Monday, May 18, 2015

"Oh, Say What Is Truth?"- Joseph Smith, Jr and polygamy

Stated rather crudely, people of strong religious faith have at least two very general characteristics in common. First, we tend to believe that truth is objective. Second, we tend to believe that we have apprehended, even if only partially, the truth. While I believe faith and reason working together is the only way to humanly comprehend truth, there is still an element of risk in believing in someone or something. Such belief presents an issue of trust. Awareness of this risk often makes the religious believer slow to accept anything that calls his belief into question.

For about 160 years the LDS church vehemently denied that Joseph Smith, Jr, despite his claim of having received a revelation authorizing its practice, engaged in the practice of plural marriage, commonly called "polygamy". However, a recent essay that appeared on the official LDS church website, "Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo," retracted this denial by freely admitting, "The first plural marriage in Nauvoo took place when Louisa Beaman and Joseph Smith were sealed in April 1841. Joseph married many additional wives and authorized other Latter-day Saints to practice plural marriage." Records indicate that Smith "married" two others before "marrying" Louisa: Fanny Alger and Lucinda Morgan Harris in 1833 and 1838 respectively.

In addition to marrying Emma Hale, his first and lawful wife, it seems that Joseph Smith, Jr "married" 33 other women (for a list and brief biographies of each see The Wives of Joseph Smith). As previously noted, the first of these "marriages" occurred in 1833 when Smith, then in his late 20s, "married" the 16 year-old Fanny Alger. Looking more closely at these 33 women it is interesting to note that 11, or fully one-third of them, were already married to and living with their husbands at the time of their "marriage" to the self-proclaimed prophet. Nearly another third (10) were in their teens, ranging in age from 19 to 14. In addition to the 16 year-old Miss Alger, while in his late 30s, Smith married another 16 year-old, Flora Ann Woodworth, as well as two fourteen year-old girls: Helen Mar Kimball and Nancy Winchester. He "married" these two teens while in his late 30s.

To complicate matters even further, Smith's first wife, Emma, while being interviewed by her own children later in life, years after Smith's death in Carthage jail, adamantly denied that Joseph practiced plural marriage or even approved of it:
There was no revelation on either polygamy or spiritual wives. There were some rumors of something of the sort which I asked my husband. He assured me that all there was of it was, that, in a chat about plural wives, he had said, 'Well such a system might possibly be, if everybody was agreed to it, and would behave as they should; but they would not; and besides, it was contrary to the will of heaven. No such thing as polygamy, or spiritual wifery, was taught, publicly or privately, before my husband's death, that I have now, or ever had any knowledge of." Question: "Did he not have other wives than yourself?" Answer: "He had no other wife but me; nor did he to my knowledge ever have" (Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith 301- see "Did Emma Smith approve of polygamy?")
In short, it seems that she was partially self-deceived about this and partially duped by her husband.

I recently came across another interesting piece of well-documented research concerning Joseph Smith, Jr's behavior towards women in a post on the Mormon Research Ministry's Mormon Coffee blog - "A Mormon 'Detective Story.'" Apart from stating that it contains unchallenged testimony in a church proceeding involving a LDS church member, Joseph Ellis Johnson, stating he personally witnessed Smith having sexual relations with his mother-in-law, Mary Heron Snider, who, it seems, Smith did not even bother to "spiritually marry," I will simply direct readers to the post.

There is an interesting note concerning one of Smith's "spiritual wives," Lucinda Morgan Harris, who was one of the women who "married" Smith already having a husband (known as polyandry). According to Todd Compton, in his book In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith, sometime after Smith's death Lucinda divorced her husband George and "afterward joined the (Catholic) Sisters of Charity, and at the breaking out of the civil war, was acting in that capacity in the hospitals at Memphis Tennessee..." (see "Lucinda Morgan Harris").

Now, consider all of this from the perspective of Christian marriage. If the marriage between a Christian man and a woman is to be a sacramental sign, that is, a visible and tangible representation, of the relationship between Jesus Christ and His one and only Bride, the Church (Eph 5:31-32), then how can polygamy even be a possibility, let alone the divine order of things? But keep in mind that it has also been taught by LDS apostles (Orson Hyde, Orson Pratt, and Jedediah Grant, to name three), all of whom are held by Mormons to be "prophets, seers, and revelators," that Jesus was not only married, but had plural wives (see "LDS Church on the Marriage(s) of Jesus"). Moreover, when one considers the teaching of our Lord Himself on marriage, by which He raised marriage to the dignity of a sacrament (see Matthew 19:1-9 and Mark 10:1-12), along with His teaching on adultery (see Matthew 5:27-30), these truths about the life and teaching of Joseph Smith, Jr can be put into perspective and be seen as in no way compatible with a Christian understanding of either marriage or chastity.

Here's the second verse of the Mormon hymn, "Oh Say, What Is Truth?"- "Yes, say, what is truth? 'Tis the brightest prize/To which mortals or Gods can aspire./Go search in the depths where it glittering lies,/Or ascend in pursuit to the loftiest skies:/'Tis an aim for the noblest desire." Our noble desires often take the form of less noble desires. This precisely where reason comes into play.

For a Mormon is there any way around this? I can see only one, but it's a way that was rejected early on by the Mormon leadership. This rejection is well-documented in the first volume of D. Michael Quinn's The Mormon Hierarchy. The best expositor of this way is Harold Bloom, the self-described Jewish gnostic literary scholar. He does this in his books The American Religion: The Emergence of a Post-Christian Nation (I heard Bloom lecture on Joseph Smith at the University of Utah prior to the book's publication) and Omens of the Millennium: The Gnosis of Angels, Dreams, and Resurrection. This way consists of conceiving of Mormonism as gnostic and, therefore largely a-historical (how does one seriously defend the Book of Mormon as an actual history of the Americas from 600 BC to 400 AD?). By doing this one simply removes Mormonism's achilles heel (i.e., its historical claims). Clearly, as conceived by Smith's own practice of spiritual wivery, this gnosticism is of the Valentianian variety, but with a Lucretian twist.

Nowhere, apart from here, did I attempt to spell p-i-n-e tree.

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