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.