The church has initiated a new online profile campaign on mormon.org in which those interested in the church can “meet” actual members who’ve posted pictures of themselves, personal experiences with the church, and their own answers to a variety of questions about Mormonism. A few of those questions are on more controversial topics, and it is interesting to read answers that members have posted.
First of all, this campaign is slick and attractive. I applaud efforts to show the diversity that exists in the church, and to showcase some of the cool non-celebrities who are actual Mormons. These are family-centric people with a wide variety of interests. There are many of these people whom I would really enjoy on a personal level. So, kudos on a very effective campaign!
On the downside, some of the answers to the difficult questions are problematic for various reasons (no more problematic than what you hear on a given Sunday from lay members, but they are now public):
- some answers contain factual errors, including some doctrinal mistakes (see below)
- there is no spell check or editing; perhaps this is “keepin’ it real”
- this exposes some of the most common speculations and assumptions that are comfort food to lay members on these tough issues; there’s an upside to this, too. Perhaps this is an opportunity for the church to clarify or deal with some incorrect assumptions.
- some of the answers are not going to be very appealing to those outside the church.
So, first things first. Let’s start with the FAQ on polygamy that members answered: Why did your church previously practice plural marriage (polygamy)?
Reading through the posted responses, this is the one I liked the best. He refrains from speculating or spinning pet theories that are easily debunked, and he simply talks about trusting God. It’s not perfect because it really doesn’t answer the question, but it is a very tough question to answer given that it’s not relevant to our daily experience as church members:
I struggle with this question, myself. I believe, as I have been taught, that it was a commandment from God. I’ve heard many theories about why God commanded it but, as far as I can tell, none of the theories can be proven. I do consider the question from time to time but, in the end, I simply have to return to the fact that I trust God and do not understand all of His ways.
Another answer I somewhat liked was this one. What I liked was that she talked about polygamy on a personal level, about her own family. But again, it’s no justification for it (can there be?):
My great, great, great grandmother was a polygamist. She immigrated as a late teenager and would have had little opportunity to find a righteous and good husband had she not married my great, great, great grandfather as his third wife. She raised 6 children mostly on her own, since her husband died before their last child was born. The legacy she left continues to inspire me to be stronger and better. I believe she was a polygamist wife for the benefit of her posterity.
There are some other good statements as well, but I wanted to highlight a few that seem problematic for various reasons:
The Prophets have said “to raise up a righteous generation unto the Lord.” The righteous women in the Church outnumber the righteous men. That is another one of those male-female inequalities. This was especially true in the early days of the Church. Plural Marriage permitted every righteous women to be the wife of a righteous man and then to raise up a righteous family. The problem is not so severe nowadays.
The old romantic paternalist argument that women are more righteous than men. It is demonstrably false that there was a shortage of marriageable men in the early days of the church. Census numbers in Utah from 1850 to 1960 show more males than females in the state:
Utah population: 1850 total 11,380 male 6,046 female 5,334 1860 total 40,273 male 20,255 female 20,018 1870 total 86,786 male 44,121 female 42,665 1880 total 143,963 male 74,509 female 68,454 1890 total 210,779 male 111,975 female 98,804 1900 total 276,749 male 141,687 female 135,062
The caveat “righteous” is a bit of a two-edged sword; does that mean that Mormons of that era who did not practice plural marriage were unrighteous? Because another defense of polygamy is that only a select few ever practiced it (see below). Can’t have it both ways. Here’s another comment I found troubling:
See the Book of Jacob in the Book of Mormon where the then current Prophet banned the practice because of the unrighteousness of the people. Will the practice ever come back officially? Only the Lord knows, and he hasn’t confided in me.
This seems mixed up or is just worded strangely. It is not doctrinal that polygamy is the higher law only given to us when we are righteous; that’s the law of consecration. The admonishment in Jacob is they were being unrighteous by committing polygamy. My other concern is that leaving the door open that polygamy is coming back (alarming enough to suggest in its own right) just sounds creepy coming from a man. I don’t see this one winning any converts. Moving on.
Let’s look at some facts: in the 19th century, about three quarters of the world’s population lived in countries or societies where polygamy was sanctioned or even encouraged. In non-polygamous societies, like Europe, having a “mistress” was common and acceptable by society. I think it’s much more honorable to be legally and lawfully wedded to two wives, than to have one wife and a “mistress”.
It’s true that there are many societies that have allowed polygamy (encouraged might be a stretch), but do we really want to draw this parallel? Many of these are the same countries that also allow stoning of women or wife burning. I’m also not sure I would call all of Europe a “society” as if it’s all one country (apparently a society of adulterers – are we not also looking for European investigators to visit this site? We just called them immoral here). And he just inadvertently classed polygamy in the same boat as keeping a mistress, as if both are simply inevitable, so you might as well make it legally binding.
In the early days of the Church, there were more women than men. In the harsh frontier times, survival for single women was difficult.
Again with this old chestnut that has been disproven. There were not significantly more women than men (see above). Yet I grant that frontier life was tough due to lack of fast food chains and toilet paper.
It’s my understanding that scarecely 3 percent of Church members practiced polygamy.
The 3% estimate is disproven. More accurate estimates indicate 20-30%. And the other issue is that it contradicts the notion that only the righteous practiced it (so between 70 and 97% of all church members were unrighteous?)
However, when the representative who speaks for God a prophet says that God wants you to do something, you do it. That is what happened back in the day. God told Joseph Smith that He wanted them to practice plural marriage and so they did.
This one sounds rather cultish, like saying “Shaddup and do whatcher told.” I am quite sure most investigators would want more clarification on how God’s will is understood clearly and how you know when you should listen to this prophet and when not (since investigators don’t blindly follow leaders of a church they haven’t joined). This is not a very useful answer to those outside the church, the target audience.
God has commanded humans to practice polygamy in many different instances throughout history. Readers of the Bible will remember that Abraham and Jacob Israel were affiliated with this practice. Even the great King David had multiple wives.
IIRC, it was the infertile wives (Sariah, Rachel and Leah) and conniving fathers-in-law (Laban) who were behind polygamy in the OT. There is no scriptural account in the OT of God commanding polygamy. These were people who wanted more children and didn’t want to wait for them. Also, David and Solomon are not examples of God-sanctioned polygamy. Whoever wrote that answer should read the Book of Mormon: “for they seek to excuse themselves in committing whoredoms, because of the things which were written concerning David, and Solomon his son. Behold, David and Solomon truly had many wives and concubines, which thing was abominable before me, saith the Lord.” —Jacob 2:23-24
It was from God’s order out of necessity to take care of many women who were widowed with children and those who were alone.
Again with this old chestnut. I’m telling you, this is one of those very convincing very appealing explanations that we would love to find out is true, but unfortunately, it isn’t upheld by actual data.
OK, the point is not to pick these things apart. I’m sure we’ve all heard more or less the same types of answers our whole lives in Sunday School, whether they are accurate or not. And it takes a lot of guts to get on line and say these things with your picture plastered there, so I applaud the courage. There are MTC volunteers who are reviewing for content and accuracy, so I suppose it is consistent with whatever average missionaries believe is accurate. Since this is an external-facing campaign, that approach makes sense. Feedback on doctrinal inaccuracies in the profiles can be submitted to email@example.com.
I gave this some thought, wondering how would I answer such a difficult question for an audience of mainly investigators. Here are the things that I could say in good conscience that might pass muster:
- I don’t know why. (I really just have to bite my tongue on this and stop there because I am personally open to the idea that polygamy was not inspired, although that doesn’t bother me in the slightest since I view church leaders as fallible, which is also doctrinally sound.)
- Personally, I find it hard to imagine life under such an arrangement and am glad it is not something that is directly relevant to my own church experience today.
- I am hesitant to judge the actions of others who acted in faith in different times under circumstances that are so different from my own. Many of those individuals made great personal sacrifices.
So, your turn. How would you answer this question? Do you have a mormon.org profile? Which answers do you like the best and why? How should the church address mistaken assumptions about things like this? Discuss.