Nov 8, 2014

Op-ed: Smith polygamy essays commendable, but still not the full story

Salt Lake Tribune
By Gary James Bergera
First Published Nov 02 2014
Last Updated Nov 03 2014

The LDS Church’s publication of essays on its practice of plural marriage represents a good first step in acknowledging the history of the controversial doctrine (see Peggy Fletcher Stack, "New Mormon Essay: Joseph Smith Married Teens, Other Men’s Wives," Salt Lake Tribune, Oct. 22,). While the essays are presented as news releases, they exhibit an informed grasp of the growing number of the relevant scholarly articles and books that have appeared since the 1980s.

The authors of the essays, though anonymous, tackle head-on some of the most problematic aspects of the church’s embrace of what it once called "celestial marriage." This includes church founder Joseph Smith’s marriages to young women, at least one of whom was 14 (the essays characterize her as just shy of 15); Smith’s marriages to other men’s wives (which the essays contend may not have included sexual relations); Smith’s concealing most of his plural marriages from his civil wife, Emma Hale; Smith’s and the church’s carefully worded denials regarding the practice of polygamy; the church’s "civil disobedience" in performing the illegal marriages; and the church’s clandestine attempts to keep plural marriage alive for a decade or more even after publicly disavowing it in 1890.

In dealing with these and other controversies, the essays recognize that the church cannot explain away, at least not to everyone’s satisfaction, the many inconsistencies, misstatements and contradictions that accompany the history of plural marriage. In fact, the essays’ candor is sometimes jarring, like a splash of ice-cold water. Clearly, the authors believe that "hard facts" are a more effective palliative than spin.

The essays risk falling short in three areas. First, the essay on polygamy during Joseph Smith’s lifetime reflects an emerging apologetic argument that seeks to portray Smith as a reluctant polygamist who had to be coerced by an angel into engaging in sexual relations with his plural wives. Such a position misrepresents Smith’s zest for life and self-perception as Heaven’s lawgiver, while imposing on him a particular brand of morality that was foreign to him. "That which is wrong under one circumstance, may be, and often is, right under another," he taught (History of the church, 5:134). He also stated that there were "many things in the Bible which do not, as they now stand, accord with the revelation of the Holy Ghost to me" (Words of Joseph Smith, p. 211).

Second, for reasons not stated, the essays fail to mention, even in endnotes, some of the most important scholarship on Mormon polygamy. These omissions include, but are not limited to: Martha Bradley and Mary Woodward’s Four Zinas: A Story of Mothers and Daughters on the Mormon Frontier (Signature Books, 2000), a ground-breaking study of women and polygamy; Lawrence Foster’s Religion and Sexuality (University of Illinois Press, 1981), an early important work by an eminent non-LDS historian; George D. Smith’s Nauvoo Polygamy (Signature Books, 2nd ed. 2011), a work especially valuable for its statistical and genealogical data (apparently cited in one endnote without reference); and D. Michael Quinn’s truly ground-breaking discussion of post-1890 polygamy, "LDS Church Authority and New Plural Marriages" (Dialogue, Spring 1985). Granted that space in the church’s essays was limited, still the failure to credit these, and other past, researchers for their contributions seems deliberate.

Finally, the essays cite primary manuscript sources held by the church that are not available to the general public to consult. This makes it appear that access to the church’s vast archival holdings is more open than is actually the case. These documents include the diaries of George Q. Cannon, Francis M. Lyman, Heber J. Grant, Matthias F. Cowley and others. Historians and other researchers can only hope that such records may one day be as accessible as the essays imply.

There is much to recommend the LDS Church’s new essays on Mormon polygamy. There is also much still left to be done in narrating as fully and as accurately as possible the tumultuous history of the church’s distinctive, controversial practice.

Gary James Bergera is managing director of the Smith-Pettit Foundation (Salt Lake City) and the author of six published studies of early Mormon polygamy. He is past publisher of Signature Books and past managing editor of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought.