A Very Short Post on How to Deal with Joseph Smith’s Youngest Plural Wives

(Inspired by Kristine’s “Very Short Post” series.)

Polygamy is a sticky issue; a very sticky issue. Particularly Joseph Smith’s introduction of polygamy, and particularly his sealing to young girls less than half his age. (Helen Mar Kimball was 14 and Sarah Whitney was 17, for instance.) These issues can’t be sugar-coated; if they are to be dealt with, it must first be acknowledged that its messy and difficult to be resolved. I have come to find, however, that there are some approaches that help me contextualize and understand the history of what happened. (Though I fully admit that I still am, and will probably always be, troubled with it.)

First, as mentioned above, you have to acknowledge that it’s not an easy solve. Second, you need to gather all the data possible so you can be as informed as possible. (For the basics, I’d recommend starting here, but also drawing from here, and looking out for these.) Third, and perhaps most importantly, you need to understand the ideological framework buttressing and driving Joseph Smith’s practice, which is probably best outlined by Sam Brown (here) and Spencer Fluhman (here). Understanding Joseph Smith’s cosmological view of familial sealing emphasizes the dynastic linkages between families, and helps explain why Heber Kimball was as anxious for his fourteen year-old daughter to marry the prophet. A thorny topic, and difficult to fully elucidate, of course, but an approach that can at least yeald some fruit.

Or, if you take another route, just change the dates of birth for Kimball and Whitney to “about 1820” instead of the accurate 1825 and 1828. Problem solved.

Note: I am not claiming that the institutional Church, or even higher-ups at the Church Office Building, approved this, but I do think this—regardless of whoever edited it—is indicative of our inability to deal with polygamy, as well as the problematic anybody-can-edit familysearch format.


  1. I wish there was a way to leave a comment after that entry in family search rather than here. Sadly, I’m sure the person who did it will never read your post. Blrrrrg.

  2. Why is it thorny? I never did understand that. A woman can have a child at 13 so the fear of marriage at 14 to 18 is simply a social construct. Teenagers are a modern invention.

  3. Modern, like starting in the late 18th century.

  4. Actually, the average age for menstruation was 16.5 in 1840. And the average age for women to marry was 19 to 23. Marriage at 16 was not unheard of, but rare, and not a social norm at all. Marriage at 14 was in no way shape or form normal in any aspect.


  5. If the marriage wasn’t consummated until adulthood, I don’t actually see any problem at all. My views on polygamy are well known though. Is there any definitive proof one way or the other?

  6. “Teenagers are a modern invention.” Ya, thanks Warren Jeffs

  7. Jettboy, say that Joseph Smith was the young virgin at 14 and Helen Mar Kimball was a 37-year-old sexually experienced woman. Just wondering if switching it up would cause you to see the icky-ness of your last statement.

  8. I actually felt less uncomfortable about it when I actually had a 14 year old daughter than when I imagined a 14 year old. I know we are more helicopter parents than we used to be, but since I spend my time doing my best to prepare my children for their future and do what I can to insure a good future I understand parents of the past doing the same. I guarantee if my daughter won a full-ride scholarship to Harvard right here and now we would encourage her to take it rather than wait and see if she can keep a 4.0 and win a scholarship to whichever college is her favorite in 4 years. Also, she always seems older than she is and whether we are talking about boys or her young women’s leaders, no one seems to be able to remember how old she actually is (combination of height, development, maturity, intelligence, personality, and confidence). If this was 200 years ago, I can well believe that the entire town would assume she was ready to start a household and run it well and I would probably agree with them.

  9. The “she’s biologically able to produce children therefore marry-able” argument has to be one of the worst arguments for marriage I’ve ever heard. Good work setting the bar low from the get-go.

  10. I was 10 when I got my period. That rationale is beyond disgusting Jacob.

  11. Harvard doesn’t give academic scholarships so that won’t come up.

  12. I thought that issue was dealt with at Carthage.

  13. OM, not really unless she was fat and ugly. We sex up teenagers and then get grossed out by them getting married. I understand the icky-ness of the differences in ages, but that still doesn’t take away from the social construction of it all.

  14. Jettboy, did you read my comment? It was not normal for teenagers to marry in 1840. They could not have babies at 13. And they did not start their periods at 13 either. There was no biological or social construct to excuse JS marrying teenagers.

  15. You’re totally right, Jettboy. A married 36 year-old man courting a 14 year-old girl is not creepy at all, especially if she is skinny and pretty. I don’t know why I didn’t realize that before! Man, all my troubles are just melting away…

  16. Glenn Thigpen says:

    As Ben said, before passing any type of judgement, we need to become more informed about the particulars of each case and to understand just what the relationships were after the sealings.

    Polygamy is a thorny issue because it is foreign to our culture. For 85% of the countries of the world, it is not so thorny an issue.


  17. Did Jettboy (13) really just get away with saying that? Is there some sort of sarcasm going on that I’m not picking up on? Cause to me that was horrifyingly offensive.

  18. I find it helpful to think of Jettboy as performance art, although the idea is not original to me.

  19. More to the point, I agree that it helps to understand JS’s “cosmological view”. I think it was Richard Bushman who said that JS didn’t so much lust after women as he lusted after kin.

  20. We like to leave Jettboy’s comments up so that he can be embarrassed by them if he ever gets wiser.

  21. Perhaps some people are given a pass because their comments are predictable?

  22. I prefer to read Jettboy’s comments in the voice of Colbert.

  23. Yes, it is a thorny issue, as illustrated by the ease with which some here are offended.

  24. I also think we tend to lump all sealing practices into the Utah-era polygamy bag, forgetting that there were all kinds of experimental practices going on prior to that time.

    The practice of “plural marriage” as a whole in our religious history is way more complicated generally than acknowledged – and it’s ironic that we were the sexual liberals whose marriages were legislated into oblivion back in the day by people who thought they were disgusting and in opposition to the will of God.

    The average age of puberty has decreased in the past couple of centuries, for multiple reasons – many of which are nutritional in nature. Frankly, if the youngest wife was not able to have children, as Olive’s link in #4 suggests very well could have been the case, much of the ickiness factor we see in Helen Mar Kimball’s sealing to Joseph disappears in light of the dynastic sealing aspect of the practice at that time.

  25. I would take that link with a giant grain of salt, Ray. The assertion about fertility may be true but that website looks pretty sketch-tastic.

  26. In JB’s defense he’s from Shelbyville where the marrying of attractive and surprisingly young cousins is a foundational right.

  27. Jettboy! Sometimes you just make my job easy. Sometimes you do it for me,

  28. Frankly, if the youngest wife was not able to have children, as Olive’s link in #4 suggests very well could have been the case, much of the ickiness factor we see in Helen Mar Kimball’s sealing to Joseph disappears in light of the dynastic sealing aspect of the practice at that time.

    Frankly, Ray, no, it doesn’t.

  29. I always get a picture of George Jettson when I see Jettboy’s name. Zipping around in his future space car. Bringing home the space age bacon. Then comes Jane, his wife, and her shopping sprees. His boy Elroy. (To think that the name Elroy could make it back in the future!) Then daughter Judy, nuff said!

  30. #28 – ZD Eve, let me rephrase that, since what I meant wasn’t clear:

    If there wasn’t a sexual component to the sealing, it changes the situation in a fundamental way – and it removes “much” (not all) of the ickiness factor for me. Regardless of whether Helen Mar Kimball was or wasn’t able to have children, and if there was a sexual component to that particular sealing, it increases the ickiness factor for me.

    If you don’t agree with that (if plural marriages of all iterations are equally repugnant for you, no matter their particular nature), that’s fine. I get that. To me, however, trying to understand the differences that did exist is important – and whether or not a sealing had a sexual component is one difference that is near the top of the list for me.

  31. A wretched hive of scum and villainy….

  32. Ray to me it is the most important question. If there was no sexual component I don’t really see an ick factor at all.

  33. You don’t see an ick factor even if it ended a young girl’s chance for a normal life? She recounts at one point how lonely she was and how she wasn’t allowed to participate with other children her age in activities and socializing because she was married. It’s icky all the way around. I’m troubled people aren’t troubled.

  34. Everyone is troubled. Except Jettboy. But he’s troubled in other ways.

  35. #33 – Two things, if that was directed at me as well as EOR:

    1) I never said I don’t see an ick factor. Re-read what I wrote. That statement isn’t in any of my comments.

    2) I never said I wasn’t troubled. I used “ickiness factor” intentionally, instead of some other wording.

    There’s a difference in the meaning of those two things, and it’s an important difference to me. It’s one of the things at the heart of the post, imo.

  36. And there were all sorts of different kinds of sealings by the time Brigham Young came along. Men sealed to him as sons and such and much more that J. Stapley could elaborate with better sources. So if was just a chance to be sealed together, why didn’t Joseph Smitht go that route instead of having them sealed as wives? Regardless of whether or not he did have sex with them, it was a relationship that made sure that he could.

  37. The polygamy and polyandry experiences of Joseph Smith are so troubling. The fact that he used his position as prophet to charm trusting women into marrying him when they were already married is very troubling, and the decision that he made to marry young women (without Emma’s knowledge or approval) breaks my heart.

    I called Susan Easton Black and asked how the Church justifies polygamy. (At that time I knew nothing about his polyandrous relationships.) She said the women had their agency to decide whether or not to marry Joseph. I would suggest that when a trusting woman is asked by a man with absolute authority over her to marry him, promising that this choice will assure her of celestial glory, she may have been more coerced than she realized at the time she decided to “marry” him.

  38. OM I can’t agree. I submit that “whether or not he had sex with them” makes all the difference. Helen Mar Kinball remained in her parent’s house, so if he never had sex with her (which I have never seen any evidence of) I don’t see how it really differs from her life pre-sealing. I am not saying that I approve, but I can’t allow myself to get so wrapped up that it doesn’t matter whether or not he had sex with any of his underaged wives.

  39. Latter-day Guy says:

    OM, the theology just hadn’t evolved that far yet. Joseph’s dynastic sealings gave way to Brigham’s adoptive sealings, which themselves were superseded by Woodruff’s emphasis on being sealed to one’s actual relations (even then though, the idea was that the chain would eventually be linked back to the prophet Joseph––an idea that doesn’t really enter the picture today). Earlier iterations of ‘sealing theology’ emphasized sealing people up unto salvation, whole congregations sometimes, without any real element of familial bonds. What is meant by ‘sealing’ is radically different today than at other times, and, while the ‘ick factor’ is profound in some historical situations, it may not be fair to ask why they couldn’t have used ‘different kinds of sealings’ that simply hadn’t been thought up yet.

  40. John Harrison says:


    Read the Fluhman article linked to above. It is worse than that. In this case it wasn’t just Kimball’s salvation on the line, it was the entire family’s. The language about Abrahamic sacrifice only makes it worse. This strikes me as very coercive.

  41. I submit that people in this discussion would be outraged at a 14 year old girl married off in Afghanistan by her father (even if he didn’t have sex with her)–yet are strangely justifying it in this situation. Tribal marriages in Afghanistan can be dynastic of sorts too.

  42. Glenn (16), for 85% of the countries of the world horrific abuse of women is also not a thorny issue, still doesn’t make it good, right, or in any way excusable.

  43. Latter-day Guy says:

    I submit that people in this discussion would be outraged at a 14 year old girl married off in Afghanistan by her father (even if he didn’t have sex with her)…

    It is my understanding that the father generally doesn’t.

  44. #41 – and I submit that intelligent, thoughtful, caring people (even those with daughters of their own) can view those types of situations differently (for example, by being “troubled” but not “outraged”)

    I’m not going to argue with you about this, mmiles. I will let what I have said stand.

  45. I agree, Ray, but I think the only difference is that, in one case, you and I believe the groom to be a prophet. How can outrage coexist with such a belief, even if the behavior justifies it in every single other instance?

  46. #45 – Kyle, that’s not my take, and I’ve never framed it that way. If you notice, not once have I tied anything in my comments to whether or not Joseph was a prophet – and that was intentional.

    There is a huge difference between being outraged, having a problem with something, feeling an ickiness factor to varying degrees depending on differing situations and being troubled. Those are the responses that have been mentioned thus far, and all I’m saying is that I can be troubled by some things without being outraged by them, especially when differences are involved that I view as important.

    The example of the Afghan father is a good one. What I consider to be under-aged marriage troubles me, especially as a father of four daughters. I could never consent to any of them being married at the age of 14, no matter the circumstances. Arranged marriages trouble me; seeing daughters as property to be given away troubles me deeply. (which is why I will never say that I am “giving away my daughter in marriage”) None of those things, however, outrage me in the context of traditional Afghan society- since I am sympathetic to people who don’t know any differently and who live in a society where such things are accepted and, sometimes, constitute a core aspect of their belief system.

    I agree with the point of this post, in that I agree that plural marriage during Joseph’s life was much more complicated than most people realize – and that systematically condemning all forms of what happened based on our modern sensibilities is, in many cases, an easy way out – the opposite extreme of the one being condemned. I try very hard to understand as much as I can about the circumstances and mindsets involved in any kind of historical analysis, and I simply am not outraged by this IF there was no sexual component involved, IF she continued to live with her parents, IF it was seen by everyone as part of an dynastic sealing, etc – even as I am troubled by those things and even as I am outraged by elements of other sealings that occurred.

  47. I definitely think ick about a 14 year old bride, but did 19th century Americans? I’m interested in what Joseph’s contemporaries (including non-Mormons) would have thought. Sure, the marrying age was already above 14 at that point, but why? As a matter of social norms, or was there something else? For example, of the few 14 year old girls married in that day, what if we found out that most of them came from wealthy families? That doesn’t justify it, but it says something about the culture of the times. I think I would feel a little better about it if it didn’t look as a bad then as it would now.

    I’m not an expert in 19th century literature, but I wonder if any writers from the period wrote about early teenage marriage. I wonder how they dealt with it. I think that would say more than looking at the average age women married.

  48. To make it even clearer, notice that I said I am outraged by some elements of other sealings – and they involved a man I believe to have been a great man and a prophet. That belief doesn’t mean I see him as infallible, and it doesn’t mean I believe he couldn’t have done bad things.

    I believe the prophecy that his name would be had for good and evil – and I don’t translate that in the same way most people do. I’ve studied history enough to know that most radical reformers and world changers were somewhat mercurial – and I accept that about Joseph. I can be troubled by some things he did, and I can be outraged at some things he did, and I can accept him as a prophet simultaneously.

    That is a much more powerful and inspiring view to me than the black-or-white caricature those on either side of most arguments construct. It gives me much more hope for myself than the alternative does.

  49. DavidF–According the census records for the time, the average marrying age for women was early twenties.

  50. David F, there are some really good statistical analyses of the questions in your comment – particularly regarding the occurrence rate of teenage marriages and common differences in age between men of Joseph’s age at that time and their wives. I can’t link to multiple examples without the comment being caught in the spam filter, so email me if you want to take a look at them. (The email address is at the bottom of my personal blog, which is linked through my name.)

  51. davidferg says:

    MMiles and Ray,

    I’ve seen the data. Read my post again. My point is, I wonder if the average marrying age accounts for the whole picture of whether this was acceptable or no. Perhaps it does. But maybe not.

  52. No, David, it doesn’t. It’s not even close to the full picture.

  53. demon butterfly says:

    Helen Mar Kimball’s father, Heber C. Kimball, had already married and had a child with his plural wife, Sarah Noon, when Helen married Joseph Smith. Plural marriage, by Heber’s standard equaled having sex, as demonstrated by a baby. Heber knew what he was getting his daughter into. Also, dynastic marriages are made dynastic by the children they bring, so waving around the word “dynastic” doesn’t give Joseph Smith a pass.

  54. I wish there was a way to leave a comment after that entry in family search rather than here. (1)

    Even if there were some way to comment on Ancestral File, it would be silly to do so, since that’s just some random person’s data, possibly created decades ago by someone who is now deceased, and it’s obviously someone who didn’t bother to finish the genealogical research before submitting the record.

    Ancestral File is a collection of people’s individual genealogy files. No one checked them; no one from the Church approved the contents. There is no conspiracy regarding the data in the link.

    Ancestral File still exists as a database, and it can be very useful in some cases, but it is not the Church’s current genealogical system.

    The current system is called FamilySearch Family Tree. It is similar to a wiki. I am looking at Helen Mar Kimball Smith Whitney’s entry right now. It looks accurate and has recently been worked on by someone named Smith. The entry has not been sourced. Someone should do that. I recently wrote a description of how to source and correct Family Tree entries. You can read it here. (“In Which We Bid Farewell to NewFamilySearch and Welcome Family Tree.”)

    But before you go start changing entries on Family Tree, remember a few things:

    * When you edit an entry, you are declaring to the whole world that you have an interest in the person or family line and that you have information on the person or family line. Once your name is associated with the entry, it’s there for good, and people may be contacting you to find out what information you have.

    * Don’t change an entry in Family Tree unless you have sources for the information such as birth certificates, death certificates, a family Bible, etc. These entries are about the lives of real people, and we should respect them enough to create an accurate record of their experiences.

  55. Amy T,
    I think one of the points of this post is that the new family search is like wiki, and that’s not a good thing. It’s a problem that anyone can change this information.

  56. The idea of a prophet promising an entire family eternal life if a young daughter will marry you seems like the best example of unrighteous dominion that anyone could come up with. And why exactly would an entire family inherit eternal life for that? This is doctrinal? It seems so far removed for the principles of the Gospel that we are taught today. It requires me to suspend my disbelief and then suspend it again.

  57. Geoff - A says:

    Were there an excess of women that some men could have numerous, or did someone else miss out? I looked up Lorenso Snow as we are having his teachings in P’hood RS. His last 3 wives were 17, 17, and 15. I read an explanation that as there were a shortage of women they had to go younger and younger.

    The 15 year old was married when he was an Apostle and 58 and probably looked like he does on the cover of the lesson book. She had her last child to him when he was in his 80s. So perhaps polygamy is not sustainable, because of lack of women.

    I think polygamy seems to be a power thing (abuse of power). There also seems to be an element of competetive pedophelia. I can imagine HP meeting where you compare how young your latest wife is. Very ick.

    What would you call it if groups of older men marry pre pubesent girls, but a pedophelia ring. Legalised child porn?

    I can see nothing but abuse of power and abuse of women/children. I have granddaughters this age and they are not ready for marriage, especially to old men.

  58. I think one of the points of this post is that the new family search is like wiki, and that’s not a good thing. It’s a problem that anyone can change this information.

    I think one of Amy T’s points is that “anyone” could and did enter the original “about 1820” data. It’s not like there was an ideal original entry that was later corrupted, which would have been “a problem.” With the new Family Tree (newer than New Family Search), there is the ability to enter documentation to correct faulty older submissions. Anyone can change wrong information to good information, with supporting evidence — even the particular records under discussion. That’s not a problem. That’s a good thing.

  59. I’ve seen a lot of comments about the “ick factor” of this and that. While I think our emotional reactions to various situations can be a useful heuristic that often overlaps with actual morality, I think it’s really important to be clear that ultimately it’s just an emotional reaction. A quick look over Jon Haidt’s or other social psychology work on disgust and morality should suffice to show that “ick logic” is quirky, non-rational, often based on bodily disgust (which is a subjective personality trait and culturally-determined), and just as often incorrect. Joseph Smith’s actions should be judged on rightness and wrongness, whatever ethical system you go by, but not on whether we find them “icky.” Sometimes icky things are right. Sometimes wrong things don’t feel “icky.”

  60. I’m sure someone, somewhere, noted the irony/synchronicity of the fact that a woman named Helen Whitney created PBS’s “The Mormons.”

  61. Sharee Hughes says:
  62. One technique of dealing with this issue which Ben doesn’t mention is this: We need the historical humility to admit that, given the very incomplete record we have of Joseph’s marriages, their purposes, and the details of practice, our understanding just may not be fully accurate and our judgments may be way off base. All any of us can do is ferret out what facts are available and use our best reasoning, rely on our best scholars, consider everything else we know about Joseph — and admit that our interpretations could be turned inside out by the discovery of some forgotten record or the insight of some new thinking.

    Whenever this subject is discussed, we see remarks from people who have decided they know everything that needs to be known and are fully qualified to pass judgment, and who don’t seem open to the slightest possibility that they/we all could be missing something. I realize we have to start somewhere if we’re ever to understand the past, but egads! a little humility, please!

  63. Geoff-A, Lorenzo Snow’s youngest wife (I believe her name was Sarah if memory serves) did not have her first child with him until she was 20. If you have some other source of information that indicates that Lorenzo Snow was in fact a pedophile please post it. Otherwise it is pretty strong to proclaim that any of these men were pedophiles let alone a pedophile ring.

  64. Let me emphasize again, which I probably didn’t do enough in the original (pithy) post, that I don’t think the ancestry file was a conspiracy or conscious attempt to hide the truth by the church, but just the unfortunate result of probably a single person who is a lazy researcher. While I did (and do) think there was a serious point that it could be used as a touchstone for, it was also partly a joke.

    And thanks, Ardis, for bringing up the important point of historical humility and openness in this topic, because it is sorely needed. The fact that one of the most important documents detailing JS’s views on polygamy, his 1842 letter to Newel K. Whitney, closed with the suggestion to destroy the paper reminds us that we don’t have much of the evidence, and probably never will.

  65. “the new family search is like wiki”

    NewFamilySearch is being phased out as quickly as the Church can get it shut down and Family Tree up and running. But the link in the post is not to NewFamilySearch. It’s to a previous collection, Ancestral File. The Church makes no representation about its accuracy; in fact, it has a very prominent warning about the inaccuracies in the database.

    FamilySearch Family Tree has several levels of protection to try and avoid the same kind of problems that crept into Ancestral File and newFamilySearch — sources and discussions. Only time will tell if they work.

    If (for some reason) you are very interested in the entries for the wives of Joseph Smith, and want to ensure that they remain accurate, first you’d need to collect accurate documentation so you knew the correct dates and relationships, and then you could click “Watch” for each of their entries, and you’d get an email about all the changes that had been made to them, so you’d know if there were some conspiracy to portray anyone as being older than she really was at any given point.

    Here’s a link to the Family Tree entry for Helen Kimball Smith Whitney. I assume you have to be logged in to your LDS account (or get a guest account if you’re not LDS) to view it.

  66. Joseph Smith had only 1 wife, Emma. Joseph had children with only 1 wife, Emma. Polygamy was ended, and the process of repentance requires past sins not be repeated, or justified.

  67. Syphax, are you suggesting that there are any ethical systems that don’t include “ick” factors and emotion, or that there’s a platonic ideal for “actual morality” we should be applying here? Granted I’m only familiar with Haidt through a few dozen blog posts here and there and it’s absolutely true that “ick” is non-rational and culturally-based, but I’m not sure it’s accurate to say that Haidt’s research says “ick” is “incorrect” or that he makes value judgements about any kind of absolute right and wrong. Seems to me it’s the exact opposite: all morality systems are culturally based with strong non-rational and emotional components, and recognizing that allows us to contextualize the actions of others who don’t share our outlook, but it doesn’t invalidate our reactions either. And, let’s not forget that Joseph Smith’s polygamy had a strong “ick” to it even in his day, so there’s a lot of overlap between 19th century and modern morality in terms of how we react. I think “ick” is a very appropriate and valid reaction!

  68. AmyT and Ardis,
    Thanks for the clarification.

  69. >>Read Brian Hales’ paper on this subject at the FAIR Conference last August: http://www.fairlds.org/fair-conferences/2012-fair-conference/2012-joseph-smiths-sexual-polyandry-and-the-emperors-new-clothes-on-closer-inspection-what-do-we-find<&lt;

    I think Hales is a careful, excellent researcher, and I'm anxious for his three-volume history of polygamy due out soon. That said, I think Mike Quinn did a great job responding to Hales at MHA and dismantling some of his claims surrounding Joseph and intimacy in polyandrous relationships.

  70. John Dinger says:

    While there is an ick factor, this was common in Illinois and also the entire country. On February 17, 1842 the Nauvoo City Council passed a law on marriage:

    “Be it Ordained by the City Council of the City of Nauvoo, that all Male Persons over the Age of seventeen years, and Females over the Age of fourteen years, may contract and be
    joined in Marriage: Provided in all Cases where either Party is a Minor, the consent of Parents or Guardians be first had.”

    So while Smith was breaking the law becasue he was already married, the age of Helen was not illegal. Also, it might be worth looking at Mary E. Odem’s, Delinquent Daughters: Protecting and Policing Adolescent Female Sexuality in the United States (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press) which shows that the age of consent in late nineteenth-century Illinois was ten—even though the actual average age of marriage was twenty-six for men and twenty two for women.

    So certainly an ick factor, but not unheard of.

  71. Kevin Barney says:

    So it sounds like Family Tree is moving to more of a Wikipedia model, where there will be places for people to justify their data, provide sources, argue one way or another, or so forth, and that a record of these deliberations will be kept and be accessible. If so, that sounds like an improvement over letting anyone with a computer change anything in the database on a whim without any support. But what if people can’t agree on a topic (and the issue of Joseph Smith’s wives being Emma only or being 30+ is bound to be an ongoing area of controversy), what then? I think in Wikipedia there is some person or group to adjudicate such deadlocks; will the same be available in the new Family Tree? (Full disclosure: I am not a genealogist and do not have extensive experience with these databases. I’m just curious.)

  72. Stephen Smoot says:

    One of my favorite writers, H. P. Lovecraft, is reported to have once said: “I am disillusioned enough to know that no man’s opinion on any subject is worth a damn unless backed up with enough genuine information to make him really know what he’s talking about.”

    To this end, I direct all readers’ attention to the fine offerings on this subject by Craig L. Foster et al. and Todd Compton in the volume “The Persistence of Polygamy: Joseph Smith and the Origins of Mormon Polygamy”. Before I take anyone’s opinion on this matter seriously, I first want to see that they’ve done their homework, thus proving that their opinion is worth something.

    In “The Age of Joseph Smith’s Plural Wives in Social and Demographic Context”, Foster, David Keller and Greg Smith argue that Joseph Smith’s marriages to teenage brides was not outside the norm of 19th century American marriage culture. In his response, Compton critiques this conclusion, and argues that, while not unprecedented, Joseph Smith’s marriages to teenage brides was more abnormal than Foster et al. are willing to concede.

    The entire discussion is very interesting, and extremely helpful in acquiring a more informed view on this matter.

    For those who don’t own the book, or do not have access to it, I offer this link, to counteract the sketchy link in #4:


    And this whole notion of what we find “icky” is not just rank presentism, but is actually doubly fallacious, since it is rank subjective presentism. What should concern us is whether Joseph Smith being married to teenage women was abnormal in his 19th century culture. The “icky” factor, while perhaps justified for modern sensitivities, doesn’t matter much in determining a purely historical question: whether Joseph Smith was violating social or cultural norms of his time by marrying teenage women. (The fact that these were polygamous marriages is an entirely different matter.) Even Compton admits that it is easy for us to fall into a presentistic trap, and warns against such in his article.

    And with that, I carefully duck down, and wait for the obligatory accusations of me being a pedophile sympathizer to fly.

  73. The harrowing 2003 movie Osama (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Osama_(film)) made me physically nauseous in its depiction of polygamy and young women. It would be crass and unjustified to compare Nauvoo and Utah with the Taliban, but the fact that our history even skirts with these issues is reason enough to make me feel very, very uncomfortable.

  74. Stephen: it is so kind of you, o thou learned one, to come and quiz us on our homework. What a privilege!

    I’m fully aware of the potentials of presentism in history in general, and tough issues like this in particular; I’ve taken the graduate seminars on the philosophy of history, historical method, bias, etc. But I also know that we can sometimes emphasize the foreign nature of the past world so much that we lose the shared humanity between ourselves and the subject. And I know that, sometimes, the accusations of “rank presentism” is more a tool of curt dismissal than a sophisticated analysis of difficult interpretation.

    It’s not just the age; by itself, the marriage between a 37yo and 14yo would, while not common, not be too far to warrent too many crimes. But it’s the fact that he married several teenage brides, plural, while being married to a woman his own age, that makes the age difference more difficult. These things can’t be compartmentalized from each other, no matter how much we wish they could. I’m sorry if you can’t see that.

  75. >(The fact that these were polygamous marriages is an entirely different matter.)

    Disagree. It is one thing for monogamous couples to step outside of social norms, say, in matters of age. We all feel a social pressure to marry, moreso in the 19th century I suspect, and sometimes you marry the person whom circumstance draws you to, even if the ages aren’t “ideal.” But with polygamy, these were women/girls who seemed to have been sought out for reasons beyond socio-normal coupling. Had a widowed Joseph Smith married a girl it would have been one thing; that he actively chose a girl when he was already married, is another.

    Now, if the choice was more about a dynastic sealing to the Kimballs rather than sexual desire for Helen, it will make all the difference in the world to our view of Joseph Smith. Will we ever know either way (cf. Ardis’s comment above)?

  76. “The fact that these were polygamous marriages is an entirely different matter.” So, that doesn’t enter into the issue at all? Not sure you can really separate things like this. In fact, I’d say this is of great importance for all kinds of reasons, not least those that mediated the OP.

  77. Well then. Jinx.

  78. “quiz us on our homework”

    Ben P, I suspect not all the commenters have done the homework, nor approach the subject with the depth or breadth necessary. Plenty of people are unaware of their presentist assumptions.
    In any case, I appreciate the extra citation.

  79. “…if the choice was more about a dynastic sealing to the Kimballs rather than sexual desire for Helen, it will make all the difference in the world to our view of Joseph Smith.”

    But isn’t the HMK case one that is actually somewhat clear on this front? All evidence does seem to point to HCK proposing it, not JSJ pursuing Helen. The marriage to Helen was exceptional not just for her age but for it not having originated with Joseph (though he clearly was happy to go along). Her childhood was no doubt cut short by the marriage, but there’s also strong reason to believe that they didn’t have anything like a spousal relationship (something, I think, that also marks her marriage as an exception). I have no doubt that sexual and romantic intimacy were a part of JSJ’s plural marriages, but it only takes a small dose of anthropological sympathy to conclude that polygamy was more than just a thinly veiled pretext for Smith to gratify sexual desire.

    Finally, I find it very disturbing that people find the polyandrous marriages more disturbing than the merely polygamous.

  80. Christian J says:

    Just so we’re clear, the “ick” crowd includes anyone in the Church who has, in any way shape or form, influenced the burying JS’s polygamy from the eyes of the membership or the non-Mormon public. Oh, its icky alright – evidenced by the fact that so few Mormons know about it.

    So, its not the “liberal” critics you need to convince, as much as the mainstream Church – including local leadership, GAs and auxiliary leaders and correlation committee.

  81. It needs to be pointed out that the evidence for Joseph ever bedding the youngest of his brides is probably the weakest among his wives. I lean toward the spiritual dynasty theory of sealing. I think Joseph and the families involved were simply involved in a project of spiritual sealing.

    Our over-sexed modern culture tends to equate marriage with sex. As if sex was the only thing marriage was about. But that’s a late 20th century invention. I’m highly suspicious of any modern projection back to the mid 1800s. “Oh, there was a marriage, that must mean they had sex!”

    No, not really.

    Frankly, Joseph Smith was on the run from angry mobs and away on business trips so often that I’d be surprised if he had much sex with Emma during that phase of his ministry – let alone the 30 other women.

    I’m also fine with the explanation that Joseph Smith simply was commanded to do polygamy and messed it up in practice. I don’t find the idea that a guy in the 1800s married a fourteen year old (I’m not one of those convinced by the crowd claiming thirteen years of age – in fact, I’ve seen a good argument it was closer to 15) particularly noteworthy. As some have said, it wasn’t the norm to marry that young, even in frontier 1800s America – but it was common enough to be not worthy of social comment back then. No one really gave a toss. The most you’d get was a raised eyebrow.

    The outrage is a purely modern invention. And a hypocritical modern invention – because as tactless as Jettboy otherwise was – he’s right that our modern culture has HIGHLY sexualized teenagers and glorifies and celebrates teenage sex, and encourages us all to participate in teen sexual acts (by proxy) as a part of our consumption of popular media.

    Was anyone here socially outraged when they released the movie “Bring It On?” How about the hundreds of other examples I could bring up if I bothered to do some digging?

    But we act outraged about this. Jettboy’s right on one thing – there is a healthy dose of hypocrisy and double-standard going on here. In many ways – we moderns are far more screwed up than even the most hostile caricatures of Joseph Smith.

  82. Seth,

    Does your charge of hypocrisy actually stand on the premise that people here bothered by JSJ’s marriages to teenagers are not bothered by the sexualization of teenage girls in contemporary culture?

  83. Stephen Smoot says:

    “Stephen: it is so kind of you, o thou learned one, to come and quiz us on our homework. What a privilege!”

    Well, seeing as how over half the responses I’ve seen amount to little more than, “Ew! This is yucky!”, yes, I feel my concern is justified.

    Before I take someone’s opinion on this complicated subject seriously, I want to see that they’ve done their homework. Sorry if that’s asking too much of the BCC crowd.

    “and I know that, sometimes, the accusations of “rank presentism” is more a tool of curt dismissal than a sophisticated analysis of difficult interpretation.”

    You might be able to stick that one on me if I hadn’t also included mention of Compton’s rebuttal to Foster’s article. But I did, because I realize it is a difficult issue, and that different historians have taken different views on this matter. The two articles offer different conclusions, and this subject does indeed warrants sophisticated analysis. If only such could be found by most of the commentators on this article.

    “I’m sorry if you can’t see that.”

    I just hope that you’ll have pity on me, a lowly undergraduate.

  84. Christian J says:

    Seth, are you telling me that JS’s polygamy was anything less than scandalous to his 19th C. peers?

  85. Stephen Smoot, perhaps you ought to do your own homework first? The author of this post has been working in this field professionally for years and has researched this particular topic for over a year while working with the Joseph Smith Papers project (google it if you’re unfamiliar). Seriously, your comments are hilarious – every person here has already done more homework than you ever will. You show a great deal of ignorance while demonstrating the gumption to question the author’s expertise. XYZPDQ – your undergraduateness is showing.

  86. The polygamy was more scandalous than bride age by multiple orders of magnitude.

  87. Brad, my comment is more referring that moderns are pretty darn selective in what they decide to feel outraged about. And where they decide to direct the bulk of their hostile energy.

    And yes, the bloggernacle in general shares some blame in buying into those cultural flaws.

  88. stevesmoot45 says:

    ” So, that doesn’t enter into the issue at all? ”

    No. I never said that. It does enter the issue, but for our present conversation I’m interested in whether Joseph Smith marrying teenagers at all was socially unacceptable for his time, whether it was a polygamist or monogamist marriage.

    Let me illustrate it this way. Let’s say Joseph Smith wasn’t a polygamist. Let’s say he married a 15 year old, and that was his only wife. How would historians of 19th century American marriage culture approach this? How come we hear people raging all the time about Joseph Smith marrying teenagers, yet we seldom hear outrage about William Clark marrying Julia Hancock when he was 37 and she was 16?

    The point is, I think a big part of the controversy is the fact that these were *polygamist* marriages to teenage brides. But that is different than the base issue of whether or not marrying teenagers in 19th century America was acceptable at all.

    That’s what I’m interested in. Whatever our modern sensibilities are, those come second to what 19th century practice was when we evaluate this from a historical perspective.

  89. Christian – when the mob showed up at Carthage – I’m willing to bet dimes to dollars that not a single one of them gave a toss about how OLD Joseph’s brides were – they only cared that he had more than one of them.

  90. Both my wife’s non-member grandmothers married at barely 15. And no, they weren’t pregnant and it was around 1930 My wife’s mother married at 16 and a half, and that was in 1956, and she wasn’t pregnant, either. These things do happen. But not if I had been their fathers!

  91. Stephen Smoot says:

    “You show a great deal of ignorance while demonstrating the gumption to question the author’s expertise.”


    I wasn’t questioning Ben’s post, nor his expertise. His was actually a thoughtful, well-rounded post.

    I was expressing annoyance at the multitude of posts whose only real argument was, “Ew! This is gross! Icky!” That’s not an argument. That is an expression of opinion. Before I take them serious, however, I want to make sure they’ve done their homework.

    (And, I don’t know why, but WordPress registered me as stevesmoot45 right above for some reason. That’s my old account. It’s really me, your friendly, neighborhood, smartalacky undergrad.)

  92. Kevin — it’s my understanding that FamilySearch will step in and adjudicate conflicts when asked, but I have no idea what that process would look like.

  93. mormon afternoon remedy says:

    How much historical context do I need to guess that Joseph’s marriages to HMK and the like triggered an ick factor for Emma? Not to mention how these cut the girls off from the conventional courtships and marriages they had most likely pictured for themselves?

  94. I’m pretty sure Emma was more concerned about the fact that he was marrying anyone besides her as well. I doubt the age thing was the main thing on her mind either.

  95. rameumptom says:

    It is hard to understand a culture very different than ours today, especially when Joseph was in the middle of constructing that culture, experimenting on the fringes of acceptability, and seeing what did/didn’t work. That his dynastic view of eternal marriage is very different than our views of family and eternal marriage today, also makes it difficult to fully understand what he was trying to accomplish.
    For many, Abraham marrying his young niece was an “ick” factor. For others, polygamy was. There are cultures today that we Westerners consider very “icky.” For generations, many felt homosexuality was an “ick” factor, but our culture is now beginning to accept and even embrace it. Why is it no longer “icky”?
    In Spartan society, warriors brought young boys with them into the field, to train them as future warriors, and to “bond” with them sexually when they were away from their wives. Today, that definitely has an “ick” factor to it.

    Culture and judgments of past cultures (including the one Joseph was experimentally developing) often end up with an “ick” factor because it is so distant from what our current standards are. Yet, we accept the Bible as gospel, even though Moses and Joshua committed genocide, slaughtering women and children. “Ick”. Hosea married a prostitute in order to make a religious point. “ick.” Gentiles were like dogs getting scraps from the Master’s table, according to Jesus. “ick”. Want more? Read the book.

    Sometimes it isn’t an issue of what we think is “icky” or not. It just is. And we thus have to deal with it without wretching.

  96. Stephen Smoot, you’re really embarassing yourself.

  97. john f.

    That remark would only matter if you were the sort of person whose approval is usually sought.

  98. Odd defense of Stephen Smoot, Seth, but it’s informative to learn that’s your view of me, after all these years. I acknowledge I am nobody that Stephen Smoot would or should be seeking approval from (thankfully). It’s just embarassing to see an undergraduate lecture others with far more exposure on their sources. In a later comment he admitted he wasn’t scolding Ben P. or giving out homework to him. But he seems to feel that any commenter expressing an “ick” factor must not have read the Foster, Compton, or FAIR article and are merely displaying rank subjective presentism. So, yeah, I’m sticking with my observation that he’s embarassing himself with such comments.

  99. Seth #97: way out of line.

  100. “Joshua committed genocide, slaughtering women and children. “Ick””

    So, yeah, about that. Some of us haven’t actually come around to finding that acceptable.

  101. john f. after my own many years around here – I’ve pretty much come to the point where I no longer care about the “credential game.” I’m not concerned whether your schwartz is as big as mine or not.

    All I care about is the rigor of actual arguments. That’s it. The end.

    I don’t care who has a PhD. All I care about are their arguments, and how they choose to present them on the website I’m at.

    And anyway – if these “others” you are referring to have “far more exposure on their sources” – then they can include that experience in their posts. Otherwise they’ll get no deference from me whatsoever.

    I don’t care if Todd Compton himself were to show up in this discussion. If all he had to say was simply “you are just wrong and I’m not going to bother explaining why” – then I would feel completely fine dismissing his unhelpful and ridiculous contribution for the worthless piece of posturing it is.

    Save the credential-game for someone who cares john.

  102. re # 100, good point, Cynthia! (see also: http://abev.wordpress.com/2007/05/14/samuel-and-mmm/)

  103. Brad, no more out of line than post #96. Unless you are willing to equally oppose that comment, I’m not really moved.

  104. I’m not playing a credential game. I’m telling Stephen Smoot he’s embarassing himself by playing the “you haven’t done your homework game but I have because I’m an undergrad who read three articles game”. You disagree. Well done.

  105. john this would only matter if Stephen was playing his own opinions in opposition to the original post. He already said he didn’t. Perhaps you missed that detail.

    He was only responding to commenters on the discussion. With whom he stands on equal footing as far as I’m concerned.

    One wonders where your outrage was at some of the other commenters – who were basically playing the same game you accuse Stephen of.

    And you can have the last word on this – because I don’t care to drag out the personal battle (which incidentally – you started) any further.

  106. Okay, then, if that’s how you want it, here’s the last word: well done.

  107. “Brad, no more out of line than post #96. Unless you are willing to equally oppose that comment, I’m not really moved.”

    Except they’re not the same, Seth, and you know it. John commented on Stephen’s behavior, specifically on this thread. He didn’t make any generalized judgment about Stephen’s. He didn’t say “you’re an embarrassing person who cannot help but embarrass himself.” You, on the other hand, made a public judgment of John’s overall character as a person whose opinions deserve to be taken seriously. Stephen did embarrass himself here. It wasn’t a major offense, but even he had to walk back a bit. At a minimum, he has behaved in a manner that one could in good faith describe as embarrassing.

    Your reaction to John was far more sweeping, personal, and out of line than John’s reaction to Stephen’s comments.

  108. I’m an undergrad.

  109. Brad, I feel that way about everyone here – including me.

    No one here is impressive enough that they are at the point where their mere subjective disapproval can be expected to count for much in winning theological or policy debates.

  110. Stephen Smoot says:

    john f.

    Maybe I am embarrassing myself. I’ve done so before, and I’m sure I’ll do so again sometime in the future.

    But, as I’ve said before, I am not trying to one-up Ben P, or anyone else. (I thought my self-mocking comments about me being an undergraduate would’ve made that obvious.) I actually enjoyed his opening post. It was thoughtful and interesting. I am concerned, however, when people express opinions as facts or arguments. Expressing an opinion (“I think it’s icky that Joseph Smith married teenagers”) is not the same as an argument (“The reason I think it’s icky is X, Y, Z, etc.”) People think Joseph Smith being married to teenagers is icky. Okay, fine. That’s their opinion. However, what I want these people to consider the possibility that their opinion stems from a modern, presentist mindset. Maybe something that is icky to us today wasn’t such in the 19th century. But in order to determine such, we need to engage with the historical evidence. The question then becomes a historical question: was it “icky” for Joseph Smith to marry teenagers in 19th century America, according to his own societal norms. Why or why not? And then the follow-up question: if it wasn’t “icky” in the 19th century, then are we justified in using our feeling of it being “icky” to pass judgement on Joseph Smith? Those are the questions I’m interested in, but which I see lots of people here seem to miss. Those are the questions directly addressed in the articles I listed, and why I listed them.

    So anyone can go ahead and be disgusted with Joseph Smith’s marriages to young women if they please. But I’m not really interested in that. I’m interested in the questions posited above.

    Thus the H. P. Lovecraft quote: your opinion is only worth as much as it in an informed opinion.

    Now that I think about it, though, I can see how I came across as too snobbish in my first comment. For that I apologize, and hope my subsequent comments have clarified what I was trying to say in my opening post.

  111. Quickmere Graham says:

    Dear Stephen Smoot,

    Please, for the love of rod, please stop trying so hard to ape Daniel Peterson’s writing style. The self deprecation, the comments about people sure to attack you, the rhetorical gestures like directing readers’ attention or name-dropping an author by quoting something they are “reported” to have said, the jilting precociousness, and all the rest of it. For reals. We have a Daniel Peterson, we really only need one Daniel Peterson, and you’re not him.

  112. Quickmere Graham says:

    Smoot says: For that I apologize, and hope my subsequent comments have clarified what I was trying to say in my opening post.

    Well, perhaps you at least differ from Daniel Peterson in one important way: a willingness to apologize for coming across as too snobbish (even though the apology itself is couched in a Petersonesque comment).

  113. Stephen Smoot says:

    Quickmere Graham –

    I’m actually very flattered that you think I’m imitating Daniel Peterson, since I have great respect for him.

    But, and I know this must come as a real shocker, I’m actually not. I was being sincere the entire time, even when I was, to use the words others here have posted, “embarrassing myself”. I might be a jerk, but I’m a sincere jerk.

    As for “name-dropping”, well, what can I say? I like to give attribution to the people that I’ve read things from. So, when I came across the Lovecraft quote, I tried to find it from one of his published works that I own. Couldn’t find it. So, to play it safe, because I couldn’t directly find the source of the quotation, I framed it the way I did. Don’t know if that really constitutes trying to “drop names”, but, well, whatever you say, I guess.

    As for Foster and Compton, you can easily find their work with a simple Google search. I happen to own the book I referenced, so that’s where I got it from. Again, don’t know exactly how this constitutes “name-dropping”, so whatever.

  114. “No one here is impressive enough that they are at the point where their mere subjective disapproval can be expected to count for much in winning theological or policy debates.”

    That’s a totally fair and valid position. But that’s not what you said to John, otherwise your comment would have read:

    “That remark would only matter if [anyone here were impressive enough that their mere subjective disapproval counts for winning a theological or policy debate].”

    But you didn’t. You directed it personally at John, you did it on purpose, and _that_ is why it was way out of line and far more out of line than John’s comment to Stephen..

  115. Quickmere Graham says:

    Gee whiz, your intense need to rebut me as well as the way you actually went about it is also entirely permeated with the Peterson style.

  116. Yeah, so, EVERYBODY needs to just knock it off.

  117. Brad, I suppose Quickmere means the analogy to “Daniel Peterson” as an insult both to Smoot and to Peterson. Fair observation you think?

  118. Yeah, sorry everyone, but let’s curtail the conversation and get back to something civil like debating JS’s libido ;)

    But seriously, take the tangent outside.

  119. rameumptom says:

    Cynthia #100: that’s my key point. There’s a lot of things that happened in the past that we would quickly put the “ick” factor on. A lot of it is due to our culture, and view that our culture is better or more enlightened than previous cultures. It’s kind of like Nibley teaching about Nephi cutting off Laban’s head (what we would today call cold blooded murder), and having Arab students in his class saying that Nephi should not have argued with God/the Spirit over the command to slay him!

    It is all about culture. Joseph Smith was creating a new culture, much of it based upon ancient concepts. Some of it ended up working. Some of it ended up leaving us today with an “ick” factor to deal with. However, at the time Joshua and Moses were committing genocide, Joseph was marrying Helen Kimball, and Nephi was removing Laban’s head, I doubt any of them were pondering: “what will future generations in the 21st century think about what we’re doing?”

  120. Er, I don’t think it’s “cultural” to say that genocide is wrong.

  121. It looks to me like Ben’s post is really saying that you can deal with Joseph Smith’s teenage wives, maybe, with a lot of hard work and study, or you can indulge in presentist “Ick!” statements, or you can sweep it under the rug through denial and trying to rewrite history via New Family Search Wiki Thingy or some other scheme. The new Family Search Family Tree that Amy and Ardis have posted about, strangely enough, also requires some hard work and knowledge of sources, ie more homework.

    So, Ben, are you saying that we either do some pick and shovel work on our history, one way or another, or else we are just dodging the troubling issues of our past out of laziness? If so, point well taken, at least in this quarter.

  122. The hard thing for me in almost of these discussions is that they are all centered around JS motivations when people are troubled. The fact is, whatever the motives in all their complexity, it completely changed the outcome of women’s lives in serious and often very damaging ways (and admittedly some advantageous ways). Yet somehow his motives are talked about as if we can clarify and understand that he wasn’t just looking for sex, then it’s understandable and God heals all. Regardless of his motives, the outcomes for women were the same. It should be more troubling to us that women were in such a situation than it is that he did it. And the experience of women in JS marital practices are further marginalized on the blog when multiple commenters downplay any damage to women by saying it was normal–or change the subject to JS motives.

  123. Kevin: I still maintain that the first thing you have to recognize is that there is some difficulty to the issue, and hence I have no problem in saying there is an “ick” factor. But I nor, as far as I can tell, is anyone else saying you have to stay there. All we are doing is acknowledging the situation so that we can move on and get to work dealing with it.

  124. Wonderfully put, MM; perhaps the most important comment in the thread.

  125. Ben, homework = difficult issue, so yes, from our standpoint, there is an “ick” factor. I’m pretty sure I am I am agreeing with you. For some folks, the ickiness is all they can see, and for others, denial seems to be their answer. The dealing with it part involves the homework, getting past the easy assumptions and quick reactions and actually trying to grapple with the issues, motivations, and context.

    My own experience is that with more study of our church historical figures, you will find more warts and ick factors, but also compassion and understanding as well. I’ve been through that with a few folks, such as Joseph Smith, and also Joseph F. Smith, but not all the way there yet with Brigham Young, so I haven’t tackled the Turner biography yet. One step at a time, and all that.

  126. Agreed, Kevin.

  127. Indeed, mmiles. Indeed.

  128. I just feel like when discussing Joseph Smith that the question of primary import would be his motives. I don’t think discussing his motives diminishes the real pain, hurt, marginilization and disenfranchisement of any of his wives. Women were treated like crap, we still are in many ways, but I don’t see how discussing one aspect means we are automatically not recognizing the others.

    When I said whether or not the marriages to his underaged brides were consummated was the most important question to me it is precisely because I am thinking of their welfare–not Joseph’s reputation. Marriage where nothing in your daily life fundamentally changes, and essentially being forced into sex are two very very different things in my mind. That is why I was troubled by those who would claim that either way it doesn’t matter; that essentially one is the same as the other when they absolutely are not.

  129. Cynthia #120: “Er, I don’t think it’s “cultural” to say that genocide is wrong.”

    But it IS cultural. For you, it is wrong. For those who believed God commanded Moses and Joshua, it was right. And that is the hook in this. We try to judge the past by our culture today. The past will invariably come up short, because we judge it from our standard.

  130. EOR, I think it requires a fair amount of mind-reading to state what Joseph’s wives felt about the whole thing as well. We can read the work done by Compton and others describing the women’s own accounts of how they felt – but it has to be kept in mind that they didn’t feel the same way you or I would today if the same proposal were made. Nor did the women have the same cultural expectations you or I would have, nor did any of them have the same options and alternatives we have.

    The process of judging the impact on the women and their feelings is just as subjective and sketchy as the process of figuring out what Joseph Smith thought of the whole thing.

  131. EOR, Being married and therefore not being able to bond and create a loving relationship with someone and then build a life with him is the problem with the marriage. Arguably, he could have had sex with her and not ruined her chances for that. It changed her status–and it was a secret. She couldn’t tell anyone–but had to act like a married woman at 14 in all her relationships. It’s not just about sex.

  132. And, she didn’t choose it.

  133. Another side-note – just to highlight how difficult the process of historical context is:

    How do our feelings on genocide change if the options are literally “kill or be killed?”

    Tellings of ancient Chinese history are full of this kind of thing. Stories of men who refused to make their victory complete and certain out of personal vanity, or a desire to appear “nice” and forgiving – who as a result of their vanity and arrogance, fostered the seeds that would inevitably lead to future cataclysmic wars. Wars that could have been avoided if the protagonist had simply had enough of a spine to be brutal enough in the first place (and true to his own vision for the country). Moral fables about how kindness is actually the worst form of cruelty in the long term.

    Nasty stuff – those ancient Chinese fables….

  134. Amen MM Miles, #122.

    The important question for me is, What, in all this history, helps us figure out what to do should we ever be arm-twisted into doing that something that just feels wrong?

  135. rameumptom says:

    Seth R., you are exactly right. We are aghast at the deaths at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, yet ignore the fire bombings of Tokyo and Dresden that killed tens of thousands, simply because we didn’t use nukes.
    Yet, many military historians will tell you that without such gruesome tactics, the war would not have ended so easily for the Allied nations. We knocked the desire for war out of Germany and Japan, allowing us to rebuild them in our American/Western tradition. Had we done the same in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is probable they would have been easier to rebuild and we would not have a spreading Al Qaeda today. But then, today we have the “ick” factor about killing children and women via firebombing. We chose to be “nice” in the Afghani/Iraq wars. Still, we’ve slain tens of thousands of them in the current wars, but have done it a handful at a time, so we feel better about it (less “ick” factor for us), and instead of wiping out their desire to fight back, it enrages them.
    So, culture is the main factor here again.

  136. rameupmpton – I think that’s an apt analogy. Though it’s still really controversial whether the bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki really helped or not.

    My own personal feeling from studying those issues, is that the Japanese leadership was already starting to capitulate and showing signs of coming to the negotiation table when the first bomb was dropped. My own feeling is that Truman ordered the dropping of the bomb – not to prevent a land war on the Japanese main islands, but rather as the first warning shot of the Cold War.

    Truman wasn’t really dropping the bombs to impact the Japanese leadership (though that was a political bonus). The real recipient of the message was actually Stalin. Truman needed a way to keep the Red Army from crossing the river and continuing west. The French, British and Americans simply didn’t have armies capable of stopping the massive Soviet land war machine in Europe, and US presence was being drawn down every week. Nothing could stop Stalin from finishing what HItler started.

    So Truman made a ruthlessly calculated move to show Stalin – in no uncertain terms – what could happen if he tried to conquer anything more than he had already. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were warning shots across Stalin’s bow, and the first shots of the Cold War.

    But dramatic nukes aside – such devil’s alternatives were sadly only too common at the end of World War II. Even ordinary sergeants and lieutenants in the US Army faced them regularly. For instance, that grim period where Hitler started arming his “Hitler Youth” with rockets, sniper rifles and such in a last-ditch attempt to make the Allied armies (and some have argued – his own people) pay for every last inch of German ground in blood.

    So you’re a Lieutenant in the US Army and your men are approaching a German village. You all know the war is pretty much over, and the only thing left is to get to Berlin, kill that bastard Hitler, and get back home to your wife and family. For years, you’ve watched your buddies blown up and mutilated, learned to hate deeply, and suffered equaly deeply. But soon it’s all going to be over…

    And some wretched Hitler Youth just shot one of your buddies through the chest from somewhere in that town up the road.

    Not a single one of your men wants to do the bloody work of storming that town with infantry and conducting house-to-house searches while being shot at and tripping booby-traps. You probably employ a few colorful metaphors, order your men to back off, get on the radio, and order that little German village flattened by your artillery batteries a few miles back behind the lines.

    Because there is no way in hell you and your buddies are going to die in sight of home for something wretched like this. This miserable story happened hundreds of times during the allied advance through Germany. The allied troops had had enough – and thousands of relatively innocent Germans paid in blood for it.

    It’s easy to moralize that the life of a few GIs was worth the price of saving several hundred German women and children and the elderly. Easy now.

    Crouched in a ditch outside a German town with your friend bleeding from his chest and frothing out of his mouth, it wasn’t so easy.

  137. rameumptom and Seth R., do you think that people who vociferously oppose abortion (I’m thinking like Adam G and Matt Evans and maybe yourselves?) are only slaves to their own limited “cultural” perspectives, and that the fact that abortion is treated as no big deal in some cultures (even some subcultures in the US, say) is a totally legitimate belief for those cultures to have?

  138. No idea Cynthia. We have to live in the moment we find ourselves in – armed with the moral equipment we’ve been given.

  139. “So, culture is the main factor here again.”

    Huh??? When did we quit denouncing cultural relativism? Let’s go back to that instead of gay- and feminist-bashing.

  140. Cultural relativism is awesome when it can be used to soften the blow of genocide. But sodomy is always sodomy, Kristine.

  141. Interesting point Cynthia! Sacrificing children to Moloch was bad then and it’s bad now. Genocide was bad then and it’s bad now. I think there are a few absolutes that can realistically be spoken, even at a time in which people are aware of cultural determinism.

  142. MMiles, having had occasion to be forced to have sex I have to disagree that it does not make all the difference in the world. I wouldn’t presume to say how Helen felt about it all, but it certainly makes it the defining question for me.

    Absent her being here to tell me how she feels I can only rely on how I would feel in the situation. Being married to an “old man” would be terrible, having to have sex with him? Infinitely worse.

  143. We are now getting a defense of genocide. For the love of Moloch, close this thread!

  144. I’m reminded of what Montaigne said about getting our ethics from our culture:

    “Since a wise man can be mistaken, and a hundred men, and many nations, yes, and human nature according to us is mistaken for many centuries about this or that, what assurance have we that sometimes it stops being mistaken, and that in this century it is not making a mistake?”

    Montaigne was a driven skeptic. But he was also a faithful Christian. He recognized that if we tie our ethics to society, we will innevitably become relativists. And not only relativists, but potentially quite evil ones (from any sort of objective standard). Society will lead us astray. And if we presume to think that we as individuals can rise above society’s ethics, all on our own, without any help, we are merely deceiving ourselves. Better for us, Montaigne believed, that we choose faith and allow God to give us our ethical system, even if it clashes with society. And if we choose faith, we still won’t be able to rise above society’s mistaken morality on our own, but God will lift us out of it by His grace. I think a healthy bit of skepticism of our value-judgments probably is healthy (and I include myself here; I have already admitted I get an ick feeling thinking about teenage brides).

  145. EOR,
    Agreed, certainly sex would make it worse. My intent was to point out that sex aside, other factors made it bad as well.

  146. Oh I agree.

  147. It’s worth pointing out that you can still have absolute morality that operates within a culturally relative context.

  148. Capozaino says:

    The best part about getting your morality from God (see #144), other than being able to feel smugly righteous when I judge other people, is that I have the final say on what I think God’s morality is. In other words, God’s morality is whatever I say it is, and I’m free to condemn anyone, past or present, who disagrees with me because my morality comes from God, not culture.

  149. 148 lol

  150. wreddyornot says:

    My very short response to A Very Short Post [ha ha] on How to Deal with Joseph Smith’s Youngest Plural Wives:

    When something (e.g. young plural wives) bother’s your conscience/the Spirit, question it, push back about it, resist it, seek for understanding and don’t ever give up until your conscience/the Spirit is a peace about it.

  151. Anonymous says:

    After all is said and done, I still find Joseph’s spiritual wifery distasteful and I find polygamy as practiced later by many men including one of my ancestors disturbing. My great grandmother was not even 14 when she married my great grandfather. Whether or not this marriage was consummated at a later date, I am tremendously bothered by the fact that a girl that young could be married. I cannot, for example, believe for one minute that she entered this marriage out of romantic love and her own free will. To me, it smacks of involuntary wifehood.

  152. Cynthia, I have to agree with Seth that each culture has to determine what its moral views are going to be. Each culture struggles in making such changes.

    BTW, sacrificing children to Moloch was not “icky” to those who worshiped Moloch, but only to the other nearby cultures who disliked it. Remember, Abraham also sacrificed Isaac. In some ancient stories, Abraham actually slays him, and the angel brings Isaac back to life. So, the Moloch story touches on Hebrew ancient culture, as well!

    RJH, no one is defending genocide. We are discussing cultures and how they differ in determining what is or isn’t moral. Personally, I think genocide is “icky”, yet we then have to figure out what to do with our Biblical heritage. I find it easiest to separate out Moses’ culture and belief system from my own, so that there isn’t a cultural clash built up on veneer differences. Our own culture is hypocritical oft-times on critiquing those of the past, when it does not follow its own standard, but only reinterprets it to assuage modern tender feelings.
    And as a historian, I am designed to look at things from different angles in order to understand them better. This is something that the ordinary reader of history should not do at home.

  153. Capozaino,

    That’s why we have to ask God for help to decide moral questions, and not just presume that we know what He believes. The Spirit, you know. More than anything else, the things that help me deal with our polygamous past best are the testimonies of women who practiced it. Many of them wrote about the Spiritual comfort they received and spiritual knowledge that they were doing the right thing. Their testimonies speak peace to my soul.

  154. Capozaino says:


    I, too, get some degree of comfort from those who had positive experiences with polygamy. That comfort, however, does not negate my discomfort with the potential (inevitability?) for polygamy to be harmful to women and children, sometimes at the same time, which I think is confirmed by those who had negative experiences with polygamy. Maybe your ability to disentangle the Spirit from your own ideas and emotions is better than mine, though (not meant to be sarcastic).

  155. I would imagine that mothers and fathers whose children were thus sacrificed found it pretty icky.

  156. Alright, people. I think we’ve made the rounds and everyone has made their point. And when the debate turns to whether you can defend genocide, I think we’ve hit a wall. Come back next week for another thrilling topic!

  157. Capozaino (#154)

    Perhaps, but there is something that I am not clear on about 19th century polygamy. Perhaps others here can enlighten me. I know that in America today, a woman in a polygamous marriage is denied many of the same basic freedoms that a monogomous woman has. In other words, there is a substantial gap between the potential happiness each woman experiences (understanding that it is quite possible for a polygamous woman to be happier than a monogomous woman, albeit unlikely).

    HOWEVER, was the same true for women in the 19th century? Were women in polygamous marriages really more miserable than women in monogomous marriages, understanding that even 19th century women in monogomous marriages do not come anywhere close to having the privileges of a modern woman?

    To put this anecdotally, remember when we find out that Charlotte agrees to marry that sleazy Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice? It seems so awful! But the fact is, few women would have ever had a shot at a Mr. Darcy or Bingley (at least their wealth). And Charlotte figured she would be happier with a Mr. Collins than be unmarried. By today’s standards, Charlotte’s decision seems wretched. But would we come to the same conclusion if we were living in 19th century America? Maybe most women would have gladly chosen a Mr. Collins, given that the alternative was not being married. Ugly as this all may be for us today, did a 19th century woman entering into a polygamous marriage with an otherwise (probably) upstanding man have a worse life than a woman at the same time marrying a monogomous man? I honestly don’t know, but if we find out that few women, regardless of their circumstances, really had many options (granting that they were still probably quite happy by their day’s standards), then maybe polygamy was not as bad an option then as it would be today. Maybe we’re doing likening too much (don’t tell Nephi).

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