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Monogamy Wins for Time Only - Polygamy Part 4

Updated: Sep 2, 2021

We discussed earlier the lying and secrecy by Wilford Woodruff and Joseph F Smith as it pertained to polygamy leaving the Church with the issuance of their various Manifestos. It seems that monogamy has won the day in Mormonism. However, the efforts to sanitize the history of 20th century polygamy are also suspect and should be scrutinized. [1]Heber J Grant was the first to begin seriously expunging polygamists, excommunicating them, marginalizing them, and pushing them to the fringes of society where they held in prominence by Church before. Much of that was due to his own troubled past with the Principle. While we may sympathize with his efforts in that it was almost necessary to take a hard line against them due to the prior secrecy efforts of the Church, due to the winking and nodding that would take place when people were being told no, the human factor was often ignored in these hard lines. Punishing and excommunicating people who "erred in doctrine," and in practice is harsh treatment. One imagines there could have been a better way to treat heretics, especially ones created by the Church’s own reluctance to change and its subterfuge to keep things going even when they said they were not. Indeed, if they would have been shepherded and fellowshipped instead of persecuted and marginalized, these people would not have been kicked to fringes of Mormonism and one would be hard-pressed to see groups such as the [2]FLDS, the [3]Kingstons, [4]Laffertys or [5]LeBarons rising to power and infamy. Even more, the Church was engaging in active cooperation with the police and government to persecute the polygamists, just as they were persecuted a few decades earlier by the Federal government.

The [6]Short Creek raid was a particularly tragic event where the Church collaborated with the Arizona government to round up polygamists and jail them, thereby splitting up their families. The hypocrisy in that act was stark. The collaboration with the FBI and local law enforcement would rival STASI tactics in East Germany. Thankfully, governments and the Church seemed to have learned their lesson due to the seriously bad optics of dividing family units.

A concerted effort was undertaken in the 1940's onward to whitewash the history of polygamy, with a narrative that it was only practiced in Utah for a short period of time simply to have a few more children. The Church was in the process of cleaning up its image, trying to tie itself to mainstream American values, casting itself as the proverbial Ozzie and Harriet nesting ground. This narrative maybe more truthful than we expect to its foundation, while it glosses over other aspects. It was also possibly an attempt to correct history, in that the onus was placed rightly on Brigham Young, but for all the wrong Victorian sentiments. [7]It did not mention the conflicts in Nauvoo over the issue nor discussed the doctrinal emphasis on polygamy in the late 1800's as essential. It essentially glossed over polygamy as a temporary commandment to solve a crisis of bearing more children according to the Jacob 2 polygamy escape clause for Saints in Utah.

Today, polygamy ideas are all over the place in the mainstream church. There are conflicting statements. [8]Gordon Hinckley in the 1990’s seemed to echo the mid-20th century sentiments of glossing over the practice as something useful for temporal purposes that have largely been abandoned, and that it's not doctrinal. However, the nature of second marriages from both [9]Dallin Oaks and [10]Russell Nelson (who both temple married previously unmarried women), seem to imply that the Church still believes in polygamy; they simply don't practice it because it's currently not the law of the land. Several of the post-manifesto prophets and apostles have been "celestial polygamists," meaning they have taken unmarried "virgin" wives after the deaths of their first wives and have married them for eternity. They expect to have all their wives with them in the next life. Included among these prophets are Joseph Fielding Smith and Howard Hunter, now along with Russell Nelson. They want to repudiate the practice, distance themselves from groups like the FLDS, but still wink and nod at their own practices that sell celestial polygamy. Apostles like [11]Bruce R. McConkie would teach that it’s coming back before the Second Coming. Because of this, some wonder if the Church will go back to the practice if it becomes legal once again. The Church owes it to its members to have a solid statement on what it really believes, and it seems to be that they whisper that it MAY come back. They keep D&C 132 firmly rooted in its place without modern modification. They perform temple rituals that implicate its return, including secret ones like the Second Anointing and others, relegated to a select few insiders. Some believe that polygamy is till being practices in secret among the upper chambers of the Church. If that's the case, the only real difference between their practices and the breakoffs are with authority and NOT polygamy.

POLYGAMY IN CONCLUSION When trying to unwind the Mormon Binary with the most explosive topic of polygamy, it's helpful to outline a few key statements:

  1. The true problem to the polygamy point-of-entry into the LDS Church was secrecy. Likewise, it’s how it exited the Church. Because of secrecy, it’s permanently wedded to the shelf of doubt. But we don’t need to accept the purported behaviors that took place from LDS leaders. We are free to develop our own standard of belief with regards to polygamy through personal revelation and an appeal to the scriptures.

  2. Joseph Smith the prophet was also Joseph Smith the messenger, which means we should focus on what HE publicly taught, especially things we can verify. Some of the things attributed to him may be myths and rumors created to bolster LDS succession claims.

  3. There are many plausible narratives of how polygamy came into the Church, how it was practiced in the Church, and how it left the Church.

  4. Remember that history is a liberal art in college. There is reason it’s not called a science. In this case, most of the evidence is second and third-hand and comes with a heavy dose of bias, vaulted access, and some proven manipulation.

  5. The experts on this subject come to us through an unholy alliance of vast array of LDS scholars trying to protect succession, ex-Mormon scholars who wish to lampoon Joseph Smith, and dogmatic LDS Fundamentalists that want the Church to go back to the good-old-days of John Taylor. It is heavily reliant upon the honesty of the records of the LDS Church. Don't get caught up in the narrative of historical consensus on polygamy.

  6. Due to all this uncertainty, it would be unwise to put the problem of polygamy in front of your faith.

[1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8] [9] [10] [11] Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine (Salt Lake City:Bookcraft, 1958; second edition, 1966), 578

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