The more I examine LDS doctrine as an ex-member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—commonly referred to as the Mormon Church—the less sense it makes. This surprises me because, for many years, I prided myself on being a rather reflective Mormon. I wouldn’t have thought I’d miss out on so many bizarre, problematic, improbable, outlandish, or blatantly nonsensical implications. In fact, I thought Mormonism was a particularly strong religion, philosophically speaking. And I guess I probably still think that of Mormonism, but I would make a distinction between Mormonism and LDS theology. The LDS Church believes its teachings simply are Mormonism. Why, they’ve even tried to prevent other sects from calling themselves Mormon, even when those sects trace their roots back to Joseph Smith and affirm the Book of Mormon as scripture. But Mormonism, to me, is something bigger than the LDS Church, and I don’t think the LDS Church is particularly good at practicing Mormonism. There is, from my perspective, a great deal of tension between the LDS Church and Mormonism, which is why some people such as myself who fall in love with Mormonism end up leaving the LDS Church when we realize the two don’t mesh. Put simply, the LDS Church doesn’t practice the Mormonism it purports to preach.
With my current interest in polygamy quite piqued, I have realized the explanations I was given in my youth for its practice are inadequate and unpersuasive. Now, there are numerous defenses of polygamy that have been offered over the years, many of which are quite familiar to the typical LDS person. I think they have all been shown to be problematic, based on historical and demographical inaccuracies, etc. But many of these—such as the idea that polygamy was a way to offer financial support to widows—are merely pointing to the supposed benefits of polygamy. They are not really explanations for why and how polygamy got started in the first place. As far as that goes, I know of only one explanation, and it is supported by official LDS scripture: Joseph Smith, the founding prophet of Mormonism, asked God about polygamy after seeing it in the Bible and was told that it was a divine law he would be required to obey if it was revealed and explained to him. That’s why polygamy got started, if you want the official LDS narrative.
There is a glaring problem here. The supposed revelation in which God explains polygamy and tells Joseph Smith he must obey it if it’s revealed to him has been canonized as LDS scripture. It’s section 132 of the Doctrine and Covenants. It’s something anybody can read. The logical implication is that every single person who reads the D&C is obligated to practice polygamy and that not doing so brings one under condemnation. Of course, Mormons actually believed this for several decades after the “revelation” was received. Early Mormon Apostle Heber C. Kimball taught, “You might as well deny ‘Mormonism,’ and turn away from it, as to oppose the plurality of wives. Let the Presidency of this Church, and the Twelve Apostles, and all the authorities unite and say with one voice that they will oppose the doctrine, and the whole of them will be damned.”1 Meanwhile, Joseph F. Smith taught at the LDS Church’s 1878 general conference, “Some people have supposed that the doctrine of plural marriage was a sort of superfluity, or nonessential to the salvation or exaltation of mankind…. I want here to enter my solemn protest against this idea, for I know it is false.” And yet, despite the fact that anyone and everyone can now read D&C 132 and learn the “law” of plural marriage, the LDS Church today forbids its practice. Apparently, knowing the law is not sufficient for having to practice it—a notion that directly contradicts the official narrative for why polygamy ever got started in the first place.
Another problem: why did the requirement to practice polygamy extend beyond Joseph Smith when he was the only one to whom it was apparently revealed? Pretend for a moment that knowing about the law of plural marriage does obligate one to live it. As I’ve always heard and understood the story, God was warning Joseph that he was getting himself into something pretty serious and deep. It was like God was saying, “You know, Joe, once you open up this can of worms, there ain’t no going back. Are you sure you want to know about this stuff?” But if polygamy is such a sensitive, sacred, and touchy thing, why did Joseph’s curiosity have to kill the whole damn institutional cat? That is, why did the obligation to practice polygamy extend beyond the one person to whom it was initially revealed, beyond the one person who was supposedly willing to take upon himself such a burden? It doesn’t really add up.
But let’s go back to the fact that practicing polygamy, in this lifetime anyway, is now prohibited by the LDS Church. As I already suggested, this doesn’t make much sense given that anybody with an LDS Doctrine and Covenants can read about the law of polygamy, and knowing about the law of polygamy is supposedly what obligated Mormons to practice polygamy in the first place. As problematic as this is, let’s ignore it for a minute. Let us ask instead, why did the (official LDS) practice of polygamy come to an end? Much can be said about this, especially as it relates to politics and the desire for Utah to be granted statehood, but what is the official LDS narrative on the matter?
Again, we can turn to the D&C. In what is termed Official Declaration 1, LDS Church President Wilford Woodruff is quoted thusly: “The Lord showed me by vision and revelation exactly what would take place if we did not stop this practice. If we had not stopped it … confusion would reign throughout Israel, and many men would be made prisoners. This trouble would have come upon the whole Church, and we should have been compelled to stop the practice.” Woodruff proclaimed that if the Mormons continued to practice polygamy, it would come “at the cost of the confiscation and loss of all the Temples, and the stopping of all the ordinances therein, both for the living and the dead, and the imprisonment of the First Presidency and Twelve and the heads of families in the Church, and the confiscation of personal property of the people (all of which of themselves would stop the practice).” Never mind that, in times past, the Lord supposedly made allowances for ordinances to be performed outside of temples when circumstances required it. Never mind that, in the past, it was nearly a hallmark of being a true prophet that one would be persecuted, arrested, or both. Never mind that official LDS Church publications had previously declared, “It would be as easy for the United States to build a tower to remove the sun, as to remove polygamy, or the Church and kingdom of God.” Never mind that Woodruff himself had previously stated, “If we were to do away with polygamy ... then we must do away with prophets and Apostles, with revelation and the gifts and graces of the Gospel, and finally give up our religion altogether and turn sectarians…. We just can’t do that … come life or come death.” Never mind that LDS Church President John Taylor had also received a revelation, several years earlier, in which the Lord said of polygamy, “I have not revoked this law, nor will I, for it is everlasting, and those who enter into my glory must obey the conditions thereof, even so, Amen.”
To reiterate, the practice of polygamy was stopped, according to the official narrative, because it would cause too darn much harm to allow its continued practice.
How very ironic.
In total, polygamy was practiced in the LDS Church for approximately 60 years. It has since been practiced by various offshoots of the LDS Church for nearly twice that long. I’m not saying polygamy was a good thing during the time the LDS Church sanctioned its practice, but even if we ignore that particular time period, the harm that has been caused by polygamy ever since the LDS Church disavowed it has been monumental. Assassinations, welfare fraud, ostracizing, rape, incest, and the sexual exploitation of children are just some of the things you’ll find taking place within polygamist communities, some on a regular basis. Yes, these things also happen outside of polygamist communities, but within such communities these acts are frequently tied directly to the community’s beliefs, teachings, and culture. In the Kingston group, for example, church leaders believe their bloodline can be traced back to Jesus Christ and must be kept pure. Incestuous marriages are thus fairly common. A brief look at the FLDS Church reveals practices too disgusting and disturbing to be worth repeating. Given the official LDS narrative, then, it appears that God was okay instituting polygamy knowing these atrocities would be the result. However, God was willing to stop polygamy in order to spare Wilford Woodruff and other high-ranking church leaders from going to jail.
It sure pays to be among the elect, doesn’t it? Feel free to take a vomit break. I’ll wait.
It is indeed an outlandish story the LDS Church weaves. Polygamy was so important that Joseph Smith had to practice it. God couldn’t allow otherwise—even though God would indeed allow otherwise just 60 years later, when the practice thereof would be an inconvenience—even though it was actually quite an inconvenience when it was first practiced, but that’s precisely why God warned Joseph Smith that he was getting himself into something he couldn’t get himself out of—except that you actually can get out of it, if it’s going to cause a lot of harm—even though God’s making people practice polygamy in the first place has led to way more harm than would’ve occurred had God never forced Joseph to practice it in the first place—but, of course, God couldn’t allow Joseph not to practice it, given that He was revealing the law of polygamy to Joseph and once you know about it, you have to practice it, no matter what—except that you really don’t, apparently.
Etc., etc., ad absurdum, ad nauseum.
Ad nauseum, indeed.
1 All quotations in this blog entry, except those from the LDS Doctrine and Covenants, are conveniently located at http://www.mormonthink.com/joseph-smith-polygamy.htm#quotes. Those wishing for original sources may find them cited there.