Why Mormon History is Not What They Say

guestjoseph, marriage, Mormon, mormon, polygamy, questioning, succession 74 Comments

Our controversial guest post today is from Rock Waterman.  Check out the original unabridged post at his blog, Pure Mormonism, so titled from his observation that the organic religion founded by Joseph Smith was nondogmatic and libertarian.

A couple of weeks ago Jeff Riggenbach sent me his latest book, Why American History Is Not What They Say: An Introduction To Revisionism. I’ve had a passion for revisionist history for as long as I can remember, but something I read in Riggenbach’s informative volume caught me up short. It was an essential factor that I had never known or considered before, and which just so happens to have direct application to why the historical record about Joseph Smith and Polygamy is so confusing and contradictory.

While doing the research for her biography of Joseph Smith back in the 1940’s, Fawn Brodie wrote to a friend that “the more I work with the polygamy material, the more baffled I become.” She has not been alone. Every biographer since has struggled with the dichotomy of what Joseph Smith asserted and what the historical record appears to show.

I think Jeff Riggenbach may have uncovered the explanation for us.

Correcting The Past

If the study of history can be defined as “the science of discovering what happened,” then revisionism is the forensic science of methodically re-sifting through the evidence of the past to get at the truth of what really happened. According to Joseph R. Stromberg, “revisionism refers to any efforts to revise a faulty existing historical record or interpretation.”

Harry Elmer Barnes, the father of modern revisionist history, describes revisionism as “the effort to revise the historical record in the light of a more complete collection of historical facts, a more calm political atmosphere, and a more objective attitude.” As Riggenbach himself succinctly puts it, “We need to revise the historical record when we have new facts.”

What surprised me about Riggenbach’s book — and which is directly applicable to our discussion here — is his revelation that until quite recently there was no such thing as “history” as we usually think of it; that is, the kind of history that could actually be relied upon:

“It was the tail end of the 19th century before the calling of the historian had been professionalized and academicized to such an extent that a majority of practitioners in the field had come to hold the view of their discipline that we now take for granted -the historian as dispassionate seeker of truth, a scholar, much more like an anthropologist…Still, there were holdouts.” (Pg 27)

One “holdout” in the arena of Mormon historians may have been Joseph Fielding Smith, whose book Essentials in Church History was a book all missionaries were armed with in my day, and which turns out to have been of no more real use to the student of Mormon history than the 9/11 Commission Report is today for the person desiring to find out the complete truth about that particular event.  I relied upon Elder Smith’s book during my mission when I gave a presentation to a class of high school seniors in Milan, Missouri where I used it to refute “anti-Mormon lies” about Mormon complicity in the Mountain Meadows Massacre. Elder Smith (an apostle at the time he wrote it) placed the blame for the massacre squarely on the local Indians and John D. Lee, who he painted as a renegade Mormon with only a tenuous connection to the church. At any rate, he strongly implied, the members of the Fancher party were asking for it and had it coming.  Even today I feel like a dupe and a fool when I remember how vehemently I defended the official church position against what was the real truth of that sordid affair.

But to give him his due, Joseph Fielding Smith was little different than any other compiler of American history a hundred years ago, including the most famous and reputable of all, George Bancroft, whose ten volume History of the United States, published in 1874, remained the unchallenged standard work for decades. But even Bancroft’s classic History was far from objective:

“Bancroft believed that his job was to write a chronicle that would make his readers proud of their country’s history, and when it suited his didactic purpose, he fabricated.” (Why American History Is Not What They Say, Pg 27)

It was not only Bancroft who was making up history to suit his agenda; Riggenbach demonstrates how this “style” was common among virtually all historians of the time. He shows how “most of them saw themselves in particular as the providers of an important kind of inspirational literature.” Facts were elastic. This practice of bending reality to fit the lesson plan was rampant in the 19th century. It was systemic. And it was considered normal. One can easily see the parallels between writers wishing to portray actions of the American government favorably, and those within the LDS church tasked with portraying Mormon history in the most positive light. According to Riggenbach:

“The American history taught in most schools during the past hundred years faithfully reflected received opinion, and received opinion sees the United States as a consistent, devoted partisan of the same spirit of individual liberty that once moved its founders -a peace-loving nation that wishes the rest of the world only the best, and never goes to war except in self-defense.”

“Apply this set of principles to what we know of the past and, at the end of the day, you’ll wind up with quite a pile of facts that didn’t meet the criteria and now litter the cutting room floor.”

“The facts about the gross violations of individual liberty that have been championed by U.S. presidents almost since the beginning, for example -John Adams’s Sedition Acts, Andrew Jackson’s genocidal treatment of the American Indians, Abraham Lincoln’s military conscription (to say nothing of his suspension of habeas corpus and his imprisonment of newspaper editors who dared to disagree with his prosecution of the Civil War), William McKinley’s brutal suppression of the independence movement in the Philippines after the Spanish American War, Franklin Roosevelt’s order to round up American citizens of Japanese ancestry and imprison them in concentration camps- are any of these inconvenient facts likely to be selected for inclusion in a textbook based on the “commonly shared principle” of the saintliness of the U.S. government?” (Pg. 24)

Similarly we Mormons may ask ourselves if we should really expect inconvenient facts that reflect poorly on the “saintliness” of our church leaders to find their way into books and Sunday School manuals published by the church.

History: It Ain’t What It Used To Be

In 1972 the church appointed LDS Professor Leonard J. Arrington as the official Church Historian. This was the first time a real historian, a trained academic, had been given that post. This important office had always been held by a general authority. Arrington opened up the massive church archives to other Mormon academics, and the era of The New Mormon History was born. Surprise, surprise! That magic era didn’t last long; just barely a decade.

The archives were a treasure house of information for the excited historians involved. They were soon discovering things that the even the current leadership of the church hadn’t known about. Paul Toscano reports that Hyrum L. Andrus was opening wooden crates full of church records that had been nailed shut since they left Nauvoo in 1846. All kinds of fascinating stuff was in there. Books and essays were written based on these newly found letters, diaries, journals, newspapers, and records. But not all of the information in these documents was seen as favorable to church leadership. Some of the revisions seemed to contradict elements of what had become the official church history.

A massively ambitious multi-volume church history was planned, utilizing the talents of the church’s most qualified scholars and historians. Then one day the order came down from on high to scrap the project, and the historian’s office was “reorganized.” Arrington, who had been introduced at general conference with great fanfare for a vote of approval ten years earlier, was quietly released in 1982 without even a mention in conference or any vote of thanks. The position of Church Historian was again placed into the hands of a trusted general authority. The archives were closed to all but a select few, and have remained closed to this day.

For a fascinating example of the work of a revisionist Mormon historian, and and insight as to why revisionism is such a volatile subject to some within the church, let’s look at Richard Van Wagoner’s reexamination of the famous transmogrification of Brigham Young.

Mighty Morphing Fact Arrangers

We all know the basic story. It goes something like this. After the death of Joseph and Hyrum, the church was left leaderless. So the million dollar question on everyone’s mind: Who was next in line to lead it? A meeting was called, and Sidney Rigdon was first to speak. As the story goes, Rigdon got up and campaigned for himself to be the new prophet. Then it was Brigham Young’s turn, and as he spoke, the gathered throng witnessed a miracle. It looked to them as if Brigham Young had been transformed into Joseph Smith before their very eyes. Brigham’s visage became Joseph’s visage, his voice was Joseph’s voice, his mannerisms were Joseph’s. Clearly the spirit of Joseph Smith himself had returned to witness to the membership that Brigham Young was his anointed successor.

That’s the way most of us have heard it, but virtually every element of that story is false. Nothing even remotely resembling the described supernatural transformation took place. How do we know? We have new facts. Using letters, diaries, journals, newspaper accounts, and church records, Van Wagoner walks us through the event. He revises the history. You can read his essay here: The Making of a Mormon Myth. (You can find another excellent analysis by Reid L. Harper in the Fall 1996 Journal of Mormon History.)

The simple but true facts are that on August 8th, 1844, Sidney Rigdon, as remaining member of the First Presidency, spoke to a large gathering of the Saints, advocating that the church continue to be led by a triumvirate with himself as President. The next day, Brigham Young gave a speech proposing that the church instead should be governed by the twelve apostles as a body. He was not campaigning to be the next leader himself, nor would anyone have accepted him if he had made such a proposal. The membership eventually voted in favor of Brigham’s plan because he made the better speech and it was considered wiser that church government be spread among the twelve rather than to continue with a new First Presidency under the ailing Sidney Rigdon.

And that was it. No image, no visions, no voice. Just a rip-roaring good sermon by Brigham Young. There was no transfiguration of Brigham Young into the form of Joseph Smith, no morphing, no eerie ghost noises, no nothing.

Again, how do we know? From primary sources; the letters, diaries, journals, and newspapers of the time. Brigham’s speech was reported on in detail in both Nauvoo newspapers and recorded by scribes for the official church records. Hundreds of members present wrote about Brigham’s persuasive argument in great detail in their private journals. Nowhere was there a mention of the miraculous or divine. Not a hint.

Until years later.

Van Wagoner takes us through the transformation; not the transformation of Brigham to Joseph, but the transformation from historical truth to historical legend.

You Really Had To Be There

After the saints were settled in Utah, church leadership began to shake out in the form of a hierarchy with certain apostles recognized as having seniority over others. Almost immediately Brigham Young forsook the plan he had proposed that church affairs should be administered by the Twelve equally, and quietly adopted the plan that had been proposed by Sidney Rigdon — with himself in Sidney Rigdon’s place.

Although in his famous speech in the grove at Nauvoo Brigham had insisted that “you can’t put anyone at the head of the Twelve,” in no time he managed to maneuver himself at the head of the Twelve and into the role of successor to the prophet Joseph Smith. This aggrandizement was not what the Saints had originally voted for, but Brigham had more than proven his leadership abilities by getting them across the plains and settled in, and who were they to question the senior member of the Quorum?

It was soon being spoken about that “the mantle of Joseph had fallen on Brigham.” What that meant exactly was anybody’s guess. “Mantle” is both a verb and a noun, and is a very abstract term in this sense. Nothing tangible or spiritual or visible had actually “fallen” on Brigham Young. It was meant as a metaphor. But in 1857, 13 years after the speech in the grove, Albert Carrington took the account one step further. In a speech before a huge gathering of Saints, he said that he couldn’t tell Brigham from Joseph that day when Brigham was speaking.

Someone else soon claimed that he had sensed the very spirit of Joseph Smith while Brigham had been speaking. Then another person declared that he saw the very personage of Joseph take over Brigham’s body.

That was all it took. Mark Twain has famously said that a lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on. Human nature being what it is, there was soon no shortage of pioneers declaring that they had seen the miraculous transformation too. It was a sign! It was a miracle! Brigham Young had been transformed by the spirit of Joseph Smith into the image of Joseph Smith himself!

Some of the most prominent church leaders got caught up in the illusion. “His words went through me like electricity,” testified apostle Orson Hyde in 1869, “It was not the voice of Joseph Smith but there were the features, the gestures, and even the stature of Joseph before us in the person of Brigham.”

Eight years later, a full thirty-three years after the original event, Hyde went even further. On second thought, it was the voice of Joseph Smith after all, and more:

“I heard the voice of Joseph through him, and it was as familiar to me as the voice of my wife, the voice of my child, or the voice of my father. And not only the voice of Joseph did I distinctly and unmistakably hear, but I saw the very gestures of his person, the very features of his countenance, and if I mistake not, the very size of his person appeared on the stand. And it went through me with the thrill of conviction that Brigham was the man to lead this people. And from that day to the present there has not been a query or a doubt upon my mind with regard to the divinity of his appointment; I know that he was the man selected of God to fill the position he now holds.”

There’s just one problem with Orson Hyde’s testimony. He wasn’t there. Orson Hyde did not arrive in Nauvoo until August 13th.

Other prominent Mormons who weren’t present added their testimonies too. John D. Lee’s personal diary, Van Wagoner tells us, “makes it clear that he did not return to Nauvoo until 20 August, nearly two weeks later.” But that didn’t stop Lee from later saying “I myself, at the time, imagined that I saw and heard a strong resemblance to the Prophet in him.” Wilford Woodruff told the story from the pulpit many times over the years, embellishing it more than any of the others with each retelling. Interestingly, Woodruff was present that day and had written the most detailed and complete contemporary account of Brigham’s speech on the day he gave it. But in that original account he failed to mention any of the supernatural sights and sounds he miraculously recalled years later.

If the church leadership were inclined to exaggerate, the rank and file were up to the challenge too. According to Van Wagoner:

“Retrospective retellings of a ‘transfiguration,’ in a variety of forms, can be found in dozens of sources, yet no two seem to agree on precise details. Elizabeth Haven Barlow, a cousin of Brigham Young, for example, wrote that her mother told her that ‘thousands in that assembly’ saw Young ‘take on the form of Joseph Smith and heard his voice change to that of the Prophet’s.’ Eliza Ann Perry Benson reminisced that the Saints arose ‘from their seats enmass’ exclaiming ‘Joseph has come! He is here!’”

Too bad the newspapers neglected to notice the crowd going wild. It would have made good copy.

Thankfully, not every member of the church got caught up in the collective delusion. According to Van Wagoner:

Bishop George Miller, present at the gathering, later recalled that nothing supernatural had occurred on that day. Young made a “long and loud harangue,” Miller later wrote, for which I “could not see any point in the course of his remarks than to overturn Sidney Rigdon’s pretensions.”

Why It Matters, And Why It Doesn’t

Just as 19th century historian George Bancroft believed there was nothing wrong with fabricating and reshaping the facts as long as the resulting stories “would make his readers proud of their country’s history”, so did 19th century Mormons profess to fudging the facts if it led to promoting the faith. But such Mormon urban legends have a way of backfiring. Rather than strengthening testimonies, once the deception is revealed, testimonies are often destroyed. Witness the hordes of good and faithful people leaving the church in droves every year after discovering their testimonies were dependent on deeply held beliefs that had been manipulated by those they trusted most.

Nearly a hundred years ago B.H. Roberts was already concerned about this trend:

“Suppose your youth receive their impressions of church history from ‘pictures and stories’ and build their faith upon these alleged miracles [and] shall someday come face to face with the fact that their belief rests on falsehoods; what then will be the result? Will they not say that since these things are myth and our Church has permitted them to be perpetuated …might not the other fundamentals to the actual story of the Church, the things in which it had its origin, might they not all be lies and nothing but lies?”

Whack-a-Mole Wives

Members and ex-members alike deserve to take an objective look at the women who started popping up in late nineteenth century Utah claiming to have once been secretly married to Joseph Smith. We deserve to carefully analyze their claims one by one, and that’s just the kind of research Richard and Pamela Price have been engaged in for over thirty years.

Are these tales of secret marriages not that much different from tales of miraculous transfigurations, thought to aid in affirming the glorious doctrines of The Lord’s True Church? If an apostle could claim to witness a miracle he did not see, is it not conceivable that a woman might claim a marriage she did not experience? Did any of these women come forward earlier than the late 1870’s? Do we have any contemporary accounts of their secret marriages written in their diaries at the time they supposedly took place? Why don’t we hear anything of this until these women were well past middle age and the practice of plural marriage was under attack? Anyone could have claimed to have been married to Joseph Smith, since the marriages were alleged to have been secret and no marriage certificates exist. One wife would not even have known about any of the others. “You were married to Joseph Smith? No kidding! I was married to Joseph Smith!

“Well, howdy-do and pleased ta meetcha!”

All of these dubious claims were made by women who were firm believers in The Principle, having lived their entire adult lives as plural wives, nearly all of them to men of prominence in Utah society. They were absolutely convinced that the doctrine was introduced by Joseph, so a little exaggeration to affirm the legitimacy of the practice couldn’t hurt. Doubtless some of these gals may have come to believe Joseph Smith actually would have married them for real if he had actually met them.

Let’s take a quick look at just a couple of cases of women who have been presented to me as proof positive, absolutely-airtight-smoking-gun-evidence that Joseph Smith was a sex-obsessed Lothario.

The Smoking Gun Is A Toy Cap Pistol

1. Nancy Rigdon

Nancy Rigdon was the pretty nineteen year old daughter of First Councilor Sidney Rigdon, and the way the story is often told, Joseph Smith made advances toward her in a letter and she rejected him.

In volume II of Joseph Smith Fought Polygamy, the Prices examine this story in depth and document all the juicy details. You can read the complete analysis on their website here . I’ll give you the short version.

A letter was delivered to Miss Rigdon which she was told was from Joseph Smith. The letter did not contain Joseph’s signature, and Miss Rigdon rejected it because she knew where it had come from. She suspected it was the work of John C. Bennett, who held incriminating knowledge about her seduction by Chauncey Higbee and hoped for her cooperation in entrapping Joseph. What ended up happening to the poor girl was that her affair with Higbee was made public, causing her no end of humiliation.

Wouldn’t you know it, Bennett somehow had a copy of that letter to Nancy Rigdon of his own, which he published in the Sangamo Journal, and later in his book, claiming it was written by Joseph Smith to Nancy Rigdon. Gee, I wonder how he got that copy?

Joseph Smith made affidavit denying authorship of the letter, and Nancy Rigdon herself affirmed it had not come from Smith, “nor in his hand writing, but by another person, and in another person’s hand writing.” Nancy’s father didn’t believe the letter was from Joseph either. Neither copy of the notorious letter has been found to this day. All we know of it is from what Bennett published.

Some smoking gun.

2. Helen Mar Kimball

I suppose if we came across the diary of an innocent fourteen year old girl expressing horrified apprehension about her upcoming wedding to Joseph Smith, a grown man in his mid thirties, that would be pretty damning evidence, wouldn’t it?

That’s how the journal of Helen Mar Kimball is often presented. But the journal was written by Helen when she was nearly fifty and had been one of the plural wives of Orson F. Whitney her entire adult life. Helen tells a retrospective tale of desiring to be obedient to her father who wished her to be given to the Prophet to wife. The actual purpose of her story was to bolster support for the practice of plural marriage, to which she was a devoted acolyte.

Far from being the private diary of a frightened underage girl, this was a story Helen composed in the late 1870’s which she wrote for publication. Her story has all the earmarks of the type of fabricated “history” created to build testimonies among those who may have come to question the doctrine of plural marriage. Her conclusion was that plural marriage was wonderful. She was in with both feet. Why, she even had the privilege of being married at one time to the living Prophet himself, that’s how super-duper the whole thing was.

“I learned that plural marriage is a celestial principle,” she testified, “and saw… the necessity of obedience to those who hold the priesthood, and the danger of rebelling against or speaking lightly of the Lord’s anointed.”

Helen makes it clear in an accompanying poem that her marriage to Joseph was for eternity only. That is, the marriage was never consummated. This is a typical caveat of the women who came forward with these claims. They seemed to enjoy the status of an eternal marriage to the famous founder of their faith, but most were careful to make the point that there was never any hanky-panky going on. Joseph would claim them as his celestial mates later in the hereafter. They even had themselves sealed “again” to Joseph in the Utah temple in case anybody didn’t believe them.

Those who insist that Joseph Smith was a sex-obsessed letch scoring dozens of clandestine conquests at Nauvoo will have to explain to me how the biggest celebrity in the city, during the busiest time of his life and with everyone’s eyes constantly watching his every move, would be able to woo, court, and wed two to three women every month. And then explain to me this unusual talent he had for constantly picking ladies who refused to put out.

Helen Mar Kimball’s purpose in writing her tract was to help bolster support for “The Principle” at a time when it was coming under attack from outside the church and generating questions inside. Like anyone else of her generation and in her position, when it suited her purpose, she fabricated. She didn’t write what she did because she was fishing for sympathy, she was trolling for converts.

Art or Science?

Today the study of history is a social science, no longer the malleable “art” that it was prior to the twentieth century. So perhaps it’s time Mormons as well as ex-Mormons applied the scientific process when trying to determine whether Joseph Smith was being honest in his denunciation of polygamy, or whether he was a flaming hypocrite.

“Occam’s Razor” is the scientific principle embodied in the statement that “the simplest explanation is usually the correct one.” Perhaps Fawn Brodie’s frustrated bewilderment at the conflicting evidence tying Joseph Smith to plural marriage was simply a result of her having been raised in the church (as were most subsequent Joseph Smith biographers) and accepted as a “given” that the doctrine of polygamy originated with Joseph Smith. Was she predisposed to ignore the simplest explanation?

How many of us have ever thought to check the provenance of D&C 132? Haven’t we always just assumed that it was written in Joseph’s hand? We unquestioningly accept as truth what has been handed down to us from people whose own recollections of key events changed radically depending upon the lesson they wished to convey, and who lived in a time when even the professional historians were no sticklers for accuracy.

After weighing all the evidence in any historical controversy, the best we can conclude about any given event is that it was more likely to have happened one way, and less likely to have happened another. Important factors to consider are primary and contemporary accounts (accounts written at the time), versus secondary accounts, hearsay, and later recollections.

So here’s what it comes down to. On the one hand we have countless contemporary accounts in Joseph’s own words testifying of his incessant crusade to root out polygamy in the church and his threats to prosecute its practitioners. On the other hand we have scribes as early as 1847 testifying to their complicity in tampering with the dead man’s journals, along with an entire gallery of pinch-faced dowagers appearing from out of nowhere with a claim to fame for their secret weddings to a long dead super-celebrity.

Taking Joseph Smith at his word and approaching the later claims as hyperbole typical of the zeitgeist is the only way to make sense of all the contradictions. It’s the only way the pieces of the puzzle fall into place. No one really knows the truth about what happened back then. I wouldn’t pretend to. I’ve only read half of the revisionist history on the topic, and I’m told there’s much more yet to be made available. But if I were to offer an early opinion based on the evidence I’ve seen so far, I would have to say that it seems more likely that Joseph Smith was sincere about eradicating polygamy in the church; and given what we know about the 19th century proclivity for embellishing reality without shame as long as it was for a good cause, I’d have to conclude that it’s less likely that we can rely on the claims of Joseph Smith’s several “wives”.

I don’t quite understand this reluctance some people have -both believing Mormons as well as others raised in the parochial Mormon culture- to automatically reject new information that might force a paradigm shift in their thinking. I like how B.H. Roberts looked at it: “I find my own heart strengthened in the truth by getting rid of the untruth, the spectacular, the bizarre, as soon as I learn that it is based upon worthless testimony.”

I actually like discovering I might have been wrong about something. It’s kind of exhilarating. It tells me I’m still learning.

Comments 74

  1. Interesting post which gave me a good deal to think about.

    I do think that while there are probably some who reject all paradigm-shifting new information, most are simply being careful.

    I, for one, take any new paradigm-shifting information cautiously. That doesn’t mean I reject it out of hand. If we just swallowed whatever new stuff came without looking critically at it, we’d just be wishy-washy, “tossed to and fro”, so to speak.

  2. There are so many things to comment about, I think, and this is such a thorough post (as was the one you had written originally), but what first struck me as interesting was the positive way that you look at revisionism. Some people say that revisionism is distorting and historical “truth,” but you have said that revisionism is “correcting” the past and restoring the truth.

    Do you think that one reason to look at this in the latter way (rather than the former) is because of the restoration story? (e.g., the restoration “corrected” the apostasy of previous Christians.)

    I guess I’ll ponder a little more about the meat of the post.

  3. fascinating post. I hadn’t considered that helen mar kimball might have embellished her marriage to joseph smith. you illustrate well that we need to view all information skeptically.

  4. ““It was the tail end of the 19th century before the calling of the historian had been professionalized and academicized to such an extent that a majority of practitioners in the field had come to hold the view of their discipline that we now take for granted -the historian as dispassionate seeker of truth, a scholar, much more like an anthropologist.”

    I wonder whether we may now have come full circle. Historianship has become academicized, but the academy has become tribalized. And so the Bancroft Prize goes to Michael Bellesiles, for telling the academy what it wanted to hear about antebellum American gun ownership…until the evidence, gathered largely by amateurs, that Bellesiles made up the data he needed to support his position, became so overwhelming that the fraternity of professional historians could no longer ignore it.

    This is actually one of the most troubling things about having history be part of the foundation of one’s faith, as is so much the case with revealed religion. (As opposed to Asian-style philosophical religions, that is.) I wouldn’t go so far as to call history “a set of lies agreed upon,” but the brief intervals in which the practice of history has kept the level of partisanship down sufficiently for history to be anything useful, have been few and far between — and they’re hard to identify except in retrospect.

    Riggenback himself actually plays into this, with his reference to Andrew Jackson’s “genocidal” treatment of the Indians (the man was a world-class bleephole to the Indians, but no genocidaire by any useful definition of the word), or the idea that Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus, in military districts, “in case of Rebellion,” as the Constitution provides, was a “gross violation of individual liberty.”

  5. Stephanie, I wrote this post as a follow-up to my review of the book “Joseph Smith Fought Polygamy”. In that review I quote many of Joseph Smith’s declamations against polygamy. Just click on the link in the preface to this piece above, then go to my June entry. You’ll find ample examples of Joseph’s statements with links, beginning with my astonished discovery that his personal journals were doctored prior to publication.

  6. I NEVER thought I’d see Richard Price, a fundamentalist RLDS leader who largely holds to the positions the Community of Christ held 40 years ago, quoted on Mormon Matters.

    I appreciate it.

  7. An amazing post. I have not read this view before on the statements of the supposed polygamous wives, but the dating, timing and circumstances of their statements certainly does open the door to other interpretations; motives for such tales would clearly have been different in the 1870s in Utah than they would have been in the 1840s in Nauvoo.

    Of course, the church still has a vested interest in supporting the polygamous roots of the past whether they were introduced by JS or BY because so many have polygamous ancestry, and even without it, it’s a bit tough to claim it wasn’t divine given the role of church leaders. Personally, I can accept the idea that leaders would institute a practice that was (soooo) wrong without materially damaging my testimony, but my own views are pretty forgiving of human error, even at the organizational level.

    “an entire gallery of pinch-faced dowagers” Ouch! Remind me never to let you peruse my family album; I was a child of the 80s. 😉

  8. History was often written by the winners and thus slanted/biased from their perspective. The losers were often made out to be terrible subhumans. So it does not surprise me (and didn’t when I first saw evidence) that the Church has ‘sanitised’ its historical record for teaching its members. Stories that show the leaders in a bad light, no matter how true, can be very disheartening and would not promote faith that much in people. But BH Roberts hits the nail on the head with his comment about how it can come back and bite us when the convert or a born-into member finds out that the stories were not true and start to question everything else. I know a couple of people who have left the church because of this.

    I also have many anti-LDS people pointing this out that the church is lying in these points so its lying in others. But then I just point out that the Bible has mistakes in it and many ‘Christians’ believe that some of the stories are just that – fictional stories. So what is the difference between the Bible and its ‘fables’ and mistakes compared to the LDS church with its ‘fables’ and mistakes. Both are under human influence which is imperfect, so we should expect some things like that.

    The main thing is to gain a testimony from God out right, from and about the scriptures not from/about the history or people. Then hold to this, as what God says is true will always be true regardless of what a human can prove or disprove (eg law of gravity vs Jesus ascensoin into heaven; people can’t walk on water, but Jesus and Peter did; creation; etc).

    On the flip-side, it does not surprise me that the anti-LDS lobby have their favourite stories that they use which have been proven to be fiction, but they still hold on to them to prove to themselves that they are correct. As stated above, we were not there in those times and we do not really know what happened. Even eyewitnesses to an event don’t give the same story so we are going to get mixed messages and have difficulties finding out what really happened.

  9. We should be skeptical of received history, but we should also be skeptical of revisionist history.

    The “denials” of Joseph Smith’s authorship of the Nancy Rigdon letter come from Sidney Rigdon’s carefully-worded affidavit, as follows:

    Dear Sir: I am fully authorized by my daughter, Nancy, to say to the public through the medium of your paper, that the letter which has appeared in the Sangamo Journal, making part of General Bennett’s letters to said paper, purporting to have been written by Mr. Joseph Smith to her, was unauthorised by her, and that she never said to Gen. Bennett or any other person, that said letter was written by said Mr. Smith, nor in his hand writing, but by another person, and in another persons’ hand writing. She further wishes me to say, that she never at any time authorised Gen. Bennett to use her name in the public papers, as he has done, which has been greatly to the wounding of her feelings, and she considers the obtruding of her name before the public in the manner in which it has been done, to say the least of it, as a flagrant violation of the rules of gallantry, and cannot avoid to insult her feelings, which she wishes the public to know. I would further state that Mr. Smith denied to me the authorship of that letter.

    Note how equivocal this “denial” really is. Rigdon denies that 1) Nancy authorized the publication of the letter, 2) Nancy said Joseph was the author, and 3) the letter was written by Joseph in his own handwriting. He also adds that Joseph at some point denied writing the letter. None of this, of course, is actually inconsistent with Bennett’s claims. Bennett asserted that the letter was dictated by Smith to Willard Richards, and thus was in Richards’ handwriting. And he attributed no claims to Nancy Rigdon, though I suppose some may have thought he implied Nancy’s approval of his expose. What is perhaps most remarkable about Rigdon’s denial is what he does NOT say. He does not say whose handwriting is on the letter or who he believes the author to be. Those are the very first things I would say, if I were in Rigdon’s shoes and believed Bennett were the author. But as my good friend Don Bradley recently wrote to me, Rigdon “apparently had enough scruples to only deny what was actually false.”

    Rigdon’s denial frankly reads to me like the affidavit of someone who was pissed off at Joseph and believed Joseph dictated the letter, but who also wanted to protect his daughter and church from public humiliation.

    It’s worth adding, also, that the History of the Church includes a copy of this letter copied from Bennett’s book in 1855, and there is also a manuscript copy of the letter among the Joseph Smith Papers. Given that Bennett’s book was an anti-Mormon expose, one doubts that Bullock would have included a letter from it in the history unless he were sure of its authenticity– perhaps via his relationship with Willard Richards, who worked on the history until his death in 1854.

  10. “I wonder whether we may now have come full circle.”

    Great post to make one think about inherent assumptions. So many, “ah, I never thought of that moments”, but also “hmmmm” moments which cause me to remain unconvinced…one way or the other.

    Even if JS wasn’t a polygamist, was he not instrumental in indoctrinating his own brother Hyrum into the practice?

    Regarding the history from the Price’s research and their conclusions about the Emma/Eliza/Stair incident, the dimensions and architecture of the Mansion House pertaining to Charles Rich’s account are interesting. Do we know, however, that the architecture was not in any way modified over the years? Also, even Charles Rich saw clearly a part of the events and made assumptions about the other part of what he “less clearly” witnessed, is that alone sufficient to summarily dismiss the whole account? Can the lack of description in Eliza’s journal really be used as evidence that nothing happened?

    Very interesting references though, I will continue to read!

  11. You Really Had To Be There — Orson Scott Card, by no means a “liberal” writer in the LDS constellation, has said the same thing a number of times.

    The real question I always had was just what did Joseph Smith intend by sealing people together? Especially as with Emma he had no fertility problems at all, yet the DNA studies indicate that whatever was happening with the sealings he was involved in he wasn’t leaving children behind.

  12. Christopher, I agree with you that we should be skeptical of revisionist history as well as received history. Everything deserves to be checked out before one settles on a definite conclusion. That’s why I caution about the danger of fixed beliefs.

    But to your concerns: In my link to Richard Van Wagoner’s essay, “The Making of A Mormon Myth” you’ll find a short discussion of how Joseph Smith’s Journals were tampered with by those charged with preparing them for publication. Prominent among those who doctored Joseph’s words to make them conform with the new doctrine of polygamy was Willard Richards.

    It was the custom of the day for a single woman such as Nancy Rigdon to issue a a public denial through her father, just as it would be so for a wife through her husband, especially when the denial concerned the lady’s honor. Think Jane Austen novels here.

    Note that Sidney begins by stating that he is authorized to speak for his daughter; it was her statement, not his, although he adds his personal note of agreement with her statement near the end.

    The unanswered question here is how did the disgraced John C. Bennett obtain such an intimate letter for the purposes of making a handwritten copy for himself? Was it provided to him by Nancy? If the letter was in the hand of Willard Richards as Bennett claimed, did Richards actually travel across the river to conspire with the apostate Bennett? It would help if either the original or the “copy” had survived.

    More likely the letter originated with Bennett who had vowed to utterly destroy the reputation of Joseph Smith and the Saints at Nauvoo.

    The letter, like many other documents supportive of polygamy, was inserted into Joseph Smith’s record by others long after his death. It was included because it introduced the doctrine that some things are abominable to God unless God commands their practice by his servants. As published by the church, the letter is given the title “Happiness” rather than the title Bennett published it under, “Joe Smith’s letter to Miss Rigdon.”

    Perhaps most unfortunate, rank and file members of the church were led to believe that Joseph Smith’s seven volume History of the Church was written by Joseph Smith, when much of it was not.

  13. I’m quite suspicious of revisionist history denying that Joseph Smith was a polygamist. I think most Mormon scholars, LDS or not, would disagree with that assertion.

  14. Martin,
    I’m very much interested in seeing counter-arguments to the research put forth by Richard and Pamela Price. So far I have not been able to find any refutations of their findings. But I’m wide open. I’d like to see the dialogue advanced, because there are many unanswered questions.

  15. (P.S. I was just reading about Helen Mar Kimball. It sounds like she was married to Horace, and Orson was her son)

  16. Jared – it’s nice to see the direction change from one of a discussion of a particular issue to Korihor. Interestingly, there are many comments coming out from the COB these days that align ever so nicely with the Korihorian doctrine. Funny, though, we take those statements as inspired counsel, whereas Mormon and others viewed it as antichrist. But, such is the plight of our season.

    As for the article, and as for Rock, I thoroughly enjoyed reading both the original post and this one, as well as what the Price’s have written on the subject. Perhaps I’d recommend others to those writings should they lump me in with the Korihor, better known as Rock, but that’s a lumping I wouldn’t at all mind. I, for one, have loved Rock’s blog and appreciate his honesty.

    This discussion on revisionist history sort of reminds me of Paramahansa Yogananda and his work, “The Second Coming of Christ.” In the introduction to that book, which is his verse-by-verse commentary on the four gospels, he states that the book was born out of his desire to find truth which was devoid of human reasoning. He didn’t want his view of Christ to be watered down with others interpretations, misguided or not. Rather, he wanted his own interpretation which came from the True Source, if possible, not some muddied version, the same versions we’re so apt to ingest and spit out as our own views. Based on some of the topics he’s addressed in that 2-volume work, I’d say he did fairly well. Nevertheless, that also reminds me of Jeremiah 31:31-34, which I believe to be at least tangentially related to this discussion:

    31 ¶ Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah:
    32 Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; which my covenant they brake, although I was an husband unto them, saith the Lord:
    33 But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the Lord, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people.
    34 And they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the Lord: for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.

    Just my $0.02. Thanks again Rock, and I appreciate the time you put into this, it’s been an interesting lens from which to view this (and other) topics.

  17. This is an extremely interesting post, and I’m sure it is reassuring for some LDS to entertain the notion that polygamy was not practiced by the Prophet of the Restoration. But there seems to be little historical doubt that Joseph publicly denied being a polygamist while secretly teaching and practicing the Principle. Because of the overwhelming evidence, both CoC (RLDS) and LDS historians have accepted that Mormon polygamy originated with Joseph. Leaving Joseph’s wives’ testimonies aside, from 1842 to mid-1844 Smith urged and even commanded thirty or so hand-picked men in the top echelon of the Church to accept the practice, telling them it was necessary for their exaltation. How do you explain the well-documented plural marriages of these associates of Smith were they not endorsed by him? How do you explain the many rumors and innuendo circulating in the news media of the time that Joseph had more than one wife? It seems odd if Joseph were against polygamy that so many women were sealed to him immediately following his death, and his devoted followers contracted 49 plural marriages in the 6 months following his death, with an additional 86 plural marriages in 1845.

  18. Bored in Vernal,

    I don’t know anything about the story of Joseph commanding thirty or so hand picked men to practice the principle, but I would be interested in learning more about it and seeing the documentation.

    I’ve learned not to trust a lot that what written on the subject after Joseph’s death, because so much was hearsay after the fact and inserted in the history to support the current practice.

    Yes, Joseph was accused during his lifetime by his enemies of practicing polygamy, but he was always quick to issue denials. The Times and Seasons and The Wasp carried many responses by him refuting those allegations, and he preached often against the practice which was spreading in Nauvoo under his nose and within the church. Check out my June entry at Pure Mormonism titled “Why I’m Abandoning Polygamy” for quotes and citations, also for the origins of Nauvoo polygamy (it didn’t start with Joseph).

    Keep in mind all I’ve offered is a flimsy introduction to the available evidence, and I am by no means an expert on the topic.

  19. Rock,

    The problem is not that Rigdon was quoting his daughter. The problem is the content of the statement. She does not say that Joseph Smith was not the author of the letter. Rather, she says that she never claimed Joseph was the author. In other words, she was denying that she made a particular claim, rather than that the claim was true. As denials go, it was very weakly worded.

    I’m not sure why you think Bennett was the author. I think that if Joseph didn’t dictate it, the likeliest candidate author by far would be Willard Richards. The letter was apparently in his handwriting. (If it was Bennett’s handwriting, I’m sure Rigdon would have said as much.) I can see Joseph delegating the task of writing such a letter to his scribe, as he did with other works on other occasions. But it doesn’t make much sense to me to have Bennett dictating such a letter to Richards and having it sent to Nancy with the intention of later using it against Joseph. That seems like a fairly convoluted plan, and not one that has much in the way of documentary support.

    As for how Bennett came by the letter, I’m not sure that’s as significant as you seem to think. Bennett’s claim was that the “letter is now safe in the hands of her friends.” I don’t see why it’s so unbelievable that some “friend” with a grudge against Joseph should have obtained the letter from Nancy after its delivery. In fact, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the “friend” was Bennett himself. The Rigdons were not at all happy after this whole incident, and may well have found common cause with Bennett until Joseph managed to somewhat smooth things over with the family, and Bennett started using Nancy’s name in the public papers.

    BTW, I don’t know if you’re only denying Joseph’s authorship of the letter or if you’re denying the whole “proposal” story as well, but if the latter then you should take into account John W. Rigdon’s later affidavit, published by Joseph F. Smith, which confirms the story.



  20. One thing has always puzzled me about the polygamy thing; JS polgamy opponents quote the “Article on Marriage” from August 17, 1835. “Inasmuch as this Church of Christ has been reproached with the crime of fornication and polygamy; we declare that we believe that one man should have one wife; and one woman but one husband, except in case of death, when either is at liberty to marry again.”

    Something was obviously going on concerning plural marriage in 1835, enough to have this comment included and read at the general assembly which introduced the Doctrine and Covenants.

  21. Christopher, you’re right; something was going on. Hundreds of members of the polygamous Cochranite sect had been converted to Mormonism and were now continuing their practice in Nauvoo. This is why Joseph was continually forced to speak out against it. Outsiders were even asking if polygamy was a Mormon doctrine, and Joseph publicly clarified in The Times and Seasons that it most definitely was not.

    Polygamy was becoming an open secret in Nauvoo to the point that some in the twelve were being converted to the practice. Joseph Smith vowed to root it out from his midst.

    This information is available in the book and discussed in my June blog entry.

  22. What an amazing post. There is so much to think about here, I mean this just rocked my world. There was Joseph Smith 1.0 he of correlation fame, a veritable superhero, a man above reproach. Then we had Joseph 2.0, the internet version, a sleazy, superstitious, treasure seeking, sex maniac. And now this? Joseph 3.0 a synthesis of the two perhaps? Just without the polygamy. Wow, just wow. I have really got to get down deep and dirty into my mormon history. If you’re (or one, but that sounds so stuffy) doing good history, what constitutes a late account? 5 years later, 10 years later? More, even less? I’m now wondering about the reports of the angel with a drawn sword and Joseph using it (the story) as a tool to secure additional wives. Did reports of this tactic surface long after the time in which they were said to have occurred? The tampering with records and late accounts reminds of how the new testament was put together, but I suppose that’s a story for another day. Very, very interesting, this has almost convinced me to become an amateur historian.

  23. y previous remark should have been addressed to Mark. This one is for Christopher:

    I don’t understand why you feel Nancy Rigdon’s denial should have included speculation. The statement was consistent with common law affidavits of the time; it addressed only the facts known to the declarant and the denial of same. You stated earlier that it was carefully worded as if that was a defect.

    Everything else we can glean from the letter: source, motivation of friends, etc., is of course speculation, as neither the original nor the claimed copy has survived. Your theories are as good as mine.

  24. I’m going to give a shout out to another friend who’s been doing a lot of research on the issue of whether or not Joseph practiced plural marriage and currently defends his stance on Joseph’s innocence of the subject at http://www.defendingjoseph.com

    A LOT more can be learned there and, for many, it will be your first encounter with the history of the Temple Lot Case.

  25. Interesting new theory. I can see this becoming popular among some factions, and perhaps even some apologists. Because of a liberal disgust for the practice of polygamy you make Joseph Smith squeaky clean and blame the whole polygamy thing on Brigham Young and others, and say that the wives of Joseph Smith simply just made it up to be famous or whatever. So now you must attribute dishonesty to other people rather than just accepting the historical record without denying aspects of it. Who is truly being dishonest then? The revisionist historian that denies historical evidence, or the people to whom the revisionist historian attributes dishonesty.

    Is this truly the correct use of “Occam’s razor”? I doubt it. It is bad enough that apologists make up stuff for steel swords and horses. Now the liberal factions are making stuff up to deal with cognative difficulties with Joseph Smith. The fact remains that the more simple explanation just to admit that it came from Joseph Smith, and just live with it. That is the true use of Occam’s razor.

  26. Jared–bad day at the office? Korihor?

    To me, the idea that Joseph didn’t practice polygamy is an far-fetched as the idea that polygamy actually came from God. Some things are worth keeping an open mind to, some are not. Anybody want to revisit the earth as the center of the universe?

  27. #18 Jared —

    I won’t mix words — when I read your posts, here, and on your site I think of the Three Nephites. The suspense is killing me — are you not one one of the Three Nephites?

  28. In the book “Guns, Germs and Steel” Jared Diamond discusses the historical debate surrounding who the Japanese are descended from (pre-history migrations). Was the Japanese culture first, and then Korean? Or the other way around? This topic was (and is) incredibly controversial in both countries and cultures. And just like the middle east or other contentious parts of the world – each side has evidence that supports its point of view.

    Many religious leaders (and political leaders, for that matter) will make vehement public denials about something. Particularly if the truth would be politically or personally damaging to them. Some will eventually admit the truth, others will not. Usually they will admit their deception to save face.

    It was my understanding that some of the people who could be descendants of Joseph Smith (from other wives) were having their DNA tested. I’m not sure the results of those tests ever became public. I think it would be a very interesting study to read.

    But much like the Japan vs. Korea paradigm, I’m sure there would be explanations even if people were shown to be descendants of Joseph (not through Emma). The DNA would have been contaminated, or from someone in the Smith family other than Joseph, etc.

  29. aerin – on the DNA tests, BiV did an excellent post on this a while back: http://mormonmatters.org/2008/12/11/populating-worlds-joseph-smiths-legacy/. None of the tests indicated JS’s paternity, but the tests are limited still.

    Whether or not JS practiced polygamy, it’s clearly something the church has to contend with in its history(that it existed and was preached) – for the LDS church anyway, not CoC. But I think Rock’s point is still very valid. I’m also starting to see the sense in the prevalent idea (the church’s stance) of leaving the past in the past and not addressing why people did what they did or trying to defend the indefensible. Once you start talking about history, though, I agree with Rock – historical records are often inaccurate, doctored by motivated individuals, revised or reinterpreted, and generally unreliable. We can say this is recent history and therefore should be accurate, but it was never unbiased. It was never considered unimportant to those holders of the records. They all had an opinion, a cause.

  30. Considering that “history” is written by the “victors”, that there are inconsistent and controversial things in LDS history should be no surprise.

    From a military history (particulary “Dubya-Dubya-Tu, da big one!”), if we tallied the Soviet claims of Nazi soldiers killed and tanks destroyed, we’d conclude that the Wermacht outproduced both the USA and the USSR by three-to-one in tanks and had a population of over a billion necessary to supply the young men who obligingly were targets for American and Red Army firepower. Somehow methinks real history was a tad different…

    Likewise, it’s refreshing to see many controversial claims (like the self-proclaimed “secret” polygamous wives of Joseph Smith, BY, etc.) dissected and debunked. Of course, folks will seize upon almost any far-fetched story in order to bolster their own pre-conceived notions. Can’t let honest investigation and a humble desire to know the truth get in the way, can we?

  31. #35: “So now you must attribute dishonesty to other people rather than just accepting the historical record without denying aspects of it. Who is truly being dishonest then? The revisionist historian that denies historical evidence, or the people to whom the revisionist historian attributes dishonesty.”

    But if you accept the predominant view of the historical record, then you have to attribute dishonesty to Joseph Smith, who the historical record unambiguously shows denying he practiced polygamy.

    So in the hunt for Who Fibbed, the possibilities are:

    1. Joseph Smith, who allegedly practiced polygamy and definitely denied it; or
    2. Brigham Young and the putative plural spouses of Joseph Smith, who allegedly were familiar with Joseph’s practice of polygamy, and definitely declared that they were; together with the modern revisionist historians, who “deny historical evidence”

    I believe Charles Penrose may have been onto something when he warned that the dissimulations brought on by polygamy were causing more moral damage than they were worth. There’s no way at least one prophet doesn’t come out of this looking less than truthful.

  32. Lying for Lord is well-documented when it comes to polygamy, although I believe that phrase was developed in the late 1800s when the government became the issue. That it started with Joseph does not surprise me. When it is done for God’s purposes, there is nothing wrong with a fib or a lie, as the story goes, since man is a mere nuisance.

  33. Since Richard Price was quoted above and reflects the past position of the RLDS / CofChrist, I thought I’d had the current position on this history, which was most recently given in an “official” interview of President veazey published on the church’s web site following his address to the Community of Christ April 5, 2009. In a section discussing church history principles, President Veazey said:

    “Another example is how we have viewed the origin of celestial or plural marriage in the early church. There is no doubt the early Reorganization endeavored to distance Joseph Smith Jr. from the doctrine and practice of plural marriage. Such separation was viewed as critical to church identity and survival.

    However, during the past fifty years or so, RLDS/Community of Christ historians cautioned us not to be so certain in our conclusions. Unfortunately, many ignored their findings. Even worse, some attacked their integrity and harassed them and their families.

    The vast majority of church historians have persuasively concluded that Joseph Smith Jr. was involved prominently in the doctrine and practice of celestial or plural marriage. There is also some evidence that shortly before his death, Joseph approached William Marks, Nauvoo Stake president, and said that he (Joseph) had “been deceived” in the matter of plural marriage and that every effort must be made to rid the church of the doctrine. Unfortunately, he was killed before anything could be done.

    So, where does this leave us? The Reorganized Church has always said that plural marriage in the early church was wrong, regardless of its origins. We need to let it go at that. Reigniting old debates over this issue will be unproductive and only serve to distract us from more important endeavors.

    There is another step we can take. As we continue to take the path of healing and reconciliation, it would be good to say how sorry we are for the hateful actions of some toward those who sought to bring uncomfortable historical information to the church’s attention.”

    Interesting. In the LDS you can be identified as Korihor for saying JS did not practice polygamy. In the CofChrist, you could once be called Korihor for saying he did practice polygamy.

  34. aerin – on the DNA tests, BiV did an excellent post on this a while back: http://mormonmatters.org/2008/12/11/populating-worlds-joseph-smiths-legacy/. None of the tests indicated JS’s paternity, but the tests are limited still.

    Several important things for context:

    First, Bennett was aggressively promoting group sexual access, somewhat like a modern group marriage.

    Second, Joseph Smith felt that everyone needed to be sealed together, parents to children, and everyone tied together.

    Third, Polygamy created the LDS Church as an ethnic group about a hundred years quicker than it would have otherwise been possible. Now that element of the Church has faded, but it was very important to the early Church’s survival and to prevent assimilation.

    The question is what do you take away, where do you go from those points.

    I think it is interesting to look at and consider.

    But I think the facile aspects of many positions, Joseph as a sex crazed wifeamaniac or Joseph who was a hidden celibate saint, are both probably wrong.

    I’m glad Alan was willing to blog with us. I’ve wanted Nick to write this post for some time, but he has been busy (though he has been raising money for AIDS awareness — I need to post the link here when I can find it where it got buried — things have been impossibly busy for me).

    Thank you Alan.

  35. There are journal accounts of Brigham Young’s transfiguration and appearance as Joseph Smith during his speech. My non-member great-great-great-grandfather said, “it was no hocus-pocus” and immediately joined the Church.

  36. It is interesting to me that despite the revisions to history that the church may have made, you still don’t have to go much further than the school manual to find some pretty disturbing material. Whoever was in charge of the supposed cover-up did did a pretty piss-poor job.


    If you can dig up some references, I’d love to see them. I’ve learned to not give much credence to statements like “so and so said that such and such happened… so it must be so.”

  37. #46

    I found it interesting that you spoke about the church becoming a distinct ethnic group and not being assimilated into another. But, if the research in Rock’s previous article on how polygamy was introduced to the church via the assimilation of the Cochranites through their conversion is true, then we definitely have an interesting situation on our hands.

  38. #46 – Polygamy necessary to prevent assimiliation? That makes no sense…was there a Borg cube hovering over later 19th-century Utah? It seems that part of the reason that BY said on (or about) 7/24/1847, ‘this is the place’, is that he knew the Salt Lake Valley could be settled but also it’d be isolated enough that the Saints wouldn’t be bothered. However, only a minority of the LDS membership were even in UT by 1850. There were actually more members abroad at the time than in the US (they soon would emigrate, of course), and the majority of the US members were strung out in the Midwest and even a sizeable contingent in California. I would credit far more the LDS propensity for being insular (e.g, taking being a PECULIAR people more seriously) rather than polygamy as the factor for keeping the Church intact during those transitional years.
    The only possible role that polygamy played, IMO, is that the early stalwarts propogated their seed and also their values through having mucho progeny. Not unlike when the SS men were encouraged (and at times ordered) to father more children via their wives AND impregnate willing young girls to give a baby (future soldier or mother of soldiers) to the Fuhrer, but with a far more holy and noble purpose. There’s strength not merely in numbers, but the right kind of numbers.

  39. Interesting read, but I’m still skeptical. As a professional historian with a PhD in early American History, I have seen it all before. Yes, you are correct that revisionist history is actually a good thing. When new evidence comes out, one should certainly use it to either reaffirm or prove false certain events. Unfortunately, however, most historians are more like lawyers than objective analysts. When writing a book or an article, it is your job to use the evidence that supports your predetermined thesis. So, if you write a book in which you argue that the American Revolution was more about the large amounts of money influential merchants could make off such a war, you are going to present the evidence that supports your thesis. You will drag out obscure quotes from Washington, Jefferson, Madison, etc (as well as the opinions of regular people) who lament the fact that many are in it for the money. After reading an entire book full of these kinds of entries, you will be convinced that the Revolution was about money and greed. That is why even well-written and meticulously researched material should be considered carefully.
    We are also prone to believe what someone writes….just because they have a smattering of quotes and sources. Unless you read the footnotes and have access to the actual original document, you can’t always trust the author. Additionally, what is being left out of a “historical” account is just as important as what is being included. Websites and books written by non-professional historians are notoriously bad and are snickered at by professionals.
    So, in conclusion, unless you are checking the sources and know first-hand the omissions and the author’s bias, you need to look at even revisionist history from all points of view.

  40. So, if you write a book in which you argue that the American Revolution was more about the large amounts of money influential merchants could make off such a war, you are going to present the evidence that supports your thesis. You will drag out obscure quotes from Washington, Jefferson, Madison, etc (as well as the opinions of regular people) who lament the fact that many are in it for the money.

    Sounds like the way Howard Zinn wrote it.

  41. Awesome post (as was the original).

    I have not read enough about this particular issue to give any insight. For me, personally, my membership doesn’t rest on the history (I’ve been down that road), though I do think it is a very important part of our church and culture.

    Re Aaron C. #52
    I REALLY liked what you said here. Great words of caution from someone who knows. There is one piece, however, with which I will quibble. While I generally tentatively accept the conclusions of professed experts in fields in which I am not well versed, academia (and I’m a part of it) has its own set of problems. Professional historians snickering at amateurs is NOT a good reason, in my book, to throw out the work by said amateurs. After all, professional, academic economists have had it wrong since Keynes invented his nonsense, and they have been parroting it as truth ever since, despite it being demonstrably false by anyone outside their club. It’s one of the few, and rare instances in which an entire group of experts can get it wrong and lead an entire country astray.

  42. I think we need to do away with any “professional” titles. All it does is give people an excuse to follow someone or another. Put a PhD, or an M.D., or whatever the title du jour is, after someone’s name and all of the sudden they’re an expert. And, true to form, most people see the title and some sort of rose colored glasses magically cover their eyes and the world is beautiful. I like Nibley’s take on professionals and amateurs, which is stated in more than a few of his works, but especially this quote: “Someone (this writer, in fact) has said that anyone can become a dean, a professor, a department head, a chancellor, or a custodian by appointment — it has happened thousands of times; but since the world began, no one has ever become an artist, a scientist, or a scholar by appointment. The professional may be a dud, but to get any recognition, the amateur has to be good. To maintain his amateur status, moreover, he has to be dedicated, honest, and incorruptible — from which irksome necessity the professional, unless he cares otherwise, is freed by an official certificate.” It’s quite similar to Mormons and “authority,” in actuality. Put a title (Elder or President) in front of any man in the church and all of the sudden pure doctrine comes out of their mouth on a non-stop basis. Put another man up there, at the same pulpit, with no such title and all the sudden his word (even if it’s word-for-word the same) is erroneous and should be thrown by the wayside. The message no longer matters, just the title either in front or behind someone’s name. Who needs the Holy Ghost when we have titles which tell us what is true and what isn’t? Sheesh, and people thought this was hard.

    And, I do love the idea we tend to propagate that everyone (but me, that is) operates from flawed paradigms, starts books out with a thesis and goes about finding things to support that thesis. Everyone operates from this skewed paradigm they just can’t get out of (everyone but me, that is). I’m the only one who can see the forest for the trees, the only one who is impartial in everything I do, and the only one who should be allowed to teach, preach, prophesy and give forth declarations. Thus saith Tom.

    There, now I can step off my soapbox, and feel better about myself. Both in academia and religion, the pattern is the same. Follow the titles and all will be well. 🙂

  43. There needs to be a moratorium, I think, on LDS parents naming their sons after the Doubting Apostle. It seems to make them natural born skeptics, and there’s no end of trouble with that.

  44. And, I do love the idea we tend to propagate that everyone (but me, that is) operates from flawed paradigms, starts books out with a thesis and goes about finding things to support that thesis. Everyone operates from this skewed paradigm they just can’t get out of (everyone but me, that is). I’m the only one who can see the forest for the trees, the only one who is impartial in everything I do, and the only one who should be allowed to teach, preach, prophesy and give forth declarations. Thus saith Tom.

    Love this!

  45. “Who needs the Holy Ghost when we have titles which tell us what is true and what isn’t?” I couldn’t agree more. There is a real human flaw that we sometimes encounter in the church (and often elsewhere too) that just because of someone’s position or title, they are a better source than our own discernment. Clearly if we have the gift of the HG and we believe we have that gift, we shouldn’t be so eager to rely on the arm of flesh.

  46. By the way, I didn’t mean to come off as a better than thou or anything. All I am saying is that just like a professional in any other field, Historians do sometimes question the accuracy of non-professional historians. If I (having no background in medicine) tried to publish an article in a scholarly medical magazine, they would not even consider accepting it for publication. I don’t tell my doctor how to operate or what procedures to use even if I did read about the subject in a medical journal. It is not my place…and I have not studied the subject for years or even decades! Yet everyone out there thinks they are a historian because they took a class in college or read a couple of books or a website. All I’m saying is that it takes time to look at hundreds and even thousands of primary and secondary sources to form an opinion that may be at least close to accurate. That is why I said that pros sometimes “snicker” at non-pros. They just don’t have the training…and it often shows. (not in all cases obviously.)

  47. Tom, I think you just wrote my next blog entry. Perfectly said.

    Aaron, I don’t think anyone mistook your meaning; at least I didn’t. I understood you to be throwing a caution out there that not everything that looks like historical research necessarily is based on the careful study of primary documents. If I’ve made any point at all in my essay above, it is that we can’t necessarily assume that what we read has been taken from a reliable source. It’s important to know the provenance of some sources, especially when we are quoting from someone’s diary.

    I certainly don’t put myself out there as an expert; my initial piece (and I believe one does have to read my June entry “Why I’m Abandoning Polygamy” to fully appreciate “Why Mormon History Is Not What They Say.” The latter is a follow-up to the former, and heavily abridged due to space constraints here on MormonMatters.

    What I intended with my original piece on polygamy was as if to say, “Hey, look what I found out”, rather than to put forth a position that I was firmly entrenched in. As I’m sure you would agree, “history” is in constant flux as we discover new information, and I welcome input that may refute these findings.

  48. After a long time, I have come to understand that ‘history’ can never be true. No matter how much pragmatism an author tries to instill in his writing, there will always be a bias.

    There were many marriages and relationships sealed in the church, from my understanding, due to the belief that one would have a better afterlife if sealed as part of a particular members family. I wouldn’t be surprised if this idea was carried forward with many seeking to be sealed into the prophet’s family. Could these marriages have been done ‘by proxy’ which allowed the participating individual to lay claim in the hereafter to a ‘royal’ line? And also give them the ability to speak the truth regarding the relationship? We may never know.

    As to plural marriage, a recent president of the church indicated that it was ‘not doctrinal.’ Where does that leave ‘truth?’ Either Brigham Young or Gordon B. Hinckley are correct, but only one can be.

    Is it true then and false now or false then and true now… Either case is problematic when it comes to eternal doctrines.

    Only thing I can say (with my personal bias) is that Rock put an outstanding and thought provoking article in front of us.

  49. 51 — was there a Borg cube hovering over later 19th-century Utah — some people would say that modern Republican conservatives have swallowed up the Church just like the Borg, though at the time the threat was the dominant culture. Look how the RLDS are rapidly fading. LDS propensity for being insular came about as a result of the Church becoming an ethnic group.

  50. Spektator, you asked “Could these marriages have been done ‘by proxy’ which allowed the participating individual to lay claim in the hereafter to a ‘royal’ line? And also give them the ability to speak the truth regarding the relationship?”

    This is what I’m now inclined to believe is what happened. During the days in Utah when men were being sealed to men, it was a real sign of status, of being part of the “in” group, if you could maneuver to being sealed either directly to Brigham Young, or as part of a line of other men that were adopted into his celestial line.

    Why then would women not want to be sealed to Joseph Smith? That would be a pretty heady claim. It is telling that most of these women were already ladies of a certain status in the church, being now married to prominent church authorities. Did it become faddish among them to also claim uxorial heritage to Joseph?

    At any rate, it was not enough to simply claim it; they all had themselves sealed again to make sure the claim took hold. It is these later sealings that are offered as “proof” of their marriages to Joseph in the church’s genealogical records. Too bad Joseph himself wasn’t present to say “I Do.”

  51. “Who needs the Holy Ghost when we have titles which tell us what is true and what isn’t?” I couldn’t agree more. There is a real human flaw that we sometimes encounter in the church (and often elsewhere too) that just because of someone’s position or title, they are a better source than our own discernment. Clearly if we have the gift of the HG and we believe we have that gift, we shouldn’t be so eager to rely on the arm of flesh.

    Well, yes, but again I feel like I have to throw out a caution. I’m a fan of Aristotelian morality, and as such believe that to help us know what is moral, it is often helpful to ask many “virtuous” people. We get social feedback all the time when we act. Ignoring that, listening EXCLUSIVELY to some inner discernment is a recipe for disaster. Even those who claim to do just this would not convince me. Subconscious acknowledgment of how our actions are perceived by others is an inherent human trait highly coupled with guilt, shame, etc.

    I think the caution must go in both directions. We should rely on our own judgment, especially in the face of the authoritarian regime. But we must also seek to understand how our actions are perceived lest we lose out on the wisdom of the crowd. No one acts in a vacuum.

    Re Aaron C
    I totally understood what you were saying, and you’re right. I just wanted to throw out the caution that we sometimes overestimate experts who often fall victim to psychological phenomena that impairs their judgement just like the rest of us.

  52. jmb275 – your caveat is worth a mention. I think those who are too accustomed to follow others do miss out on the wisdom of crowds too by over-relying on going along to get along without enough respect to their own feelings and impressions are really in an untenable position. I don’t see Jesus having done that. But it’s true that people who follow the dictates of their own conscience should question breaking from the crowd when their primary motivation may be mere self-interest or misguided ego-driven behavior.

  53. I think those who are too accustomed to follow others do miss out on the wisdom of crowds too by over-relying on going along to get along without enough respect to their own feelings and impressions are really in an untenable position.

    Ah, that’s a good point. Seeking the approval of one, or even a group or even just following one or a group is not a recipe for acting morally right. And in actuality, Aristotelian morality would not dictate that either. It would dictate that we seek the wisdom of virtuous folks (the experts, as it were) and then make our own decision (personally I think this is the optimal strategy).

    I don’t see Jesus having done that. But it’s true that people who follow the dictates of their own conscience should question breaking from the crowd when their primary motivation may be mere self-interest or misguided ego-driven behavior.

    Actually, I think it’s even more than that. For us in the precarious situation of remaining heretics in our group, we may be acting against our own moral conscience by conceding our own judgement in favor of group preservation and keeping peace. In those situations we often claim ’tis better to shut-up and follow along than obey our own internal compass. A sort of “divestment” as it were 😉 . Jesus is an interesting case since he was most certainly a heretic, albeit not a quiet one. And yet, even if I think my particular set of morals is what Jesus would have, and I don’t think my primary motivation (were I to speak up) would be self-interested I won’t be speaking up any time soon. I’m definitely no Jesus!!!

  54. Wonderfully written :-). Thank you so much. I had personal revelation that Joseph smith had one wife, and that polygamy was not a requirement of God, that d&c 132 was a fabrication. I was dumbfounded, because being a LDS for 27 years I had defended polygamy believing what the LDS church taught me, but I had reason to pray about Joseph after reading his many anti-polygamy speeches. Having a testimony of Joseph and the bom , I believed Joseph was no liar and therefore I needed to pray. When I received the answer I was astounded, but was also impressed that all evidence would reveal itself and Joseph and Emma would be found innocent, and I was also impressed that any anyone saying Joseph was a polygamist no matter how sincere they came across, were liars and be revealed as such.

    Since receiving this revelation, I have found out deceit upon deceit!! Words attributed to joseph , not his at all, and his histories and papers were doctored after his death, and non of his evidence is forth coming in the church . . . He is very precious to me, and I want his named cleared and revered, its been trashed for too long and innocent saints suffer too because they leave church believing the lies, when reality is Joseph was not involved with polygamy, racism or slavery, he was a good man, and his family have been trashed by lies … it all needs putting right. And anyone reading William Clayton’s diary would be shocked too . . .what a load of fabrication! Every other day he focuses of Josephs polygamy, ignoring his own family business and surprise surprise, the months a great importance such as may 1842 and Oct 1842, where Joseph is almost every day doing something to denounce false teachings and excommunicate them and take to court … these very times, nothing whatever s recorded .. deleted? Omitted? Hmmmm don’t trust any of the history of Joseph if it passed through the LDS church first, its doctored. Crppshocking, but true. Happened along time ago, the people of the church are good people, it would be nice to put things straight s we can be proud instead of ashamed of LDS history … x

  55. I have a copy of the journal of one of my ancestors that was there on that day you mentioned after Jospeh Smith died and Sidney and Brigham spoke. He did speak of the miracle that we hear about today.

    One does not need to study history to understand what is happening here. Just sit down iwth your siblings and talk about your childhood. See how many different opinions there are about the event…honest opinions.

    All historical records will have some amount of bias, hopefully less than this blog post, though!

    1. The important question, Leslie, is when was that journal entry written? Many of those who claimed they saw the transformation wrote about it in their journals, but they wrote about it many years after it was alleged to have happened. If you have written testimony from a journal written AT THE TIME -not simply a decades old recollection- I would very much like to see it, as would many LDS scholars. No one but you has made such a claim.

  56. After researching this matter in-depth for over a year and pouring over hundreds of books and thousands of source documents, I’ve come to believe that Joseph Smith is likely innocent of the charges of teaching or practicing polygamy. I wonder whether the LDS leadership knows this to be the case. If so, I wonder whether they have any plans to attempt to set the record straight. Their current official position seems somewhat incoherent to me.

    This research has presented me with a problem, however. After my research, if I would have concluded that Joseph were guilty instead, I would also have to seriously doubt anything else he claimed such as his first vision, translations, etc., calling into question the Book of Mormon. The nature of his purported actions and deceit, if the accusations are true, are pretty damning of his character, even taken in the best light.

    But, the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon is so compelling that in order to accept that Joseph’s the author of polygamy I’d have to go in a number of other directions such as (1) maybe Joseph found a true record of it and just claimed it as his own and was a mighty charlatan in every other respect, so the Book of Mormon is true, but that’s as far as it goes, (2) maybe Joseph told the truth about the Book of Mormon but then became a fallen prophet succumb to the devil, both violating the law of the land and orchestrating his own secret combinations to hide a polygamy cult, but then where is the line drawn with his other revelations?

    Moreover, although I can reconcile Joseph Smith’s history in light of my research, there seems to be no way to reconcile Brigham Young under any interpretation of the facts. Whatever the truth on this matter with respect to Joseph, my opinion of Brigham Young has plummeted so low as to never be recovered. In many ways, Brigham does not even qualify as a nice person, let alone a man of God.

    I feel ambivalent about the LDS faith. There is so much right about it. The good “fruits” are abundant. Yet, the doctrines seem corrupted on some level, and if I’m wrong about Joseph’s innocence, I have to conclude I’ve been duped by a false religion based on Biblical warnings of such a possibility. I have been reexamining everything and every faith out there to get my bearings again. It is a very odd place to be, especially since by doing so my faith in God has increased tenfold. I still have not received the inspiration of how to move forward. I’m still confused about the right implementations of my belief in God.

  57. Pingback: Year of Polygamy: Polygamy Controversies: Joseph Fought Polygamy?, Episode 94 | Feminist Mormon Housewives Podcast

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