This is part one of two.
Meg Stout is a polygamy researcher and frequent contributor at the Millennial Star blog. Here in an interview with Ralph Hancock, Meg recounts how she first learned about polygamy, her struggles with her testimony, and how she felt inspired to begin seriously researching the history of polygamy in the Church.
Meg’s proposed scenario for Joseph Smith’s plural marriages, an approach that ventures beyond ascertainable facts to recreate a conceivable historical setting, has been met with some important objections by other faithful LDS researchers in this area. Some of these concerns will be noted in an upcoming article.
Ralph: How did you become interested in the question of Mormon polygamy? And how was your testimony affected by learning so much about the prophet’s life and the circumstances of the Restoration?
Meg: I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t aware of polygamy. I am the oldest child in the family, and my mother has always been serious about her responsibility to teach those of God’s children entrusted to her care. Stories about Church history and my ancestors were simply part of the many things she taught us. During summers we would go to Farmington, and I’d hear about the three sisters who had lived together in the same household after their mutual husband died.
When I was fourteen, my mother finished reading Nightfall at Nauvoo, then a newly-released novel written by her uncle, Samuel W. Taylor. She thought it presented an overall positive view of Joseph Smith.
Presuming Sam’s book was therefore “safe,” I began reading. Every teenager thinks they are mature, but I still thought of the name “Joseph Smith” the way I thought of the name “Moses” or “Abraham.” I was shocked to hear detractors had called Joseph Smith “Joe.”
Needless to say, I was completely unequipped to deal with the accusations made by John Bennett and Thomas Sharp which Sam wove into his text. My teenaged testimony was crushed, and for weeks or even months I would only read from the Bible, refusing to touch the Book of Mormon.
I was still attending Church and seminary – it was easiest to simply go along with my family’s routine. But I remember being asked to bear my testimony in seminary and getting up and telling the class I didn’t have one.
One night while I was reading the Bible, I felt a strong impression. It was as though God was saying, “You know the truth. Stop kicking against the pricks.” I formed an image in my mind of a great wagon. “I invite you to remain on the wagon. But even if you leave, my kingdom will roll forth.”
Looking back now, it’s hilarious that a slim teenage girl would imagine that God’s kingdom might somehow noticeably falter if she were to boycott it.
Ralph: So your testimony was restored?
Meg: Actually not for decades. I would bear testimony, but I was always scrupulous to say only those things I could truthfully say. I didn’t say, for example, “I know the Church is true” during those decades. I can say it now, and give you a dissertation on what I mean by “true,” but my integrity wouldn’t let me say those words for years.
I started my freshman year at BYU when I was seventeen. When the bishop called to speak with me, I presumed he would ask me to be chorister, since I had a good voice and had been a chorister back home. To my surprise, he asked me to be Relief Society president. I saw no reason to refuse the calling, once he confirmed he wouldn’t retract the call merely because I was younger than 18. Despite my doubts, I continued to be active, sometimes even “crashing” other ward meetings to fill up the empty hours of my Sundays.
In the months before I would be old enough to go on a mission, I told my visiting teachers I wasn’t convinced about the Church. They kindly lent me an inspiring book written by Elder Neal A. Maxwell that talks about the City of Enoch. It was enough to let me put in my mission papers.
One day in the MTC, I was praying. I was disturbed because I did still harbor doubts about the Church. The Lord answered, telling me, “Your faith is enough.”
Ralph: You say it took you decades before you knew the Church was true, though?
Meg: Yes. That didn’t mean I wasn’t active. I married in the temple. When my first marriage imploded and I fell into temptation, I went to my bishop, sought his counsel, and let him guide me back from stupidity. And even though I still had a sliver of doubt, I rejoiced when I felt freed from the burden of that mistake. With that sliver of doubt, I went on to attend singles’ events. And sooner than I could have credited, I fell in love with a wonderful man who I met at the DC Singles Conference.
I still had this sliver of doubt when our son, Arthur, was diagnosed with a heart defect. My husband and I were active participants on the Mormon-l listserv at the time, and that community was one of the many who buoyed us up in those days. When Arthur died, they showered us with love and support.
As I go back and read the e-mails from that time (which I crafted into a presentation for the 1995 DC Sunstone Conference), I see the depth of faith, hope, and love that graced my life because of the Church, even with my doubts.
Ralph: So what was it, eventually, that convinced you that the Church was true?
Meg: My husband had volunteered to review the Ostlings’ book Mormon America for Dialogue. He invited me to listen as he read it aloud, both so we could enjoy one another’s company during that time, and also so we could discuss points and not have to waste time explaining to one another.
The Ostlings describe Mormon history like everyone does, all jumbled up with the juicy parts juxtaposed to make you think the worst. By then, though, that just irritated me.
It was the latter chapters, where the Ostlings critique Mormon belief that I became truly engaged. Bryan read the Ostlings’ attempt to explain the Mormon concept of atonement, claiming that Mormons just contemplate what a good man Jesus was and his suffering, and that these reflections then stir us to do good. I burst out, saying, “That’s a piss-poor understanding of the Atonement and you can quote me on that!”
When they went on to talk about the differences between the Christian concept of God and Joseph’s supposed fallacy of a God that exists in time and space with us, who interacts with us personally, who cares deeply for each of us, I realized that the God I had experienced was the God Joseph had taught.
That’s when I knew the Church was true. And when I say the Church is true, I mean that it is aligned with God’s mission of saving each individual through the entire history of the world if they are willing to accept salvation, a mission that requires proxy baptism, that requires that we love one another so deeply that we can melt the hardened hearts of our dead, a mission inspired by God’s overwhelming and individual love for each and every one of us. This was the love that God, a personal god intimately concerned with my doings, had demonstrated to me consistently throughout my life, even when I didn’t have a “testimony.”
Ralph: It is ironic that Mormon America restored your testimony. Yet it doesn’t appear that this epiphany informed your view of Joseph Smith’s polygamy.
Meg: I’d learned about Joseph Smith and polygamy from Sam Taylor’s novel. Even though I’d known about the polygamy in my own family line for years, I was really quite fuzzy on the details. I only really knew a couple things about my ancestors. I knew some had come over on the Mayflower, that one of my ancestors had fought in the Revolutionary War, and that one of my ancestors had been sealed to Joseph Smith and been a pioneer.
In 2001 a friend asked me to present a 5-minute spotlight in Relief Society on a notable Mormon woman. They felt that the sisters would be benefitted by knowing more about the great ladies who were involved in the Restoration. I agreed, but didn’t much care who I was told to talk about. My friend rattled off a list and I heard her mention the treasurer Emma Smith selected for the first Relief Society, Elvira Annie Cowles. Annie was that ancestor who had been sealed to Joseph Smith, so I picked her.
Like a good Mormon (ahem), I waited until Saturday night to prepare my presentation. I had all the family history books out on the table, along with the faded Xeroxed page my friend had dropped off. By 4:00 am I had pieced together the fact that Annie, Joseph’s plural wife at the very beginning in Nauvoo, was mother of the three women who married handcart pioneer Job Welling and grandmother of the two women who married apostle John Whitaker Taylor in 1901 after the Manifesto. As I marveled that I had, in this one family, both the beginning and end of mainstream Mormon polygamy, I heard again from that God who had spoken to me so often throughout my life. He said:
“You must write about these women.”
I was horrified. People just don’t write about polygamy. It’s weird. It’s ooky. And I had been very aware of the fear that the excommunication of the September Six had caused for “intellectuals.” As a teenager, I’d lived only a few miles from Sonia Johnson’s home and had received training on how Church disciplinary councils work. As I mentioned, I’d had my own brushes with Church discipline, both the one I’ve mentioned and the experience of my first husband being disfellowshipped prior to our separation.
The idea that I would or could write about these three generations of polygamous women inspired in me a certainty that such an endeavor would be both beyond my capacity and completely unwelcome by the Church. So I responded:
“But I like being a Mormon!”
As the days and months passed, I kept telling Him I didn’t want to do it and He kept speaking encouragement and comfort to me, much as He had when I was a 14 year old unwilling to read the Book of Mormon.
I “knew” that the story of Joseph’s plural marriages must necessarily involve sexual relations. When Elizabeth Smart was kidnapped and other sordid polygamy stories became news, I continued to think God was wrong.
And yet He persisted. I remember in particular the dedication of a temple, either Palmyra or Winter Quarters, which was broadcast to stake centers. I spent the entire dedication arguing with Him. A transcript of the argument might have gone something like me saying “No! No! No! No! No!” and Him saying “Yes. Yes, you can. Yes, you must. Yes, it will be OK.” Now repeat that about a hundred times.
That is the one particular experience that stands out, these years later. I still thought He was crazy, but I began to dig into the history.
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