The Sounding Board: Mormonism & Polygamy – a Call to Honesty

discussion on mormon polygamy and honesty

Welcome to the first Sounding Board!  You can read about what the Sounding Board is by clicking here.  The original post is here.  Let’s get started!

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“Why does a person who has not only left the church, but also does not believe in God, ask for honesty from an organization which is just one of thousands in the world that are also less than forthcoming? I know your heart to be in a good place, Jefferson. But this is not clear to me. Can you expound a bit?”

  • This blog is my attempt to tell my story – what it was like to be Mormon, what caused me to doubt, what it was like leaving the church, and how I transitioned from belief in God to atheism.  This is an important part of the story I promised to tell.  Dishonesty is one of the primary reasons I left the Church and why I don’t believe in any religion today.  After trusting the LDS church for my whole life and realizing that I was lied to by others and by myself I never again accepted anything without skepticism.  But there is another reason for this article; I want to focus on helping the world improve in our current social framework – with you as a Mormon and me as an atheist.  I’m not going to get everyone to join atheistic hands and praise Darwin (you know, like at a midnight séance or something) and though I disagree with Mormon theology in a hundred ways, I’m not trying to get people to leave the church.  I think that’s an important difference between my blog and others I’ve seen.  As people do leave Mormonism or any other religion – great,  I’m here for them.  I think my blog will help them connect with like-minded people and deal with their difficult choice in a healthy way that doesn’t ruin relationships.  For those who are Mormon, I would like them to be honest to each other and the world.  I would like children to hear the truth about their history, not sanitized half-truths designed to give a good feeling about Joseph Smith – the real history.  Honest teaching of Church history would help people make an informed decision.  It would help church members understand those of us who have left.  It would help mend relationships because it wouldn’t seem like ex-Mormons were making things up or twisting information unfairly in an effort to disprove the church.  It would help us have a real conversation.

“Your posts have changed. Perhaps I misread, but earlier posts had a “lets understand each other” feel to them, this felt flippant and under thought in comparison.”

  • The first few blog posts were meant to establish the context of the blog – I wanted a forum of mutual respect, openness, and understanding before I got to the specifics of why I’m an atheist.  I don’t think this polygamy article is out of line because it illustrates a sincere concern I have with the Mormon Church.  This isn’t a small issue and it hasn’t only affected me; it is an important part of building understanding between both sides.  Just as a heads up, I’m about to begin writing memoirs based on my pre-mission and mission journals.  You’ll find sincere and heartfelt expressions of a believing Mormon boy and man, grateful for the truth God was teaching him.  You’ll see that boy struggle as he matures, you’ll feel his confusion from contradictory beliefs and the emotional ups and downs that came with each change.  You’ll see me disclose the sincere religious convictions I felt for years.  I hope you’ll stay around for the whole blog because it will balance itself out.  However, I won’t avoid being straightforward about challenging topics of Mormonism.
“He goes off track, in my opinion, when he makes his point boil down to the church changing to fit society/softening its edges. More important than the conformity to appeal to the masses is 1) the fact that Joseph Smith conducted himself in such a way as to use his position to convince GIRLS to marry him – whilst his wife was kept in the dark about his activities, and 2) the fact that the church has LIED and swept important things under the rug.”
  • Joseph’s actions carry serious implications – they are difficult for the Church to deal with and I think are a main motivation for dishonesty – but when I was a Mormon I didn’t know about the 14-year old girls or the specifics of how polygamy was practiced, so they didn’t cause me to doubt.  Rather, it was the feeling that information was being withheld and history misrepresented that caused me to lose trust for my church authorities.  Since the main purpose of this blog is to explain why I slowly moved to atheism, I chose to focus on that.  Also, I try to allow readers to come to their own conclusions rather than be spoon-fed; it’s a more rewarding way to read and saves us all time.  I think most people who read about a man hiding extra marriages from his wife will find that troubling . . . and I think they should.

“Not exactly written from a neutral ground perspective,” “well researched and well rounded,” “interesting, but unfortunately one sided,” incredibly well-researched and heartfelt.”

  • The votes are in, and . . . well, they don’t agree.  Though most readers thought this post was well-balanced, a few expressed the feeling that I was being negative or antagonistic.  I’m not sure what they felt was imbalanced (I haven’t heard back from them on any specifics) but I would like you to consider a few things about my approach to this article and a few concessions I made to be respectful to Mormons.  First of all, I left speculation out as much as possible by giving the frank historical facts with little interpretation, and when I did speculate I let you know (“historians speculate. . . .”).  For example, I said “Joseph believed God was commanding him to marry each woman and he didn’t have a choice” instead of “Joseph had a large sex drive and developed a theology to justify his adultery.”  Though that is an interesting conversation, it can’t be proven, and distracts from the primary goal of this article.  Also, I used “Joseph” instead of “Smith” and language like “Joseph received a revelation” instead of “Joseph purportedly received a revelation” to maintain the respect and closeness Mormons feel for their founder and to allow for that interpretation.  I’d like to suggest that it was not me that was antagonistic, but the history itself.  It doesn’t look good.

“Yes, I believe Joseph Smith was a prophet, and yes, I too believe in polygamy.”

  • Great!  This is the honest answer.  You may then qualify your statement with “But we haven’t practiced it in over 100 years,” but if you say “no” or guffaw as if it is the most ridiculous question you’ve ever heard – you are lying.  End of story.  Polygamy is a central and important part of Mormon doctrine and history . . . it can’t be shed like an old pair of underwear just because no one wants to see it anymore.  Yet that is what the Church has done.  There was a good conversation in the comment section about whether or not it is OK for the church to be deceptive.  There were good points made on both sides, but I simply can’t approve deception from an organization that is supposed to be divine and godly.  I have a higher standard for myself and others; shouldn’t the Church of God have a higher standard for truth than me?  To be clear, I’ve written up a few examples of common answers by Mormons, PR reps, and Church leaders.  This is not a complete list, these are just answers I heard often while growing up.  After reading this post I hope you will never feel comfortable using one of these responses again.

Common answers by members:

  •  “Polygamy was revealed at a time when there were more women than men and they were crossing the plains.  The women needed to be taken care of, especially in that time when women couldn’t live on their own like they can now.”  This is one of the weakest answers I heard while growing up.  I chalk this up to ignorant members and don’t think this came from church leadership (at least I really hope it didn’t).  Census records show equal male and female populations, and many young men expressed their frustration that young women were marrying old men instead of people their age (we have access to their journals).  Also, early polygamous women typically had little financial support from their husbands.  Polygamy didn’t seem to “take care of them” in any earthly way, only spiritually.
  • “Joseph was commanded to restore all things.  Polygamy was commanded by God in previous dispensations (time periods when there were prophets on the earth) and God needed to restore it in this, the fullness of times.” This is part of the doctrinal answer, but pretends polygamy was something that “just had to happen for a while” as if God is checking off a list before he comes back to earth.  “Let’s see . . . alright, I’ve gotta make someone a prophet, I’ve gotta send my priesthood.  Check.  Check.  Oh, ya, we need a few people to have multiple wives for a while. . . .”
  • “Polygamy was about taking care of the women, it wasn’t about sex.”  “He didn’t have sex with the younger ones – if he did, he waited until they were older.”  That would be nice.  There is no historical evidence for this and quite a bit of evidence in contradiction to this.
  • “Polygamy was commanded by God so he could build his church quickly – once the church was strong enough, He commanded that it be stopped.”  Most importantly, this pretends a temporary and limited purpose for polygamy, and in early Mormon theology it was much more important than that.  Other than that, yes, growing the church was one rationale for polygamy and it is taught in LDS scripture (“to raise a righteous generation”).  Just one note here: there were plenty of other Mormon men could have had Mormon babies with their one Mormon wife.  Polygamy’s effect on the growth of the church was dynastic, not numerical: it strengthened links between central priesthood leaders and families and ensured more children were closely related to upper leadership.  In that way I supposed you could say it helped the Church grow.

PR Answers:

  • Part of President Hinckley’s interview with Larry King (1998), a few minutes into the transcript:

[Larry King]  “Now the big story raging in Utah — before we get back to morals and morals, is — the big story, if you don’t know it, is polygamy in Utah; there’s been major charges. The governor, Mike Leavitt, says that there are legal reasons why the state of Utah has not prosecuted alleged polygamists. Leavitt said plural marriage may be protected by the First Amendment. He is the great-great-grandson — is the governor — of a polygamist. First tell me about the church and polygamy. When it started and allowed it?

[Gordon B. Hinckley] “When our people came west they were permitted on a restricted scale.”

[Larry King] “You could have a certain amount of . . . ”

[Gordon B. Hinckley] “The figures I have are from — between two percent and five percent of our people were involved in it. It was a very limited practice; carefully safeguarded. In 1890, that practice was discontinued. The president of the church, the man who occupied the position which I occupy today, went before the people, said he had, oh, prayed about it, worked on it, and had received from the Lord a revelation that it was time to stop, to discontinue it then. That’s 118 years ago. It’s behind us.”

[Larry King] “But when the word is mentioned, when you hear the word, you think Mormon, right?”

[Gordon Hinckley] “You do it mistakenly. They have no connection with us whatever. They don’t belong to the church. There are actually no Mormon fundamentalists.”

I won’t get into everything here, but let me just point out the actual statistics of polygamy:

At present, perhaps the best estimates of the number of polygamous families among late-nineteenth-century Latter-day Saints range between 20 and 30 percent. Nevertheless, studies of individual communities show a wide variation in the incidence of plurality. Using 1880 census data, geographer Lowell C. “Ben” Bennion found the lowest percentage of polygamous families—5 percent—in Davis County’s south Weber and the highest—67 percent—in Orderville. He found 15 percent in Springville. In a study of St. George, historian Larry Logue found nearly 30 percent of the families polygamous in 1870 and 33 percent in 1880. (Alexander’s centennial history of Utah, quoted in Flake, The Politics of American Religious Identity, 65 and 192)

Keep in mind that those are census records, which underestimate the amount of polygamy because many Mormons kept their polygamy secret (there was an intense amount of US government pressure on Mormons because of polygamy, invasion was threatened, laws passed, people imprisoned, etc).

  • There are a few LDS sites that give a decent explanation of polygamy.  Notice the word “decent.”  Here’s one: http://www.mormonnewsroom.org/topic/polygamy.  There still aren’t any specifics or numbers, but I wouldn’t demand all the numbers be included on a one page PR webpage.  (Again, I’m not expecting members to talk about all aspects of polygamy the first time someone asks them what their name is.  “HI, MY NAME IS JEFFERSON!  MY CHURCH USED TO BELIEVE THAT I COULD BECOME MORE EXALTED IN HEAVEN IF I MARRIED MANY WOMEN AND HAD LOTS OF BABIES!!” Or, “Joseph Smith saw a pillar of light . . . and then he married 33 women.”  That is silly.)  I would expect some substantive answer from the Church somewhere.  It doesn’t exist.  (If someone can find a better PR answer from the Church, I would be interested in seeing it.  I’d also be interested in any specific and detailed information found in church publications or manuals – I’ve never seen any.  Seriously – that’s not just a challenge.  I really would like to see it.)

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Thanks again for reading and joining the conversation.   Click here to go to the comment section on this sounding board.  Below are some more good articles about polygamy.  If you know about other good articles let me know and I’ll link them here as well:

http://blog.beliefnet.com/flunkingsainthood/2011/07/polygamy-by-numbers-how-many-mormons-were-really-involved.html/

http://irresistibledisgrace.wordpress.com/2012/01/15/educating-people-about-the-gospel/

Mormonism and Polygamy – A Call to Honesty

Origins of Polygamy

The problem wasn’t that I didn’t study.  I just didn’t study the things not published by the Church.  I listened to what was taught at General Conference every 6 months, participated in Sunday School lessons, and asked questions.  I studied the scriptures on my own more than most, I’m sure, and read books like My Heritage and Preach My Gospel so I could understand what it meant to be Mormon.  Polygamy became personal to me as I started to fall in love for the first time.  I was 18 and about to leave on my two-year mission.  I thought about my girlfriend, who I first started dating because I was jealous; she went on a date with someone else and I felt a heavy, stinging jealousy I couldn’t get rid of until I asked her out.  I knew Joseph Smith had a few wives and tried to imagine what it would have been like for Emma to share her husband and for Joseph to deal with God’s command to marry other women.  I stood up in front of the church on a regular basis and said I knew Joseph Smith was a prophet of God and I listened to others say the same thing with conviction in their voices, some of them trembling as they tried to keep their emotions from overwhelming them.  I thought of Joseph as a bold, teachable boy used by God to bring truth back to the world.

Yet I never knew Joseph had over 33 wives, 11 of which were already married to other men when Joseph claimed them, and he hid his polygamy from Emma and the church as long as possible.  My personal reaction to Joseph’s polygamy was based on a carefully manicured history the Mormon church allowed me to see.  I knew little, it turned out, about the character of the man I claimed was a Prophet of God.  My decision to know the facts about Joseph was made for me by the church leaders I trusted, because you must feed a baby milk before they can handle meat.  My situation is not unique.

The question I ask is: Should the true account of Mormon history be left to thick, scholarly editions few read?

In this article I’ll discuss polygamy candidly – in a way no one did for the first 21 years of my life, and most importantly, the two years I dedicated to preach the church’s doctrine every day.  Though polygamy wasn’t a central issue in my doubts when I left the church five years ago, it illustrates a pattern the LDS church uses to disassociate itself with unpopular doctrines or history (click to read previous article).  I used three books for this information, No Man Knows My History by Fawn Brodie, In Sacred Loneliness by Todd Compton, and Rough Stone Rolling by Richard Bushman, which provide good balance from a negative to a positive outlook on Mormon polygamy.  I use primarily the numbers given by Compton, because I appreciated the unapologetic and direct tone of his writing the most.

The Numbers

Joseph Smith had 33 well-documented wives.  The majority of these women were younger than him at the time of marriage.  Eleven of them were ages 14-20, nine were 21-30, eight were his same age group at 31-40, and five were older.  In total, 18 of the women were single at the time of marriage to Joseph, four were widows, 11 were already married and living with their husbands, and at least one woman was married immediately afterwards to cover up the polygamous union.  Joseph’s first polygamous marriage was to Fanny Alger (probably 14 years old, possibly as old as 16), which resulted in scandal and the excommunication of Oliver Cowdery when he “spread rumors” about Joseph committing adultery.  Historians speculate that this is the reason he chose polyandry (one woman having multiple husbands) in early polygamy: nine out of the first twelve marriages were polyandrous.  Polygamous marriages were not just spiritual – they were married for time as well as eternity – and there is no evidence to support the claim that Joseph didn’t have sex with his plural wives or that he didn’t consummate his marriage with even the two youngest girls, at 14, after the ceremony.  Todd Compton lists eight additional wives for which the evidence isn’t conclusive.  There were at least eight women married to Joseph after his death who weren’t married to him in his life (for eternity only, not for time).  At least five women declined Joseph’s proposal.

The Secrecy

Joseph hid his extra marriages from everyone possible, including Emma.  It is believed that polygamy was first revealed in 1831 while Joseph was re-translating the Old Testament.  It was possibly practiced by 1833, definitely by 1836, but the revelation wasn’t written down until 1843 upon urging from Hyrum Smith so he could try to convince Emma to finally accept the principle.  That revelation is recorded in D&C 132, which I’ve summarized here.  The church still denied, publicly, the practice of polygamy until an official decree in 1852, eight years after Joseph’s death.  Polygamy was very controlled; only the very central families were told about it, and even then it was only when Joseph was about to make a proposal.  Joseph believed the “keys” and authority to make these marriages rested with him alone, so non-sanctioned polygamous marriages were disciplined harshly, resulting in a confusing atmosphere for the church membership, but at least 29 other men entered Joseph-sanctioned polygamous marriages before his death.

“[Emma] probably knew of plural marriage but had no idea of the extent of her husband’s practice.  Aware of her opposition Joseph could not bring himself to explain what he was doing.  Caught between the plural marriage revelation and Emma’s opposition, he moved ahead surreptitiously, making the recovery of his domestic life almost impossible” (Bushman 493).  Though most of polygamy was done outside of Emma’s view, Joseph tried to convince Emma to obey God’s new command many times.  In 1843, Joseph finally convinced Emma to accept a few wives, but only on the condition that she was allowed to choose them.  She chose two sisters, Emily and Eliza Partridge, who were staying in their home as wards.  “The sisters were an awkward selection because Joseph had already married them two months earlier in March without Emma’s knowledge” (Bushman 494).  Emily Partridge wrote, “To save family trouble, Brother Joseph thought it best to have another ceremony performed” (Brodie 339).

Joseph’s and other leader’s character are brought into question by their definitive public statements in opposition to polygamy. Towards the end of his life, Joseph stated publicly, “The Church had not received any license from him to commit adultery fornication or any such thing but to the contrary if any man Commit adultery He Could not receive the Celestial kingdom of God”(Bushman 526, capitalization and punctuation kept the same as initial document).  Bushman attempts to explain this contradiction, “The distinction between priesthood calls to take additional wives and unlicensed indulgence was clear to [Joseph] if not always to others.”  Joseph apparently preached against adultery and fornication in a way that didn’t apply to him since his marriages were ordained by god and through the priesthood.  Yet he failed to clarify that to the people he was speaking to, and since he also directly denied his own polygamy it seems Bushman is straining to interpret Smith’s actions in a positive light.  Joseph used the same tactic in response to Oliver Cowdery’s claims that Joseph had committed adultery by adamantly claiming he hadn’t, but failed to specify he had sex with another woman, it just wasn’t adultery because it was sanctioned by god.  Church leadership followed this same practice of denial.  In 1844, a notice appeared in an issue of Times and Seasons, “As we have lately been credibly informed, that an Elder of the Church of Jesus Christ, of Latter-day Saints, by the name of Hiram Brown, has been preaching Polygamy, and other false and corrupt doctrines, in the county of Lapeer, state of Michigan.  This is to notify him and the Church in general, that he has been cut off from the church, for his iniquity.”

It is unlikely we would have reliable knowledge about early polygamy if Brigham Young hadn’t gone on a campaign to prove Joseph was polygamist.  The Reorganized LDS church broke away after Joseph’s death and claimed Joseph didn’t have any real marriages to anyone but Emma, or if he was married to someone else it wasn’t a sexual relationship.  When the RLDS sent missionaries to Utah, Young asked all Joseph’s wives to sign an affidavit stating they were married to Joseph and whether their relationship was sexual.

The Doctrine Behind Polygamy

Early Mormonism presented a radically different version of Christianity.  Here you have prophets, apostles, priesthood, new scripture, and even temples, but you also have groundbreaking theological changes about heaven, human potential, and what god requires of us.  The church now leaves most of these things in the “deep doctrine” category, choosing to focus on more “central” and well-established doctrines.  But the modern church still holds on to the bare bones offspring of these more extreme beliefs, and they can still be found in Mormon scripture.

Joseph taught that heaven was not a paradise where everyone eternally worships God as equals; rather, there are “degrees of glory” attained based on faithfulness to God’s commandments.  In the highest of the three degrees of glory, the Celestial Kingdom, there are differences of glory as well; those who accept all God commands can attain the highest of the highest rewards, exaltation.  They are to become gods.

This was part of one of many innovations by Joseph that sought to understand heaven by looking at the natural world around him.  The order of heaven was replicated on earth.  Just as you and I have fathers and grandfathers, there is a family in heaven.  God was tested on an earth like this, attained his exaltation, and with his wives created earths and spirit children, you and I, to come and be tested like he was.  This idea is central to Joseph’s polygamist ideology.  Joseph believed that marriage, when sealed by God’s authority, was eternal; the family unit was to carry over into the afterlife wherein they would continue to grow and create, have children and an ever-increasing family (a “continuation of seeds forever and ever”).  More wives means more creation, more children, and therefore more glory as an exalted being.  Yet another radical innovation, and possibly the logic Joseph used to justify marriage with other men’s wives, was that all marriages not performed by priesthood authority were invalid – even while on earth.  Therefore God’s command for Joseph to marry someone’s wife trumped their previous, unauthorized, earthly marriage.  Compton explains,

“Whatever the uncertainties in documenting this aspect of Latter-day Saint practice, there is a clearly discernible outline of ideology in the historical record that explains the development and rationale for the practice of Smith’s polyandry.  “Gentile” (i.e., non-Mormon) marriages were “illegal,” of no eternal value or even earthly validity; marriages authorized by the Mormon priesthood and prophets took precedence.  Sometimes these sacred marriages were felt to fulfill pre-mortal linkings and so justified a sacred marriage superimposed over a secular one.  Mormonism’s intensely hierarchical nature allowed a man with the highest earthly authority – a Joseph Smith or Brigham Young – to request the wives of men holding lesser Mormon priesthood, or no priesthood.  The authority of the prophet would allow him to promise higher exaltation to those involved in the triangle, both the wife and her first husband.”

To look at polygamy in terms of sexuality alone misses the complexity of the doctrine and the relationships.  These marriages were for time and eternity and were meant to raise up a righteous generation (which means having sex and kids), but many of the relationships seem to be lacking romance, done only for highly religious reasons.  Joseph had many responsibilities and his marriages were secret; he had to be very careful, avoiding public attention as much as possible.  It is unlikely he had enough time to visit his wives often.  Perhaps Lucy Walker gives us one of the best looks into the religious reasoning in her account of Smith’s proposal.  She frankly rejected Smith’s proposal at 15- or 16-years-old.  “He fully Explained to me the principle of plural or celestial marriage.  Said this principle was again to be restored for the benefit of the human family.  That it would prove an everlasting blessing to my father’s house.  And form a chain that could never be broken, worlds without end.”  He approached her again the next spring, and she describes her feeling: “I felt at this moment that I was called to place myself upon the altar a liveing Sacrifice, perhaps to brook the world in disgrace and incur the displeasure and contempt of my youthful companions; all my dreams of happiness blown to the four winds, this was too much , the thought was unbearable.”  She refused for the second time and told him to never speak to her again about the subject.  He promised her God would tell her it was right, and that night she had a manifestation.  “My room became filled with a heavenly influence.  To me it was in comparison like the brilliant sunshine bursting through the darkest cloud. . . . My Soul was filled with a calm sweet peace that I never knew.  Supreme happiness took possession of my whole being.”  Lucy later says, “It was not a love matter, but simply the giving up of myself as a sacrifice to establish that grand and glorious principle that God had revealed to the world” (Bushman 492).

Joseph believed god was commanding him to marry each woman and he didn’t have a choice.  Women and families accepted Joseph’s offer for marriage because they believed they were doing what god wanted and would receive greater rewards here and in heaven for their obedience; some were even guaranteed the salvation of their immediate family if they obeyed.  However, those who had been taught about this principle had a responsibility to follow it or they would be damned.  In D&C 132:4-6, “For behold, I reveal unto you a new and an everlasting covenant; and if ye abide not that covenant, then are ye damned; for no one can reject this covenant and be permitted to enter into my glory.”  Later, in verses 51-56, God speaks directly to Emma:  “If she will not abide this commandment she shall be destroyed, saith the Lord; for I am the Lord thy God, and will destroy her if she abide not in my law.”

The sacrifice women made to live this “celestial” marriage was incredibly large.  When Joseph was killed, his plural wives were married “for time” to Brigham Young or Heber C. Kimball and a few other high church authorities to raise up seed unto Joseph.  Many of them received little support and were sent, repeatedly, to establish new settlements in the West.  They were strong and intelligent women.  Annie Clark Tanner, a daughter of a polygamous marriage and later a plural wife herself, describes her feelings on polygamy, “As a girl I had been proud that my father and mother had obeyed the highest principle in the Church … I was aware now that my mother’s early married life must have been humiliating and joyless on many occasions because of her position as a second wife” (xiii – Compton).

Another anecdote from history shows us how important it was for early Mormons to be sealed to powerful priesthood families.  Compton writes,

The importance of the size of one’s eternal family, and the necessity of building it up on this earth, is shown by the custom of adoption practiced in the late Nauvoo period by Brigham Young and other Mormon leaders who would have grown men sealed to them as “sons.”  These “sons” even signed their names with their new “father’s” last name.  In the late Nauvoo period, Mormon leaders reportedly competed to add new members, “sons,” to their adoptive families (Compton, 11).

My Decision Made For Me

With this history in mind, the LDS approach to teaching their membership and outsiders about their past is troubling.  I’ll summarize the approach with one quote from the introduction of a recent church manual entitled Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith:

This book deals with teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith that have application to our day. For example, this book does not discuss such topics as the Prophet’s teachings regarding the law of consecration as applied to stewardship of property. The Lord withdrew this law from the Church because the Saints were not prepared to live it (see D&C 119, section heading). This book also does not discuss plural marriage. The doctrines and principles relating to plural marriage were revealed to Joseph Smith as early as 1831. The Prophet taught the doctrine of plural marriage, and a number of such marriages were performed during his lifetime. Over the next several decades, under the direction of the Church Presidents who succeeded Joseph Smith, a significant number of Church members entered into plural marriages. In 1890, President Wilford Woodruff issued the Manifesto, which discontinued plural marriage in the Church (see Official Declaration 1). The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints no longer practices plural marriage.

That’s it.  I would have hoped a book meant to outline Joseph’s teachings would contain a meaningful explanation of his polygamy, but the conversation is stopped with this small paragraph in the introduction.

Aside from purposeful silence in Church publications, Mormons typically refer to Emma as “Joseph’s wife” in church, the specifics of polygamy are avoided, and missionaries and Church leaders give cursory answers that avoid connection with polygamy as much as possible.  It is a sad fact that many Mormons know little to nothing about their polygamist heritage.  They perpetuate half-truths, misdirection, and dishonesty handed down by previous generations.

Challenge

Polygamy wasn’t central in my leaving of the church, but the pattern of lying, avoiding, and covering unattractive doctrine and history was.  I heard the apostles speak and say things I knew were wrong but sounded good and bold.  Things I wanted to be true.  Things I had heard as a 14-year old in the Priesthood session of general conference.  Things I knew many others were accepting as true and factual.  I knew the Apostles weren’t ignorant and lost trust for the church authorities.  What I wanted in a church was honestbold truth.  I didn’t care if the truth was difficult, I only cared that it was right.  The leaders are accountable for this, but my next words go to everyone: By attempting to fit in with the rest of the world, soften your edges, and make your message more palatable, you have lost any claim you had of being the unique and restored church of God.  Rather than teaching the world you are being taught by it, changing to conform to it, and trying to please it with flowery and well-designed statements aimed at obscuring your connection with unpopular things like polygamy.  In this you appear as a business with a good PR department, not a divine source of untarnished truth.

Does the Mormon church believe in polygamy?  The church often confirms the truth of a difficult doctrine by saying, “Do you believe in the Book of Mormon?”  If the the Book of Mormon is true, they say, then Joseph must have been a prophet of God, and if he was a prophet then we know God taught through him.  The conclusion comes, “God has given you that answer that Joseph is a prophet, which means [tithing, temple work, fill in the blank] is also true, doesn’t it?  God asks that you have faith on the things you don’t understand, and he’ll confirm the truth of it to you in time.”

So I ask you, do you believe in polygamy?  Well . . . do you believe Joseph Smith was a prophet of God?

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“Even sharing the truth can have the effect of lying when we tell only half-truths that do not give the full picture. We can also be guilty of bearing false witness and lying if we say nothing, particularly if we allow another to reach a wrong conclusion while we hold back information that would have led to a more accurate perception. In this case it is as though an actual lie were uttered.” – Robert J. Matthews

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Join the conversation – Read comments here

Read other great blogs about this subject:

Ask Mormon Girl – One quote from this: “Why should we not inform our own people about our own history?  When we don’t, we set up our people to feel betrayed and ashamed, and we give power to people who would like to embarrass us.  What we refuse to be ashamed of, others can never hold over us.”

D&C 132 (Revelation on Polygamy and Eternal Marriage)

This revelation is a response from the Lord based on Joseph’s questions about Old Testament prophets like Abraham who had many wives and concubines.  It begins, “Verily, thus saith the Lord unto you my servant Joseph, that inasmuch as you have inquired of my hand to know and understand wherein I, the Lord, justified my servants Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as also Moses, David and Solomon, my servants, as touching the principle and doctrine of their having many wives and concubines – Behold, and lo, I am the Lord thy God, and will answer thee as touching this matter.”  And thereby follows the rest of the revelation.

I’ll give a brief summation here:

This is a new and everlasting covenant.  It isn’t revealed to everyone, but to those to whom it is revealed must obey or they cannot enter god’s glory.
(v. 4-6, 12, 17, 21-22)

Every agreement and contract not sealed by the Spirit and done by the Lord’s priesthood authority isn’t binding in the afterlife.  They end at death.
(v. 7-14)

If you do follow this new and everlasting covenant you’ll be gods, you’ll be exalted, you’ll have dominion over angels, your seed will continue forever here and in the afterlife.
(v. 19-20, 23-24, 37)

Polygamy is not wrong when it is commanded by god.
(v. 34-39)

Joseph, the prophet of the restoration, was commanded to “restore all things.”  Polygamy is a part of that.
(v. 40, 45)

If both a man and a woman are pure and the lord reveals it to Joseph he has the power and authority to give the woman to a faithful man.
(v. 44)

Emma Smith is commanded to obey the law revealed to Joseph and allow him multiple wives.  If she doesn’t she is damned.

(v. 51-56)

If you desire another wife, and she is a virgin, and your first wife gives her consent, then you are justified in taking her.  It is not adultery.  If you have 10 virgins given to you this way it is still justified and is not adultery.
(v. 61-62)

Wives are given to the man to have babies, to fulfill god’s promise, and for their exaltation.  Verse 63 reads, “they are given unto him to multiply and replenish the earth, according to my commandment, and to fulfill the promise which was given by my Father before the foundation of the world, and for their exaltation in the eternal worlds, that they may bear the souls of men; for herein is the work of my Father continued, that he may be glorified”

If your wife, after being taught this principle, will not believe and obey this, she will be destroyed.
(v. 64)