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Riddles in the Dark - Mormon Polygamy Part 1

Updated: Sep 2, 2021

The CES Letter spends quite a bit of time uncovering Joseph Smith’s polygamy, and rightly so. For decades, polygamy was sold as an invention of Brigham Young to help steel up generations of children and when it was no longer needed, cast aside. Joseph Smith was a paragon of monogamous virtue with his wife, Emma, standing by his side. Church videos and propaganda missionary pieces, if done, shoved Joseph’s polygamy under the rug with careful abandon. If it was told at all, it was understood as a careful trial on a few women to help shore up a burgeoning child shortage in the Utah era. Because of the Internet, however, this issue of polygamy has come to the forefront, kicking and screaming. The Church, in 2014, was forced to [1]write an essay, a sort of mea culpa on what they had previously dismissed.

For many . . . this was devastating.

The most damaging piece in this essay was the uncovering of Helen Marr Kimball, a 14-year-old, who was given by her parents, Heber and Vilate Kimball as wife to Joseph Smith. This implicates Joseph Smith as a pedophile no different than [2]Warren Jeffs. The CES Letter shocks us with showing the similarities between Jeffs and Smith. It’s a hard pill to swallow. Once seen, one must deal with Joseph Smith as a prophet of God, and Jospeh Smith as a child rapist with a harem of 33+ women, over the protests of his first wife, Emma, to whom he lied to save his sinful secrets. That’s the dichotomy drawn, and for many, it’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back. There is no way he could be a prophet and perform such dastardly deeds. The Mormon binary is fixed firmly in place with polygamy.

The truth, however, isn’t that simple.

This author accepted the Church’s narrative, then [3]Bushman’s, then [4]Quinn’s, then encountered the ideas of the [5]Reorganized LDS Church from before the 1960’s, which gave some good counter-narrative information never considered. One recommendation to get a foundation is to listen to the podcast, [6] for a comprehensive understanding of this topic. In terms of how polygamy is discussed as a comprehensive subject, Lindsay Park does a superb job at cutting to the chase, however, her biases are also present as she presents a feminist #metoo version of Mormon polygamy where the “wives” of Joseph Smith are always to be believed in their later testimonies exposing him as a polygamist.

Polygamy itself is only part of the problem. The secrets, the lies, the manipulations, over the objections of his faithful wife that many find wanting in a man of God, as well as the manipulation and gaslighting that he conducted on his purported victims/wives, are really the crux of the controversy. Had he been a simple polygamist like Abraham, with on extra wife, and he was totally transparent in his escapades, this would simply be a footnote in Mormon history. For some, he went down a dark path at the end of his life. Remember, in adopting the idea of messengers versus messages, one need not accept that he was good and right with this project, and still accept his place as translator and revealer of God’s word in his earlier endeavors. One is free to take each message at face value, and not worry about the bona fides of messengers. King David comes to mind. David murdered to protect his adultery, yet all people of the Book accept his scriptures very reverently in the Psalms. This is one way to approach Joseph Smith's polygamy if you decide to take the history at face value.

But first, it's probably important to uncover as much of the truth as possible.

Digging into this scandal takes a firm grasp of the facts and separating them from rumor, supposition, propaganda, filters, and revisionism. Facts are stubborn things in history already, but secret and shameful facts are the most difficult to pin down. With Mormon polygamy you have several problems to uncover.

  • Rumor and Gossip - Early Mormon polygamy was a struggle of accusations and counter-accusations, affidavits and affirmations, opinion pieces and exposes, all set to prove one theory or another pertaining to the rumored scandalizing behavior of Joseph Smith. He always denied it, but was it a ruse to protect his religious system or was he being falsely accused in a manner to challenge his authority by usurpers? Or was his behavior indeed as a scoundrel chasing tail? The controversy was thick at the time of his death and has never been totally resolved.

  • Timeliness of Evidence – There is the problem of contemporary versus non-contemporary recalling of that evidence. How good and factual are memories decades old? How much should you trust in journals and recollections, affidavits and court testimony that came much later, when there was so much at stake by then?

  • Language - What does “polygamy" mean? or “spiritual wifery,” “Plural marriage?” “Sealing?” Was languaging used to cover up instances of the “correct” system and to expose the “incorrect” system, or were these very different ideas that evolved the transformed that later got conflated through historical revisionism?

  • Victorian Sensibilities - Semantics mixed with Victorian sensibilities have a fine way of creating inferences going both ways, some to condemnation, and others possibly to experimentation beyond intent. When many of Joseph’s wives were asked about their relationship with him, the uncomfortable request was often met with beating around the bush. Was that to avoid Victorian sensibilities about sex or was it to be honest without tarnishing their current husband’s reputations associating polygamy as a Joseph doctrine?

  • Biases in Conclusions - To add to this mix you have the biases of those who are most interested in polygamy research 1) Mormon apologists who must vindicate Brigham Young and everything he did as approved by Joseph Smith and protect LDS succession 2) Mormon fundamentalists who erstwhile need to protect a cherished doctrine, 3) Secular historians who bias themselves with humanizing heroes, especially those of the white male Christian variety, and 4) ex-Mormons and non-Mormons who wish to see a devil in Joseph Smith as an easy straw-man. All invested parties need to see Joseph Smith as a sexual polygamist. Many of their theological and ideological arguments rely upon this very fact. It used to be the [7]RLDS Church was the only institution that clung to Joseph Smith’s monogamy, due to the Smith family influence over that narrative, and the need to separate Brigham’s influence from Joseph, but even they began coming late to the polygamy party, partly out of a [8]cultural shift of playing nicely with academic experts on most things, polygamy being a part. They have also adjusted to the nominally secular views that dominate many in American divinity programs, so their acquiescence on polygamy could be part of this overall adjustment. Thus, it’s really hard finding an honest broker. The RLDS may be the most honest, but their earlier insistence creates an irony with their later recanting and adoption of the historical polygamy narrative. Which RLDS narrative is the most honest? They have fought an internal civil war over this almost from the very beginning.

Riddles in the Dark

To get to the heart of polygamy, one must grapple with the problems of early Mormon secrecy. The idea of secrecy in Mormonism evolved over time, and one could argue that it started when hierarchy was established. Simply allowing for a hierarchy of any kind encouraged teachings and ideas that were [9]discussed in that group but not passed on to the greater body of the church. By 1940, the Quorum of the Twelve began to take upon itself more implied authority and leadership. With their mission successes in England and the sheer number of immigrants that would come to Kirtland, Missouri, and later Nauvoo, they were held in high standing among the English converts. Joseph Smith then began to rely more heavily upon the Twelve, as opposed to the standing High Council, to conduct internal church affairs, despite the revelation in Section 107 discussed earlier. The slow corruption of Section 107 could have been a practical response to the reality of things and their standing among the people as leaders but this exclusive standing would guarantee some abuses of insider secrets that would be hard to prove or manage if they were ever passed along. These leaders could always point to secret teachings that would get bona fide acceptance due to proximity of origin but would be hard to prove. It could be tempting to pass along personal beliefs in such a manner if you held such a high seat. While not necessarily accusing the early Brethren of malfeasance, simply pointing out how human nature works is essential. Most men would have been no stronger were they to have been in such a position. Thus, simply having a hierarchy invites secrets. It's the nature of power. That’s the baseline.

Official Mormon secret combinations first came to pass with the establishment of the [10]Danites in Missouri to ferret out apostates who were grumbling against the leadership that had recently been expelled from Kirtland. While Joseph approved of their existence, the extent of their depravity was arguably unknown to him, and here is where we get the first known secret oaths and combinations entering the Church. After Joseph's escape from Missouri, it’s possible he was nervous about who he could trust, as his boon companions in Missouri, Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and others, turned on him, which ironically, was partly in response to the Danite harassment. It’s possible this contributed to the establishment of the [11]Anointed Quorum in 1842, a place where he could pass along teachings, beliefs, ideas, and ordinances to his most trusted companions, partly to test loyalty, and partly as a way to keep sacred teachings safe until they were publicly ready. To recall the timeline, Joseph received a revelation in 1842 to set up the "Kingdom of God," the impetus for the eventual [12]Council of 50 in 1844 (relying upon later documents and recollections). It appears, however, that something else was set up than was directed, done with secret oaths, new secret ordinances like the Second Anointing, gestures, and promises of deathly retribution for revealing the new ideas, things explicitly condemned in the Book of Mormon. It’s possible this was the catalyst for his ultimate undoing.

Since prophets aren't perfect, a case can be made that the Anointed Quorum or at least some of their actions, were NOT approved by God, at least in terms of scriptural direction for such efforts. There was certainly no revelation that presented the Anointed Quorum as God’s will. Some have attempted to lay out the case that Joseph didn't establish this body, that he merely allowed it, or that it happened behind his back. Cases can be made in each of these arenas. At best, we can point to it as good-intentioned but ill-begotten effort at solving a trust deficit problem in the 1840's; at worst, it’s a full-throated secret combination.

[13]Isaiah tells us:

"Woe to those who go to great depths to hide their plans from the LORD, who do their work in darkness and think, "Who sees us? Who will know?"

This scripture is a warning to those who are trying to seek to set up Zion. Any who try to hide their plan from the Lord, or in other words, create secrets that only THEY know, believing that no one will ever find out, to ingratiate themselves, their power, even to protect their beliefs and institutions, by hiding their plans, are cursed. A woe is pronounced, a warning. They will eventually be found out by the Lord.

[14]Nephi states that

"the father of lies stirreth up the children of men unto secret combinations."

[15]Helaman tells us that

"Satan put it into the hearts of the people to form secret oaths and covenants."

[16]Moroni gives us a key that

"The Lord worketh not in secret combinations,"

And that those that uphold secret combinations "shall be destroyed." You can't turn a page of the Book of Mormon without a prophet sounding a warning about secret combinations.

One may say that the purpose of the Anointed Quorum was to teach things that were "sacred, but not secret." Indeed, the outgrowth of those efforts have developed into modern temple ceremonies that aren't to be discussed with outsiders, and some very beautiful ritualistic ideals. The counter is that if something is too sacred to be discussed, perhaps it ought not be discussed with ANYONE, except with the Lord. By opening the discussion to others, including close companions, the mysteries of the Lord can be distorted through miscommunication and misrepresentation, no matter how carefully the teaching is given. Perhaps it is best to get the mysteries of the kingdom directly from the Lord yourself, and possibly teach by parable to others if commanded, as was patterned by the Lord. People with good intentions can misrepresent righteous teachings and turn them into something wicked, simply because they do not understand. They can also do it because they have evil intent.

There is no reason to throw the early Brethren under the bus for conspiring to do wickedness in changing anything Joseph gave them. They could have simply done it out of ignorance, or had the inability, or refusal, to acquire the teachings directly from God. Thus, based on their own darkened minds and the lack of their own revelations, it’s difficult to place any reliability on later teachings that are said to have come from Joseph, because there is no contemporary record of them coming from Joseph's mouth. It all comes from recollections of his followers after they were safely in Deseret. That includes polygamy, temple ceremonies, garments, and the like . . . all fruits of the Anointed Quorum. We must therefore approach each of those facts and stories with caution.

Even the vaunted [17]Section 132 is clouded in uncertainty. It was a copy of a copy that Brigham Young pulled out of his desk and presented to the public in 1852, but was only finally canonized in the 1870's. People could vouch for it being mentioned in 1844 at a Nauvoo High Council meeting, but the references were vague and how good were such memories? How much could it have been mucked with in 8 years and still carry a similar flavor?

The system under which these things were taught could allow a wicked and vain person to purposefully change such teachings to fit their own agendas, desires, and impulses. There would be no way to check them; we are only relying upon their closeness to the originator for a true teaching. Brigham Young did this masterfully for three decades, expressing teachings that could not independently be verified as coming from Joseph Smith, simply relying upon his proximity to the prophet and the trust of the Saints. In many instances, [18]things were explicitly changed “for prudential reason.” Were they true teachings that were improperly communicated, misunderstood teachings that were misapplied, or intentionally wicked reworkings of a sacred principle? We have no way to know really. The very genesis of these teachings (polygamy, temple ceremonies, Adam/God, etc.) coming forth in secret make them unreliable at best, wicked at worst, the most wicked parts being oaths of death that they took were they to divulge these secrets. Whether intended to be symbolic or not, Masonic-based [19]death oaths could be explicit tied to secret combinations, and they invited murder among secret societies. Some took this seriously and literally over the ensuing years.

Scores of women were [20]inducted into this quorum who would be "wives" of Joseph Smith, who he supposedly approached between 1842 and 1843, inviting them to partake in some of these ceremonies, including 1840's celestial marriage rites. He also purportedly taught others to do likewise and gave them permission to approach women the same, all the while explicitly denying the implication that any rites performed were considered a “marriage.”

What were the purposes of the practices associated with these rites? Since they were secret at the time and the recollection later could have been changed, altered, mis-remembered, etc. to protect the secrets of the order, or simply because memories fail over time, can we be certain? Joseph Smith suddenly died, and they were expanded to the wider church body through the interpretation of his followers. The secret implementation caused problems with reliability. Let's say we have a good idea that Joseph was doing something akin to a spiritual rite or ceremony and let’s say that its purpose was to seal other people to himself as a sort of dynastic ritual. Yet at the same time he was exposing and kicking out those practicing "spiritual wifery," like John C. Bennett and the [21]Higbee brothers, and as late as February 1844, excommunicating men who were preaching polygamy, such as [22]Hiram Brown. He was also vehemently [23]denouncing "spiritual wifery," both in his public statements and in his private journals. Joseph sued in court to clear his name of polygamy, and at times, akin to the style of Perry Mason, putting the secrecy of polygamy on trial, which could have set himself up for perjury and jail were he to be proven wrong. He set up a political campaign to clear his name on all costs across the country, enlisted women in the [23]Relief Society to combat the evils of polygamy, had his followers sign affidavits condemning polygamy in 1842, and in general, waged war against the practice of “spiritual wifery.” Was this a war of authority to enter polygamy through appropriate keys, as Mormon historians believe, or was he truly fighting against a system that would later be called polygamy, that was a rider on top of benign secret rituals he introduced? Or was it he just trying to cover his scoundrel tracks?

The most common “faithful” theory considering that dichotomy comes from the idea of religious compartmentalization, that Joseph was practicing "Celestial Marriage," or Godly-authorized polygamy, which was approved, but denouncing non-authorized polygamy . . . unapproved. This is the narrative promoted by apologists such as Brian Hales. But it's countered by the huckster theory in that he was simply covering his tracks in a deliberately deceptive fashion simply because he was a cheating liar and had a propensity for female flesh, which Sarah Pratt promotes in her later exposes.

While Pratt's explanation is heretical, it's really not much better than the faithful narrative. Both explanations are still hard to digest and have led many from the Church because not only would it prove Joseph Smith lied, but that he lied damnably, took it to court, where he could have been exposed, and strung his wife along the whole time. This idea of a lying prophet was then added upon by the deliberately deceptive practices of Brigham Young, [24]John Taylor (who would vehemently preach against polygamy during his mission to Europe right up until Section 132 was released in 1852), to the ruse of the first Manifesto by Wilford Woodruff, to the unclear tactics of [25]Joseph F. Smith through the 1910’s, who was beginning to excommunicate known polygamists, while still secretly winking and nodding at other polygamy ceremonies AFTER the Second Manifesto in 1904. It's also been used by other sects such the FLDS Church, who knowingly lie to protect their beliefs, to the consternation of those who are abused by their leadership. The term, "lying for the Lord" has been popular, both in excusing this kind of behavior, and in lambasting derelict leadership of the Church by its dissenters.

[26]John 8:44 states:

“You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies."

Is Lying for the Lord an ultimate act of sacrifice or is it really lying to protect yourself, your institution, or your beliefs? Can the Lord do His own work without men going around lying to protect His work? Take the example of the Savior. He would teach truth that ultimately got Him executed. And if he had a mystery to teach, he used parables so those that those who would "have ears to hear," would understand. He did not go around explicitly teaching that he was God; that was a damnable heresy. But he implied it, enough to have the Pharisees get the message.

Joseph's purported actions, if he indeed did lie, would have violated that example. A man with a message from God about the value of such a practice would have gone about it differently, teaching the beauty of the practice of polygamy in parable, not outright denying his own involvement, but not necessarily going out of his way to shout it from the rooftops. The idea of Joseph Smith darting about, lying profusely on one hand to the public and his wife, persecuting those that claim he did, then secretly romping around in the woods against his Emma's wishes on the other hand, should be a very questionable narrative. Looking at choice options that allow for any sort of moral pass on this behavior seems very difficult to do.

But then the next question is . . . is it true? Is Joseph a lying polygamist, or are there other options available to us? That will be explored in the next section.

[1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8] [9] [10] [11] [12]

[13] [14] [15] [16] [17] [18]Charles W. Penrose diary, 10 Jan. 1897, Utah Historical Society, Salt Lake City. [19][20] [21] [22]Times and Seasons 5 [February 1, 1844]: 423[11]History of the Church, vol 6, p. 411 [23] [24]Three Nights' Public Discussion..., published by John Taylor, Liverpool 1850, photocopy in Sharon Banister, For Any Latter-day Saint, Fort Worth 1988, p. 289 [25] [26]

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