Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Puzzle of Polygamy

"In this church you only need to believe the truth, find out what the truth is." -Henry Eyring Sr.

The LDS history of polygamy is a puzzle capable of creating much cognitive dissonance. And learning the "truth" about it is murkier than the average "gospel" topic. I've learned enough to realize that it's like a car wreck--uncomfortable but you just can't look away. Mormon historian Richard Bushman had a candid exchange with the national media a few years ago during a Pew Forum on religion and public life in which the topic came up:
Polygamy. How many people want me to talk about polygamy? I know you all are curious. Polygamy is an interesting thing because it serves as a Rorschach test. People project onto Joseph Smith and the polygamists their own sense about human nature. "It's just what you would expect men to do;" or "Yeah, that is what I would like" – (laughter) – that sort of thing. Neither of those, I think, is accurate in Joseph Smith's case. 
It's a perplexing problem for Mormons for a variety of reasons. One important reason is that it is so contrary to Mormon contemporary ideas of family – companionate, eternal friends going on with their children forever, versus a community wives constituting a family. So that is an ideological problem for Mormons.
It's also perplexing because Joseph Smith himself gave so few rationales for it. The best rationale is one revelation written down in 1843. That is virtually all he said on the subject, and plural marriages are depicted simply as part of the restoration of the ancient order of things. Smith brings priesthood out of the Bible. He brings temples out of the Bible. He brings the temple rituals out of the rituals for sanctifying priests in the book of Exodus, and he brings polygamy out of the Bible. That is all he said, that the injunction for polygamy is to go and do the works of Abraham. Beyond that, it's hard to understand.
In actual fact, polygamy seemed to have served a function in society. We now have a fine-grained study of polygamy in one community where we know every family in the community and all of the details about them. And what polygamy seems to have been was a way in which young women without male protection – no father, no older brother, no near relative to care for them – were absorbed into Mormon society.
Polygamy went up when the immigration rates went up. And the young women who came into these families in this little town were young women in that position. Not all of them – but that was the single most common type of plural wife. More than 50 percent of them fit this description. So it was a way of caring for people and may have contributed to the resilience of the society. 
But Mormons themselves are puzzled about the meaning of polygamy, beyond what Joseph Smith said about it.
There are also Mormons who remain ignorant of Joseph Smith's involvement with polygamy, and especially polyandry. I'm not surprised by this because even the most historically literate don't have enough answers to piece together the complete puzzle perfectly. Some still accept it as a "doctrine" even if not currently practiced; others flat out reject it. But it's a part of our history that won't go away, so Mormons continue to be "puzzled" by it.

I'll borrow some words from blogger DKL (David King Landrith) and apply them to myself concerning the topic of plural marriage: "I'm just [a Mormon] that doesn't have a lot of answers. The scriptures depict Christ saying that we should all be like little children. I don't know what to make of this, except that we need to be comfortable being bewildered much of the time. In this one area, I'm absolutely confident of my faithfulness: I am bewildered much of the time."

To provide more transparent and accurate information--maybe a few more answers--The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints yesterday published a series of essays online about Plural Marriage in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The essays aren't perfect (ex: presenting the angel with a flaming sword as perfectly logical/not problematic at all, interpreting "internal increase" as "eternal procreation", and suggesting definitively that "God commanded" plural marriage (even if it was an exception to the standard of monogamy) versus God allowing it, etc.), but it's a big step in the right direction. Those essays can be found here:
I appreciate the efforts of historians who try to help us make sense of the puzzle, but the one approach I may appreciate the most remains that of Julie Smith at Times and Seasons. Practically everything she blogs about is well worth reading, including her reaction to these essays, but especially worth reading is this old post: "Is There Another Approach?" The cliff notes version:

(1) Joseph Smith was devoted to the idea of restoration, which sparked his belief that polygamy needed to be restored.
(2) God permitted Joseph Smith to restore polygamy.
(3) When the cost of practicing polygamy became too high, it was ended by revelation.

Thankfully the current essays concede that even if it is "true" that God commanded plural marriage, the nitty-gritty details were generally left up to mortals to work out, and mortals tend to mess things up and get things wrong. Some mortals (prophets even) got so defensive of their "correctness" in living polygamy that they even taught that monogamy was the exception and polygamy was the celestial standard--an idea quite contrary to the Church's position today.

Brigham Young even went as far as to say that "monogamy, or restrictions by law to one wife, is no part of the economy of heaven among men. Such a system was commenced by the founders of the Roman empire...Thus this monogamic order of marriage, so esteemed by modern Christians as a holy sacrament and divine institution, is nothing but a system established by a set of robbers."


If you're one who can't embrace messiness in our history and like to have things "simple" and nice and tidy, good luck trying to make that fit with the Family Proclamation. And with men today who are sealed to an additional wife after their first wife has passed away, honestly it's anyone's guess as to what to make of married life in the hereafter!

(Of course, this wouldn't be the first time the Gospel Topics essays have distanced our current teachings from Brigham Young. See, for example, Race and the Priesthood.)

Yes, it gets quite messy, and it can become quite jarring to someone not used to the idea of prophets as human beings who can make serious mistakes. Still there are far too many people hearing "we cannot lead you astray" and interpreting that to mean the Brethren can never get things wrong. I like what Julie Smith has to say about that idea too. And Terryl Givens. And Phil Barlow. And especially Dieter Ucthdorf, who said "to be perfectly frank, there have been times when members or leaders in the Church have simply made mistakes. There may have been things said or done that were not in harmony with our values, principles, or doctrine. I suppose the Church would be perfect only if it were run by perfect beings. God is perfect...but He works through us—His imperfect children—and imperfect people make mistakes."

I personally think polygamy is one of those mistakes. Nevertheless, I wouldn't want to trespass on the faith and sacrifices of those sincere believers who felt they were trying to follow God's will.

It was nice that yesterday's essays acknowledged what "an excruciating ordeal" plural marriage was for Emma Smith, who "vacillated in her view of plural marriage, at some points supporting it and at other times denouncing it." The essays acknowledged that Doctrine and Covenants 132 listed "both glorious promises and stern warnings, some directed at Emma", though that is putting it mildly. The language in verse 54 was that she would be "destroyed". Some revelation! It's hard for me to believe a loving God threatening that Emma would be "destroyed" if she didn't accept polygamy. Some Mormons might embrace this Old Testament-like voice of God without a problem. I tend to blame the heavy-handedness on the human filter dictating the revelation--and maybe not getting the language quite right. Hard to "feel the Spirit" in that section.

I personally don't accept all scripture as equally inspired. As Henry Eyring once said: "In this Church you have only to believe the truth. Find out what the truth is." And that is an individual quest.

The individual effort of sifting through "inspired" writings and teachings is one that I don't take lightly. I'm pretty picky these days. While I might be more picky than the average Mormon, we all make choices about what to accept and what to believe--there are too many contradictions in the records and even in scripture and the words of modern prophets to accept it all equally. Yes, I know that makes us all "cafeteria Mormons", but I much prefer to choose my own diet for myself rather than contracting out the responsibility of eating to others while making myself sick. It wouldn't be healthy to eat every single option at the buffet, and it's not possible to eat for someone else anyway. We each have to digest what we receive on our own. And because I really don't like feeling sick, I'll continue, with others, to praise cafeteria Mormonism.


Clean Cut said...

More Julie Smith:

"What I see here is–intentional or not–the articulation of a theology of prophetic revelation that runs precisely opposite to the way that many Mormons (mis)read Amos to say that God will do nothing without first revealing his secrets to the prophets (Amos 3:7) and that whether by God’s voice or the voice of church leaders, it is precisely identical (D & C 1:38). Rather, this suggests that God reveals things line by line (a scripture frequently quoted in these essays), does not reveal all details at once, and leaves some matters to be worked out without divine mandate.

"I think the odd confluence of 1950s American corporate culture, historical amnesia, and rapid world-wide growth led Mormonism to advance the idea that a CEO-like prophet got regular memos from God, bullet-pointed with precise operating instructions designed to maximize return for the next quarter. Diligent work by historians, now disseminated instantly and internationally, shows that that vision isn’t quite precise. It is understandable that some will mourn that vision–I know I’d feel much safer led by that bespoke-suited CEO, divine memo in hand, than by some guy with a leather belt eating locusts in the wilderness. And yet, we should thank those historians (some of whom sacrificed their careers, if not their very membership in the Church, in order to publish things very similar to what is hosted on the Church’s own website today) for helping us overcome the cultural conditioning that misled us regarding what prophets are and what they do. The glass through which we see today is a little less dark because of their work, not just on historical matters related to polygamy but also regarding what we should–and should not–expect from prophets."

Clean Cut said...

I have to link to a post at Rational Faiths titled "Disgracing God to Save a Prophet". The last line single-handedly summarizes the thing I dislike about the new polygamy essays:

“No good has ever come from blaming God for the sins and follies of men; not even to save the reputation of a prophet.”

While there is much to like about the new candid essays, I just can’t accept the “God commanded it” theory at all. By choosing to accept as truth the story about angels and flaming swords we also accept a God unworthy of worship, in my opinion. So that apologetic approach to the essays was disappointing to me.

I can handle prophets who do amazing things and also disgraceful things. I can accept that kind of reputation. (It fits with the reality of prophets, whether we’re talking about Moses, Martin Luther King Jr., or Joseph Smith.) Would that the Church collectively could embrace that instead of trying to make Joseph Smith out to have impeccable character (a la Elder Anderson in the recent General Conference), which is a thing Joseph never claimed for himself.