They seek not the Lord to establish his righteousness, but every man walketh in his own way, and after the image of his own god, whose image is in the likeness of the world, and whose substance is that of an idol, which waxeth old and shall perish in Babylon, even Babylon the great, which shall fall. (Doctrine and Covenants 1:16)Lori Burkman has a piece at Rational Faiths entitled “Disgracing God to Save a Prophet,” in which she essentially argues that God simply would not have commanded polygamy—it is too hard, too painful, too immoral for it to be from God—and therefore, polygamy must be Joseph Smith’s mistake. Whether it was a sincere misunderstanding between him and God, or simply Joseph Smith wanting so bad to have lots of sex and women that he abused his power and became a fallen prophet makes no difference to her.
Reading her piece, I can sense a lot of anger toward Joseph Smith and the Church over polygamy. I suspect that anger comes from a place of pain, anguish, and genuine distress that trying to grapple with polygamy has caused her. I am genuinely sorry for her hurt. I do not have the same feelings about this issue, but I have been deeply hurt before, I’ve felt betrayed before, and felt the anger that comes from those feelings. So I get, on some level, where she is coming from.
Because I’ve had similar feelings, though, I also know that it can affect the way we see, understand, think, and interpret. This applies to history as much as it does to personal relationships. As a student aspiring to become a historian, I get frustrated when I see history and historical sources so seriously misused and misunderstood. To give but one example, Lori declares that, “In fact, polygamy is proven to be less effective to “raise seed” than monogamy; so not even that purpose holds weight.” Yet in her footnote, just before telling us “just think about this a bit,” she admits, “Fertility at the societal level, however, was enhanced because of the near universality of marriage among women and the abundant opportunities for remarriage among previously married women of childbearing age.” In other words, polygamy does help a community—like the Saints of the 19th century—raise up more seed.
That, however, is not what I wish to comment on here. There are plenty of good resources a person can go to for the history, including this new website from Brian Hales where all the primary source documents on Joseph Smith’s polygamy are being made available free of charge. Instead, I would like to comment on what I see as a very concerning trend among certain types of “Internet Mormons,” particularly more “liberal” types, for lack of a better term. I’ve noticed a certain type of thinking among them, and I’ve seen it several times. Lori’s post is but the latest example. It goes something like this:
X is just too unpalatable in some way.
Therefore, God could not be involved in x.
Therefore, it must be the fault of prophet y or z, etc.
In most cases, x is polygamy, or the priesthood ban, or the Church’s current and continued teachings regarding same-sex attraction or women and the priesthood, and so on. And prophet y and/or z, and/or prophets a, b, c, and so on is/are the prophet(s) perceived as responsible for whatever x is. This is clearly manifest in Lori’s post, when—after describing Joseph Smith’s polygamy in the most scandalous terms possible (accuracy be damned!)—she declares, “So this… THIS is the God of Mormonism. Those who wrote and approved the latest essays would rather have the aforementioned paragraphs be Godly-mandated acts rather than admit that Joseph more than likely got something wrong in a big way.” She then goes on:
“I could never believe in a God for whom polygamy is a requisite to win His favor or earn eternal reward. I am enough of an adult to understand that people, even good people, fall prey to their lesser impulses. I freely recognize that all of us have tried to find a way to justify our sins so we don’t have to face the fallout that would follow a true admission of our fault. I’d be willing to love Joseph despite the spiritual coercion he used to gain possession of women he desired as long as he admitted his guilt at some point. Many charismatic leaders and great activists had documented extramarital affairs: Thomas Jefferson, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Bill Clinton (the list goes on). The biggest difference is that none of those people removed their responsibility for their actions by claiming God forced them to do it. All I ask is that we are allowed to see polygamy for what it was. I ask that we can place the blame where the blame belongs: at the hands of Joseph and those who supported and perpetuated the “doctrine”.”
So, there you have it. Setting aside the fact that Lori is confusing her (very emotionally charged) interpretation of the origins of polygamy with the actual facts, what is truly concerning to me is how Lori—and so many others—have fashioned for themselves a God after their own image, and then cast aside the prophet(s) in favor of this idol of their own making. It is not the idea that prophets can be wrong that is concerning, but rather the staunch insistence that they, the bloggeratti of today’s Mormonism, know better what God’s will is than do his chosen prophets, past and present. Such a view is not faith of any kind, except perhaps an over developed sense of self-faith (faith in oneself). By demonstrating a lack of confidence in God’s prophets, she also betrays no confidence in God’s ability to actually guide and direct his prophets, to correct them when they are in error, and to this day can’t seem to get the right message about polygamy to his chosen leaders. She would replace a God who commands polygamy under some circumstances with one that is inept in actually guiding his Church, or alternatively chooses (for some reason) entirely inept leaders.
Faith, true faith, requires that we put our trust in a God who may not always see things “our way.” In fact, it seems to me that more than a few prophets have reminded the people that the Lord’s ways are not ours, nor are his thoughts our thoughts, and so on (see Isaiah 55:8–9). A God who always sees things the way we do is far too easy to have a truly meaningful, life-transforming relationship with. How can such a God transform our lives if he always takes our side? Repentance involves aligning our will and desires with God’s, reshaping ourselves into God’s image, not reshaping God into ours. This can be hard. It can be painful. It is often difficult. In his recently published meditation on the 4th Article of Faith, Sam Brown reasons,
“Loving and trusting God when we do not see eye to eye, when God appears hostile or distant is the measure of true faith. God is easy to love and seek out when we see him as a heavenly Santa Claus, filling our stockings with wonderful presents on Christmas Eve. The real God can be quite a bit harder to see and to love.” (Samuel M. Brown, First Principles and Ordinances: The Fourth Article of Faith in Light of the Temple [Provo: Neal A. Maxwell Institute, 2014], 37.)
Brown was speaking more to personal experiences than history, but I think the principle still applies. After all, what is history other than the personal experiences of those in the past? Particularly in regard to polygamy, we are talking about the difficult, faith-challenging struggles of many brave men and women (and as a man, I resent the insinuation, made by Lori and many others, that polygamy must not have been very hard for the men, or it was just some great opportunity for them—that is not what the historical documents suggests, but no room for that here). Sometimes God does things we don’t understand, things that are hard for us to accept, things that we might even feel are wrong and immoral. That does not mean that they are wrong and immoral, only that we see them that way. It is these things that try our faith, and it is by facing those things, in all their difficulty, that we can learn to see as God sees.
I don’t like polygamy any more than you do. Personal experience of my own makes it very hard for me to cope with the idea that God would command his prophet to do something that could so deeply hurt and seemingly betray his wife Emma. I very much feel for Emma and admire the courage she showed during such a trying part of her life. I am not saying God is to blame for every action (related to polygamy) of Joseph Smith, or Brigham Young or anyone else trying to live this difficult command from God. But faith requires that we come to terms with the things God does that we don’t really like—not pawn all the blame onto his prophets who are imperfectly but sincerely trying to follow his will.