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Joseph Smith and Plural Marriage: The Quest for the Hidden History Continues

Many who feel like the Church is “hiding” it’s history will mention Joseph Smith’s practice of plural marriage as one of their key examples. They tell all kinds of stories about being in the Church for decades and never hearing anything about it. They talk about how they asked others about it, and everyone they knew – all these faithful, long-standing members – knew nothing about Joseph Smith and polygamy. I have personally never been able to relate to this experience, because my experience has been exactly the opposite. I always thought the fact that Joseph Smith practiced plural marriage was common knowledge. I’ve known it since my childhood, and all my friends, so far as I could tell, seemed to know about it too. No big deal.

Well, all the anecdotal evidence from ex-Mormons aside, is it really all that hidden? This last week I decided to read Our Heritage: A Brief History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints all the through, since I had gotten behind. (Now, since I’m finished, I guess I’m ahead!) Anyway, as I was reading, I noticed this paragraph:

While working on the translation of the Bible in the early 1830s, the Prophet Joseph Smith became troubled by the fact that Abraham, Jacob, David, and other Old Testament leaders had more than one wife. The Prophet prayed for understanding and learned that at certain times, for specific purposes, following divinely given laws, plural marriage was approved and directed by God. Joseph Smith also learned that with divine approval, some Latter-day Saints would soon be chosen by priesthood authority to marry more than one wife. A number of Latter-day Saints practiced plural marriage in Nauvoo, but a public announcement of this doctrine and practice was not made until the August 1852 general conference in Salt Lake City. At that conference, Elder Orson Pratt, as directed by President Brigham Young, announced that the practice of a man having more than one wife was part of the Lord’s restitution of all things (see Acts 3:19–21). 

Now, I know some people are going to make a fuss about how it doesn’t actually say that Joseph Smith practiced plural marriage, but that is really splitting hairs! We learn here that the principle was revealed to Joseph Smith, and implemented by Joseph Smith. Does it really take much imagination to figure out from there that he was himself practicing it? Just put two and two together here.

Now, I’ll grant that Church materials tend to focus only on Emma, and never really name or mention his other wives specifically. And, personally, I think it would be great if we could get some portrayal of it in videos on the life of Joseph Smith and what not. I fully acknowledge that the Church could do more to raise awareness about it, and certainly encourage every effort on that front, so long as it doesn’t become distracting from our real message or cut into time that is better used focused on more practical gospel learning. (In fact, I just learned about some materials the Church will make available on the subject, but I don’t think I am at liberty to share it right now.) Part of the reason we don’t see or hear much, I think, is because while we know about the marriages, we know precious little about the kind of personal relationship Joseph Smith had with his various wives. Meanwhile, we have lots of letters and stories and things that shed light the relationship Joseph and Emma had. That may begin to change, however, thanks to the prodigious work of Brain Hales and Don Bradley. New light is coming out on Joseph Smith’s plural marriage that may help us better understand it and the relationships he had through the practice.

Anyway, I am just rambling at this point. The point is, while the Church can (and will, soon) do more to raise awareness, it is worth asking the question: Can it really be said that the Church is hiding the information when they have had it published in a manual that was supposed to be read by members every four years, starting in 1997? A person who was an adult member in 1997 should have read Our Heritage no less than five times through by the end of this year (in 1997, 2001, 2005, 2009, and 2013). Now, I realize that most folks won’t have done that (this year was my first time, but in my defense, I was only 10 in 1997). But, can the Church be blamed for you not knowing something when they published it and said, “Here, read this. In fact, read it every four years as a supplement to your scripture study.”? And, this is neither the first time, nor the last time, that this information was published – this is not an isolated incident. FAIR has documented mention of plural marriage in connection with Joseph Smith in a number of Church sponsored publications starting in 1973 and going up to the present.


Again, while I grant that there is more the Church could be doing to raise awareness of Joseph Smith’s practice of plural marriage, surely individuals who are not aware of it bear some responsibility when it’s been published by the Church in sources which members have been encouraged to read regularly. 

Comments

  1. Great thoughts and comments. In my book 'Day of Defense: Positive Talking Points for the Latter Days', I approached this subject from the critics views of plural marriage, that it began with the murderer Lamech in the Old Testament, that it was just a custom, etc. I address that the practice is both righteous and an abomination, depending on the circumstances and whether or not it is as you described, under the direction of the priesthood.

    I am not sure what information you are privy to, but from people I talk to, they are concerned about areas I did not discuss in my book. Mostly about Helen Kimball, being 14 years old. And other wives that were already married to men in good standing, in which Joseph Smith took as his own. I'm not sure how much truth or what the context is, mainly because I have not had access or known where to find credible sources for the prophet's other wives. Hopefully some light will be shed on these issues, because I know they concern a lot of former Latter-day Saints.

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    1. Back then, a girl getting married at 14 is today like a girl getting married at 20. A bit younger than usual but not scandalous, neither was it a scandal for a young woman to be married to a much older men. Even the enemies of the church didn't make an issue of Helen Kinball's age back in the day if I recall correctly.

      As for the other matter, my understanding is that Joesph was sealed for eternity to women who were married for time to another man. And in those cases the woman lived with her 'for time' husband and nothing transpired between her and Joseph other than holding hands over an alter. Only after mortality does she become Joseph's wife, when her first marriage is terminated by death.

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  2. I agree the church doesn't go out of it's way to talk about it, but I have a hard time believing for one second somebody could grow up Mormon and honestly claim to know nothing about it. D&C 132 is right there, as well as Official Declaration 1. I think we touched on it in Seminary back in my day. It it just a lie they tell to try and make the church look strange and sinister IMHO.

    I think the church doesn't put much focus on it because it isn't really relevant to us living the gospel today, and I think there is a segment of the membership that would become fixated on it to their detriment. It takes a very solid testimony to be comfortable with that history (and the possibility of it being practiced again in the millennium), and on the other end of the scale some people would tap into their 'natural man' impulses over it.

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    1. You are correct. In fact in the introduction to Teachings of Presidents of the Church - Joseph Smith the manual states that there will not be any info regarding plural marriage in that edition because of the lack of documentation of it and the fact that the manual only includes the teachings that are applicable to members today.

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  3. For those who want to delve more deeply into Church History, there is the very thick Institute student manual titled Church History in the Fulness of Times published by the Church Educational System and available on line http://www.lds.org/manual/church-history-in-the-fulness-of-times-student-manual?lang=eng or can be purchased at any LDS store. This student manual addresses plural marriage in great depth. On p 256 it specifically addresses Joseph Smith and his practice of it, explaining that the principle of plural marriage was part of the restoration of all things and due to his reluctance to to move forward with it and the lack of historical documentation, "we do not know what his early attempts were to comply with the commandment in Ohio. His first recorded plural marriage In Nauvoo was to Louisa Beaman in Nauvoo;it was performed by Bishop Joseph B. Noble on 5 April 1841. During the next three years Joseph took additional plural wives in accordance with the Lord's commands. There are additional references to it on pp 424, 425, 440, & 441.

    There is an entire pamphlet written by Elder Joseph F. Smith, Jr as a rebuttal to the Reorganized LDS Church's claims that our doctrine teaches Blood Atonement and that Joseph Smith never received any revelation nor did he practice plural marriage in his lifetime and that it was originated by Brigham Young and the "Utah" Church. This pamphlet includes affidavits from the plural wives of Joseph and Hyrum Smith. It is available online at: http://www.scribd.com/doc/59230951/Blood-Atonement-and-the-Origin-of-Plural-Marriage. It makes for a very fascinating read.

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