The LDS Church has suddenly released another shady, undated essay on its website covering another controversial aspect of its history—The Big P. While I suppose this is a win for those championing increased transparency concerning the church's history, there is so much of this essay that is designed to be anything but transparent. And there is a common thread woven throughout that makes the actions of the church and its leaders appear to be selfish and flawed instead of prophetic and inspired.
Let's start off with this gem:
In Joseph Smith's time, monogamy was the only legal form of marriage in the United States. Joseph knew the practice of plural marriage would stir up public ire.
Despite the fact that polygamy was illegal, Joseph went ahead and did it. That might be permissible on its face (God's commandments trump everything else, right?), except that, possibly to try and soothe the "public ire," Joseph wrote in the twelfth article of faith that church members believed in "obeying, honoring and sustaining the law." The Articles of Faith were penned in 1842. By the church's own admission in this essay, Joseph took his first plural wife in the "mid-1830s." Joseph Smith lied. Publicly. And his lie is now canonized in Mormon scripture. That doesn't sound like what would have happened if he were a true prophet representing God's true church.
A Likely Story
Joseph told associates that an angel appeared to him three times between 1834 and 1842 and commanded him to proceed with plural marriage when he hesitated to move forward. During the third and final appearance, the angel came with a drawn sword, threatening Joseph with destruction unless he went forward and obeyed the commandment fully.
And this claim isn't suspicious at all? Nobody else saw the angel, but he "told associates" that it totally happened. And why exactly is God threatening to have an angel run his prophet through if he doesn't add to his harem? Of all the tools available to him, the loving creator who supposedly championed free will during our premortal existence decides to use the threat of physical violence to force his prophet to obey his commands? I think it's just more likely that Joseph was smart enough to realize that acting like he was taking extra wives under duress would make things a little more palatable for his victims and their families.
Secret Secret, I've Got a Secret
The rumors [of polygamist practices] prompted members and leaders to issue carefully worded denials that denounced spiritual wifery and polygamy but were silent about what Joseph Smith and others saw as divinely mandated "celestial" plural marriage. The statements emphasized that the Church practiced no marital law other than monogamy while implicitly leaving open the possibility that individuals, under direction of God's living prophet, might do so.
This might be the ugliest, most despicable paragraph in the whole essay.
Those who were practicing polygamy were doing so in secret. The article is quick to call plural marriage a commandment from God, but it says nothing about whether God commanded polygamists to keep it a secret and lie about it in public. So apparently, as part of this Lying for the Lord campaign, the church put out "carefully worded denials" that basically condemned people who were doing off-the-books plural marriages. These statements emphasized that the Church practiced no marital law other than monogamy while implicitly leaving open the possibility that individuals, under direction of the Freaking President of the Same Freaking Church, might do so.
First of all, that's not implicit, it's just dishonest. When you say your church practices no marital law other than monogamy, it really sounds like all the members would have a maximum of one spouse. It sounds like a straight-up denial, not an implied reference to the possibility of the exact opposite of what you just said. Secondly, the church is used semantics to deflect criticism. Plural marriage and polygamy may not be one hundred percent identical concepts, but for practical purposes, they're the same thing. When early church critics railed against polygamy, everybody knew what they meant. Polygamy, celestial plural marriage, potato, potahto. It's pretty appalling that the church members and leaders could just play dumb and proclaim to condemn polygamy (while silently hoping nobody asks them if they practice this "celestial plural marriage" thing). This is not the behavior of a true church.
"Pedophile" is Such an Ugly Word...
The youngest [of Smith's wives] was Helen Mar Kimball, daughter of Joseph's close friends Heber C. and Vilate Murray Kimball, who was sealed to Joseph several months before her 15th birthday. Marriage at such an age, inappropriate by today's standards, was legal in that era, and some women married in their mid-teens.
Yes, everyone noticed that you cleverly avoided explicitly stating that the poor girl was a 14-year-old bride. Good job.
Okay, so the basic argument here is that, despite the fact that it's "inappropriate by today's standards" for a 37-year-old man to wed a 14-year-old girl, it's okay because it was legal at the time? Lots of things that are legal are still wrong. If saying it wasn't against the law almost two hundred years ago is your best argument for the legitimacy of a certain event, you're kind of grasping at straws. I guess the good news is that I finally have a reason to use this:
|Wait, polygamy was against the law, so legally he's still wrong. And ethically even more of an ass.|
It also bears mentioning that "some women" marrying "in their mid-teens" is pretty irrelevant. Some women get tramp stamps too. Just because something is condoned or permitted by society doesn't mean it's a good thing. The Mormon Church taught me that.
Oh, and Helen Mar Kimball wasn't in her mid-teens anyway. There are seven "teen" years. Fourteen is the second one. I think it's fair to say that if she were going to get married in her mid-teens, she should have waited those "several months" until her fifteenth birthday.
Limited Ease of Access
Another possibility [as to why Joseph was sealed to so many women] is that, in an era when life spans were shorter than they are today, faithful women felt an urgency to be sealed by priesthood authority. Several of these women were married either to non-Mormons or former Mormons, and more than one of the women later expressed unhappiness in their present marriages. Living in a time when divorce was difficult to obtain, these women may have believed a sealing to Joseph Smith would give them blessings they might not other wise receive in the next life.
So, because these panicky women who married idiot husbands were silly enough to think that God won't let them into Heaven unless they're sealed to a man (stupid, right?), Joseph just married 'em in the temple really quickly to make sure their minds were at ease? Yeah, that makes perfect sense.
Of course, it doesn't explain why so many of these women were sealed to Joseph after 1836, when, as this article informs us, Elijah appeared in the Kirtland temple to restore "the priesthood keys necessary to perform ordinances for the living and the dead, including sealing families together." Couldn't Joseph have just pointed out that future generations would perform sealings for these women and their original husbands, making them eligible for all the blessings they so desperately desired?
VERY Easily Misunderstood
The women who united with Joseph Smith in plural marriage risked reputation and self-respect in being associated with a principle so foreign to their culture and so easily misunderstood by others.
Correction: very easily misunderstood, by pretty much everybody.
The essay about it on the official website of God's own church doesn't even understand it. Look at the church spin theories about why certain elements of polygamy were conducted in certain ways and catch all the weasel words and the missing citations on significant claims. Observe the nameless, faceless author struggle to reconcile why Joseph didn't follow the rules of polygamy revealed to him in D&C 132. Watch the writer attempt to describe postmortal sealing relationships between families despite acknowledging he has no idea how they might work in the afterlife.
The article gives a murky explanation of how and why the practice began and offers no analysis of how and why it ended. The people who oppose the practice don't understand why it should be allowed and the people who defend it don't understand anything about any of it.
Oh...and do I feel really bad for the women who were so tortured by their decisions to acquiesce to their Prophet's requests for marriage. But, unfortunately, suffering for something doesn't make it noble or right. All it really means is that it induces suffering.
This essay was less clueless and less embarrassing than the earlier one about the Book of Abraham. But it still admits a lot of cluelessness and still fails to paint Joseph and his polygamy in a positive light, despite all the careful phrasing.
But, overall, the church is basically using a tiny bucket to bail water out of a slowly sinking ship.