June 12, 2013

Supply & Demand

I recently watched an interesting documentary that is entirely relevant to this blog. The film is entitled Kumaré, and the idea behind it was to examine the role of a religious leader. In brief, the filmmaker is a fairly ordinary skeptic who decides that he will dress and behave like a wise and deeply spiritual leader, and simply see what happens (Netflix link).

I highly recommend watching the documentary, but here is my summary. The actor, Vikram Gandhi, advertises his services, and gains a few followers. With no real basis for them, he makes up some completely ambiguous chants and yoga-like exercises and meditations to use with his followers. Many of them are searching for answers, which he, "Kumaré" provides to the best of his knowledge as a completely ordinary person playing the role of a spiritual leader. Many of the followers express a deep connection to Kumaré, and sense his "purity" of intention. Many clearly put a great deal of faith in his every word, and even as he attempts to instruct them that everything he says and is is really an illusion, they continue to follow him and his ordinary wisdom. Something begins to happen as Kumaré connects with his dedicated followers and seeks to help them with their personal problems; He begins to understand the enormous responsibility that comes with his newfound power and influence. When the time comes to reveal to his followers that he is not, in fact, what he has pretended to be, and that he has no more knowledge or wisdom than any other person, he becomes intensely anxious, and is unable to tell them of the deception. After much more planning and soul searching, Vikram eventually reveals to his congregation that he is not Kumaré, but an ordinary person. His followers have mixed responses, but overall lovingly accept him and acknowledge that his works were valuable. One woman even insists that he does, in fact, have psychic powers even if he does not recognize them.

I wish to address several themes I gleaned from the film. First is the fact that the followers were searching for something - answers. Each of Kumaré's followers had some problem or need in their lives, and each believed that the problem could be solved or the need could be met through some "spiritual" methods. In other words, there was a clear demand for answers, and the followers believed they required someone to supply the answers.

Second, Kumaré had the appearance of a man who had answers. He had none in reality, or at least not any better answers than anyone else might have. What was important was that he supplied the illusion that he had answers, and that is all that the followers really wanted. He grew a long beard, put on a robe, carried a staff, and spoke in simple terms. The followers wanted to believe that he was wise and had an advanced perspective on the universe, so he simply met their expectations, however uninformed or faulty.

Finally, I find the interaction of the two positions fascinating. Kumaré hardly ever truly gave his followers advice, because he really didn't have any answers. He often redirected their questions back to them, asking them what advice they might give to themselves, for example. And yet, simply from the nature of the relationship, the followers needed him as some sort of symbol or direction, so remained dependent upon him. He, on the other hand, was told day after day that he was making a huge impact in their lives - the followers constantly remarked to him how he had changed their lives, how they admired him. By the end of the film, Vikram felt an overpowering need to be Kumaré for these people. Even though he had done nothing but provide some sort of superficial hope and safety for them, that was what they most needed. The meaning of what he had provided to them was far more valuable than the shallow words he had used. 

I argue that Kumaré could have used any manner of words or approach, but that as long as he provided the message of hope and validation, he would have gained followers anywhere. I believe that is what religious disciples seek first and foremost. The details are almost irrelevant. This is clearly evidenced by the deliberate ignorance of so many LDS at the significant problems with Church doctrines and history. As long as the LDS church offers a message of hope and tells them they are right to believe it, almost no amount of reality will deter them. I could name any number of other spiritual groups or cults where people seeking answers were caught up in a leader's charisma and hopeful message (no matter how strange); these followers sometimes become willing to do anything the leader asks, even if bizarre or unconscionable.

In the documentary, Vikram was just a curious skeptic. With a little imagination, it is easy to comprehend the real damage he could have done if he were a manipulative or corrupt man. By simply pretending to be a compassionate, wise man, with some perspective on life, he almost immediately had control of his followers. A manipulative or corrupt man could easily begin to take advantage of their vulnerability and trust to get them to do unbelievable things.

Through the documentary, I found new perspective on Joseph Smith, Jr. Perhaps I will spend more time on this in the future, but I have pondered Smith for some time now - why did he do what he did? At this point, I do not believe that Smith started the LDS church with purely evil intentions. I believe they were selfish reasons, perhaps to make a few dollars and have some entertainment, but not purely psychopathic. I think most likely he saw the huge demand people of that day and age had for religious guidance, and so he decided that he would step in and become a supplier. Maybe he knew that all religious leaders need is confidence and a message people want to believe. He had witnessed firsthand the methods that religious leaders of his day used to gain followers and he thought to himself, "I bet I could do that." He practiced his methods by claiming to be a scryer - confidently claiming that he knew how to locate buried treasures (more). All he needed was some demand for such services - and everyone wanted to find treasure - and he would confidently deliver the hopeful message of knowing its location. The problem, of course, is that he never once actually delivered treasure. 

Regardless of Smith's original motives in making spectacular claims about golden plates and visions, the documentary calls another interesting point into question - could Smith have come clean? Perhaps the whole LDS church began as an experiment for Smith. Maybe he just wanted to see if he could pull it off. But, just as Vikram found it unbearable to let down his followers, who had come to depend on him so, could it be that Smith came to feel obligated to continue his charade? 

I am a doctoral student in psychology, and cannot help but consider some psychological principles here. Social psychology's theory of cognitive dissonance, for example, proposes that, when faced with such dilemmas, we typically mold our thoughts and feelings to match our actions. Perhaps at some level Smith really felt guilty for misleading innocent people, but felt that coming clean and admitting that he was no prophet would have done more damage to his vulnerable followers (or it would at least get him killed). Freud might have argued that Smith's polygynous practices were an unconscious attempt to be found out as a fraud so that he could finally relieve his conscience of its burden. Or perhaps after years of hearing his followers' praise, he eventually came to believe that he really was more than a man. After all, even palm readers and other psychics must believe at some level that they really have supernatural powers if they are not entirely malicious manipulators. People return to them, and keep paying their money. Smith may have seen his growing army of followers and their willingness to do anything for him as evidence that he must have been more than a mere man. 

There may also be something to learn about subsequent Church leaders here. I recently read an interesting opinion about the current leaders of the Church. The question is if they truly know deep down that the Church is not what it claims, but feel obligated to the members to continue to put on the show (or have they become the liars and manipulators Joseph Smith was?). I think that using the Kumaré experiment as a reference point, it is easy to understand how a normal member of the Church could rise to a position of prestige, learn more of the troubling reality of the Church's history, but as a combination of their celebrity status (which extends to their family), their promised blessings, the decades and dollars they committed to the Church, and, perhaps most importantly, the millions of members whose lives depend on the message, that these leaders cannot allow themselves to entertain the possibility that they were lied to and, therefore, misled their children and friends. Truly considering that thought is potentially painful, and may have serious consequences (as any of us who has left the Church knows). Friends will be lost, social status revoked, family relationships damaged, and perhaps even marriages broken (see my earlier post on this topic). 

And yet, just as Vikram wrestled with these questions and finally decided that, no matter how painful, the truth must be revealed, that is where I stand. It is because Vikram cared for his followers that he told them the truth. He knew the truth might be painful, but he believed his followers deserved to know, and that they were strong enough to no longer need the lie. Similarly, it is precisely because I care for my family and friends that I have told them the truth about the LDS church. Whether they still need the lie or not is their decision, but I refuse to perpetuate it any longer.

"Am I therefore become your enemy, because I tell you the truth?" - Gal. 4:16

March 25, 2013

Mixed Messages Part II

Continuing my comments on the LDS church's latest edition of its scriptures, I would like to now address the new introduction to the second Official Declaration at the end of the Doctrine and Covenants. The introduction reads, in its entirety:

The Book of Mormon teaches that “all are alike unto God,” including “black and white, bond and free, male and female” (2 Nephi 26:33). Throughout the history of the Church, people of every race and ethnicity in many countries have been baptized and have lived as faithful members of the Church. During Joseph Smith’s lifetime, a few black male members of the Church were ordained to the priesthood. Early in its history, Church leaders stopped conferring the priesthood on black males of African descent. Church records offer no clear insights into the origins of this practice. Church leaders believed that a revelation from God was needed to alter this practice and prayerfully sought guidance. The revelation came to Church President Spencer W. Kimball and was affirmed to other Church leaders in the Salt Lake Temple on June 1, 1978. The revelation removed all restrictions with regard to race that once applied to the priesthood.
While I completely agree with the leaders' decision to finally remove the racial restrictions, I will focus my comments on two of the claims made in this new introduction. First, the statement "Church records offer no clear insights into the origins of this practice" is a complete lie. Consider the following:

In 1947 the First Presidency issued this Official Statement:
From the days of the Prophet Joseph Smith even until now, it has been the doctrine of the Church, never questioned by Church leaders, that the Negroes are not entitled to the full blessings of the Gospel. (Statement of The First Presidency on the Negro Question, July 17, 1947, quoted in Mormonism and the Negro, pp.46-7)
In 1949, The First Presidency issued the following statement:
The attitude of the Church with reference to Negroes remains as it has always stood. It is not a matter of the declaration of a policy but of direct commandment from the Lord, on which is founded the doctrine of the Church from the days of its organization, to the effect that Negroes may become members of the Church but that they are not entitled to the priesthood at the present time. (The First Presidency on the Negro Question, 17 Aug. 1949)
And an Official Statement of The First Presidency, issued on August 17, 1951, reads:
The position of the Church regarding the Negro may be understood when another doctrine of the church is kept in mind, namely, that the conduct of spirits in the pre-mortal existence has some determining effect upon the conditions and circumstances under which these spirits take on mortality, and that while the details of this principle have not been made known, the principle itself indicates that the coming to this earth and taking on mortality is a privilege that is given to those who maintained their first estate; and that the worth of the privilege is so great that spirits are willing to come to earth and take on bodies no matter what the handicap may be as to the kind of bodies they are to secure; and that among the handicaps, failure of the right to enjoy in mortality the blessings of the priesthood is a handicap which spirits are willing to assume in order that they might come to earth. Under this principle there is no injustice whatsoever involved in this deprivation as to the holding of the priesthood by the Negroes... Man will be punished for his own sins and not for Adam's transgression.  If this is carried further, it would imply that the Negro is punished or allotted to a certain position on this earth, not because of Cain's transgression, but came to earth through the loins of Cain because of his failure to achieve other stature in the spirit world.
It is thus entirely clear that several Church documents outline the origins of the racial restrictions to the priesthood. They claim that it was direct revelation from God. The current introduction to the Official Declaration implies that it was somehow just a simple misunderstanding, but this is in conflict with the official statements by leaders that the restriction was doctrine because of God's direct communication of such. I find it repulsive that the leaders now easily disregard those past "revelations", and yet claim that Spencer W. Kimball's "revelation" was real. Which leads to my next point.

The new introduction states "Church leaders believed that a revelation from God was needed to alter this practice and prayerfully sought guidance." This statement suggests that leaders were anxious to end the Church's racist practices, when in fact the LDS church was the last major U.S. organization to begin treating Blacks and Whites equally. Even after dozens of requests and inquiries as to the possibility of removing the restrictions based on race, church leaders held stubbornly to the practice, and continually claimed it to be God's policy, not theirs. 

Rather than minimizing this disturbing, systemic racism in the Church's past, it is time that leaders acknowledge that those past "revelations" were inspired by racism and ignorance, and were never the will of God. This is why I can find no faith in any LDS leader who claims to know what God wants me to do. Past leaders commanded incorrect, arguably evil, practices to be carried out against innocent people for over a century, and now do not even acknowledge that it was a horrible mistake. They continue to insist that they are and were God's voice to His children. If they are, then that is not a god I choose to follow.

March 22, 2013

Mixed Messages

The reader may be aware that the Church recently announced completing a new edition of LDS scripture. The new edition corrects some typographical errors, adjusts information in footnotes and chapter headings, etc. For this post, I will comment on the new edition's introductory paragraphs for the Official Declarations at the end of the Doctrine and Covenants.

The introduction reads, in its entirety:
The Bible and the Book of Mormon teach that monogamy is God’s standard for marriage unless He declares otherwise (see 2 Samuel 12:7–8 and Jacob 2:27, 30). Following a revelation to Joseph Smith, the practice of plural marriage was instituted among Church members in the early 1840s (see section 132). From the 1860s to the 1880s, the United States government passed laws to make this religious practice illegal. These laws were eventually upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. After receiving revelation, President Wilford Woodruff issued the following Manifesto, which was accepted by the Church as authoritative and binding on October 6, 1890. This led to the end of the practice of plural marriage in the Church.
First, is that LDS scripture states that monogamy is God's standard for marriage. I have a difficult time understanding the language of it being a standard, "unless He declares otherwise". All the research I have done about polygamy in the Church has shown that plural marriage is the standard, and that God only tolerates monogamy when His people are unable to live polygamy. 

Although I agree that the text of both the Bible and The Book of Mormon make clear the superiority of monogamy (1 Corinthians 7:2; Deuteronomy 17:17; Ether 10:5; Jacob 1:15, 2:24, 26-27, 3:5; Mark 10:11; Mosiah 11:2; 1 Timothy 3:2, 12; Titus 1:6; also see D&C 49:16), LDS leaders and members have made clear their belief that God holds polygamy in higher esteem than monogamy. For example,
  • Brigham Young taught, "Since the founding of the Roman empire monogamy has prevailed more extensively than in times previous to that. The founders of that ancient empire were robbers and women stealers, and made laws favoring monogamy in consequence of the scarcity of women among them, and hence this monogamic system which now prevails throughout Christendom, and which had been so fruitful a source of prostitution and whoredom throughout all the Christian monogamic cities of the Old and New World, until rottenness and decay are at the root of their institutions both national and religious." (Journal of Discourses, Vol. 11, p. 128) 
  • John Taylor (1853) preached, "...the one-wife system not only degenerates the human family, both physically and intellectually, but it is entirely incompatible with philosophical notions of immortality; it is a lure to temptation, and has always proved a curse to a people." (p. 227) 
  • The Doctrine and Covenants contradict the idea of monogamy being a higher law than polygamy. D&C 132:3-4, 6 state, when introducing the principle of polygamy, “Therefore, prepare thy heart to receive and obey the instructions which I am about to give unto you; for all those who have this law revealed unto them must obey the same. 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… And as pertaining to the new and everlasting covenant, it was instituted for the fullness of my glory; and he that receiveth a fullness thereof must and shall abide the law, or he shall be damned, saith the Lord God.”
These statements suggest to me that polygamy is the LDS God's standard of marriage, unless God allows otherwise. Now the Church has released the contradictory introduction to the Official Declaration, suggesting that polygamy was a break from the norm.
Are they implying that the decades-long practice of the "new and everlasting covenant" by early members was simply a temporary break from the higher law of monogamy? If that is true, the Ruler of the Universe must have had a very compelling reason for it. I, therefore, ask again, what was the purpose of polygamy?

Secondly, it is incorrect that "the practice of plural marriage was instituted among Church members in the early 1840s". Joseph Smith had already married at least 3 women (including Emma Hale) by that time (Compton, 2001).

Third, the introduction suggests that LDS were legally practicing polygamy since its inception - as if they were simply appealing the practice thereof until the Supreme Court finally upheld laws against its practice. The claim is simply false:
  • The Illinois Anti-bigamy law outlawed polygamy. It was passed in 1833 (Revised Laws of Illinois) while the LDS were there. Most did not leave until 1846. Joseph Smith, Jr. took his first plural wife between 1833 and 1835. 
  • The introduction correctly cites the first federal legislation to outlaw polygamy, passed in 1862 (Embry, 2007). 
  • The introduction also correctly states that the Church finally issued the Official Declaration against polygamy in 1890, long after it had been made illegal, but the statement was not accepted by the Church as authoritative and binding; Polygamous marriages still took place until at least 1904 (Embry, 2007). 
  • In brief, everywhere the LDS practiced polygamy, it was illegal. This is the longest campaign of civil disobedience in American history (Bagley, 2007).
I am certain that church leaders went to great lengths to carefully word these introductions in order to appear historically plausible, while not too out-of-line with what the Church has taught for decades. It appears to me, however, that this is simply another attempt to hide the uncomfortable and disturbing details of the Church's past.

January 9, 2013

Recent Dialogue

Over the recent holiday season, someone close to me began a discussion through letters and a gift about the LDS church. I find the dialogue so far relevant to this blog. I will keep the other party anonymous.

The individual gave me as a gift the autobiography of Andrew Janus Hansen, an early member of the LDS church. The giver also included a letter explaining why I received the book. Here is the relevant excerpt:
I am enclosing the Autobiography of Andrew Janus Hansen to give you the opportunity to round out your education relating to the topic of Polygamy. This has been the topic of great controversy for many people in and out of the church. It seems, however, that for those who accepted and lived it the realities were many and varied. To discount a practice from our vantage point and privileges in life seems a little frivolous to me. I leave the words of Andrew to speak for themselves.
Here is my response. Much of it is repeated from previous posts I have made, but it seems clear that this individual does not follow my blog:

Dear ______,
This brief is in regards to the letter to me you included with your Christmas gift this year. I appreciate you choosing to broach the subject of religion with me, and I hope that we can have a mature and thoughtful dialogue on this topic.
I want to make clear that I do not hope to sway your opinion on these matters. You may, of course, worship however you see fit. However, what I do hope to gain from this interaction is that you may understand that I have spent years “rounding out” my education on every topic that concerns me about the Church. This was not a lightly-made decision. I also hope that, though you will never agree with my decision, perhaps you may come to understand why I made it.
As your letter addresses the topic of polygamy in light of Andrew Janus Hansen’s experiences and thoughts thereon, I will constrain my response to only those statements. I have also included an updated copy of the outline of my concerns about the Church, to avoid any redundancy (references I make herein may be found in that document), and if you care to read more of my feelings on any of these topics you may find my personal blog on them at www.ldsdarklight.blogspot.com.

The Use of Anecdotes

You mention in your letter that early church members’ experiences with plural marriage were varied. I agree. I have never attempted to argue that plural marriage resulted only in poor outcomes, just as it would be foolish to argue that monogamy always has positive outcomes. We could find plenty of anecdotal evidence defending either position, but anecdotes are weak evidence at best. With these aside, I argue that, although plural marriage produced some instances that worked for those involved, the principle did more net damage to those involved than would have monogamy. Neither form of marriage is free from problems, but I strongly believe that monogamy is far godlier than polygyny. Monogamy is the prime environment for the best type of marital happiness, and polygyny is a prime environment for jealousy, resentment, and low self-worth. When a husband takes a second wife, the first can only naturally feel that she is not fulfilling her husband's needs - that she is not good enough. One wife may be a better cook, a better mother, a better lover. The husband may pick and choose parts of wives to love, and must never accept one for all that she is anymore. Even if he did, the husband cannot divide his attention and affection equally between the two (or 3 or 4 dozen in the cases of Joseph Smith and Heber C. Kimball), and thus hurt feelings thrive. While the wives sometimes became very close friends, rivalries were rampant, and the friendships were often to replace what their relationships with the husband lacked. Polygamy is less than monogamy, and I do not believe that God Himself would command a practice that worked directly against companionate love.
Smith’s Martyrdom
In the top paragraph on page 262, Hansen states that Joseph Smith, Jr. “laid down his life” for the practice of plural marriage. I must first make clear that dying for a cause bears no reflection on the righteousness of that cause whatsoever, but only reflects the martyr’s dedication to that cause. The most obvious example may be a suicide bomber – simply because a person chooses to die for his or her belief does not bear witness that such belief is necessarily correct in the eyes of God. If it were otherwise, why are we not Muslim? We must judge the belief as right or wrong by itself. No one would argue that Joseph Smith was less-than-dedicated to his practices[1], but so have been millions of others to their beliefs, even to the point of death. In this regard, Smith is not at all unique.
Hansen addresses the destruction of The Nauvoo Expositor as ordered by Joseph Smith, but does not give any details surrounding the event. I believe these are vital in understanding the nature of polygamy, especially as Mr. Hansen views it. William Law was a close associate of Joseph Smith, and Law eventually came to believe that Smith had proposed marriage to Law’s wife without his knowledge (Smith often took women from their first husbands to be sealed to himself; see LDS authors Bushman, 2005; and Compton, 2001). Law understandably became disenchanted with Smith, and began publishing the newspaper The Nauvoo Expositor making public the more disturbing details of Smith’s practice of polygyny. The paper published only one known issue, after which Smith ordered the destruction of the press and any copies of the paper that could be found. Law complained to the governor of Illinois that Mayor Smith had exceeded his legal authority in ordering the press’s destruction, and that is why he was jailed. He was legally and justifiably held in prison for his role in that crime. This leads directly to Mr. Hansen’s main point: the purpose of polygamy. I will later return to address other topics he brings up.

The Purpose of Polygamy

Hansen correctly states that the purpose of plural marriage was not to multiply the membership of the LDS church. In fact, by introducing polygyny it appears that the reproductive potential of LDS women at the time was inhibited (see LDS author Embry, 1987). Additionally, there are no strong indications that Smith himself produced any offspring with his nearly 3 dozen wives. Clearly, polygyny did not increase the numbers in the Church[2].
Mr. Hansen incorrectly states that plural marriage may have had something to do with women outnumbering men during those days. Census records from those times show that men outnumbered women in Utah, from at least 1850 to 1950.
Mr. Hansen opines that the purpose of polygamy may have been partly to cause members of the Church to “bring upon them added responsibilities and trials” (page 263). This opinion could be responded to in many ways, but I believe that it fits closely enough with Mr. Hansen’s final conclusion on the topic; he states that at least a very important purpose of polygamy was “that this nation in particular and the world in general should have an excuse for rejecting the message of salvation” (page 263). In other words, Mr. Hansen believes that Joseph Smith and his followers were commanded to take more than one wife so that nonbelievers could feel comfortable in rejecting the LDS message. Somehow, by introducing a celestial principle that appeared evil to normal people, it was supposed to draw in only those truly elite and repulse those who would not accept God’s will. This argument is nonsensical for the following reasons:
1.       Even if plural marriage had never been practiced, LDS doctrine and history contain enough problems and inconsistencies to conclude Joseph Smith was nothing more than a man. The Book of Mormon, for example, is perhaps the best evidence that the Church is man-made (see the outline of my concerns for specifics). Polygamy is simply one more log in the fire.

2.       If the rest of the world was intended to know about plural marriage, why did Joseph Smith try so hard to conceal its practice even from members of the church?

a.       He destroyed the Expositor for the explicit purpose of keeping the practice hidden.
b.      He publicly lied about his plural wives several times, at least until 1844[3], but took his second wife between 1833 and 1835.
c.       Smith frequently married women without his first wife’s knowledge (Compton, 2001).
d.      Polygamy was not official doctrine until 1852, but Smith took his second wife (Fanny Alger) as late as 1835.
e.      Smith arranged for sham marriages so that it would appear that his plural wives were married to other men (for example, between Sarah Ann Whitney [married Smith in July 1842] and Joseph C. Kingsbury [pretended to marry Sarah in April 1843]).
f.        Smith even threatened excommunications for those who were discovered practicing polygamy (see William Clayton's Diary, Oct. 19, 1843).
g.       Earlier versions of the Doctrine and Covenants (1835) specifically condemn the practice of plural marriage[4].
3.       The Bible counsels believers not only to avoid evil, but to "abstain from all appearance of evil" (1 Thessalonians 5:22.). Why, then, would God command that LDSs engage in practices that appear evil? Would not God rather take an inviting, attractive stance for His children to come toward salvation? Should it be so difficult to believe the truth? Is that not why the current Church leaders have modified the temple ceremonies to remove the gruesome death threats?

4.       Christ warned of false prophets who would deceive even the elect (see Matt. 24:11, 24; Matt. 7:15; Mark 13:22; 2 Peter 2:1; 1 John 4:1). If normal god-fearing people are looking for red flags about men who claim to be prophets, should not polygamy raise enormous concern?

5.       Is it not appropriate that we be cautious of strange doctrines such as this one? I believe that our ability and desire to know why such a doctrine would be justified is an absolutely essential part of our salvation. In fact, it stands to reason that God would demand that we take an intensely cautious stance toward polygamy. If our greatest enemy is Satan, and he has dedicated his existence to making us all miserable (2 Nephi 2:27), and he is able to entice us, we must ask for reasons before following anything. If we did not ask why, and closely study such doctrines, wouldn't we all be easily led astray by the devil? Joseph Smith warned his followers about fraudulent angels (e.g., Bushman, 2005, p. 438; see also D&C 129), and at one point (at least) was deceived by a revelation that had come from the devil (Roberts, Vol. 1, 1965), so it seems appropriate that one should question every "prompting," teaching, doctrine, and commandment to know if it truly were from God.

Legality of Plural Marriage

I also think it necessary to revisit something Hansen mentions briefly. He suggests (page 262) that church members defended the legality of plural marriage on several occasions. In fact, plural marriage was illegal long before it was known that Joseph Smith, Jr. began its practice. The Illinois Anti-bigamy law outlawed polygamy. It was passed in 1833 (Revised Laws of Illinois) while the LDS were there, practicing polygamy. Most did not leave Illinois until 1846. Smith may have taken his second wife this same year, but even so, it was illegal long before the principle was made public.

My Conclusions

In brief, there are 3 possibilities: 
  1. Joseph Smith, Jr. was a prophet of God, commanded by divine revelation to take at least 33 extramonogamous wives during his lifetime, usually without the consent of his first wife, even often taking married women from their living husbands, on at least two occasions taking wives who were 14 years old, contradicting each condition that allows for plural marriage in the first place (see the outline of my concerns, item 1b).
  2. Joseph Smith, Jr. was a prophet of God who made mistakes regarding polygamy. Either he took plural marriage too far, or he misunderstood the confines of it.
  3. Joseph Smith, Jr. was an intelligent man, good with people, who used his talents to gain followers. After gaining dedicated followers, he found himself bored with his first wife, attracted to other women who adored him and his purported authority, and he attempted to fit his infidelity within the religious framework he had already set up. 
The first possibility I find unacceptable. I believe that if a true, righteous God wanted His children to practice polygamy, He would instruct us clearly in its purpose, and He would demand that it be carried out under only the strictest of circumstances. There is no other conclusion for me from documented firsthand accounts than that Joseph Smith, Jr. took advantage of his power and others’ trust in him. There simply was no spiritual or practical purpose for plural marriage. If there was, why did God not make it clear?
The second possibility contradicts official LDS doctrine, and is, therefore, obsolete. For example, Wilford Woodruff said, “I say to Israel, the Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as President of this Church to lead you astray. It is not in the programme. It is not in the mind of God. If I were to attempt that, the Lord would remove me out of my place, and so He will any other man who attempts to lead the children of men astray from the oracles of God and from their duty” (Official Declaration - 1). Additionally, Harold B. Lee (1968) said, “God will never permit him [the president of the Church] to lead us astray. As has been said, God would remove us [the leaders] out of our place if we should attempt to do it. You have no concern.” There is, therefore, no validity to the argument that Joseph Smith made a mistake about polygamy. Each President of the Church, including Joseph Smith, Jr., either did exactly what he was supposed to, or Smith was not a prophet in the first place.

The third possibility is, therefore, the only one that makes any sense to me. It is well-established that Smith made a living of conning people out of money with his fantastical charade as a scryer, even after the alleged First Vision. It is perfectly reasonable to imagine that he used his talents at getting people to believe he had special abilities to also get them to believe that he communed with God. This is far easier to believe than that a just God would command a man to take other men’s wives.
Again, I appreciate that you brought up this topic with me. I hope that we can continue to carry on a dialogue about similar topics.



[1] I should note that there is some second-hand evidence that Smith came to believe polygamy was a mistake. For example, Marks wrote, "[Joseph] said it [plural marriage] eventually would prove the overthrow of the church, and we should soon be obliged to leave the United States unless it could be speedily put down. He was satisfied that it was a cursed doctrine, and that there must be every exertion made to put it down." William Marks, Saints' Herald, Volume I, Number 1, page 22.
Additionally, the testimony of Isaac Sheen, who later became a leader in the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (RLDS), matched that of Marks when he stated, "Joseph Smith repented of his connection with this doctrine, and said that it was of the devil. He caused the revelation on that subject to be burned, and when he voluntarily came to Nauvoo and resigned himself into the arms of his enemies, he said that he was going to Carthage to die. At that time he also said that, if it had not been for that accursed spiritual wife doctrine, he would not have come to that." Isaac Sheen, ibid., page 24.

[2] It is vital to note that LDS scripture states the only purpose polygyny might be permissible is if God “will raise up seed” to himself. See Jacob 2:30. In the book of Jacob, polygyny is specifically condemned if practiced outside of the purpose of producing more children (Jacob 1:15, 2:23-35, 3:5). This alone makes the practice indefensible.
[3] Joseph Smith Stated on May 26, 1844, "I had not been married scarcely five minutes, and made one proclamation of the Gospel, before it was reported that I had seven wives. I mean to live and proclaim the truth as long as I can. This new holy prophet [William Law] has gone to Carthage and swore that I had told him that I was guilty of adultery. This spiritual wifeism! Why, a man does not speak or wink, for fear of being accused of this...I wish the grand jury would tell me who they are - whether it will be a curse or blessing to me. I am quite tired of the fools asking me...What a thing it is for a man to be accused of committing adultery, and having seven wives, when I can only find one. I am the same man, and as innocent as I was fourteen years ago; and I can prove them all perjurers."
(Joseph Smith, History of the Church, Vol. 6, pp. 410-411)

[4] "Inasmuch as this Church of Christ has been reproached with the crime of fornication and polygamy, we declare that we believe that one man should have one wife, and one woman but one husband, except in the case of death, when either is at liberty to marry again." (History of the Church, Vol. 2, p. 247)
I will post any response I receive to the letter here so that others may follow the discussion.