[Author’s Name Withheld]
On November 11, 2014, the New York Times posted an article by its award-winning national religion writer Laurie Goodstein on the new LDS Gospel Topics Essays on plural marriage. The article, entitled, “It’s Official: Mormon Founder Had Up to 40 Wives.” [i] Goodstein opened her article with the line, largely addressed Joseph Smith’s practice of plural marriage. Goodstein wrote: “Mormon leaders have acknowledged for the first time that the church’s founder and prophet, Joseph Smith, portrayed in church materials as a loyal partner to his loving spouse Emma, took as many as 40 wives, some already married and one only 14 years old.” This provocatively titled article was the article most shared article on Facebook, most Tweeted, most e-mailed, and most viewed article of the day on the Times’ website.[ii]
Strictly speaking, the Church has acknowledged many times that Joseph Smith had been sealed to more than one woman.[iii] Church Historian Andrew Jenson collected affidavits from women near the end of the 19th century who attested to the fact that they had been married to Joseph Smith.[iv] Various Church periodicals and priesthood manuals have published references to Smith’s plural marriages. Available resources do not mean, however, that every person would have found the information. Regardless of the information’s availability, it is still a difficult topic for many Mormons who are only now hearing the information to digest.
A Crucial Key to Understanding Plural Marriage
What many well-meaning, faithful Mormons fail to recognize is that information that doesn’t bother us often causes spiritual and emotional harm to others. Many well-meaning members, and church manuals, present the Gospel of Jesus Christ as if it has never changed. Of course, this is not strictly speaking, true. D&C 27 references using wine in the sacrament, for instance. The Church, as a true and living entity, has changed and will change (D&C 1:30). Revelation guarantees that this will happen. It should be noted, though, that even with revelation there are many things that remain the same.
Mormonism balances, mostly successfully, many Old Testament concepts with teachings from the New Testament, the Book of Mormon, and modern revelation. It’s one of the strengths of Mormonism—we believe that God directs His Church in the circumstances in which it exists, but that He does not change things for the sake of changing them. Still, many aspects of Mormonism have evolved as Mormonism has matured and continues to mature as a world religion. To pretend that things have not changed, or that they will not change in the Church, only sets up people for the pain associated with finding previously unheard information. If we don’t prepare students for the reality that our understanding changes, they can easily become “needless casualties of testimony.” I use the term “needless casualty of testimony” to describe those become disenchanted with Mormonism because new information is brought forward that shatters their view of some aspect of Mormonism.
Plural marriage is a subject that can often lead to casualties of testimony. It is also something that the LDS Church has understood in many different ways over the past 150 years. Allow me to explain.
Smith never referred to the relationships he entered into or authorized as “marriages.” Those who participated in plural marriage used the term after Smith’s death. A much more appropriate term would be “sealing” or “woman he was sealed to.” Smith believed that those who were sealed to him, or other men, would secure their salvation in the eternities through a connection to a righteous couple (man and woman, such as Joseph and Emma Smith). Joseph Smith taught that the sealing ordinances secured a person’s “posterity so that they cannot be lost but will be saved by virtue of the covenant of their father.”[v] In Smith’s world, all those who participated in the sealing ordinance counted as the “posterity” of the couple they were sealed to. Those who were sealed to couples also saved their families. This may explain why Heber C. Kimball was so keen to have his 14-year-old daughter sealed to the Prophet. Helen forged a link between the Kimballs and the Smiths, but also vouchsafed the Kimball family’s salvation.
In this scenario, Helen Mar Kimball was an agent securing her family’s salvation. Although she undoubtedly felt pressure to be sealed to Smith, she understood the theology behind the ordinance. It was Helen, not Heber, who could ensure their family’s salvation. It is completely understandable for many to be upset, even revolted, with the fact that Joseph Smith was sealed to a 14 year old girl, much less that she only agreed to participate in the ordinance after being pressured by her father and prophet.
With this theological base in mind, however, it makes sense that the sealing ordinances was a means of creating “welding links” between himself and other Saints as well as ensure their salvation. Through utilizing a little “Craftiness,” or through some careful thinking, the entire human race could be saved together through the sealing ordinance.[vi]
This theological explanation, of course, has largely disappeared from LDS discourse. Mormons, as much as non-Mormons, equate polygamy with sexuality. Of course, Joseph Smith may have had sexual relations with many of the women sealed to him before his death. The Book of Mormon, after all, states that polygamy could be instituted by God to “raise up seed.” But sexual relationships were not the impetus for polygamy. Salvation and kinship were at the core of the sealing ordinance during Smith’s lifetime. The practice and logic of plural marriage changed over time, as do many things in the history of Mormonism. The principles behind the sealing ordinance (salvation, eternal families, etc.) have remained the same—but the ways we understand how the ordinance work has changed. The same could be said of how we understand the nature of family organization in the eternities.[vii]
How We Can Help Those Who Struggle
Within 24 hours of posting the article on Facebook, I had corresponded by text message, e-mail, and Facebook message with more than a dozen people with questions about plural marriage. Many had been seeking for someone to discuss Joseph Smith’s plural marriage for quite a while. It provided me an opportunity to speak with people who were coming to grips with the fact that Joseph Smith practiced plural marriage. Several mentioned they had been mocked for not knowing the information in other conversations. Others had been called liars by their family or local leaders when they asked questions about Joseph Smith’s polygamy. These people were dismissed or castigated for asking about, or pointing to, topics in our Church’s history that many were not aware of. Today, a mere 14% of Mormons believe polygamy is morally appropriate. Those who don’t believe polygamy is morally correct will have a hard time coming to grips with this new information.[viii]
For many, especially, but not limited to, women, it is devastating to learn about plural marriage, especially to learn that Joseph Smith was sealed to more than 30 women, including a 14 year old girl. Realizing that Smith, the prophet with the marvelous ruffled shirts was sealed to someone the age of a Mia Maid, can be a punch to the gut. It feels like you missed a stair climbing a staircase. Some told me about becoming physically ill or not feeling comfortable going to church.
Worse, many feel like they cannot trust anyone in the Church because they feel like the Church has been hiding this information from them. What else, they wonder, hasn’t the Church told me about? The Internet provides a rabbit hole that anyone can go down, but is difficult to navigate if you’re not sure whom to trust. A dear friend from high school has left the Church over Smith’s sealing to Helen Mar Kimball, among other women. My aunt stopped going to church for several years when she found out. I could go on, but I think you get the gist by now. Learning this information can be incredibly difficult for hearers, despite their love for the Church, whether they have served a mission, or if they have been a Relief Society President or an Area Seventy.[ix]
Goodstein quotes Emily Jensen, an LDS blogger, who I believe hits the nail on the head:
Joseph Smith was presented to me as a practically perfect prophet, and this is true for a lot of people,” said Emily Jensen, a blogger and editor in Farmington, Utah, who often writes about Mormon issues. She said the reaction of some Mormons to the church’s disclosures resembled the five stages of grief in which the first stage is denial, and the second is anger. Members are saying on blogs and social media, “This is not the church I grew up with, this is not the Joseph Smith I love,” Ms. Jensen said.[x]
How can we help those who are distressed? After all, we cannot expect every person, especially young person, to have read about plural marriage. There are precious few seminary teachers, bishops, parents, or friends who are prepared to provide answers about plural marriage. If someone has not encountered the information before, it is very difficult to reconcile with illustrations of a monogamous Joseph Smith dancing in meadows with Emma or the image we get of our beloved prophet in films shown on Temple Square.
It is extremely difficult to reconcile the image of a perfect Joseph Smith with this new information. And the ease with which many can access and produce commentaries leaves most members as reactionaries rather than on the offensive. The defensive position turns faithful members into grassroots responders of internal and external criticism that they may know little about or, perhaps, have “shelved” their questions as unnecessary to their membership and testimony of the church. For either of these parties, questions can be met with unwelcome responses and this is to be expected. The Church’s attempt at public transparency over a historically complex issue has taken many by surprise—some pleased with the move toward clarity and others have responded like those described above.
Thousands of words have been written about how it is not only appropriate but necessary to ask questions about the Church to strengthen our testimonies. After all, Joseph Smith’s questions led him to the Sacred Grove. Further questions led to revelations on the Plan of Salvation, temple work, and other doctrines that we hold dear. So how can we actually help someone who is asking questions encountering issues that they haven’t heard before? Or perhaps, more simply, how do those who knew before the essays were published help those who have not heard the information in a safe place. As Kristine Haglund said on PBS,
People tend to assume that their experience in what they’ve known is the same as what everyone else knows. That turns out not to be true at all with respect to polygamy. Some lifelong members have grown up with a family history of polygamy and so they know about it, or they’ve had a teacher who was more comfortable talking about it and so they’ve heard some of the details that some members are just hearing for the very first time and finding very distressing.[xi]
As someone who is in regular correspondence with many individuals finding out about aspects of Mormon History that cause anguish, I would like to suggest four essential steps to remember when speaking with those who have questions.
First: Take the time necessary to listen. To quote Elder Holland, “Perhaps even more important than speaking is listening. These people are not lifeless objects disguised as a baptismal statistic. They are children of God, our brothers and sisters, and they need what we have. Be genuine. Reach out sincerely. Ask these friends what matters most to them.” Ask them about how they feel. If they have opened up to you about something that’s troubling with them, they need to know that that they are loved above anything else. Again quoting Elder Holland, “If we listen with love, we won’t need to wonder what to say. It will be given to us—by the Spirit and by [those who have questions].” Creating safe places to faithfully discuss historically complex issues should be a priority for responders to internal questions and concerns.
Second: acknowledge that a person’s feelings are valid. I have never met anyone who has faked spiritual trauma. There are too many in the Church who become needless casualties of testimony because they could not find someone to talk to about their issues or their pain was dismissed because they asked questions. Many people with questions have never faced a situation like they are experiencing at that moment of crisis. Many people with questions are already on the margins of LDS Culture: feminists, intellectuals, single women, and those who lean liberal in their politics often lack the type of support network that other Mormons enjoy. They already have trouble feeling like they don’t belong in the Church.
Most with questions about Church History are generally looking for reasons to stay, not reasons to leave. When they reach out for help, they are making themselves vulnerable by asking for help. Don’t reward their trust in you by telling them to “just get over it.” They need help. Don’t let them down. Acknowledge that their pain and anguish are valid. People don’t fake spiritual trauma for attention. They are genuinely suffering and they are asking for help.
Remember this quote from B.H. Roberts, one of the Church’s foremost faithful defenders and historians:
“Suppose your youth receive their impressions of church history from ‘pictures and stories’ and build their faith upon these alleged miracles [and] shall someday come face to face with the fact that their belief rests on falsehoods, what then will be the result? Will they not say that since these things are myth and our Church has permitted them to be perpetuated …might not the other fundamentals to the actual story of the Church, the things in which it had its origin, might they not all be lies and nothing but lies? … [Some say that] because one repudiates the false he stands in danger of weakening, perhaps losing the truth. I have no fear of such results. I find my own heart strengthened in the truth by getting rid of the untruth, the spectacular, the bizarre, as soon as I learn that it is based upon worthless testimony.”[xii]
Folklore, meaning explanations that don’t match up with history or the Church’s position, are “worthless testimony.” They will ultimately harm those you are trying to help.
Third: If you don’t know the answer to their questions, don’t make something up. Many who have questions already feel like they were lied to by members of the Church. Don’t just say the first thing that comes to your mind if you don’t know. Don’t make it worse. It is much more honorable to say “I don’t know” and to research the topic for an answer than to say something that might not be true. They trust YOU as a good source for information; don’t let them down. They can check what you say within 5 seconds of reading it.
Of course, not all questions have answers. That’s ok. You’re not responsible for knowing everything. However, you can use resources like the Gospel Topics page to find many available answers. Within the last two years, the Church has released information on race and the priesthood, plural marriage, Mountain Meadows Massacre, and several other sensitive subjects. The Church operates to bring people to Christ. If providing information helps one person stay in the Church, their investment in time, effort, energy, and promotion is well-served. Why else would the Church invest so much in projects like the Joseph Smith Papers Project and Gospel Topics pages?
Fourth: follow up with them. Remember the eunuch in Acts 8:
27 And [Phillip] arose and went: and, behold, a man of Ethiopia, an eunuch of great authority under Candace queen of the Ethiopians, who had the charge of all her treasure, and had come to Jerusalem for to worship,
28 Was returning, and sitting in his chariot read Esaias the prophet.
29 Then the Spirit said unto Philip, Go near, and join thyself to this chariot.
30 And Philip ran thither to him, and heard him read the prophet Esaias, and said, Understandest thou what thou readest?
31 And he said, How can I, except some man should guide me? And he desired Philip that he would come up and sit with him.
We need to help others understand what they are reading, even after we have answered questions and provided initial support. Coming to grips with many things in our history is often a long, painful, difficult process. It will most likely not be resolved in a week. Keep in contact with them and ask how they are doing every so often.
If we are going to continue to support asking questions within the Church, we must be prepared to have difficult conversations by individuals in pain. These pained individuals are children of God. Every individual is raised in different circumstances, to different families, with different education levels, and different individual concerns. Everything from how a person was raised to engage with faith and knowledge, their political beliefs, how many siblings they have and where a person was born in their family, among 10,000 other principles shape who we become. Just as many factors are important in how and when a person hears about difficult issues in the Church.We cannot expect everyone to feel the same way we do. Every person should, however, expect love, understanding and empathy when they turn to individuals for help. After all, it “becometh every [person] who has been warned to warn his neighbor” (D&C 88:81).
There will always be those who will leave. It, unfortunately, has always been so and always will be. But WE CAN do everything we can to help those who ask for love and assistance when they are searching for answers. We are not our brother’s keepers, but we are our brother’s brothers. We are our sister’s sisters. We cannot leave people in crisis. We must love and we must help, not only because we can, but because we must.
 Read different accounts of how lifelong members and converts learned about Joseph Smith’s polygamy: “”When did you first hear about Joseph Smith’s Polygamy and Other Difficult Issues?,” posted November 11, 2014, https://www.juvenileinstructor.org/when-did-you-first-hear-about-joseph-smiths-polygamy-and-other-difficult-issues/
[i] Laurie Goodstein, “It’s Official: Mormon Founder Had Up to 40 Wives,” The New York Times (New York City, NY), published November 10, 2014, https://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/11/us/its-official-mormon-founder-had-up-to-40-wives.html?_r=1.
[ii] Laurie Goodstein, Twitter post, November 11, 1914, November 11, 1914, https://twitter.com/lauriegnyt/status/532387504859529216.
[iii] Examples listed here: BHodges, “Polygamy as Discussed in the Church Today,” By Common Consent, published November12, 2014, https://bycommonconsent.com/2014/11/12/plural-marriage-as-discussed-in-the-church-today/.
[iv] Andrew Jenson, The Historical Record: A Monthly Periodical Devoted Exclusively to Historical, Biographical, Chronological and Statistical Matters Volume 6 (Salt Lake City, Published by Andrew Jenson, 1887), 219-234. See https://books.google.com/books?id=ogg9AAAAIAAJ&vq=wives&pg=PA233#v=snippet&q=wives&f=false.
[v] Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, Words of Joseph Smith: The Contemporary Accounts of the Nauvoo Discourses of the Prophet Joseph (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1980), 241–42.
[vi] Transcriptions of several accounts of the sermon can be found here: “Sermon delivered at Nauvoo temple grounds on March 10, 1844,” Book of Abraham Project, accessed November13, 2014, https://www.boap.org/LDS/Parallel/1844/10Mar44.html.
[vii] Jonathan A. Stapley, “Adoptive Sealing Ritual in Mormonism,” Journal of Mormon History 37, no. 3 (Summer 2011): 53-118.
[viii] Amy Choate-Nielsen,” Mormons say polygamy is morally wrong, Pew poll shows,” Deseret News (Salt Lake City, UT), published January 15, 2012, https://www.deseretnews.com/article/700215181/Mormons-say-polygamy-morally-wrong-Pew-poll-shows.html?pg=all
[ix] Laurie Goodstein, “Some Mormons Search the Web and Find Doubt,” The New York Times (New York City, NY), published July 20, 2014, https://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/21/us/some-mormons-search-the-web-and-find-doubt.html?pagewanted=all
[x] Goodstein, “It’s Official: Mormon Founder Had Up to 40 Wives,” https://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/11/us/its-official-mormon-founder-had-up-to-40-wives.html?_r=1.
[xi] “In releasing history, Mormon Church grapples with origins and polygamy,” Public Broadcasting System, posted November 11, 2014, https://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/releasing-history-mormon-church-grapples-origins-polygamy/#.VGLEdgUyUSw.facebook.
[xii] Truman G. Madsen, Defender of the Faith: The B. H. Roberts Story (Salt Lake City, Bookcraft, 1980), 363.