A few weeks ago, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) published a series of articles on the history of polygamy in the church. The articles made a small Mormon splash at the time, but today the story got picked up by the major news outlets–it’s high up on the home page of CNN, for example. Fox also has a story up on it. This isn’t anything that I wasn’t aware of, but it seems like it was news to quite a few people for a couple of reasons:
- The number of wives–I think a fair number of members would sort of gloss over polygamy with a general shrug of the shoulders and a “That ended more than a hundred years ago” excuse. Brigham Young also got most of the attention, with Joseph flying under the polygamy radar, so to speak. (Now there’s a mental image you don’t think of every day.) So to find out that Joseph had so many wives takes many people off guard. This isn’t a hang up for me. If you’ve accepted polygamy as part of the church’s history, I actually think it makes more sense that Joseph was practicing it than that he wasn’t. I always assumed that he was, and that it was fairly extensive–and all articles I’d read about it supported this assumption. (A general note: when I hear people lobbing accusations against the church, I typically will track down the accusations and investigate them. Probably another reason these articles didn’t catch me off guard.)
- The age of the wives–Joseph’s youngest wife was 14 years old (though the church points out that in this case–as in a number of others–the marriage was for “eternity only,” which essentially means he was married to her for the life to come, not the current life. No marital relations in the here and now.) From a modern sensibility, this is certainly shocking. Then again, the age of consent (age when society deemed marriage appropriate) in the US at the time was much younger than it is today. From the article I just linked: “When historian Magnus Hirschfeld surveyed the age of consent of some fifty countries (mostly in Europe and the Americas) at the beginning of the twentieth century, the age of consent was twelve in fifteen countries, thirteen in seven, fourteen in five, fifteen in four, and sixteen in five.” Going back in history and applying today’s societal norms just doesn’t work.
- The fact that some of the wives were already married to other men at the time–That does tend to raise a few eyebrows. The article states that there’s not a ton of information about this, and that in the cases where there was, most of the information tends to indicate that these marriages were also for “eternity only.” I have no idea why this would happen, but I do know from reading one of my own ancestor’s journals that she was proposed to by Smith. She turned him down, but was later married to him after his death. This baffles me, but not in an “and so I must leave the church” sort of a way. More of an “I wonder what in the world was going on back then” sort of way.
I for one am very glad the church is publishing these essays. They’ve been well received by historians (both Mormon and non-), and they’re much better researched and referenced than the tripe you’ll find on anti-Mormon websites which are only a Google away at any moment. The fact that the church is recognizing this and presenting the issues to its members is a good thing. Of course, there are quite a few who want the church to be pushing this even more. I’m not sure what they’re expecting–a letter to be read at every pulpit? These issues are (for me) tangential to the religion. They give historical context to events in the past, but the core of the religion remains in the basics: faith in Christ and God.
I suppose one of the reasons the articles on CNN and Fox rub me the wrong way is the way they’re phrased. “Mormon leaders admit church founder Joseph Smith practiced polygamy.” “New Mormon essay: Joseph Smith married teens, other men’s wives.” You typically don’t “admit” something good. You admit something you’re ashamed of. Something you’ve been trying to hide. Is the church ashamed of what Joseph Smith did? It should only be if what he did was wrong. That said, I can see how outsiders could view it as wrong, and so the article would warrant the “admit” verb.
The natural question some of you might be asking is, “Why in the world do you believe in a religion that did so much strange stuff, Bryce?” The answer for me, as always, comes down to the fact that I’ve studied this faith (and others), I’ve prayed about it, and I’ve received personal revelation that it’s true. I’ve followed it’s teachings, and they’ve brought me every happy thing I can point to in my life. (Well, except ice cream.) Are there things about the religion I don’t get? Yes, but that’s what truth looks like to me. Truth is thorny. Complicated. It’s not straightforward and easy all the time. The same applies to science and mathematics. When I was in physics, for the first while we did all our calculations without things like “air resistance” getting in the way. And then there came a day when my teacher admitted (there’s that verb again) that it’s more complicated than we were thinking it was. That’s a basic example, but just try looking at some of the scientific issues of today. They’re just as thorny.
Atheists like to trumpet how they don’t need a god in their view of the universe, but they end up stumped by many of the same questions. It’s just that their explanations differ slightly. “God didn’t create the universe! Science tells us it happened as part of the Big Bang.” Okay. What existed before the Big Bang? “We don’t know. It’s one of the mysteries of the universe. One day, we might figure it out.” I’m not meaning to slam science here. I believe the Big Bang happened. I believe it’s mysterious. I just also believe the explanation to that mystery likely comes back to rest at God’s doorstep.
Truth is thorny. Truth is complicated.
So to all my Mormon friends who are reading these articles and scratching your heads, my advice is to take a deep breath. There’s no “smoking gun” here that invalidates an entire religion. People are complicated, and the more we know about a person, the more complicated they become. It’s easy to present history as being smooth and simple. Motivations are clean cut and easy to understand. Reality doesn’t work like that. That’s a universal principle, and the sooner you acknowledge that, the sooner you stop demanding simplicity from your answers.
If anyone has questions, I’m open to field them. But remember, this is a sensitive issue to many. Keep things clean and on the up and up, please. If not, don’t be surprised if your comment gets automagically deleted.