Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Day 187: Polygamy and Modern Mormonism

I visited Salt Lake City, headquarters for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, last week. In addition to seeing much of my own and my husband's family (which I now gladly claim as my own), I attended the annual General Conference (,6353,310-1,00.html) for the Church in the Conference Center on Temple Square, the largest house of worship in the world. I love "sitting at the feet of prophets" at Conference, a tradition for my family, and a rare treat for any member of the Church.

I contrasted that with reading the cover article on 'Polygamy in America' in February's issue of National Geographic. There is a wide divide between current church leadership, whom I consider to be prophets, seers, and revelators, and the "prophets" recognized by those who practice polygamy. Although the article made distinctions more clear and gave a fairly accurate view of the history, the inside cover reference to the article, "A Mormon splinter group is neighborly--and notorious" blurred the distinction between my own faith and one which practices polygamy.

To call a polygamist a Mormon today is like calling a devout Baptist a Catholic. I find it offensive. And misleading. I have friends at Oxford who, upon meeting me, were surprised I am my husband's only wife, that I do not wear 19th Century dress, nor wear my hair long in a braid and frontal poof. Poor media characterizations only further such gross misunderstandings.

To clarify some of the true history about Mormons and Polygamy, I quote at length from a paper I recently submitted for part of my grade as an Oxford graduate student:

"The practice of polygamy began quietly, even secretly, between 1831-36.1 Contemporaneous sources agree that Smith married Fannie Alger, a teenaged hired girl then working for the Joseph and Emma Smith, as early as 1831, but most likely in 1836.2 It is unclear if this first multiple Mormon wife, unknown to all except those closely connected with the instance, pre-dated any revelation on the topic. The revelation on 'celestial marriage,' and the only first-hand writing by Smith regarding the topic, was recorded in 1843, but possibly given as early as 1831 while Smith 'translated' the Bible.3 In response to Smith's question regarding polygamy as practised by the ancient patriarchs, the Lord responded:

"'God commanded Abraham, and Sarah gave Hagar to Abraham to wife. And why did she do it? Because this was the law; and from Hagar sprang many people. This, therefore, was fulfilling...the promises [that Abraham's seed would be as the sands of the sea].'4

"Despite Smith's command to 'Go ye, therefore, and do the works of Abraham,'5 because his first foray into polygamy did not go well, his reticence delayed the expansion of the practice. Emma may have expelled Alger once signs of pregnancy were manifest,6 and Smith did not make another attempt to 'do the works of Abraham' for many years.7 Even then, his marriage to Louisa Beeman and at least twenty-six additional plural wives came after much resistance.8 Nine people record Smith telling them of an angel who threatened his life with a drawn sword if he failed to reinitiate or expand the practice of polygamy.9

"Smith also encountered strong, even violent resistance from other close associates he asked to live the principle. Upon hearing Smith's 1841 sermon that Asian peoples practising polygamy would be welcomed in 'Zion,' his brother, Don Carlos, reacted, "'Any man who will teach and practice the doctrine of spiritual wifery will go to hell, I don't care if it is my brother Joseph.'10 Benjamin F. Johnson was approached by the prophet in April of 1834 and taught the doctrine of plural marriage. Smith then asked if Johnson would approach his sister, Almera, for him. Johnson records his reply,

"'I looked him calmly, but firmly in the face and told him that I had always believed him to be a good man and wished to believe it still and would try to; and that I would take for him a message to my sister, and if the doctrine was true, all would be well, but if I should afterwards learn that it was offered to insult or prostitute my sister I would take his life.'11

"Johnson was not alone. Smith revealed the doctrine to the twelve apostles in July 1841. Of the experience, President of the Quorum Brigham Young, later to lead the Church to the Rockies and take more than two dozen plural wives, recorded, 'It was the first time in my life that I desired the grave, and I could hardly get over it for a long time.' Apostle Heber C. Kimball, later husband to forty-three wives,12 reacted more defiantly: remove the requirement, or he would leave the Church.13 But Kimball was instructed to take a plural wife, and to keep her and the doctrine a secret, even from his first wife, Vilate. He finally complied after being asked thrice. Thereafter,

"'He became sick in body, but his mental wretchedness was too great to allow of his retiring at night and instead of going to bed, he would walk the floor, and the agony of his mind was so terrible that he would wring his hands and weep, beseeching the Lord with his whole soul to be merciful and reveal to his wife the cause of his great sorrow for he himself could not break his vow of secrecy.'14

"Seeing her husband troubled, Vilate retired to her room and prayed to know why. While simultaneously praying, 'as one would plead for life,' both in separate rooms, a vision opened to Vilate:

"[T]he principle of Celestial Marriage illustrated in all its beauty and glory [was revealed to her], together with the great exaltation and honor it would confer upon her in that immortal and celestial sphere if she would but accept it...She was also shown the woman he had taken to wife, and contemplated with joy the vast and boundless love and union which this order would bring about.15

"The reactions of Don Carlos, Johnson, Young, and the Kimballs were shared by most Saints to whom Smith taught the doctrine. As one historian notes, '[n]early everyone who has commented on their first introduction to polygamy wrote that they at first looked at it with revulsion and shock, and fought the idea for a time.'16"

(Anyone interested in the citations here can comment or email me, and I'll send you the full paper.)

Fifty years later, in 1890, the practice was stopped because it was made illegal by the United States government, and the Saints were heavily persecuted and prosecuted by the same. That it was stopped should not be a big surprise. According to scriptural directives, the Lord could begin and end the authorized practice of polygamy.

Because it is not authorized today, and has not been for over 100 years, those found practicing polygamy are ex-communicated quite quickly. Sects who practice polygamy claiming legitimacy from Joseph Smith have nothing to do with me and my faith. While I would grant them the same freedom of worship I enjoy, I think (as many probably do of me) they are grossly mislead, and I find their practice of polygamy revolting.

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