A Bumbling Disciple Indeed

My husband and I teach Sunday School in our new ward. Our class of 13-year-old kids  are bright, interesting and they have a lot to offer our discussions. We often let the kids take the lead- even letting them teach the lesson every other Sunday- and while that might be a little unconventional, it works well for this group. We use the manual as our guidelines, but are also open to following questions where they may lead. 

We teach from The Presidents of the Church, and today the lesson was on Brigham Young- a Disciple Indeed. We quickly covered what a disciple is, how we can be followers of Christ, and how Brigham Young came to join the church. The kids each took turns reading different quips from his life- including a lot about Pres. Young’s loyalty to and relationship with Joseph Smith during the Nauvoo times- when we came to this excerpt from his personal diary:

On a certain occasion several of the Twelve, the witnesses to the Book of Mormon, an others of the Authorities of the Church, held a council in the upper room of the Temple. [They met because a few men, including some of the General Authorities, were opposed to the Prophet Joseph Smith and wanted to depose him and appoint David Whitmer as President of the Church]

The book goes on to say how Brigham told them, literally, that they could “sink themselves to hell”, and many were enraged at his opposition. OK. Kind of heavy stuff, but we can talk about it, right? We talked for a little bit about the faith BY displayed, and then one of my students asked, “But why would any of those men have wanted Joseph to be removed? They all knew he was a Prophet, they followed him, so what was going on?”

(Here is where I suddenly wished I was Kevin Barney)

Well… I told them that things were hard in Ohio, Missouri and Nauvoo, that there were money problems, and tough times and some families had a hard time with plural marriage and there was a lot going on that had called some people to question Joseph’s direction.

“Plural Marriage? Is that polygamy?”

“Yes, it is.” I went on to tell them that not everyone was asked to have a plural marriage, but for those who were, it could be a challenge to their faith.

“Asked? Who would ask them?”

“Well, Joseph did.”

Seven dumbfounded faces were staring at me, their mouths agape. Oh. No. What have I done? I thought this was pretty common knowledge- these kids all come from multi-generational LDS families- what this some secret I wasn’t supposed to talk about? I mean,  I didn’t go there on my own, but they asked, and as their teacher, I should be honest. A teenager can smell hypocrisy, hedging and dishonesty.

We spent the rest of the hour discussing polygamy, and how, yes, Emma was not the only wife of Jospeh Smith, and we turned to the Official Declaration from President Woodruff to see when and how this was ultimately (sic) resolved. (I figured I would let that one lie.)

We covered the break-off of the Fundamentalists, the Community of Christ, Emma staying behind after the Martyrdom and about how many wives Brigham Young eventually took. Once the shock wore off, the kids rolled with it, and seemed totally fine.

Like all discussions lately, we ended with Big Love, and the potential depiction of the Temple. Evidently their parents have been talking about it- and they heard. And are interested. I pointed them to the Church Newsroom response, and told them running around like beheaded chickens was never a good idea.

Sometimes being an adult convert is a double-edged sword. Being blissfully ignorant of some things, I occasionally walze over another’s well-tended tulip garden. I am unaware of how I could have handled the questions differently. I am also aware that this little lesson I taught today could make for some interesting dinner conversation tonight.

I’ve taken my phone off the hook…

Bookmark A Bumbling Disciple Indeed


  1. I think you did fine (for what that’s worth). I suspect there won’t be that many ‘interesting dinner conversation’, because the kids will assume that their parents already know all this stuff (which may or may not be true).

    You’ve actually laid a good foundation for a lot the kids will hear, read, or see references to for the next few years. It will make it easier for them to put all that into context and to fit all the pieces together, instead of (as often happens) having them build up increasingly incompatible “fact sets” for different chunks of Church history and doctrine.

    Let us know if you do get any phone calls, though. :-) ..bruce..

  2. Cynthia L. says:

    I agree with what Bruce said. I think the kids will most likely pick up on your unconcerned attitude and assume it’s no big deal.

    I’m a little ashamed to admit that although I’m from a family that has been members all the way back when, and have known all my life that many of my ancestors were in polygamous families (we have a cute photo of some g-g-grandpa in striped prison clothes), I didn’t know until I was 21 years old that Joseph Smith had wives besides Emma. I found out from an atheist friend in a late-night conversation in which he was trying to tell me how nuts our church is. Not an ideal setting. I felt like a fool for initially telling him that he was wrong.

    I think you did a great job.

  3. Thank you for actually talking to the kids about this. I felt betrayed when I heard about Joseph Smith’s plural marriages for the first time when I was doing research in college – not because of anything Joseph Smith did, but that I couldn’t believe that no one had bothered to mention this to me earlier. For a little bit I thought that if this had been kept from me, what else were people not telling me about the church I belonged to? Then I got over it – half of my youth leaders probably didn’t know this information anyway.

  4. I’m so glad you think this was ok. After the kids left the classroom, I made an offhand comment to my husband that I hope I hadn’t shocked them- to which he replied:

    “Of course you did! You saw the look on their faces. You ripped the rug out from under them, but I think it was good.”

    I really didn’t mean to do any rug-ripping. It just happened.

  5. I occasionally walze over another’s well-tended tulip garden.

    Nothing wrong with that, especially when the garden is founded on misinformation or deliberate half-truth.

    There’s nothing wrong with gardens sometimes that a rototiller can’t fix…

  6. Kevin Barney says:

    You did a great job, Tracy. Seriously. (Your Kevin Barney wings are in the mail.)

    We simply have got to stop raising children in this church who have no idea Joseph Smith practiced polygamy. That’s a time bomb waiting to explode. If you teach them about it matter-of-factly when they’re young, then it’s no big deal and they absorb the new information.

    In my book you did exactly the right thing.

  7. Natalie B. says:

    We discussed in our Sunday School class today how many non-Mormons and converts actually have more knowledge of Church history than life-long members. I think you are doing them a service to discuss this history in a church setting before they, inevitably, hear it as adults. Like Ginger says, I felt annoyed when I realized that my knowledge of church history had been whitewashed for me, but ultimately I think that by acknowledging our history I have a more nuanced, if at times less trusting, view. I’m not as willing to believe and obey anymore without evidence and reason, but maybe that’s okay.

  8. Yeah, it actually caught be off-guard that none of them knew Joseph had more wives than Emma. That’s why I was so casual about it. One girl looked a little panicked and said “But Joseph hated polygamy! How could he have asked people to to that?” That was when I realized I was in over my head.

  9. You did exactly the right thing, Tracy – for exactly the reasons everyone has said already.

  10. My kids are teenagers and unless this comes up somewhere in the lessons or in the news I am not sure when I would bring up polygamy. When and where do we get that conversation going and then again why would it be a priority? I have plenty of issues to talk tto them about that are current.

    I personally feel it is better these topics come up at church than waiting for them to be thrown at us by non members that are trying to get under our skin.

  11. This is nowhere near as exciting as Tracy’s polygamy example, but I had a couple come to talk to me after Sunday School today concerned that I had mentioned that there were at least 56 people in attendance at the 6 April 1830 meeting. They still seemed shaken that they had never heard about there being more than six, even after I explained the confusion between those in attendance and those who signed the legal document. They seemed disoriented, not quite as if they had been lied to but as if their foundations were suddenly wobbly. I had never considered that disorientation could come from something as trivial as that, although I had long ago accepted that people could be upset by suddenly learning as adults about polygamy. We can’t be too careful, it seems, about the accuracy of what we teach.

  12. You did fine.

  13. Jerry,

    Get a copy of the movie “Emma” and watch it with your teenagers. Not only is it a good movie, but there is a scene that speaks of Joseph’s other wives.

  14. This is why I’m in the library. If this had been my class, I totally would have panicked. Well, I probably would have panicked the minute they told me I’d be teaching 13-year-olds. But still–I’m very impressed.

  15. Kevin Barney says:

    Kenny, when I read your comment I thought you were talking about Jane Austen’s Emma, and I was wondering whether you meant the version with Gwyneth Paltrow or Kate Becknsale!

  16. Tracy M: Great story. I was in the YM presidency in the ward from which I recently moved, and your story made me wish I could be there again. I would have loved to have been a part of that conversation, or at least to have been a fly on the wall. I teach 10-yr-old boys now in primary.

    Today’s lesson was on the organization of the Church on April 6, 1830. We didn’t quite get to the part in the written lesson that talked about how the Church has the same organization as Jesus’ church in 30 AD….

  17. Kevin,
    I’m sorry I meant “Emma Smith: My Story”.

  18. Tracy, the same thing happened to me last month teaching my Primary class of 9 and 10 year olds. I casually mentioned Emma as “Joseph’s first wife” and all hell broke loose from there, with kids wanting to know why I said first, and how could there be others, and isn’t polygamy a bad thing, and why would the prophet tell people to do it? Like you, their questions kind of derailed the lesson as it went down a different path. I also wondered what kind of dinner conversations these kids would be having that night. Luckily, I didn’t receive any irate phone calls.

    I remember feeling extremely disillusioned and betrayed when I was a teenager and started learning more about church history. I would much rather have had that information gradually discussed by earlier church teachers, so I think you did exactly right. And teaching D&C this year certainly brings the topics up all by themselves much more than BoM did last year!

  19. 16: Good thing, SteveS, since that idea appeared nowhere in the printed lesson. (Hey, the accurate teaching situation is tough enough — don’t exaggerate!)

  20. Okay, I’m sorry, SteveS — that appeared nowhere in the adult lesson, but I don’t have any idea what was in the manual for 10-year-olds.

  21. You rock. The key is to say what is true without thinking through how to sanitize it for anyone’s protection, as you did.

  22. I mean you said what is true. Not the other thing…

  23. Mark Brown says:

    Just right, sister m.

    I nominate you for the correlation committee where you can influence the future Sunday School cirriculum.

  24. I taught that class for a lot of years and have had the same conversations. The kids in my ward were pretty good about going with the flow and asking good questions. The only time I had a problem was when a family from “out west” were visiting relatives. The girl was vehemently and loudly adamant that Joseph did not have anymore wives than Emma. I deflected and dropped it as I did not really know her or her family. I would leave it for someone else to share that historical fact with her.
    As for BY, I always liked to share the story on how he on several occassions left eveything to follow the prophet. He finished work at his carpentry shop, put his tools away, shut the door and left, never going back. If that isn’t in the manual then my reference is American Moses, the Arrington bio.

  25. Tracy, I taught this same lesson yesterday and, while we never got to polygamy, I wish we had, because these kids need to know that. I guess I must be in the minority, but I was taught from a young age that Joseph practiced polygamy, so I was never shocked by that fact. We don’t do anyone any favors by hiding the facts from them. Good job.

  26. Ahh the interesting discussions you can get into when children feel comfortable enough to ask questions…then you actually answer the question.

  27. NoCoolName_Tom says:

    I agree with Mark Brown – we need more Tracy’s for the curriculum. Yesterday I was teaching my 10-year-old class about the Three Witnesses and mentioned that, until this time, nobody besides Joseph had been given permission to see the plates; well of course a few weeks ago we had mentioned Oliver’s translation attempt and the kids picked up the apparent inconsistency immediately (I had never even considered it, to be honest). Well after a few seconds of stammering and trying to assemble in my head how best to answer the question accurately the other teacher quickly jumped in and started talking about how we knew very little about how the translation process worked but that we did know it involved specific tools the Lord had prepared and turned it back over to me to mention about Joseph’s use of a hat, etc. In the end, the kids thought the translation method was pretty cool and interesting. I probably caused more of a problem by my stammering beforehand than I would have if I had just plunged ahead. Our kids are smart and can handle this sort of stuff just fine – it’s the stammering, contradicting, and modernizing about our history that leads to problems.

  28. jjohnsen says:

    Tracy did the right thing, but that doesn’t mean some parents are going to be happy about it. When I was teaching thirteen-year-olds they asked me about Brigham Young having multiple wives and how it all started. I gave a very short summary about plural marriage and Nauvoo. I had two very upset parents confront me in the hall the next week telling me they were going to talk to the bishop about the filth I was sharing with their children.

  29. jjohnsen says:

    Let’s be honest though, should we be telling these kids the truth? What percentage of members do you think know any church history other than cleaned-up anecdotes from a manual or what they read in a glossy story from the New Era? 5-10%? My wife didn’t know Joseph Smith had more than one wife until she started asking questions while I was reading Rough Stone Rolling.

  30. Kristine says:

    re #28–I was released from a teaching calling over a similar episode. Tracy, I hope it doesn’t happen, but you probably ought to brace yourself for some strong parental reaction. A similar question came up in my Sunday School class (12-13-14- year-olds), and I gave them a pretty perfunctory answer and told them we’d have a lesson about it sometime this year. I plan to send their parents a letter beforehand and invite them to be present if they’d like. Seems ridiculous that anyone would rather that they learn about polygamy in their U.S. history class, but that seems to be the preference of some parents.

  31. When we look upon the past we look as though we are peering through a keyhole. All the images that do not appear readily to us influenced the images we do see, but does not explain the circumstances that caused the incident to take place. People who leave the Church based on images seen through a keyhole will appear to be foolish when the day comes we see much more. Today that keyhole view has been much widened and we see more, but it is nevertheless an enlarged keyhole. Joseph was married to Emma and had children with her. Today we have DNA evidence that tells us that Joseph’s only posterity living today is from Emma. Joseph was sealed to others other than Emma, but apparently the physical consumation did not occur. I addressed that part of the Emma movie on polygamy the same way Emma addressed it. There is much more information available than can be placed in this text and that information substantiates what Joseph and Emma did do. – I am the 3rd ggggrandson of Joseph and Pres. of Joseph and Emma Historical SOciety and producer of Emma Smith: My Story. (just happened to run accross this blog.

  32. Michael Kennedy, thanks for weighing in. I appreciate your comments.

    jjohnson (29): Should we be telling the kids the truth? Are you being serious? I can’t tell if that’s tongue-in-cheek, but I fear it’s not. Of course we need to tell the truth. We do our posterity a disservice and impugne our own credibility if we do not. I will not lie to my kids, or the kids I teach.

    If someone wants to call for my release, I’ll come to that meeting armed with every historical text, MHA article and Elder Jensen quote I can dig up, along with anything else I can find.

  33. Ardis (20),
    It’s pretty much in the Primary lesson manual, although we didn’t address that, either. However, the fact that there were roughly 60 people in attendence at the first meeting is also in the Primary manual. So current 10-year-olds (at least) will know it when they get to adult Sunday School. :)

  34. My husband recently lent my MIL our copy of Rough Stone Rolling. She handed it back to him a few weeks later and said “Did you have any idea that Joseph had more than one wife?”

    This is a women who was born and bread in Salt Lake City. Lifetime member with leadership positions. There is seriously something wrong when so many people are taken off guard by this.

  35. Another tactic that works well with the kids (and with adults) is just to say I don’t know, but I will look it up this week and get back to you. Then actually do it. The kids at least feel you are being honest and treating their questions with respect.

  36. “jjohnson (29): Should we be telling the kids the truth? Are you being serious? I can’t tell if that’s tongue-in-cheek, but I fear it’s not. Of course we need to tell the truth. We do our posterity a disservice and impugne our own credibility if we do not. I will not lie to my kids, or the kids I teach.”

    Tongue in cheek, though everyone should be aware how it could affect your standing in the ward. My wife and I were released shortly after it happened, and though they didn’t come right out and say it, it was strongly hinted that we should stick with the manual in our next calling.

    My kids won’t be lied to about church history, bu you can bet many parents lie to their kids or avoid the truth when it comes to the past.

  37. I don’t know why I keep coming back here. What was more foolish – mentally checking out when I got a more complete picture, or believing the story the missionaries told me?

    It doesn’t matter, really. I guess I’m a fool either way.

  38. You may have saved these kids from future disaffection from the Church. I only found out about JS polygamy when I was 30 years old and I was a life long member too! Unfortunately, this is all too common in the Church. The exact same scenario you mentioned above could have been on a number of hush hush topics in the Church (Priesthood ban, Kinderhook plates, PoGP, Book of Mormon translation). There really is a lot that kids aren’t getting when they go to church, seminary and yes even institute classes. It sets them up later on in life to feel betrayed and lied to and many leave because of it.

    I think what you did was great. Kids need to know the truth, not be shielded from it. Mormonism has some shading things in its past just like most religions and it doesn’t help to tuck them away in a deep dark corner.

  39. Argh. I’ve been trying to formulate a comment about this topic for the last few hours unsuccessfully. Here goes.

    Perhaps what I want to say is that the Church and its members often take the “milk before meat” concept to the extreme, so that there is no acceptable, widely-accessible outlet for dialogue on the “meatier” matters of doctrine, practice, history, etc. And yet, as anyone who has taught a class of youth recently knows, even children are capable of digesting meat, and will seek out deeper and deeper understanding if constantly fed. Church instruction, sadly, feels like we’re forcing a diet fit for an infant upon individuals capable of much more complex thought.

    Ironically, anecdotal evidence suggests that when doctrine and history are presented honestly and without guile, but also without “whitewashing”, obfuscation, or tip-toeing over touchy issues, young minds seem much more ready to accept them than if they learn about it later, after years and years of “advanced” gospel instruction that didn’t touch upon any of the difficult topics.

  40. So what happens when the youth start watching YouTube clips of last night’s very-special-episode of Big Love and ask their Sunday School teachers about the Temple?

  41. Cinepro, If it’s me, I harrass them for a few seconds, then honestly we talk about it. Respectfully.

  42. John Hamer says:

    This is a side-note, but I wanted to say (re: #31) that just because Joseph may not have had children by his extra-legal wives, that does not necessarily mean that these marriages were never consummated. It is quite possible to imagine that methods of birth control, however primitive, were being employed successfully.

  43. You know, polygamy discussions always remind me of my very favorite Joseph Smith quote:

    “God said, “Thou shalt not kill;” at another time He said “Thou shalt utterly destroy.” This is the principle on which the government of heaven is conducted—by revelation adapted to the circumstances in which the children of the kingdom are placed. Whatever God requires is right, no matter what it is,…

    I like this quote because it reminds me to be humble. Perhaps that was the real intent of polygamy in the LDS Church?

    To me, the above quote implies that there can be multiple truths. One person may be obligated to practice polygamy, while another person may be obligated to remain chaste for life.

  44. One of the unfortunate points which I have become aware of as a result of such discussions are the percentage of members in my ward who refuse to accept anything but what they have learned “in their youth”, no matter how well documented or how well presented, e.g., RSR. One member told his wife after her book group began reading RSR that he didn’t want to hear any of it….

  45. Researcher says:

    Last night at Family Home Evening we happened to sing (totally coincidentally) “In Our Lovely Deseret” and as I got up from playing the song, I noted that the words were by Eliza R Snow and that she was the fourth wife of Joseph Smith. (The number is from a book I was just reading with a publication date of 1965 that says that one of my ancestors attended “the 80th birthday party of Eliza R. Snow Smith, the fourth wife of the Prophet Joseph.”)

    My children looked at me and one of them said, “You just said Joseph Smith.” (Figuring that I got someone’s name wrong again.) I said, “Yep.” They said, “You mean Brigham Young?” “No.” “You mean Lorenzo Snow?” My husband said, “She was his sister.” In concert, my two oldest children said, “But Joseph Smith was only married to Emma.”

    I explained that she had been married to Joseph Smith and that he had other wives, and she was subsequently married to Brigham Young after Joseph Smith’s death. Then we had a brief discussion of polygamy (Jacob 2:30, Doc. & Cov. 132, Official Declaration) and I mentioned that anyone who doesn’t know that Joseph Smith practiced polygamy hasn’t read the scriptures, and if they have read them, they don’t understand them.

    I didn’t attempt to give any rationale for polygamy or its cessation except pointing out what the scriptures said.

    Questions from my kids: “I just read the entire history of Joseph Smith by his mother and it didn’t mention that.” (Answer: His mother didn’t like to talk about that. Neither did Emma.) “What happened to the polygamous families after the official declaration?” (Answer: They stayed together and took care of each other.) That’s the level of detail they were interested in. (Similar age to your Sunday School kids.)

    In the discussion I had with my husband afterward, he said, “Well, that’s why we have family home evening, so that the kids can get some of this information that they won’t get in church” [we talked for a bit about how the church shouldn’t be teaching polygamy, because it’s not a commandment to us, so sometimes unfortunate misunderstandings like this happen] and “Next up: the revelation on the priesthood.” (He’s been reading the recent Kimball biography.)

    Thanks for prompting this impromptu lesson, Tracy M!

  46. Researcher says:

    And sorry for the length of that comment!

  47. Researcher, that is too cool! I think we might try that next week.

  48. SteveS,
    I totally agree with everything you said.

    I think it is great that you shared this with your kids. Hopefully, they will share it with other Church members. Eventhough I understand what your husband meant by “that’s why we have family home evening” I have to disagree somewhat. This is information that is suitable to be discussed in Institute classes such as Church history or D&C. I’ve had both at Ricks and BYU yet there was never any mention of JS’s polygamous practices. I am one of those people that thought the Church taught classes I took informed me completely about LDS history (after all it is called Church history) and doctrines. Unfortunately, I found out later much was left out, and not in a random way. All the things that would make the Church look bad were left out. This made me feel terribly betrayed. I’m still trying to come to grips with it all, after 3 years of studying myself. It has been extremely painful, but that’s not why I’m telling you this. I feel uncomfortable saying what the Church should do, however, the way things are going now is setting people up to feel betrayed. I think it is so sad. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to be changing. All I have control over is my family. Like you I will teach them all I know about Church history. I hope that when the day comes they can make an informed decision about being a member of the LDS faith. They deserve that much.

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