right now and could not find anything that can be characterized as polemic.

    The nature of controversial sex is such that evidence is hard to come by. In the case of Joseph Smith, the evidence is overwhelming that he practiced polygamy. There is also overwhelming evidence that he lied about his polygamous and polyandrous family life. He covered it up. Joseph Smith did not act like an innocent man. This behavior provides the context which gives meaning to the available evidence.

    Historians do not subject themselves to criminal law’s standards of evidence. As you presumably know, criminal law has developed the most stringent standards because in the liberal tradition we believe that individuals deserve protections before they suffer the power of the state. It is unreasonable to place the same burden on historical enquiry. Your demand to the contrary probably ought to be considered a polemic.

    Cheers, Hellmut

  89. Rosalynde says:

    Arturo–Our minds occasionally (and disturbingly) track each other. When I drafted my comment #80, I originally included the caveat “Men who could afford multiple wives and families could surely afford a maid or wetnurse.” You’re right about the class component of infant mortality, probably (I’m not familiar with 19th-C statistics), but Kurt’s rationale for polygamy is still faulty, since Mormon polygamy would not have functioned to depress infant mortality rates below monogamous levels.

    Kurt: Polygamy not only didn’t raise statewide fertility rates, but it actively (if slightly) depressed fertility among polygamous familes–with a very few spectacular exceptions. (These demographics are included in an essay in “The New Mormon History.”) I applaud your project of historicizing social formations, but please do so accurately.

  90. Kurt wrote:

    Rosalynde, polygamy didnt raise fertility rates much because it wasnt all that widely practiced (even if 10% of the population was practicing it-which would be a very high estimate-that wouldnt do much to influence a population mean). It was most certainly effective, just look at the preponderance of certain particular last names in Utah associated with polygamous families.

    A preponderance of certain last names does not indicate anything about comparative birthrates in polygamous vs. monogamous relationships. If the population had been monogamous but with a preponderance of Smiths, for example, then there would be a preponderance of progeny with the last name Smith. Imagine that a polygamous man was cloned — one for each of his wives. The question is whether those families would have had more of fewer children than the polygamous situation. And my understanding is that the data indicate that plural wives typically had a lower birthrate than monogamously married women.

    I also think that reading Jacob 2’s “raise up seed unto me” as primarily having to do with birthrate may be erroneous. I prefer to read it with emphasis on “unto me“, indicating that something about its practice was intended to promote righteousness. (Of course, whether it does so in any given situation is highly dependent on a variety of factors — and this should probably be read as applying collectively rather than individually.)

  91. Sort of destroys the whole romantic notion of living happily ever after

    Occasionally, I wonder if that whole romantic notion doesn’t deserve to be destroyed…

  92. I’ve thought long and hard about polygamy. (It’s because when I was crying on the phone to my dad about being single he said, “it’s too bad polygamy ended; it was designed to take care of people like you.”) I’ve read early Church history books, and talks by the leaders of the day about polygamy. After a couple of years of research and soul-searching, I’ve concluded that polygamy is a rotten mess in just about every case.

    (One case in which it worked well was with my 3greats uncle. His beloved wife had childbed fever after her second child, and was rendered barren. When they were in their late 20s, he married a 15-yr-old convert from England, who presented him with 11 children. They all lived in the same house and visitors never could tell which kids belonged to which wife since there was so much mutual love.)

    Polygamy in the Old Testament appears to be more of a product of the culture than anything tied to the Hebrew religion. I’ve never read a story in the OT involving polygamy that even suggests that God commanded a man to take another wife. (Except a few references to God giving wives to David, made by the prophet Nathan after David’s fall from grace.) The only religious obligation that involved multiple wives was to marry the brother’s widow if she hadn’t already had children in order to raise up children to the brother. That was to keep his inheritance in the land – it wasn’t to fulfill a religious practice.

    Early Mormon polygamy was hit and miss, as far as liking the arrangement. The people who lived it were deeply committed to their religion, and truly believed God had commanded it.

    I believe God used polygamy to separate the Mormons from the rest of the world in those important early formative years. Polygamy is not a sin, when allowed by culture or by God, but neither is it a blessed and happy state. I do not believe there will be polygamy in the afterlife, unless everyone involved wants it that way.

    Joseph Smith was very excited about his happily chaotic religion – let’s give the priesthood to everyone (including blacks and women)! let’s marry everyone! let’s tell everyone to be a prophet! let’s all have revelations!

    Brigham Young organized and put boundaries on the doctrines exuberantly revealed by Joseph.

    The Church’s current teachings about eternal marriage are directly descended from polygamy. I don’t know if the Church’s temple marriage teachings would even be recognizable if polygamy hadn’t come first. The idea that your eternal glory is tied to your marriage is a polygamous teaching that transferred to monogamy. But if the Church’s current teachings about equality in marriage are eternal, then polygamy will have to go.

    I think one of the saddest condemnations about the emotional isolation of polygamy is the story of Brigham Young on his deathbed. He died calling for Joseph Smith, not for any of his wives.

  93. Gilgamesh says:

    When I was thinking on the Joseph Smith polygamy issue, my dad turned me to a quote from Brigham Young in the Journal of Discourses 4:75. He states

    “I recollect a conversation I had with a priest who was an old friend of ours, before I was personally acquainted with the Prophet Joseph. I clipped every argument he advanced, until at last he came out and began to rail against “Joe Smith,” saying, “that he was a mean man, a liar, money-digger, gambler, and a whore-master;” and he charged him with everything bad, that he could find language to utter. I said, hold on, brother Gillmore, here is the doctrine, here is the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and the revelations that have come through Joseph Smith the Prophet. I have never seen him, and do not know his private character. The doctrine he teaches is all I know about the matter, bring anything against that if you can. As to anything else I do not care. If he acts like a devil, he has brought forth a doctrine that will save us, if we will abide it. He may get drunk every day of his life, sleep with his neighbor’s wife every night, run horses and gamble, I do not care anything about that, for I never embrace any man in my faith. But the doctrine he has produced will save you and me, and the whole world; and if you can find fault with that, find it. He said, “I have done.”

    I guess I am in the same vein. I believe the doctrine, and am not as concerned about the personal lives of those that brought it about. The Lord calls who the Lord calls – they may introduce a doctrine that gets out of control (which I feel happened with polygamy) but the overall doctrines given by Joseph are true, in my opinion, and that stands on its own.

    Maybe the Lord felt that only a (to quote XON in #6)person “‘with no apparent beauty’; an itinerant, fortune-seeking, uneducated, intemperant, and then, dictatorial, self-aggrandizing, and ultimately (by the legal definitions of the day. . . which haven’t changed much) bigamous rapist, adulterer, and insurrectionist…” would have the gumption and fearlessness to take on the establishment and introduce a revolutionary theological concept of the intertwining of God and humanity.

  94. D. Fletcher says:

    Janey, may I please say, what a horrible thing your father said to you.

    P.S. My great-grandfather was Heber J. Grant, and his life as a polygamist was not better, nor worse, than non-polygamous religious leaders. He had 3 wives, who lived in separate houses, so it was essentially like running 3 marriages simultaneously. I don’t think this is for everyone, but for some, it worked out fine.

  95. Gilgamesh,

    Well said, and thank you for your direct approach. If I may be so bold to reply to your assertion, it is, on the one hand, stirring, thought provoking, and more than a little inspirational. But that same reasoning ultimately leads to “Mussolini got the trains to run on time”. I think that that line ultimately ends up with an Emperor.

    The assertion is that the doctrine is the important thing; and perhaps it is. I guess this isn’t so far out. Even today, we still look to Rome as an exemplar of how certain things ought to be done. We have just learned to tease the Coliseum apart from the Senate. But, to the extent that we’ve managed that, it’s taken 1300 years (300A.D-1780’s A.D.). I doubt we have that time, and that model (centuries of historical ‘clarification’) isn’t conducive to at least the first half of “Joy in this lifetime, and exaltation in the next” for most people.

    And is it really the task that we have been set, to winnow so anxiously, exactingly, and uncertainly to get to the fruit by which we are to judged them? Why then even have prophets? Life experience will teach much more quickly, and directly.

  96. Gilgamesh said: “I believe the doctrine, and am not as concerned about the personal lives of those that brought it about.”

    This is the thing I struggle with the most. I have no problem with prophets having faults and being imperfect. But there is such an attitude in the modern church that you have to be a pure vessel in order to receive revelation. Small faults are one thing; constantly breaking the law of chastity and lying about it is another. Why could Joseph get away with behaviour, if indeed this behaviour was not sanctioned by God, that any of us would be excommunicated for?

  97. Jonathan Green says:

    Nate, in response to your list of possibilities in #51, I think there is at least one more:

    4. Joseph Smith was inspired, as was polygamy in general. Some crucial details were left for Joseph Smith to work out, however, and the results were not always pretty. Based on the positives and negatives of the Nauvoo experience, a more orderly system of polygamy developed under Brigham Young. “Line upon line” can be a messy process.

    With this, is there enough space to accept Joseph Smith as a prophet and embrace our ancestors’ polygamy, while at the same time acknowledging that some of the details really are unsavory?

  98. VeritasLiberat says:

    Actually, those worst off under polygyny would be *the unappealing men,* rather than women. How does that country song go? “Seems like all the good ones are gone.” With polygyny, the good ones were NOT gone; if the more desirable males can have more than one wife, then almost all women can marry and have children without ANYBODY having to marry the guys who are vile-tempered ogres, lazy bums, or drunks.

    “Sort of destroys the whole romantic notion of living happily ever after, when at any moment your husband could bring home an 18 year old hottie and start paying more attention to her than to you.”

    There’s a solution: the husband doesn’t get to pick the next wife — the current wife(s) does:

    Husband: “I want a gorgeous 18-year-old with nice hooters.”
    Wife: “Too bad. We’re marrying my friend Hannah. She has a sweet spirit, is a hard worker, and will be a great mother. Plus she’s good at managing money, and we could use that around here.”

  99. Perhaps the distinctions for polygamy being inspired or un-inspired is misleading. Is it possible that we are still too uptight for the issue, giving more importance to sex than it may, on its own, merit? I think several problems go away if one views sexual relations as rather insignificant when divorced from the consequences of raising a family. If the prime motivation for chastity is to ensure that partners are committed to the possible consequences of their acts, then how many people one marries, is, rather irrelevant. Sin would lie in the refusal of commitment.

    Of course this doesn’t fit well with a traditional views of family and chasitity. It would also seem rather easy to misaply. Saying that sex isn’t a focal point of relations, but family is could lead one to justify numerous things that we would consider morally wrong. Part of this may be due to the fact, that while our society is liberal in its views of sex as recreation, the views of sex as procreation and a vehicle for oppression have, on the whole, remained conservative.

    Hopefully this doesn’t come across as saying that sex doesn’t matter. Perhaps in the long run, it is one of those things where our social outlooks paint the picture of polygamy vs. monogamy much more stark than it may be. Maybe this is because we think god should take a very clear stand on this physical issue, when the stand may be institute what agreements you want, just make sure they lead to a righteous end.

  100. japanguy says:

    Some have stated that the temple ceremonies were originally a way to help cover up polygamy. But what about a source for not only cvering up polygamy but to also be the foundation for the council of 50(yes I know that all were not church members or been through the temple). Most of the main leaders in the council of 50 were endowed and polygamists. And while the temple ceremonies were secret, so was the council of 50. They were planning on building the kingdom of God. They sent out ambassadors(To Texas and other countries) to visit leaders to generate support. They ordained JS a King and a Priest. This continued I believe with other prophets for a time. The only place we see this ordaining or annointing a Priest and King in now in the temple ceremonies. The council of 50 was a very secret and elect group within the church during the Nauvoo period. It later raised its head temporarily in Utah. Just some thoughts.

  101. “There’s a solution: the husband doesn’t get to pick the next wife — the current wife(s) does.”

    I agree that requiring the current wives’ consent before taking other wives may have ameliorated the situation some. The Old Testament version of polygamy had such a rule – called the Law of Sarah.

    However, if we go back to the Mormon version of polygamy, the current wives get absolutely no say in whether the husband can take a particular wife or not. Section 132 states that current wives must accept the practice of polygamy and all subsequent wives.

    “Therefore, it shall be lawful in me, if she receive not this law, for him to receive all things whatsoever I, the Lord his God, will give unto him, because she did not believe and administer unto him according to my word; and she then becomes the transgressor; and he is exempt from the law of Sarah, who administered unto Abraham according to the law when I commanded Abraham to take Hagar to wife.”

    D&C Section 132:65

  102. Wow, the internet keeps going even when I am not paying attention. Brief responses to people who commented to me, and then I am ducking out of this thread.

    Arturo, call me the Anti-CareBear, its true, I admit it.

    Janey, I did offer alternative E on T&S in a parallel thread, but not on bcc. And youre quite right. When Rachel died in child birth with Benjamin, it was Bilhah, Leah, or Zilpah who kept him alive. I think it would have been a particularly touching story if it was Leah.

    Christina, I am not ready to accept the practice of polgamy, given the choice I wouldnt do it. My interest is in trying to understand it, and why something that is so repellant to us today was not all that repellent at times in the past. You’ll never see me running around advocating polygamy as something we should be doing now or something that is cool and groovy. No way. I believe in the Lord’s eyes something like polygyny is intended for a true Zion society, and I do not believe it would work well under any other circumstance.

    Grasshopper, I wasnt initially arguing for increased birth rate as much as I was arguing for reduction in infant mortality. Subtle difference, but different nonetheless. Someone else brought the increased birth rate into the discussion and I then commented on it. With respect to your second point, yes the Lord’s intent is to have children raised in righteousness. But, you cannot raise them in righteousness if you dont have any.

    Temple cover up, I dont find this a compelling argument at all. There is no need to “cover up” anything. The Biblical view on polygyny is that it is AOK as long as its done right. Just because it had fallen out of vogue doesnt mean anything to God, or Smith. There was both ancient polygyny and ancient temple worship, and in a restoration you would expect both of those to be restored. End of story.

    Kudos to all the participants for keeping things above board on a particularly touchy subject.

  103. Whoops, missed one…

    Hellmut Lotz, whether or not we apply a “court of law” standard to our inquiry, you have to admit that 2nd and 3rd hand witnesses are not exactly reliable sources in the evidence of 1st hand witnesses, especially when they are hostile or contradictory. In the example of Fanny Alger, you have a series of 2nd and 3rd hand witnesses, and they contradict one another.

    As for _In Sacred Lonliness_, go through the first chapter with a yellow highlighter and mark everytime the author qualifies his sources. He repeatedly points out that his sources are problematic, and then to conclude the chapter he builds his argument using circumstantial evidence for why he decided to accept the source as legitimate despite the problems. Something like that suggests curve fitting to me, he is making the data fit the conclusion. He took a large body of data, reviewed it, came to a conclusion, and then sat down and decided to write a book that supports his conclusion, and he made the available data fit that conclusion to the best of his ability. Thats a polemic.

    Am I being a polemicist for imposing a certain set of requirements that I consider “rigorous”? Perhaps. But, if we can all decide what “rigorous” is, then thats fair enough, right? Then I am freed of being a polemicist.

  104. Stephen M (Ethesis) says:

    “Line upon line” can be a messy process.

    Good point, and one that bears repeating.

    We seem to have a desire not to work out our own salvation, but to have a simple road map delivered to us, without mists or darkness or other obstacles.

  105. Davis Bell says:


    I really like this post. I especially admire this sentence, “Smarter and more educated people than I have dealt with this issue and remain in the Church, their faith intact.” It’s critical to keep that truth in mind when wrestling with the difficulties of of Mormonism (as well as when pondering other faiths and ideas; it always drove me nuts when fellow missionaries dismissed Catholicism as obviously false, given the amount of intelligent, honest people who subscribe to it).

    I also echo your desire for more openness in the Church regarding these issues. Too many of us encounter these issues from enemies of the Church, and are completely taken off guard by them. I think it would be in the best interest of the Church to discuss them in a safe, open, and fair way.

  106. VeritasLiberat says:

    Tess, as I understand that passage from the D & C, the man was only “exempt from the law of Sarah” if his first wife completely rejected polygamy. If she accepted the principle of polygamy, she was *supposed to be able* to select the particular wives (probably because she would choose based on what’s best for the entire family, while a man might choose based on shallow physical attraction). I don’t know to what degree this was actually followed.

  107. “As for _In Sacred Lonliness_, go through the first chapter with a yellow highlighter and mark everytime the author qualifies his sources.”

    Except for the fact that just about anyone who’s studied polygamy agrees with Compton’s general conclusions. They nitpick about specific wives, they nitpick about specific issues, but the conclusions are the same, whether it’s Todd Compton, George Smith, Danel Bachman (who reviewed Compton for FARMS), etc. Joseph married around 30 women and possibly more, and some of those relationships were polyandrous. There’s simply no doubt that he married Helen Mar Kimball, a fourteen year old girl. I don’t think it’s helpful to generalize arguments against sources in an effort to ignore specific questions, such as why Joseph married a fourteen year old. Further, arguments that marrying younger women was acceptable in the nineteenth century don’t hold up under scrutiny. Women were married somewhat younger, that is true – from 18 to 21 or so. But fourteen? – it was as unacceptable then as it is today.

    I appreciate your perspective Kurt, but the same old “we don’t really know what happened” argument isn’t enough to help me feel better about this issue. You make it sound as if the scales are evenly balanced, with arguments for Joseph as a polygamist on one side, and arguments detailing all the problems with sources on the other side. This simply isn’t the case. You are correct that there are some problematic sources, but deconstructing the whole case based on those goes too far, IMO.

  108. I have been re-reading the Old Testament lately and have been surprised at how many details I’ve forgotten since my last read. Many of the prophets did rakish or stupid things. And these actions are all laid bare for readers to deal with. The religions based on these texts have survived millennia. A few of you have expressed a wish for more openness in LDS history, and I think the openness of the OT and the staying power of the religions it supports testify that this openness is not damaging.

  109. Hey John H, check your email…

  110. I’ve put up a related-but-non-poaching post at

  111. We all (think we) know what Joseph was doing with a 14 year old. Our culture conditions us to think in such a way.

    The question is, what’s JS doing marrying women in their late 40’s and early 50’s and, in one case, a 56-year old?

  112. Ben S. – I don’t remember the source, but I believe the older women that Joseph married were related to good friends/other church leaders. He would marry the sister of an apostle in order to link himself with their family to create a spiritual dynasty.

    A comment on OT polygamy: The text in the OT doesn’t say that polygamy was a commandment from God. It appears to be a cultural practice of the time, which God allowed. Specifically with Sarah and Hagar, the story in the Bible makes it clear that having Abraham father a child on Hagar was Sarah’s idea, borne from the guilt she felt about being barren. It was not the Lord’s idea for producing the covenant son, as evidenced by the fact that Ishmael was banished, not given the spiritual inheritance. I think when the D&C talks about God commanding the polygamous relationship with Hagar, we’re getting more of Joseph Smith’s historical reconstruction than anything else.

    OT polygamy is not inspired either. The only time you read about God getting actively involved in polygamy is when Nathan is condemning David for killing Uriah the Hittite, and Nathan says that God gave David all those wives. Polygamy was a cultural practice, not a divine pattern. God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Eve and Jennifer.

  113. John,

    I’m not historian, but my own impression is that your assertion — “fourteen . . . was as unacceptable then as it is today” — strikes me as wrong.

    I’ve read a little bit about Chief Justice John Marshall, who lived a generation before Joseph Smith. As I recall (and I could be misrecollecting), he started dating his wife Polly when she was thirteen or fourteen. (As I recall, she broke it off briefly for some reason — his going to war? — and then they got married when she was sixteen. I may be wrong on the details, it’s been a while since I read it.).

  114. I also remember reading in one of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books about her going to visit a friend of hers who had gotten married at 13. So maybe this indeed was not uncommon in the American frontier in the 19th century…

  115. I’m also apparently not grammarian. That first sentence of #113 should read “I’m not _an_ historian . . .”

  116. “That first sentence of #113 should read “I’m not _an_ historian . . .”

    Yeah, if you’re from New York…

  117. HL Rogers says:

    We in the west pronounce the H with pride (and thus it is _a historian_ around these parts)

  118. Forgive me for sticking my nose back under the tent…

    John H, I am not advocating the same old “we don’t really know what happened” argument at all. Please see my original post on the thread. What I am advocating is a comprehensive and systematic collection and evaluation of all availble source material in a manner that is as objective as possible. With respect to people on either side agreeing on some general conclusions, sure thats fine. That doesnt change what I am asking for. I have never suggested, and never would suggest, that Smith didnt practice polygamy.

    Janey, the Torah contains explicit regulations for the application and use of polygyny (cf. Exod. 21:10, Lev, 18:18, Lev. 20:14, Deut. 17:17, Deut. 21:15-17), and there is an instance in the OT Prophets where the Lord is portrayed as being married to two unfaithful wives (cf. Ezek. 23), which granted, is an obvious symbol but an interesting one nonetheless. But, regardless, polygyny was not just a cultural practice that the Lord turned a blind eye to. The fact the Lord would regulate the institution and not prohibit it, is at the very least a tacit approval. And, given the general OT demeanor of vehemently rejecting the Canaanite social and cultural mores, it seems likely the Lord would have rejected polygyny along with anything else like unto it if He really didnt want it, just as he did with all of the other Canaanite funky perverted stuff. These OT regulations tend to butress the comments in D&C 132 as being more than just Smith’s “historical reconstruction”.

    …nose back out of the tent.

  119. Excellent posts. Perhaps one of the best explanations for celestial kingdom-polygamy I ever heard was from a D&C professor at BYU. His answer to the question, “To what extent will polygamy be practiced in the spirit world?” was “to the extent that it is necessary.” His basic premise was that more women than men will inherit celestial glory and will not be denied all of the blessings of the covenants. Therefore, polygamy is necessary. I have seen definitive statements from apostles and prophets that state authoritatively that no one who does not want to live polygamy will be required to. I simply do not believe that God will force us to live polygamy in order to inherit the celestial glory or godhood. I reserve the right to change my mind, but this position makes sense to me. I actually believe that, based on John Taylor’s observation that we have more than one Heavenly Mother, that when we truly understand polygamy as it is (and not in the sex-drenched sense that colors our perspective on this list — no offense intended, just pointing out that we are all shaped by our present culture more than we care to admit), we may even desire to live it, a la Vilate Kimball. I’d be curious to hear all of your perspectives on this — and, by the way, I think polygamy is, for a man who genuinely cares about his wife’s feelings and cares for her well-being, perhaps harder for that man that it is for the women. Lest I incur feminist ire — let me share a story that colors my viewpoint:

    One of my favorite stories concerns my grandfather Cottam in St. George. He was in the priesthood leadership and a visiting general authority asked him why he had not done his duty in regards to an elderly, single woman in the ward who needed someone to care for her. Obediently, my grandfather put on his Sunday best the next day, while my grandmother blacked his boots with soot from the back of the stove and polished them with tallow. Off he went. Returning, my grandfather whistled while he changed into his work clothes and went out to the fields. My grandmother was furious. By the time he came back in for lunch, she had worked herself up and glaringly told him, “Well you don’t have to be happy about it!” Chuckling and in shock, my grandfather replied, “What? Don’t you understand? She turned me down!”

  120. michelle says:

    Do you mind if I ask who your grandfather was? I have Cottam ancestors from St. George, and I’d be interested in adding this story to my family history.

  121. Daniel,

    I wonder if your grandfather would have been so happy if a young, rather than elderly, single woman had refused him!

    I also don’t understand the logic behind the idea that there will be more women in the CK. One fact that may suggest the opposite, or at least a balance, is that infant mortality is slightly higher among male babies.

  122. the main problem that i have with polygamy as put forth in mormonism is that it’s not equal between men and women. i don’t think there’s any way around that. like the teaching that women whose husbands aren’t faithful will be “given” to another man in the CK as an additional wife. sure, men and women have different roles in life, but nonetheless i can’t endorse a system that’s as inherently unequal as polygamy, especially when thinking of eternal or celestial polygyny.

  123. Seems to me that the question about Joseph marrying other men’s wives is a non-starter, if you look at those other marriage vows through God’s eyes: they weren’t “made and entered into and sealed by the Holy Spirit of promise”, so, for the purposes of all time and eternity, those marriages were “of no efficacy, virtue, or force in and after the resurrection from the dead”, and probably weren’t of much value by comparison.

    I think it would have been very easy, given the newness of the doctrine of plural marriage, for any (or possibly all) involved to view their existing vows as being relatively worthless when compared to the promises being made to those who chose to be obedient to the new and everlasting covenant.

  124. Julie in Austin says:

    “His basic premise was that more women than men will inherit celestial glory and will not be denied all of the blessings of the covenants.”

    What is the basis for this idea? Why would this be true? (I’m serious. I have no idea.) The only data point I know is that 106 boys are born for every 100 girls. Unless this ratio changes through history, we’d expect more males than females in the CK, unless there is reason to believe a greater % of women will make it to the CK, but I can’t figure out why that might be.


    (and, lest anyone overread me, I think that absent 20th century notions of romantic love, emotional fulfillment, and soul-mates, polygamy really wouldn’t be much of a big deal)

  125. “Seems to me that the question about Joseph marrying other men’s wives is a non-starter”

    What do you make of the virgin stuff in D&C 132:61-62?

    61 And again, as pertaining to the law of the priesthood—if any man espouse a virgin, and desire to espouse another, and the first give her consent, and if he espouse the second, and they are virgins, and have vowed to no other man, then is he justified; he cannot commit adultery for they are given unto him; for he cannot commit adultery with that that belongeth unto him and to no one else.

    62 And if he have ten virgins given unto him by this law, he cannot commit adultery, for they belong to him, and they are given unto him; therefore is he justified.

  126. Bob Caswell says:

    I am completely with Julie in Austin. I’d love to hear a basis for this. The whole more-women-are-righteous-thus-we-need-polygamy is one of the worst cop outs I’ve ever heard. I don’t know why we need polygamy, but I’ll just say “I don’t know” over the more-women-are-righteous bogus answer. It’s frustrating when “we don’t know” gets replaced with all sorts of speculation so that we can sleep better at night. If this speculation does it for you, then great, but I’ll just stick to “I don’t know” like I do with plenty of other things in the Church.

  127. jayneedoe says:

    Mark N writes: I think it would have been very easy, given the newness of the doctrine of plural marriage, for any (or possibly all) involved to view their existing vows as being relatively worthless when compared to the promises being made to those who chose to be obedient to the new and everlasting covenant.

    Jaynee: That would mean all civil marriages are invalid through God’s eyes. My understanding is they are valid for time, even to God.

    It’s also my understanding that most of the men whose wive’s Joseph married had no choice in the matter and that some were not even aware of it at the time.


  128. jayneedoe says:

    I find it unfortunate polygamy is such a difficult issue for the Church to discuss, though I understand why.

    I’ve read numerous pioneer journals and I can’t tell you how impressed I am with the commitment these people had to polygamy.

    Although I’m sure they exist, I did not find one personal opinion about polygamy in the journals, i.e., whether they liked it, hated it, or in between. In fact, the only way I could get a sense of their feelings was in the incidents they chose to write about. They might have written about affection for, dislike of, or arguments with other wives; however, I never saw anyone deny the principle of polygamy. In fact it was just the opposite–when it was mentioned it was very clear the pioneers believed it was commanded of God, and that’s why they practiced it, even though it was incredibly difficult for most of them.

    It’s unfortunate there’s not a way to convey the extent of these commitments and sacrifices to members today because of the subject matter. I frankly find it one of the most inspiring examples of faith in modern-day religion.


  129. Well put, Jaynee. You make an important point. Your emphasis on the sacrifices that people made underscores how very difficult many people found it. I think it’s important to point out that when polygamy was officially rescinded, many, many members (men and women) were relieved that their children would not have to practice polygamy.

    That said, Utah polygamy (which was openly practiced and reasonably common) was different in several key respects from Nauvoo polygamy (which was secret and fairly rare), much less with Joseph’s polygamy (which was secret and all over the map).

  130. My comments are to be taken in the spirit of reasoning through this. Please don’t take them as a statement of doctrine. I hope that will anticipate some objections.

    I understood that it was 107 males to every female, but in my mind it does not necessarily follow that that will affect the basic premise that more women will inherit the CK than men, as I explain below. I suggest this only as a discussion point and would be interested to hear your perspectives. This string is fascinating, and it prompted a very interesting discussion with my wife. Also please understand that I am not laying this down as definitive doctrine, only as a guide to what seems to make sense to me and one that coincides with my understanding of God’s mercy, love and justice.

    I am not convinced that when we truly understand polygamy apart from the hypersexualized society in which we live, we will not be in a better position to evaluate its merits. Unfortunately, most discussions on polygamy have a hard time getting away from misgivings about the sexual side of the relationships.

    Having explained that, I must say that the basic premise that more women will inherit the CK than men is not based on any definitive statement from the Church or the scriptures. It is based, however, on my personal observations of the church. For example, I have noticed that there are FAR more worthy, single women in the Church than men, and in my mission, far more women were receptive to the message of the gospel than men. I’m fairly sure that Church statistics would bear this out, hence the emphasis in so many missions on baptizing male priesthood holders — this isn’t a preference for men over women, just an observation that far more women are being baptized than men, making the Church disproportionately female. My recently-widowed dad and recently divorced brother have both observed aloud that there seem to be far more worthy, single females in the Church than worthy, single males.

    Mike’s comment above conflates equality with sameness. Can we be so sure that men and women are not inherently different such that many women can be with one man but not vice versa? As my wife and I discussed this last night (as a result of this discussion), I asked her whether if a woman truly knew that her husband loved her, would she have a problem with him loving another woman as well. Her response was basically that aside from the sexual relationship, it could probably work. I don’t think that I could say the same about her affections for another man, even putting aside the sexual relationship. The idea of many females to a single male is a pattern that is repeatedly seen in nature — yet it is very rare (I don’t know of any, but I’m sure there are some) to find examples with many men and one woman. Generally, two bulls will fight each other if put in the same field with many cows, but the cows will not fight each other if put in a field with many bulls. (I know, I know, its a crude analogy). I know it is totally politically incorrect to even suggest that men and women might be inherently different and yet still be equal (a la Larry Summers — Ok, bad analogy b/c he was patently wrong, but you get my drift), yet all of my reading of the doctrine and the scriptures seems to suggest just that. I think that this is why more women will be in the CK than men — they are much more spiritual by nature. And this personal observation was confirmed by the remarks of Elder Bruce Hafen and his wife at the J. Reuben Clark Society Banquet in 2002 (the published remarks were by no means complete). Elder Hafen stated quite clearly, quoting the apostles, that men seem to be more adapted to surviving in the physical world, but that Eve was a helpmeet (read help sufficient or perfect or apt) for Adam such to keep him to Godward.

    I really struggle with understanding whether it truly is different for men than for women, which I guess is at the core of most of our misgivings about polygamy. Now, I understand that my wife is not the sample set of all women, but I’m trying to figure this out, so no vitriolic responses please. I’d just be curious to hear what you think. Also, a friend’s comment has percolated in mind in respect to this subject — his comment was that we are so hung up here on this earth with ownership being exclusive (i.e., we don’t own something unless we can exclude all others), but he commented that perhaps ownership will be different on the other side (and yes, I am aware of the negative connotations attached to ownership by the women’s movement, but I am simply limited by our language here a la Jean Paul Sartre, so see my meaning please, not my word). Also, I should add that my wife very wisely added that she has always seen this commandment as a means to raise up posterity, rather than as a celestial law required for godhood.

    In response to Bob Caswell’s comment that this is a cop-out, I think it is important to note that there are two levels to my faith — those things which are sure and immutable (J.S. was a prophet of God, the Church is the only true Church, Hinckley is a prophet of God, the Book of Mormon is true and Christ is my Savior), and then the other things, which, because all truth may be circumscribed into one great whole and all truth is interconnected, are constantly shifting as I gain new pieces of truth. As most of our musings here are post-hoc explanations for a doctrine that we are not sure we have an answer for, I think it is fair to share ideas that I’ve come to in my attempts to understand. I don’t think this is a “cop-out” as I am convinced that, as Thomas More says in Robert Bolt’s play, “God made man to serve Him in the tangle of his mind.” I think it is incumbent on us to be thinking about why we are commanded to do the things we do, lest we become as the ancient Jews and miss the mark, making the law of Christ into a dead law of works. The trick is to think about them without laying them down as sure things — too many people bring the fragments of truth level in the gospel down to their immutable, sure, unchanging level and thereby get their testimonies shaken by simple things that don’t relate to the core truths I mentioned above. I think that God wants us to be engaged actively in thinking the gospel through — He wants our intellectual development as much as He wants our development in other areas, i.e., John Welch’s elaboration on the idea that God wants us to serve Him with all of our heart, might, MIND, and strength.

    Sorry so long.

  131. Julie in Austin says:

    I’m pretty sure that statistics would bear out that there are more temple-worthy women than men in the Church. However, it is very short-sighted to ignore the fact that thoughout (as far as we know) ALL of human history, there have been 6-7 extra males for every 100 females and think that that would be overcompensated for by slightly higher activity rates among women among a few million members. In other words, if there is any ‘problem’ in heaven, it is what to do with all of these extra men.

    As for the idea that women are inherently more spiritual than men, this is bogus. I think people confuse the socialization that women receive to be meek, submissive, patient, loving and kind for something inherent. In other words, an (average) adult woman may appear ‘naturally’ more spiritual than the (average) adult male, but only because she’s had 20+ years of social training encouraging her to appear that way.

    You might think I’m just quibbling since in either case, the (average) woman ends up as more spiritual than the (average) man, but it matters. It matters because you are denying any credit to women who struggle for spirituality because the feminine socialization didn’t take (that would be me). It can also lead to an attitude of excusing men for poor behavior (think home teaching) because we don’t expect men to be very spiritual, anyway.

  132. Christina says:

    Daniel, I appreciate your thoughtful comments. I would point out that there are human societies which practice polyandry as well as other animal species which do the same. Also, I would never be comfortable with my husband “loving another woman as well,” as you put it.

  133. A carefully done report on celestial demographics can be read here.

  134. I’ve really enjoyed this topic and have actually read most of the posts.

    I recall reading some time ago that the concept of “sealings” in Joseph Smith’s day was different from our current conception. That it was basically about linking families together and Joseph even sealed men together in a few cases. Can anyone confirm this? I can’t remember which book I read this in so if anyone else has heard this I’d be interested in the reference. I also think Susan Black mentioned that in my Church History class at BYU years ago. Anyway, the idea made me to wonder if Joseph being sealed to young girls as well as fairly old women wasn’t more about linking them with Joseph, linking families or ensuring the woman’s exaltation or something similar rather than a sexual thing which is so often implicated. I also read that after Joseph died several more women were sealed to him. What would be the purpose of those post-death sealings? I doubt it was to ensure Joseph had plenty of women to sleep with in the afterlife.

  135. I might add for the sake of clarification that I wholly concur with my dad’s comment that the only people that ever liked polygamy were young men and old women (tongue in cheek). I wouldn’t want to live this law personally, and that is only compounded by the pain it would cause my wonderful wife. I’m trying to figure this out as well.

  136. Trenden- You’re talking about adoption, which was an application of sealing. See this Ensign article (!) “line upon line” by James B. Allen and this BYU studies article.

    The Law of Adoption: One Phase of the Development of the Mormon Concept of Salvation, 1830–1900

  137. The Ensign article needs some scrolling, but it’s in there…

  138. Julie in Austin says:


    Thank you very much for that link.

  139. Ben-

    Thanks for the link to the Ensign article. It very much reminds me of Bob Millett’s premise behind his “What is our doctrine?” lectures/book.

    Basically, Millett responds to all inquiries about weird doctrines by asking the inquirer “Have you (in your own personal lifetime) ever heard any GA give a talk in General Conference about that doctrine? Have you ever heard President Hinckley discuss that doctrine? Well, then, since it seems like they’re not too worried about you living that particular principle, why should you be worried about it?”

    I know, it’s a little simplistic, and it doesn’t account for the deeper implications behind certain extremely bizarre principles, but it does help put things in perspective. At least for me…sometimes.

  140. Justin, thanks for the great link. Very interesting. I had never thought about celestial demographics.

  141. Todd Compton says:

    I’ve been meaning to respond to your Joseph Smith polygamy thread started by my esteemed cohort, John Hatch, so finally here it is. Great blog, by the way. Keep up the good work.

    On the general subject, the central issue is, how do you define “prophet”? I think you have a continuum, going from absolutist view of totally idealized prophet with no flaws, to an antagonistic view, regarding prophets as insincere, fraudulent. I have a middle view: you try to understand a specific prophet as a real person, with real strengths and real weaknesses. Leonard Arrington identified one of the most dangerous fallacies of Mormon history as the “puppet” theory of church leaders – they have no real free agency, they are just doing and saying exactly what God tells them at all times, with God pulling the strings. I find the non-puppet theory much more inspiring – but this requires you to seriously, honestly, face up to their human flaws and limitations.

    Also, being a card-carrying liberal, I have a fairly non-formalistic view of prophets at times – for instance, I regard Lowell Bennion as having a prophetic quality, even though he was never a formal general church leader.

    Re Kurt’s email that was a bit critical of my book. (Hey, that’s fine, I’m not perfect either.) I like his interest in primary evidence, and in judging evidence carefully. Obviously there are all kinds of factors, bias, chronology, assessing multiple pieces of evidence with and against each other. I share those interests. However, I suspect he hasn’t read my book. (1) There is a lot of first-hand evidence for Joseph Smith’s plural marriages. For a starter, memoirs by plural wives such as Emily Partridge Lyman, Lucy Walker Kimball, Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner, Eliza Snow, Zina Huntington Jacobs Smith Young. Many of those women left diaries, too. We also have first-hand evidence from people who performed marriages for Joseph Smith, or were in the families of the wives (like Benjamin Johnson or William Clayton). We have many affidavits for the marriages. (2) There is a lot of second-hand evidence that is very useful. For instance, if my father tells me a story of his interactions with his father, and I write it down, obviously, I wasn’t there. But it is still valuable and helpful. Of course, you have to take into consideration the fact that the further you get away from the source, the more likely it is that there will be dates/names etc. wrong. You have to take that into consideration. But I do not automatically reject second-hand evidence. To a historian, I’m grateful for all evidence. (3) No evidence, even, first-hand evidence, is perfect. All evidence is flawed by covering only one side of the story, by the limited human biases and perceptions of the writer. A historian has to do the best he or she can with the evidence available.

    But re Kurt’s idea that we need to assess the primary sources in Joseph Smith’s marriages, I reproduced the most important evidence in my book – generous, long, quotes. I did that so the reader would have a change to judge for himself or herself, to see if I’m taking things out of context.

    Kurt links me with Brodie, suggests that I was using circumstantial evidence to attack Joseph Smith because I was “unfavorably disposed” toward him. Strangely enough, I began my book to “go after” Brodie, because I felt she had done such a bad job in her treatment of Joseph Smith’s polygamy. (See my essay in Newell Bringhurst’s anthology on Fawn Brodie.) (Though her appendix of Joseph Smith’s wives was useful in that it had been done and had been published; which conservative Mormons hadn’t done.) I felt that her use of late, anti-Mormon evidence was pretty uncritical. (You have to take a look at such evidence, but you can’t build a major case from it.)

    By the way, since I’m here – beginning of paid political announcement — does everyone know about Sunstone West on April 22-23 in Clarion Hotel near the San Francisco Airport? We’ve got a great program – I made sure we have a good solid history session every hour. We’ll have talks on Joseph Smith (Newell Bringhurst on Joseph Smith and race, me on Joseph Smith’s “lesser-known wives”); on Mormons in California during the gold rush (Ken Owens and Leo Lyman on their new books). In addition, the regular Mormon potpouree of feminism (Lavina Anderson and Nadine Hansen), art (two music sessions this time, one on art and the Manti Temple), science (creationism; stem-cell research), two Book of Mormon sessions, including Bob Rees on the historicity of the Book of Mormon, a panel on Deseret Book’s In Quiet Desperation on gays in the church. Humor from Carol Lynn Pearson, and D. Michael Quinn’s great talk on doubting in church history. Did I mention that it’s easy to fly into the San Francisco Airport, and you’re right there at the Clarion? Go to for the full schedule. I hope to meet a lot of you there.

    End of paid political announcement.


  1. LDeSsays says:

    Liar, Liar — But No Hell Fire

    All the other little lies we tell — from the Prophet Joseph denying the practice of polygamy (a combination of “none of your business” and defending the very existence of the Church) to pretending we didn’t hear that noise our mother-in-law made in …

  2. LDeSsays says:

    Liar, Liar — But No Hell Fire

    All the other little lies we tell — from the Prophet Joseph denying the practice of polygamy (a combination of “none of your business” and defending the very existence of the Church) to pretending we didn’t hear that noise our mother-in-law made in …

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