Sunday, October 28, 2018

My Church and Polygamy: Then and Now

-by Janice Graham

This is going to be a reasonably frank analysis, so be warned. If you are too afraid to face many unsettling facts about the historical practice of polygamy by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, facts now being disseminated by the church itself, however quietly, perhaps you won't want to read this or think about any of it. However, God gave you the tools to discern truth from error, right from wrong. Truth can be a very good thing, even if it is painful. If you are a member and you face this issue honestly you will probably have to endure some measure of shock, disillusionment, and disappointment. Yes, you will be sadder, but you will also be much, much wiser. It can even be a huge spiritual growth experience if desired.

First let me say that I am a fifth generation member with somewhat prominent pioneer ancestors on both my parents' sides. My paternal great-great grandmother was Mary Hurren of the ill-fated Willie handcart company. Edmond Lovell Ellsworth, who led the first handcart company, was my maternal fifth great grandfather and he had three simultaneous wives. Now that we have some new information, and what appears to be an entirely new stance, coming from the official church, members of the church, and perhaps especially people like me who have polygamous ancestors, have a perfect right to rethink this practice, and what we have always thought about it, with an open mind.

To my surprise, starting in 2013, the church began publishing some new information about the history of Mormon polygamy and its official position on the practice today. Curiously, these essays were posted but never announced. (Click here, here and here to read the essays. Be sure to click "read more" or " if you would like to learn more," or you won't see the whole essay.) The membership of the church has never been alerted to them. You have to hear about them somewhere else in order to know they are there, in order to find them on the church's official web site, and even then it's quite difficult to find them. Apparently, someone happened upon them and called the Salt Lake Tribune, which did an article on them, October 24, 2014 entitled, "New Mormon Essay: Joseph Smith Married Teens, Other Men's Wives."

Even though members of the church are known to eat up every word it puts out, I can understand members today not wanting to read these essays. I haven't wanted to. I think it's safe to say that members in general don't like this topic much. It has been fraught with mystery and embarrassment. And dread, especially for women.

Let's go back a little. I was born in 1954. All my life as an active member of the church I was taught that the practice of polygamy was a true eternal principle. I knew it had been declared by the federal government as unlawful back in the early days and we didn't have to live it now. I also knew I had to be alright with it because I would probably have to share my husband with who knows how many wives all through eternity, which, to be honest, was always a sore spot on my soul.


Outside the church, in mainstream culture, such as in entertainment media and jokes, polygamy has always been the defining peculiarity of the Mormon church. The 1969 movie, Paint Your Wagon, comes to mind. In one scene a polygamous Mormon in the gold rush era is looking to sell one of his wives. Whoa. 

At best, polygamy has always carried with it a folklore quality in my family. My aunts and uncles on my mother's polygamous side always took it tongue-in-cheek, with a bit of pride.  I joked about it with my friends when we were young at BYU. But deep down I always cringed at the very idea. It didn't seem right or fair or moral. As a mother raising my children I read Virginia Sorensen's novel A Little Lower Than the Angels, and I realized there had to be a dark side to polygamy, given human nature.
 
To this day, within the mainstream church the subject of polygamy is pretty much avoided. Especially regarding Joseph Smith, polygamy has always been swept under the rug. One evidence of this concerns a friend who was writing a musical play about Joseph and Emma in 2007. He asked for the endorsement of a top Joseph Smith scholar, who said right up front she would not endorse his play if it covered polygamy. (This may explain why the probing Richard Dutcher never got funding for his movie about Joseph Smith, which apparently shook his trust in the church.) When polygamy is talked about at all, it is only in glowing tones as if it was a happy and comfortable and beneficial way of life for all, such as when you tour the historic Beehive House in Salt Lake City where Brigham Young lived.

Throughout my life different excuses for, and questions about, polygamy have come to mind. Did the early members of the church really have too few men compared to the women? Brigham Young had 55 wives! That many fewer? Was this really a way for more children to be born into the church in order for rapid growth in numbers, and is it ethical or kind to exploit women and children in this way? Were there widows that needed marrying so they could be cared for? Were plural wives and their children always cared for properly? How could one man support so many people? Were morals different back in those days so it wasn't such a big deal? Why did women have to be faithful to one man, while that one man didn't have to be faithful to any one person? Didn't lots of biblical kings and prophets have multiple wives and concubines? Does that make it okay?

I have lately found surprising possible answers to these questions. Apparently there were plenty of men. Polygamy actually caused participating women to have less children. Widows can be cared for without becoming plural wives. (I recently ran across Mosiah 21:17 when "king Limhi commanded that every man should impart to the support of the widows and their children.") Many plural wives and their children were not provided for properly. Less favored wives were relegated to the hardest, most demeaning work. This was the Victorian era, when women did not even show their ankles, so yes, proper sexual morality was a big, big deal at this time.

About polygamy in the Bible and Book of Mormon, nowhere in these scriptures does God command anybody to take plural wives or concubines. It may have been customary or acceptable in some sense or in some cultures, but it is not God who commanded any of it. Look and see. It's always human beings who decide to do it. And if the excuse is that God allowed it, well, God allows people to do all sorts of wrong things. It's called agency and choice and accountability. In fact, God condemns the taking of plural wives and concubines over and over throughout the scriptures and emphasizes that proper marriage is between one man and one wife. It wasn't Adam and Eves.

Now here comes some of the really upsetting new information.

Growing up I never thought that Joseph Smith had plural wives. I thought anything I heard about it was a nasty rumor spread by anti-Mormons. I always thought Joseph was the most honest, angelic person who ever lived, except Jesus. This is what I was taught. Later I heard that perhaps he took the saintly, 38-year-old Eliza R. Snow as a plural wife, just because they were such great friends, but I wasn't sure and didn't think about it. Now, these new church essays state that "fragmentary evidence suggests" that in the mid 1830s Joseph Smith "possibly married his first plural wife," a teenage girl, Fanny Alger, who lived with the family. But Fanny soon left and married someone else. They call this a "separation." There is no record of any marriage ceremony or divorce that we can find.

It wasn't until ten years after Fanny Alger that Joseph started secretly teaching polygamy as a doctrine revealed from God, and it was much later in Utah that Brigham Young started preaching about it openly as a wholesome and necessary doctrinal practice. The church now says we don't know much about early polygamy, only that it was  "introduced incrementally" and "kept confidential." But apparently the church knows enough to publish that Joseph had dozens of wives: "careful estimates put the number between 30 and 40" (this is found only in footnote 24 of the essay), all within a period of about three years, 1841-1844. Please remember that this information is taken directly from one of these published church essays. That's about one new wife per month. Shouldn't anyone find this outrageous? Whether he had relations with each woman or not, doesn't it sound like a mockery of marriage? Why has this not been common knowledge? Why are they admitting this now?

I don't know for sure the answers to those last two questions but let's stop pretending. Mankind being promiscuous and deceitful and ambitious and greedy is nothing new. People need to read more historical classic literature. They will see that there have been many famous, and even mostly good, people throughout human experience who have had problems with sexual purity and fidelity, who have tried to find an excuse for it in scripture, and have utterly failed. (Read Samuel Pepys's famous diary for example.) And people doing whatever they can to justify sexual immorality or any other debauchery or tyranny is nothing new either. In religions, they can say that God commands, well, just about anything. The second biggest religion in the world, with 1.8 billion followers, has doctrine in its most holy book which says infidels must be killed, among many other violent and cruel tenets. With enough persuasion and emotion people can even be convinced to blow themselves up or drink fatally poisoned Koolaid and feed it to their children. Look at the LGBTQ movement. It's like a worldwide cult. They've got just about everybody brainwashed into believing sexual immorality is these people's immutable identity, that they simply can't help their very bad sexual thoughts and behaviors.

And there's more, from the church. Some of Joseph's wives were teenagers, one being of an age "several months before her fifteenth birthday." This means she was 14. The excuse given that it was not uncommon in those days for women to get married very young does not hold water for me. Again, this was the Victorian era, not medieval times. When Joseph married Emma, which I was always told was the greatest love story of all time, she was 22.  

And yes, we are now told there were also other men's wives. This is probably news to just about everyone. Joseph secretly took other men's wives and sealed them to him, even while the women continued to live with their other husbands, whom I gather were left in the dark. There even exists a list of eleven women Joseph married and their husbands available from other sources. "Several possible explanations" are given by the church, something about horizontal and vertical family bonding or linking, but it is admitted these are not understood, and they make no earthly or heavenly sense to me. To court another man's wife and get her to marry you, for any reason, whether you have relations or not, is all sorts of wrong. It's been wrong since mankind first wrote things down. 

Another thing that is very painful to me is how Emma has been portrayed and perceived. Later in my life, when it started to be common knowledge that perhaps Joseph did have some plural wives, who were more like close friends as in Eliza R. Snow (one list says she was number15), Emma began to be talked about as an unsympathetic player, blamed for all sorts of weakness and unfaithfulness, now I think unfairly. Finally, the church says, "For Joseph Smith's wife Emma [polygamy] was an excruciating ordeal . . . Emma likely did not know about all of Joseph's sealings." What kind of love story includes the infliction of that kind of suffering and deceit? Additional sources report that Emma was kept completely in the dark, that she even tried her best to dispel rumors that her husband was involved in polygamy at all. Later, when she found out at least some of what had been going on, she preached against polygamy to the women. A source from BYU says, according to John Taylor, Joseph suspended the Relief Society two years after it was formed because of Emma's crusade in opposition to plural marriage. (The Relief Society was not officially reinstituted until 23 years later in Utah.)

If I were treated like Emma I might have gone quite mad.

What a shock when I discovered that it was all of the first seven presidents of the church who practiced polygamy, right on up to George Albert Smith, #8, who became president in 1945, nine years before I was born, and was the first to not practice it. That means it was practiced for at least 100 years. (The church essay says 50 years.) In one sense, some men are still practicing Mormon polygamy today, as in when a man's eternal wife dies and he is sealed to another wife who is living, which procedure is not allowed for women. Women have different rules. (See 2010 Handbook of Instructions, #1, p 20.)  A woman can now be sealed posthumously to all the husbands she ever had but they all have to be deceased also. So now women get to have multiple spouses in heaven too?


It sure makes you stop and think. For instance, what does marriage to any number of partners have to do with salvation? The scriptures say over and over that salvation is through Christ alone. That is pretty straight forward. I don't think any new revelation is supposed to contradict the basic tenets of the gospel of Jesus Christ. 

Did anyone know that there was once another section 101 in the 1835 D&C? It can be found in the Joseph Smith Papers. It said marriage was only to be between one man and one wife. Apparently, it was published in order to put to rest all sorts of rumors that "fornication and polygamy" were being practiced secretly. This section remained until it was removed and replaced in 1876 with the current section as it is today (nothing about polygamy) and section 132 added, which contradictorily justifies plural marriage and remains intact.

It now occurs to me that the temple marriage sealing ceremony, which I was always taught was the only way to the highest degree of heaven, was instigated precisely to legitimize those first secret polygamous marriages. Much later, around the turn of the 20th century, it somehow evolved, without anybody explaining it, into just meaning regular monogamous temple marriage, now called "celestial marriage," as polygamy was called, even though we still have D&C section 132.

Funny, these church essays, published starting in 2013, do not say that polygamy is an eternal true principle. At least we cannot find it there. Yet just the other day a fellow Mormon casually mentioned his belief that polygamy is an eternal true principle, as if this were still common knowledge, and indicated he would obey this principle if it were reinstituted by church leaders. With gay marriage now legalized, certainly anything could happen, the least shocking of which would be the legalization of polygamy.  There are enclaves everywhere practicing it today. Personally, I don't think the church will bring it back. The church's history of it is just too problematic and in this day and age it would certainly all get very publicly dredged up. But it certainly should be brought back if legal, if Mormon polygamy is a doctrine necessary to eternal life.

But suddenly it doesn't seem to be. Indeed, rather than restating that polygamy is doctrinal, these new essays indicate that polygamy, "the new and everlasting covenant," is old and no longer everlasting. Despite D&C 132, the church now states, "Marriage is to be between one man and one woman unless God commands otherwise." The church, despite section 132, now says on its online newsroom, "The standard of the Lord's people is monogamy unless the Lord reveals otherwise. Latter-day saints believe the season the church practiced polygamy was one of these exceptions." A season? An exception? I am a latter-day saint and I was never taught or believed anything of the kind. I was told the opposite, that the standard of the Lord's people is polygamy unless the Lord reveals otherwise, that we are now being forced to live the exception, not the other way around.

From another essay (click here and here) on the church's website,"The precise nature of these relationships [any polygamous sealings, of the living or the dead] in the next life is not known . . . "  adding that these confusing things will all be sorted out hereafter. So maybe no polygamy, even in heaven? Is that what they are saying now?

Does this new way of couching the polygamy problem sound like the necessary rite that Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and many more, preached polygamy was?  I mean, women were told they would go to hell if they didn't participate. Now it's only seasonal, perishable, like oranges? It comes and goes? When did that change? Not that is isn't a huge relief.

It occurs to me for the first time that most of the church's early troubles, perhaps all of them, were rooted in the unlawful and immoral practice of polygamy. The excommunications of members of the first presidency and apostles who may have resisted, the persecution, the jailings, the order to destroy the Nauvoo Expositor which was exposing Joseph's exploits, the martyrdom, the split, the displacements, the pioneers, all of it. And here I was always taught that Joseph Smith was falsely accused and killed, and the early members suffered, all because the devil wanted to stop the true church.

Are we being tossed to and fro or what? Polygamy was wrong, then right (even absolutely necessary), then wrong, but sort of right (but we don't understand it so we are told that it will be sorted out after we die), and then could very well be proclaimed totally right again in the here and now.

For some time, due to the LGBT movement, members have been speculating that the church will cease to perform marriages at all, to avoid having to accommodate gay couples. They say people will have to get married civilly and then be sealed in the temple afterward. Okay, but this won't work either because the gays will say they want to be sealed forever to their partners too. Remember it's all about nondiscrimination and perfect equality. The LGBT logo is an equal sign. So the church will have to find a way around that too.

Let's plant our feet firmly on the ground. God gave us hearts and minds. To use. He is also no respecter of persons. That means men and women are valued the same. I see now that polygamy puts men at a higher value than women. It demeans women. In polygamy, no number of women need ever equal one man. Such women are not singled out as the love of a man's life, even though they are required to make him the one love of their lives. Practically, they don't have their husband around for support or help nearly as much, if at all. They are not equal partners in the home. The man is the single highest authority and has status over everyone. Does this sound right in any way? Is it good for anybody?

Just watch some of those documentaries about religious polygamy today (See YouTube online). Here we have the practice of polygamy being lived out for all to see, as under a microscope, and we should note that Mormon Fundamentalist-type polygamy is always one husband and multiple wives, as it was historically, not the other way around.  Seems to me, spiritualized polygamy is an excuse to legitimize a man's promiscuity. It turns the man into an endless philanderer on the constant lookout for young/attractive women, obsessed with power over as many people as he can amass. It turns the wives into pathetic perpetual flirts, vying for their wandering-eyed husband's attention. In other words, these people never grow emotionally past teenagerhood. They don't settle down the way normal married people do. The marriage relationship perhaps never matures and deepens. They act like adolescents. Plus the youngest wife, usually pregnant, turns into a daily babysitter for dozens of children, while the other wives go off to their career day jobs. The husband always comes across to me as a smarmy tyrant who manipulates every movement and thought of his domesticized flock by way of falsely spiritualizing everything to his advantage, even his current new courtship. Yes, the whole family (or rather, families) is instructed by the husband in praying together and voting on any new girlfriend. One little boy gets tickled and teased until he votes in the affirmative. And there's surely a lot more weird stuff going on we don't see. On the bright side, the women say polygamy teaches them about being patient and unselfish. Maybe, and maybe they are fooling themselves. (Believe me, you have a chance to learn those things just as well, maybe better, in monogamous marriage.) And what does the man learn? That throughout his life he can quite easily beguile an unlimited number of women, and make an unlimited number of children with them, and lord it over all of them, and think himself self-righteous in the process?


 No one knows better than me how awfully hard it is to find out these things about one's heroes and ancestors. Men just can't seem to be good all the time. Many men (and women, too) just can't resist acquiring some degree of power over others (See D&C 121:39), and choose the easiest targets. Yes, there is some good and some bad to us all. Think what good you will of these early founders of the church, but there is also definitely some stuff that is really bad. We never should have idolized them in the first place.

None of this is mysterious if you have learned a little about human nature. In deep, basic ways human beings have always been, and will always be, the same. The scriptures call it "the natural man." There are some things human beings tend to do that have always been wrong and will always be wrong. It's that simple, no matter what we grew up being told and no matter what people are saying today.

There is a lot more to this. There is a great deal of written documentation which, because of the internet, is now available to everyone. Believe it or not, what I have offered here is a somewhat soft-pedaled version, although I have not done much to disguise my personal feelings. People will have to study it out for themselves and exercise their own minds and hearts to figure out what all of this really meant and really means. I am aware this issue is especially difficult for parents to confront as they raise their children. They want their young ones to love and trust the church. But their children are going to have to face it sooner or later. Isn't it much better to begin right away to teach them that church leaders are human beings, that all human beings make some bad mistakes, and that we are commanded to put our trust not in people but in God?

To sum up, the worst thing about Mormon polygamy for me is that I was led to believe it was the Lord's unchanging eternal principle, and that I have had to work hard at being open to living it if I wanted to go to heaven with my husband. And that now, without being announced formally so that everyone can know, polygamy is suddenly being portrayed as a temporary commandment that may come and go like the seasons, and we don't know how it translates into eternity. Isn't that practically a complete turnaround?

It comes down to this for me. For no apparent reason, I, especially because I am a woman, have been terrorized by the threat of polygamy all my life, and put down as a second class human being and child of God. And given the facts put out by the church itself, I don't know how anybody can argue with that. And I won't hear anything about how being blindly obedient to church leaders is the most important law. I will follow no human being to hell. We are supposed to be free in order to choose for ourselves to live the true gospel of Jesus Christ.


Churchwise, this is a mess. It is causing a lot of people to leave the church and, what is worse, even lose their faith in God. But lots of things in this life are a mess. We need not panic. As I said in the first paragraph of this post, we could use this as a great learning opportunity.  Life is for learning terribly lovely things. We could stop blindly worshiping  and following human beings and face the fact of the fallen human condition. We could seek out and develop a personal relationship with each member of the Godhead, learning to discern right from wrong, truth from error, with pure hearts, for ourselves. Isn't that what spiritual growth really is?

We are all sinners, including people who have passed on. Now we know some upsetting facts about a bunch of human beings we have always admired. Okay, but all of that pales in comparison to the fact that we still have the true gospel. So let's correct these mistakes. Let's repent of all this foolishness and put our reliance on the Lord. Let's continue to seek the Spirit to teach us the truth of all things, even if it hurts our pride and humbles us to the dust. Let's turn back to Jesus Christ as the only name under heaven for salvation.

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