I’m always interested when I see rules being applied differently in different circumstances. At the Bloggernacle Times a while back I considered what I saw as the unfair critique of Joseph Smith by skeptics who would themselves never apply the same level of criticism to Jesus. In "Jettisoning Joseph but not Jesus" I was amazed at those Christians who use text-criticism, for example, to "unravel" Joseph’s claims but who do not seem to acknowledge that the same tools would strike a blow at the heart of the New Testament (about which they express no doubt).
It’s a little ironic, don’t ya think? (And hypocritical.) I noticed a similar, albeit subconscious double-standard at play this week. A few comments at BT expressed surprise that Joseph Smith was polygamous. Wasn’t it only practiced under Brigham Young and his successors?
This, of course, is nonsense. Joseph married around 30 women. Everyone knows that, right? Right? Er, wrong!
I had a similar experience in the MTC. Somehow we got around to discussing polygamy and my roommates categorically rejected my assertion that Joseph had been polygamous. That only began with Brigham Young, they maintained.
Why the denial? First, I must admit that I can hardly believe people labour under this false notion. At 19 I was no Mormon history geek. Everything I knew, I knew from paying attention in Seminary and from a well-informed but by no means nerdish father. I think my Mormon "education" was pretty normal. I don’t know how I knew that polygamy had begun with Joseph, but I just did. I thought it was common knowledge. Well, it would appear that it isn’t.
Amazing! But why?
I know that we don’t talk about polygamy much, except to assert we have nothing to do with it anymore. But that cannot alone explain the ignorance on this matter. Why is it so hard to admit Joseph was polygamous but chuckle a little at Brigham’s many wives? Is it because we have an image of Brigham as an old salt, and although we find polygamy a little (or a lot) weird today, somehow it isn’t dissonant with the second prophet’s character? On the other hand, has Joseph been so polished and pedestaled, that we simply cannot square polygamy with the modern Mormon that we want Joseph to be? Why is there one rule for Joseph and another for Brigham (just as there is one for the Gospels and another for the First Vision)?
By doing this, those who make this dichotomy are, I think, expressing distaste for polygamy, a distaste they can forgive Brigham Young for but cannot countenance emanating from Joseph. I can understand this, but the problem is, it just ain’t true. And the irony is delicious: when did the Brighamites become so, well, Josephite?