“Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.” –Donald Rumsfeld.
As many readers will know, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has of late released several essays about difficult or controversial doctrines or events in its history. I’ve generally avoided commenting on these essays, as others have done a much better job than I could in discussing their contents. I should mention that I believe it’s a step in the right direction for the church to address these issues, particularly because so many faithful members have been troubled when they learn of the issues, with more than a few leaving the church as a result. That said, each essay seems to be intended to lessen the impact of the troubling issues, often blurring the reality and in some cases directly contradicting the evidence. I don’t blame them for trying to put these issues in the most positive light possible, but then again I wish they would trust their readers with the truth.
This shading of the truth continues in the church’s latest essays, which cover Mormon polygamy in the early days of Kirtland, Ohio, and Nauvoo, Illinois, and the later practice of polygamy in Utah. Here I’ll discuss the first essay and a few things that stand out for me; I’ll leave it to others to more thoroughly cover the subject; for example, see the “Infants on Thrones” discussion with Community of Christ historian John Hamer. (Full disclosure: I do not know John Hamer personally, but his sister is a very good friend of mine.)
The important thing to understand about the essay, “Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo,” is that its purpose is not so much to illuminate but rather to emphasize how little we know about early Mormon polygamy:
Many details about the early practice of plural marriage are unknown. Plural marriage was introduced among the early Saints incrementally, and participants were asked to keep their actions confidential. They did not discuss their experiences publicly or in writing until after the Latter-day Saints had moved to Utah and Church leaders had publicly acknowledged the practice. The historical record of early plural marriage is therefore thin: few records of the time provide details, and later reminiscences are not always reliable. Some ambiguity will always accompany our knowledge about this issue. Like the participants, we “see through a glass, darkly” and are asked to walk by faith.
All of this is true, of course. There is very little contemporary evidence from the participants in plural marriage, and that is a result of the secrecy of the practice. Joseph Smith, for example, kept his plural marriages hidden from the public, from most of his followers (including some who were otherwise in his inner circle), and even from his wife, Emma. Most, but not all, of the evidence that Joseph Smith introduced and practiced plural marriage comes from recollections of participants often made long after Smith’s death. The scarcity of contemporary, firsthand accounts led the anti-polygamy Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (now known as the Community of Christ) to insist for over 100 years that plural marriage was a heresy introduced by Brigham Young. (For a good example of polygamy denial, see “Joseph Smith Fought Polygamy,” though be forewarned that, if you know anything about the subject, you’ll be rolling your eyes a lot.) But the sheer volume of testimony and corroboration of many witnesses has led historians and even the Community of Christ to acknowledge that “research findings point to Joseph Smith Jr. as a significant source for plural marriage teaching and practice at Nauvoo.”
One would expect a historical essay to discuss what we know, but in this case the emphasis is squarely on what we don’t know, or at least what the LDS church says we don’t know. In discussing Fanny Alger, recognized by some as Smith’s first plural wife, the essay states, “Several Latter-day Saints who had lived in Kirtland reported decades later that Joseph Smith had married Alger, who lived and worked in the Smith household, after he had obtained her consent and that of her parents. Little is known about this marriage, and nothing is known about the conversations between Joseph and Emma regarding Alger.” The second sentence leaves open the possibility that Joseph obtained Emma’s consent before marrying Fanny and ignores testimony from others who say Emma was outraged when she discovered the relationship. Most of the essay follows this pattern of carefully worded statements that are superficially true but give a misleading impression.
At other points, the essay overstates tenuous evidence. For example, we read that “several women said [the marriages/sealings] were for eternity alone.” However, Brian Hales, whose research forms the basis of most of the essay, provides only one anonymous statement from many years later that one wife, Ruth Vose Sayers, was sealed for “eternity alone”:
While there the strongest affection sprang up between the Prophet Joseph and Mr. Sayers. The latter not attaching much importance to \the/ theory of a future life insisted that his wife \Ruth/ should be sealed to the Prophet for eternity, as he himself should only claim [page2—the first 3 lines of which are written over illegible erasures] her in this life. She \was/ accordingly the sealed to the Prophet in Emma Smith’s presence and thus were became numbered among the Prophets plural wives. She however \though she/ \continued to live with Mr. Sayers / remained with her husband \until his death.
Even if we grant that this unattributed statement definitely claims that “eternity-only” sealings were practiced (I am not sure it necessarily means that at all), it doesn’t mean that “several women” said that such were their marriages. You may notice that most of the footnotes regarding this subject are to Hales’s book, not to firsthand testimony.
This insistence that “several” marriages were of the eternity-only variety is central to the essay’s central theme that we know some marriages weren’t sexual, and we don’t know enough about the other ones:
During the era in which plural marriage was practiced, Latter-day Saints distinguished between sealings for time and eternity and sealings for eternity only. Sealings for time and eternity included commitments and relationships during this life, generally including the possibility of sexual relations. Eternity-only sealings indicated relationships in the next life alone.
Evidence indicates that Joseph Smith participated in both types of sealings. The exact number of women to whom he was sealed in his lifetime is unknown because the evidence is fragmentary. Some of the women who were sealed to Joseph Smith later testified that their marriages were for time and eternity, while others indicated that their relationships were for eternity alone.
Here again the emphasis is on eternity-only sealings, with “time and eternity” sealings only “generally including the possibility of sexual relations.” So, even the “time and eternity” sealings may not have involved sexuality. This is an important assertion, as it is used to support the idea that Joseph’s relationships with married women were not sexual.
Following his marriage to Louisa Beaman and before he married other single women, Joseph Smith was sealed to a number of women who were already married. Neither these women nor Joseph explained much about these sealings, though several women said they were for eternity alone. Other women left no records, making it unknown whether their sealings were for time and eternity or were for eternity alone.
Polyandry is very troubling to a lot of people (and for good reason), but if the church’s essay is correct, most of these women left no record, and those who did said the relationships were “for eternity alone.” This essay thus goes a long way in comforting the troubled, who can rest assured that Joseph Smith most likely did not have sex with married women. But is the essay correct in this assertion?
Thus far, the essay has given only nebulous references to “several” and “others” with the footnotes sending us to Hales. But there is one direct statement from one of the wives that is cited as evidence of “eternity alone” sealings:
Helen Mar Kimball spoke of her sealing to Joseph as being “for eternity alone,” suggesting that the relationship did not involve sexual relations.
This is important, as Helen was 14 years old at the time of her marriage to Joseph Smith. A lot of people are appalled when they hear about this, as they assume that, given the marriage, Joseph and Helen must have had a sexual relationship. Some have gone so far as to insist that this marriage means Joseph was a “pedophile.”
If the essay is correct, that Helen clearly stated that her relationship was “for eternity alone,” the church can confidently leave open the possibility that many of Joseph Smith’s marriages, including Helen’s and the polyandrous marriages, were not sexual in nature. When I read the essay, my first thought was that, although I had read Helen’s writings many times, I had never seen a direct statement that her marriage was for “eternity alone.” I wondered how I had missed it. The footnote was, unsurprisingly, a reference to Hales, so I was going to have to find the reference myself. With a little work, I did. It comes in the second line of a poem Helen wrote about her marriage to Joseph Smith (the entire poem is reprinted here).
I thought through this life my time will be my own
The step I now am taking’s for eternity alone,
No one need be the wiser, through time I shall be free,
And as the past hath been the future still will be.
To my guileless heart all free from worldly care
And full of blissful hopes and youthful visions rare
The world seamed bright the thret’ning clouds were kept
From sight and all looked fair but pitying angels wept.
They saw my youthful friends grow shy and cold.
And poisonous darts from sland’rous tongues were hurled,
Untutor’d heart in thy gen’rous sacrafise,
Thou dids’t not weigh the cost nor know the bitter price;
Thy happy dreams all o’er thou’st doom’d also to be
Bar’d out from social scenes by this thy destiny,
And o’er thy sad’nd mem’ries of sweet departed joys
Thy sicken’d heart will brood and imagine future woes,
And like a fetter’d bird with wild and longing heart,
Thou’lt dayly pine for freedom and murmor at thy lot;
In context, then, Helen writes that, as a young girl, she had “thought” that the marriage was “for eternity alone” but had been mistaken. Before anyone attacks me for suggesting that Joseph had sex with a 14-year-old, I am not saying that at all. For the record, I agree with Todd Compton that the evidence in Helen’s case is “ambiguous,” and there is no evidence of a sexual relationship.
The problem here is that, contrary to the essay, Helen Mar Kimball did not speak “of her sealing to Joseph as being ‘for eternity alone.’” Her statement, then, cannot be used to suggest “that the relationship did not involve sexual relations.” As I said, there is no evidence one way or the other regarding sexuality in that marriage. Helen’s complaints about her social life tell us that she was not free to be courted by other male suitors, and that suggests that, whatever else was happening, the marriage was in effect for time, as well as for eternity. I tend to agree with Todd Compton that the marriage may have been more “dynastic” than the romantic relationships Joseph had with his other wives, but in all honesty, there’s really no solid evidence for that, either. But Helen’s experience can’t be applied to Joseph’s other marriages, many of which definitely involved a sexual relationship. A single anonymous citation does not suggest that none of the polyandrous marriages were sexual; indeed, there is strong evidence to the contrary, but you wouldn’t know that from reading this essay.
And that’s really the problem. Where there is solid evidence, the church downplays its significance, and where the evidence is inconclusive, the church applies it broadly. And in the case of Helen Kimball, the church simply quotes her out of context to give an incorrect impression.