I received an email from someone close to me last week. This individual has been reading Rough Stone Rolling and had gotten through Joseph Smith’s polygamic episode. This person was unsettled by certain events and activities involved and wondered if I had any helpful thoughts. I probably should have paged Kevin, but I decided to respond strait-up. The following is my somewhat edited reply, the first of several that ensued:
So, polygamy. Yeah. No matter how you slice it, there are some things there that are pretty messed up. As you mentioned in your email, there are also a lot of things going on. Not to go all “meta” on you, but as a matter of theory, we all develop narratives in which we reconstruct the past and the present. Historians do this as a matter of course; individuals often do this naturally, and perhaps subconsciously. We want to make sense out of the world in which we live, and understand where we fit in it. Approaching topics like this for me boils down to two things: the development of a scholarly historical narrative and the development of my personal spiritual narrative.
The historical narrative is obviously controversial. Todd Compton, wrote a wonderful biography of the wives of Joseph Smith called, In Sacred Loneliness. It is fairly hard hitting, but it is wonderful to see the lives of these powerful women in context and to understand their stories. The frequent antagonistic view is that Joseph was basically a sexual miscreant. Anti-Mormons have a heyday with that sort of stuff. However, as historian Kathleen Flake has said [roughly paraphrasing], there are easier ways of getting laid. The historical record demonstrates that the participants – men and women – in Nauvoo polygamy experienced what they believed were supernatural manifestations in connection to it. Joseph Smith had a vision of connecting people in ways that are quite foreign. Polygamy, “adoption” – where people became the spiritual children of the adoptive parents (look for a wonderful new treatment of that coming soon) – and community. Joseph believed that death could be conquered and that a people could be constructed through these tools.
In this process, Joseph made some painfully disturbing choices. His treatment of Emma. Then, as you mention there is Helen Marr Kimball, and Sarah Pratt. A member of our stake leadership here is a friend and as he has been developing a historical interest, I keep loaning books to him. I loaned him a book that treated the Pratt affair, and he was overwhelmed. He spent quite a while fasting and praying to God about it. He had an extra-ordinary experience and personally came to a peace regarding the matter. That is the transition from the historical narrative, to our personal, spiritual narrative.
I have many reasons to believe that Joseph was a prophet. I find many of the doctrinal developments of the last years of his life, in many ways, transcendent and quickening. I also believe that the supernatural experiences that participants believed they had were real in many cases. I then have to minimize the cognitive dissonance between what appear to be God’s inspired Church and actions that are antithetical to such a concept. Part of that process for me has been contextualize what a prophet means and how God works. We modern Mormons tend to adopt an infallibility complex. I recently read an excerpt from the George Q. Cannon diary that I quite liked, though. He was apparently taking notes of a meeting with the First Presidency and recorded President Lorenzo Snow:
I saw Joseph Smith the Prophet do things which I did not approve of; and yet…I thanked God that He would put upon a man who had these imperfections the power and authority which He placed upon him…for I knew I myself had weaknesses and I thought there was a chance for me. These same weaknesses…I knew were in Heber C. Kimball, but my knowing this did not impair them in my estimation. I thanked God I saw these imperfection. (GQC, Dairy, January 7, 1898, in Arrington, Adventures of a Church Historian, 4)
I thank God too.
Bushman also held a seminar at BYU this summer on addressing the tough issues. Here is his introductory address, which you might find helpful.
As to the women involved. Zina Young is, in my opinion, one of the greatest heroes of the Restoration. Eliza was a great and powerful woman and they both were ardent feminists. They also suffered significantly. However, unraveling their participation in many aspects of this project is truly amazing.
Anyway, I hope this little bit is helpful. I think I might understand how you are feeling. There was a period when I was starting to get into the scholarly historiography, when I felt rather alone. I felt that there wasn’t anyone that understood the pain I felt. It wasn’t until I sat one evening talking to someone close to me and had a bit of catharsis that I was affirmed, not necessarily by a similar experience in the listener, but by their own and different pain and I really started to change. After that moment, I started to rebuild my spiritual narrative. I feel now, that while my beliefs are somewhat different than they were when I was I child, my belief in the Restoration is actually stronger. I am a bit more flexible, to be sure, but that is the study of history. It gives us compassion for those that went before and more compassion for ourselves. You may not be having a similar experience, so forgive me if I am offering Too Much Information.