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/

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4 thoughts on “The Sounding Board: Mormonism & Polygamy – a Call to Honesty

  1. >Polygamy was about taking care of the women, it wasn’t about sex.

    Ummm, D&C 132, Joseph Smith’s revelatation of God’s word on Polygamy. What does it say?

    http://www.lds.org/scriptures/dc-testament/dc/132?lang=eng

    63 But if one or either of the ten virgins, after she is espoused, shall be with another man, she has committed adultery, and shall be destroyed; for they are given unto him to amultiply and replenish the earth, according to my commandment, and to fulfil 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 bglorified.

    • I’m confused – are you saying this in response to me? I’m pretty sure I’ve established that there was sex involved in polygamy . . . in fact that is the purpose of that section you just quoted me on . . .

  2. I like the idea of a sounding board . . . If I had gone to your original post today, there’s no way I would have read all those comments . . . Anyway, my only addition today is that nobody is completely free of bias. And who needs to be, anyway?

    Jeff, historically, your post was close to the middle . . . and I really appreciate that you’re doing it that way. I would say to keep that pattern up, it’s much easier for people like me to swallow. I think the direction of the blog is great, and you’re doing a great job of addressing a wide (perhaps even polarized) spectrum.

    One specific evidence of your bias, though, is when you said something along the lines of “there is no evidence to suggest Joseph Smith didn’t have sex with his younger wives”. A Mormon apologist would simply replace “didn’t have” with “had”. Unbiased would be “did or didn’t”. But again . . . nobody can expect bias to be completely gone, though it is important to recognize that your opinions come through very apparently even after much effort at objectivity.

  3. Heya! I know this is kind of off-topic but I needed to ask.
    Does building a well-established blog like yours take a
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    write in my journal daily. I’d like to start a blog so I will be able to share my personal experience and views
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