I thought some readers might be interested in this new resource from Brian Hales.
I may not agree with Brian’s conclusions, but I respect him for trying to make sense of some difficult issues from a faithful perspective.
I thought some readers might be interested in this new resource from Brian Hales.
I may not agree with Brian’s conclusions, but I respect him for trying to make sense of some difficult issues from a faithful perspective.
On Saturday, November 29, my Uncle Clayton Bushnell passed away in St. George, Utah, at the age of 90. I thought I’d share some of what I know of his life history, as it’s fascinating and tells you what kind of a man he was.
Clayton Bushnell was born September 27, 1924, in Meadow, Utah, to Edward Dame “Dee” and Myrtle Bracken Bushnell. His mother died from “chronic valvular heart disease” when he was 4 years old, and his father was unable to take care of him, so he was sent to live with his aunt and uncle in Provo. There he was treated as a hired hand and a burden, at best, sleeping on the porch when the weather was warm and in the kitchen in the winter. In his words, his aunt and uncle treated him as “not one of their own.” He never celebrated birthdays or received Christmas gifts. He recalled getting ready to go to a family reunion once, when his aunt said, “Why are you getting ready? You are not part of the family.” He spent summers in Meadow with loving grandparents, and he described these visits as “coming up for air.” His aunt and uncle told him he had a “weak heart,” like his mother, so he would probably die young. He was also told he was stupid and worthless and would never amount to anything.
He was a mischievous child, and he and his friends got into a lot of trouble. He saved his money to buy a BB gun, and then he and his friends figured out how to make the gun into a more potent weapon. They would steal eggs from the neighbor’s hen house and then exchange the eggs for .22-caliber bullets. He had discovered that the bullets fit perfectly into the middle cylinder of an empty spool of thread. They would insert the bullet into the spool, and then lash the spool onto the end of the BB gun with wire. Firing a BB at the bullet was just enough to trigger it, converting a child’s BB gun into an effective, if not predictable or accurate, rifle. He also told of using a pair of pliers to crimp the fuel line of the local sheriff’s car so that, no matter how hard the sheriff stepped on the gas, he could go only very slowly, and the boys could outrun him every time. Some nights Clayton and his friends would go to a neighbor’s haystack, under which the neighbor kept a jug of homemade raisin wine. The boys would sit under the stars taking turns sipping from the jug. When they finished, they would replace the wine they had drunk with their own urine so the neighbor wouldn’t realize he’d been robbed.
He attended Brigham Young High School in Provo. At age 18 in 1942, he was drafted into the Army. Tests revealed high intelligence and an aptitude for science and engineering, so he was sent to the University of Wisconsin, where he studied engineering. After a year, the Army decided it needed infantry more than engineers, so he was sent to the Pacific as part of Company K, 3rd Battalion, 381st Regiment, 96th Infantry Division. He saw action in the Philippines during the invasion of Leyte and Samar. He told me once about seeking shelter for the night under a house that was built on stilts. It wasn’t until they had settled in that they heard movement and a conversation in Japanese and smelled cooking rice coming from the house. Right above them were Japanese soldiers. They waited until the Japanese were asleep and quietly slipped away into the night.
Later he took part in the invasion of Okinawa. Of the 252 men who landed on the island, only 36 survived. He told me that, out of 28 in his platoon, only 2 came home alive. During a battle for a village where the Japanese were entrenched, he saw a terrified woman carrying a child and running through the field of fire. She was killed, and he ran out to retrieve her child, which he took to a safe place. As he was returning to his position, he was hit through the left arm, the bullet severing an artery and lodging near his heart. As he lay bleeding, a shell or grenade landed near him and blew him some 30 feet down the mountain. He said that when he awoke the sole of his boot rested on his chest, facing his chin. He drifted in and out of consciousness and woke up only when another soldier tried to cut off his dog tag to put on a body bag. He said, “I scared the hell out of him.” The soldier asked if he wanted him to pray for him, and he said, “Hell, no! I want you to get me a medic!”
He was hospitalized for more than a year, and then he was released from the hospital in Los Angeles with no money and no job prospects. He told me that he went from business to business trying to find work with no success. He looked up the local Mormon bishop in the phone book and went to his house for help. The bishop gave him “a short pep talk about raising himself by his bootstraps” and sent him on his way. As he said to me, “I was too ashamed to tell him I hadn’t eaten in 3 days.” Eventually, he told a store owner he would sweep the store for a little food, and the man took pity on him. He slept on a cot in the back of the store and worked there helping out.
Later Clayton attended Stanford University and moved to Los Angeles, where he worked in rocket systems design. There he met Mary Fisher, my mother’s older sister, who was attending UCLA. They met when he was asked to help decorate for an LDS singles’ dance. My Aunt Joyce noticed him doing illustrations for the walls and struck up a conversation with him. She thought her sister Mary might like him, so she introduced them. I’ve heard more than a few people say they have never seen anyone more in love than Clayton and Mary. When Mary took him home to meet her parents, Eldred and Thora Fisher, my grandmother instantly took him into her heart and into the family. She loved him and treated him as if he were her own son. He told my mother, “Sometimes I’m not sure who I fell in love with first: Mary or Mother.” He always said Grandma Fisher was the mother he never had known.
He and Mary were married in the St. George LDS Temple in 1952 and settled into life in Los Angeles, where he worked designing rocket systems for military and space programs. My grandparents lived a humble life, as my grandpa managed a grocery store and my grandma stayed at home raising the children. Grandpa was a pretty straight-arrow Mormon (most of the time), and once he became angry when Grandma bought real rum to put in the egg nog for Christmas. After arguing about it, Grandma got frustrated and dumped the whole bottle in. Only she and Clayton drank the egg nog, and Grandpa and Aunt Mary were livid. But Grandpa loved Clayton, too. One Sunday morning, Grandpa said he had to “check the freezers at the store” and invited Clayton to come with him. To Clayton’s surprise, Grandpa drove instead to a coffee shop, where the waitress asked, “The usual, Mr. Fisher?” and served Grandpa a cup of coffee. It would be a regular outing for both over the years.
In September 1953 Clayton and Mary’s first son, Edward Douglas, was born. Less than 2 months later, Clayton received a call at work from a distressed neighbor who said only, “Come home. The baby is down.” Eddie died of what the doctors labeled “crib death.” In December 1954, a daughter was born, Cady Lynn. Soon afterward, Cady was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy, a progressive disease that was always fatal in those days. He and Mary purchased a modest home in Northridge, California, with an air conditioner, as he said he wanted Cady to be comfortable. I remember him talking about Cady chasing seagulls on the beach and asking for a “paco” (popsicle) as if it had been just yesterday. She passed away in September 1956. It was later determined that Eddie had died of the same disease. Clayton told me that he had blamed himself, as he remembered his relatives telling him he had a weak heart, and he thought he had passed it on to his children.
Four more children were born: Jan, Diane, Glenn, and Bev. By this time Clayton was designing rocket systems for the Mercury and Apollo programs. A seventh child, Douglas, was born in 1968. He too was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy and died in 1971. Uncle Clayton told me how he had gone to the hospital alone that last day, as Aunt Mary couldn’t bear it. He rocked Dougy in his arms as he passed away. Clayton laid his son in the crib and then pounded his fists on the wall, crying out to God, asking why he had taken him away.
My parents moved us out to the San Fernando Valley in June 1971, and we were now only about 15 minutes away from our aunt and uncle and cousins. My parents went out to dinner or a movie with Clayton and Mary at least once a month (it sometimes seemed like it was every weekend), and they and our cousins came over often to swim in the pool. My mom had wanted to buy furniture for the house, but dad said we should have a vote with all the kids, hence the pool. We had folding camp chairs for seating in our family room for a few years. I think the pool was a wise decision, as we became very close to our cousins.
Sometime in the 1970s, Uncle Clayton became involved in a German venture to launch rockets from Zaire in Africa. They made a valiant attempt, but political instability and lack of practical knowledge by the German owners doomed it to failure. Days after Uncle Clayton left Africa, the camp was attacked and many of the personnel were killed. He then started his own company, Space Vector. His company was contracted by former Mercury astronaut Deke Slayton of Space Services, Inc., to design the Conestoga I rocket, which was the first civilian rocket to be successfully launched in US history. The Conestoga I launched September 9, 1982, from Matagorda Island, Texas. The launch almost didn’t happen, as the FAA and NASA were reluctant to grant permission to launch until literally just a few minutes before launch time. Uncle Clayton was quoted not long ago in the paper saying, “I could have put it in orbit. I wish I had. That would have given NASA fits!”
We spent a lot of time with Aunt Mary, Uncle Clayton, and our cousins while I was growing up. It was like having a second family, and Clayton and Mary were much closer to us than most aunts and uncles would be. I never knew until many years later about the day I was born. My esophagus hadn’t formed correctly, and it had attached to my trachea. I would not have survived without major corrective surgery. My dad called Clayton, distraught and not knowing what to do. At the time my dad was a full-time student at USC finishing his coursework for a PhD in electrical engineering. He worked one day a week at an aircraft company, who paid him a small stipend to study. Needless to say, they had no money for major medical bills. Uncle Clayton said he and Aunt Mary knelt and prayed, and then he withdrew all the money from their savings account and took it to my dad at the hospital. He told me he knew what it was like to have an ill child and feel so helpless as a parent. I will always be grateful to him for that.
Uncle Clayton liked to remind me of the time my dad, my 3 brothers, and I went out to the desert with him and my cousin Glenn to learn how to shoot when I was about 6 years old. It got very cold that night, and I asked if I could get into his warm Army sleeping bag with him. He said I kicked and wiggled all night, and he didn’t get a wink of sleep.
When I was in 4th grade or so, I won a writing contest at school, and Uncle Clayton asked if he could read my story. He told me it was so good he wanted to buy a copy, so he gave me a silver dollar, and I wrote out a copy for him. It was my first paid writing job, and it was the first time I felt like I had a talent of any kind. I might not have become a writer without that silver dollar and the confidence he gave me.
We learned that the cardiomyopathy was genetic and affected a large number of our extended family. My mom’s youngest sister, Flora, died in 1972 at age 32, and my Uncle Don died in 1975 at age 48. My Grandma Fisher died when I was 11 years old, and she also had the disease. I think her death was as hard for Clayton as it would have been losing his own mother. At the time my Grandpa Fisher had been showing signs of dementia, which worsened significantly after Grandma’s death. Grandpa reconnected with a woman he had known in high school, and he convinced her he was wealthy and would take her to Hawaii. They married and ended up in Los Angeles, where my mom and Aunt Mary quickly realized she was a little off her rocker as well. The family tried to figure out what to do. Once while Grandpa was at Clayton’s house, a man rang the doorbell to deliver the Rolls-Royce Grandpa had ordered.
Grandpa and his new wife stayed with us for a while, and one day my mom left me alone with them, telling me to keep an eye on them and make sure they didn’t leave. Naturally, they weren’t going to listen to an 11-year-old boy, so they left. I was terrified that they’d get into trouble (and so would I). I was sitting on the porch wondering what my mom would say when suddenly Uncle Clayton pulled into the driveway. He asked what was wrong, and when I told him, he said, “Well, there’s no use sitting around here doing nothing but worrying. Let’s go!” He drove me to a place called “Nosh-o-Rama,” which was, as the name suggests, a Jewish buffet. He said many times over the years that he didn’t do it for me but because he enjoyed seeing how much food I could put away. Despite what he said, he took a genuinely scared boy and made him feel safe and loved. I will never forget it.
Clayton was a terrible tease, as all of his kids will tell you. He always called me “Big Bad John” with that deep voice of the old Jimmy Dean song. He also joked a lot about the Fisher family’s ability to have a lot of children. He loved his children, though he wasn’t a perfect father. He spoiled his grandchildren rotten, however. I remember going to a family reunion and looking out the back window of our van as we drove and seeing Clayton’s Suburban, which was jerking back and forth. He had his very young grandson Curt on his lap and was letting him steer.
Just after the launch of the Conestoga rocket, my Aunt Mary noticed that her heart was racing for no reason, so she went to the doctor, who told her she was in advanced congestive heart failure from cardiomyopathy. She died a few days later in November 1982. After her death I received a birthday card from her, which she had sent from her hospital bed. That tells you what kind of person she was. I will never forget those days and the Thanksgiving dinner we had at our house. We were all overwhelmed with grief, but no one more than Uncle Clayton. He wrote later that he just couldn’t put his heart into his work after that, and he left work with the Conestoga.
Clayton married his second wife, Gloria, in 1984, and they bought a house in Thousand Oaks, California.
When I got engaged to my wife, Uncle Clayton was the first member of our family she met besides my younger brothers. I remember him telling her she had better be aware of what she was getting herself into, as people in the Fisher family tended to have very large families. I remember him chuckling about how our family was “a fruitful bough, whose branches grow over the wall,” and that Fishers got pregnant just by looking at each other funny. Nancy didn’t know what to make of him, but he made her feel at ease, and he welcomed her into our family with a lot of love.
Later he retired, and he and Gloria built a home in St. George, Utah. We were living in Utah at the time, so we always stopped to see them on our way to and from California. He was always very sweet with my children, and he liked telling them stories about what I was like as a child, such as my being a “bottomless pit” because I could eat more than my weight in a meal. Once he took us to the Chuck-A-Rama buffet in St. George because he wanted to see if any of my kids could eat like I did when I was a boy. He said my record still stood.
About 15 years ago he decided to write his life history, and he asked me to edit it. It was a real treat to learn so much about his life, and I was honored to help him. I thought it turned out pretty well, though the printer made a mistake and left all the crop marks in the book. Oh, well. I think he appreciated it.
He was retired, but not really, as he did consulting work until he was well into his 80s, and he is listed as a contributing author on a technical paper in 2004 about a “floating robot” designed for NASA research, when he was 80 years old. He worked from home but still traveled a lot. I remember him telling about a time he had to make a last-minute trip to Seattle for a meeting with Boeing, so he asked Gloria to pack him a carry-on bag. While he was waiting in the line for the security check-in, he opened the bag and discovered a loaded handgun. When he later asked why it was in there, Gloria replied, “I thought you might need it.”
Clayton was an author and published two books: Centurion King: The Battle for Okinawa and Close In, a thriller based on some of his experiences. In 2010 he was honored at the University of Utah’s Veteran’s Day commemoration. As far as I know, he never earned an official degree from college, but he became one of the foremost designers of rocket systems in the world. He literally was a rocket scientist. But he was always a humble farm boy from Utah and had the accent to prove it. He was a loving husband and father and one of the kindest, most generous and big-hearted people I have ever known. My life is so much richer because he was a part of it. His life was a blessing to more people than I could ever count, and we will all miss him.
Oath and Covenant of the Priesthood: A covenant between God and men promising sanctification and renewing of their bodies if they attend enough leadership training broadcasts and do their hometeaching.
Oaths: Promises or covenants made to God. Secret oaths are wicked, unless they are made in the temple.
Obedience: Doing God’s will. You can know it’s God’s will through your conscience, or the Light of Christ. When God’s will conflicts with your conscience, you will be blessed for obedience, anyway.
Occupational Status: God is no respecter of persons, so one’s chosen profession is unrelated to spiritual standing. God often prompts members to enter into professions that will enhance their ability to help build the kingdom. Such professions typically require a professional degree or a large inheritance. Women are encouraged to enter into the profession that is most suited to their talents and desires, that of being a wife and mother.
Official Declaration 1: Known also as “The Manifesto,” the official announcement in 1890 that the LDS church had ceased performing and endorsing plural marriages. This cessation took effect immediately, after an implementation period of some 15 years. Not to be confused with the 1904 declaration, “We Really Mean It This Time.”
Official Declaration 2: The announcement in 1978 that all worthy male members may be ordained to the priesthood. Prior to this date, members of sub-Saharan African descent were barred from holding the priesthood (hereafter referred to as a “blip and fleck of history”). All past justifications for the blip and fleck were merely uninformed speculation, and no official reasons for the practice were ever stated by prophets, especially not Brigham Young, or outlined by the First Presidency of the Church, specifically not in 1949.
Ohio: Church headquarters moved to Kirtland, Ohio, in the 1830s, where the Saints constructed a temple of God. Highlights of this time period include the visit of the Savior and Old Testament prophets to the temple, the establishment of the School of the Prophets, and the commencement of plural marriage with Fanny Alger in the Smith family barn. A failed bank, which church leader Joseph Smith declared had been established by “the word of the Lord,” was unrelated to Mormonism or its leaders.
Oil, Consecrated: Olive oil that has been blessed for the healing of the sick. Men who hold the Melchizedek priesthood typically carry a small amount of oil in a special vial, which can be purchased from your local Deseret Book.
Old Testament: A collection of writings from prophets of God from the time of Adam until a few centuries before the birth of Christ. The Old Testament outlines the laws given to the ancient Israelites regarding worship and daily life, collectively known as the Law of Moses. These laws were fulfilled, or superseded, by the Atonement of Christ, except for those laws regarding homosexuality.
Omnipotence, Omnipresence, Omniscience: According to scripture, God is all powerful, present everywhere, and all knowing. Latter-day scripture clarifies that God cannot violate the laws of the universe or create something out of nothing; that He is only physically present where His body is; and He is continually progressing in knowledge and glory. In that sense, He is omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient.
Onan: The second son of Judah, Onan was killed by the Lord for practicing coitus interuptus to avoid impregnating his brother’s widow. As the Gospel Doctrine lesson manual indicates, Onan was slain for “failure to honor one’s commitments.” This lesson was reinforced in modern times by the appearance of an angel with a drawn sword instructing Joseph Smith to sleep with multiple women or be slain. The prophet faithfully honored his commitments in this regard.
Only Begotten Son of God: Jesus is the only Son begotten (or conceived) in mortal life by God our Father. Prophets have taught that the conception was natural and accomplished “by an immortal Father in the same way that mortal men are begotten by mortal fathers,” but this in no way suggests that sexual intercourse was involved. That is a devlish lie believed only by anti-Mormons and Bruce McConkie.
Opposition: We have been created to learn how to choose between good and evil, right and wrong, and truth and error. We should always adhere to truth, except for truths that are not very uplifting.
Ordinances: Outward acts that have spiritual meaning. Saving ordinances are those ordinances by which members of the church are saved from their sins. Critics mistakenly call these ordinances works, insinuating that Mormons believe we are saved by our own works. This is not true, as we are saved by grace by performing the saving ordinances.
Ordination to the Priesthood: An ordinance done by laying on of hands by which worthy men are given the right to act in the name of God. Often refers to the time at which a boy reaches the age of 12 and is given the right to distribute bread and water to the congregation and go door to door collecting money. God has given this gift to men to make up for their inability to give birth to children.
Organic Evolution: An evil doctrine inspired by the devil that all life evolved from simpler forms, which is “in direct conflict” with the plan of salvation. According to current lesson manuals, “You cannot believe in this theory of the origin of man, and at the same time accept the plan of salvation as set forth by the Lord our God. You must choose the one and reject the other.” Therefore, the church has no official position on evolution
Organization of the Church: We believe in the same organization that existed in the Primitive Church, namely, apostles, prophets, Public Affairs Coordinators, and the Strengthening the Church Membership Committee.
Original Sin: The heretical belief that all God’s children bear the guilt of Adam’s transgression and will thus be sent to hell unless they repent. Latter-day Saints believe we are responsible for our own sins, except for those born into a specific race or lineage.
Orthodoxy: Whatever the church teaches at the moment.
Outer Darkness: Eternal torment where spirits live without any divine influence or light. Reserved for murderers, apostates, and Democrats.
Here in the United States we celebrate Thanksgiving every fourth Thursday in November. The holiday evolved from the original Pilgrims’ gratitude at having enough food to survive through the first winter they spent in the New World. (Yes, I know that’s an oversimplification, but the holiday isn’t my point so much.) Most Americans celebrate by cooking a large meal, usually involving turkey and dressing/stuffing, and offering thanks to God for what we have.
I am thankful for what I have, but I am also mindful that a lot of other people in the world struggle to get by with much less. I have seen unspeakable poverty and suffering in Bolivia, and I have seen misery here in a rich country that has no excuse for poverty. But it’s very easy to get caught up in our little lives, our work, school, finances, commute, and all the other cares of the day, without thinking about the suffering that is within arm’s reach of us every day.
Many years ago my wife taught me how important it is to keep your eyes open and look for ways to help. At the time we were living in our first home, a 40-year-old fixer-upper in Orem, Utah, with our five children (our sixth would be born a few years later). We struggled to make ends meet, but we always seemed to have just enough to get by. Things were tight enough that car problems or an issue with an appliance would have been disastrous for us. As we said at the time, financially speaking, we had no room to sneeze. We kept to a tight budget and bought groceries with cash to stay within the budget.
One Saturday afternoon I was working in the house when my wife left to shop for groceries. When she returned, she introduced me to a young woman with a couple of small children. They looked tired and disheveled. My wife had noticed the young woman in the store, and when she went out to load the groceries in the car, she noticed that the young woman was in the car next to ours, sobbing.
Seeing her distress, my wife knocked on the window and asked her what was wrong. The young woman explained that her husband had left her, and she was taking the children from their previous home in the Midwest to live with her parents in Oregon, but they had run out of money and gas in Utah. She had purchased a small amount of food and baby supplies, but there was no money for gas to continue the journey.
My sweet wife asked her where they were staying, and she replied that they had no place to stay, that they would probably sleep in the car right there in the parking lot. Without hesitating, my wife told her they could stay with us for the night. They followed her to our house, where they were able to bathe, eat, and wash their clothes, and the young woman was able to call her parents in Oregon to let them know she was safe. After dinner, our girls played with the two small children, fussing over them while the mother rested.
Cynical as I am, I was skeptical and wondered if this might be some kind of scam, but my wife calmly assured me that these people needed our help. We were going to help them, end of story. Besides, she smiled, we had nothing of value to steal, so there was no risk. She was right, and I was a little ashamed of having been so suspicious.
I took the young woman’s car to a gas station and filled the tank with gas and checked all the fluids, while my wife returned to the store with the young woman and made sure she had food, formula, and diapers for the rest of the trip.
In the morning, the little family looked much better, rested and in clean clothes. We helped load up the car and gave the young woman some cash for gas and other needs. Before they left, the young woman broke into sobs as she hugged us and thanked us. She said she had been at the end of her rope and had been praying for help when my wife knocked on the car window.
I suppose some people would call that a miracle or an answer to prayer, but I believe that we are much more likely to create miracles and answer prayers when we are looking out for each other. Had I been the one shopping that day, I am pretty certain I wouldn’t have noticed a young woman alone and sobbing in a car with her children. I would have loaded up the groceries and gone home, and no one would have been the wiser.
But my wife is not like that. She always keeps hers eyes open for opportunities to help people, and she never does anything halfway. We’ve been married for 27 years, and I hope I’ve picked up some of that ability from her, but I’ve had to learn it consciously. It comes naturally for her, and it’s one of the reasons I love her so much.
I have no idea what happened to that young woman and her children, and I’m not telling this story because I want thanks from her or a pat on the back from anyone else. Besides, it wasn’t me who reached out and helped someone in need. Her example makes me want to emphasize the giving part of Thanksgiving this year. I’ll keep my eyes open.
A longtime friend, whom I respect greatly, has written a long and thoughtful response to the LDS church’s recent essay about plural marriage in the early days of the church. I’ve said what I needed to say about the essay in an earlier post, but his essay is for those who really want to dig into the essay. As he says, it’s “insanely long” (53 pages!), so be forewarned. Note that you’ll need a PDF reader.
A friend asked, “Say, has anyone else noticed that these essays are not being translated into other languages and posted on the LDS Church’s websites in other languages?“
I suppose you could say that it takes time to translate things, but these are relatively short essays, and the church has had plenty of lead time. Had they wanted to translate them, they could have released the translated versions simultaneously with the English versions of the essays.
But there’s a reason they haven’t. Most likely, as my friend puts it, it’s in English only because
… it’s frantic triage directed specifically at Americans because very little of the damning historical material has been translated into other languages. This would be more convincing as a new type of good faith Glasnost if Italian members were given these essays even though there is no MormonThink or Signature Books in Italian.
A unilateral attempt to be transparent and open would involve exposing all members of the LDS church to this material. That it’s been published only in English–and you can only find it by directly linking to each essay–suggests that this material is intended to help the church reassert some control over a message that is currently being driven by multitudes of sources on the Internet. As I mentioned before, the problem is that many of those random Internet sites out there provide the source material in whole and in context. As I noted the other day, the church’s essays spin, deflect, and bury primary sources under references to apologetic works such as those of Brian Hales. And sometimes they even misuse sources to support a thesis contrary to the facts.
So, yes, like my friend, I’ll congratulate the church on its openness when it translates this material into the major languages spoken within the church. Then again, the translated material is still highly spun and occasionally dishonest. So, I’ll hold off on the congratulations.
I noticed that the Salt Lake Tribune has a couple of opinion pieces regarding the LDS church’s recent essays on plural marriage. I have commented here, but I think these both make good points. The first is from Gary James Bergera.
Mr. Bergera, who is on the editorial board of Signature Books, writes about the church’s “jarring” candor in addressing the facts of early Mormon polygamy. But he’s right that the essays take great pains to shy away from the “full story.” I thought this point was particularly insightful:
First, the essay on polygamy during Joseph Smith’s lifetime reflects an emerging apologetic argument that seeks to portray Smith as a reluctant polygamist who had to be coerced by an angel into engaging in sexual relations with his plural wives. Such a position misrepresents Smith’s zest for life and self-perception as Heaven’s lawgiver, while imposing on him a particular brand of morality that was foreign to him. “That which is wrong under one circumstance, may be, and often is, right under another,” he taught (History of the church, 5:134). He also stated that there were “many things in the Bible which do not, as they now stand, accord with the revelation of the Holy Ghost to me” (Words of Joseph Smith, p. 211).
This idea of “reluctant polygamist” comes from Smith’s repeated assertions to his prospective wives that he would not have practiced polygamy had he not been forced by an angel with a drawn sword. The problem is that he said the angel continued to threaten him even after he had entered into the practice, suggesting that God wasn’t so much interested in restoring “the principle” of plural marriage as He was in ensuring that Joseph Smith married specific women. As Bergera notes above, Joseph was a self-confident man who believed that his actions were always right when backed by the command of God (indeed, the first quote Bergera cites is from a letter Smith wrote to convince a reluctant young woman to become his plural wife). The historical record suggests that Joseph’s main concern in entering into plural marriages was that they might be discovered by Emma Smith or the public. Bergera urges the church to take steps toward “narrating as fully and as accurately as possible” the history of plural marriage.
The second essay, from psychologist and self-described “believing Mormon woman” Kristy Money, approaches the essay from its potential effects on readers:
There’s not much here for me to disagree with. Smith’s dishonesty about his plural marriages should be troubling to anyone, no matter how “carefully worded” his denials were. And his practice of marrying young girls, often those under his care and protection in his own home, is indeed not all that different from “victim grooming patterns” seen among sex offenders (particularly when one considers Smith’s approach to Mary Rollins when she was 12 years old). Ms. Money argues that, taken together, Smith’s actions were clearly wrong, and the church’s attempts to justify them could help sexual predators today convince their victims that they have the church’s blessing in committing their crimes. So, she asks the church to state clearly that Smith was wrong and made mistakes that the church does not support.
Both of these essays rest on what I think are mistaken assumptions about the church’s essays. Simply put, the essays are about finding a way to acknowledge troubling history and at the same time to present Joseph Smith in a positive light. Both authors recognize that “fully and accurately” discussing this history puts Joseph Smith in a bad light. Whether commanded of God or not, Smith clearly engaged in manipulative and dishonest behavior in his relationships with his plural wives. Mr. Bergera and Ms. Money would like the LDS church to explain this clearly and unequivocally, with Ms. Money asking the church to disavow Smith’s “mistakes” explicitly.
But these essays aren’t about full disclosure and acknowledgment of past errors. They are about justifying Joseph Smith, nothing more. One thing I have learned in my life as a Mormon is that the LDS church will sacrifice any past leader if it is necessary to maintain the church’s current narratives. Brigham Young has been called a racist by many believing Mormons, and later church leaders have labeled as “deadly heresy” Young’s teachings about the relationship between God and humanity. But Joseph Smith is sacrosanct, and the church will never condemn anything he did in the name of God, let alone call it “wrong” or a “mistake.” These essays are probably the best we can expect from the LDS church: candid, up to a point, and misleading and even dishonest when needed.
The problem for the church is that most members who read the essays will do so after they have stumbled across what others have written about this difficult history. My guess is that such readers will recognize immediately that the essays are not completely forthcoming and will see through much of the bending of the truth.