Uncle Clayton

December 1, 2014

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.

An “Insanely Long” Look at the LDS Church’s Polygamy Essay

November 18, 2014

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.

FWIW: My Thoughts on “Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo” Essay


Urim and Thummim Not Required

November 3, 2014

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?

Good question.

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.

More on the Polygamy Essays

November 3, 2014

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.

Smith polygamy essays commendable, but still not the full story

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:

LDS Church should make clear Smith was wrong to take 14-year-old wife

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.

The Fog of Marriage

October 27, 2014

“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.

Top Ten Hints for Polygamy Apologists

June 18, 2014

1. A person’s consent does not make any action toward that person right.

2. A person in a position of authority has an unequal relationship with his or her subordinates. The consent of a subordinate to something they otherwise would not do does not indicate that the authority figure has not abused his or her authority.

3. It is not OK to conceal extramarital sex from one’s spouse to spare the spouse’s feelings.

4. Telling someone after the fact that you have done something deeply affecting them does not change the fact that you have done something deeply affecting them without their prior knowledge or consent.

5. A person’s acceptance after the fact of an action done without their knowledge or consent does not make the action right.

6. Threatening to destroy someone’s reputation if they reveal that you’ve made sexual advances on them is not acceptable.

7. Publicly trashing someone’s reputation after they have revealed your sexual advances is unacceptable.

8. It is impossible for a child to give free and informed consent to an adult authority figure when she is told that her consent will guarantee exaltation for her family.

9. Concealing something from one’s spouse and others is a good sign that you are afraid of the consequences of getting caught. People tend not to be afraid of the consequences of getting caught performing “dynastic” rituals that have nothing to do with sex.

10. Absence of offspring is not solid evidence that someone has not had sex.

Everything Has Chains

June 13, 2014

Given the subjects of a lot of my posts, some people are surprised to find that I am not technically a former Mormon. Yep, I’m still on the records of the LDS church, I’m still a high priest, and, at least according to the church, the terms of my covenants remain in effect.

I have noticed in the last two days a number of people are saying that the situation with John Dehlin, Kate Kelly, and Rock Waterman has them upset enough to formally resign from the LDS church. Here’s a sample of what’s been said:

A mother: “I’m thinking it’s about time I resign this narrow-minded church that has taken so much from me.”

A returned missionary: “I’ve just been too lazy to do it, but this has motivated me. I have also had contact with a couple families that were on the fence (friends/roommates from BYU) but have decided it may be best to just resign and get their families out. This might be an interesting catalyst.”

A high priest: “If I am going to resign, and I am definitely considering it seriously, I would like it to be something where it is directly linked with this latest action taken by the Church of Jesus Christ of North Korea.”

A non-Mormon married to a Mormon: “I may have my children’s names removed from the records of the church over this. They were unlikely to ever choose to be baptized LDS as it is, but if the church wants to treat feminists this way, then it can stop counting my children as part of that membership tally that it’s so fond of.”

As I’ve said before, I understand how these people feel. A lot of people I know held out hope that the church was becoming more inclusive and tolerant, and more open about its past, but really, nothing has changed. The church is the same today as it was last week before any of us knew about the pending disciplinary action. As Kate Kelly was reminded, disagreement with official policies and teachings is tolerated only if it is never expressed publicly. I remember being told multiple times that I was free to believe whatever I wanted to believe, as long as I kept it to myself. Even when I had checked out of the LDS church almost entirely, I was told I shouldn’t tell anyone about my beliefs or about the things I had learned about the church. I was even told that I should not share my thoughts and beliefs about the church with my own children, as if leaving the church had nullified my rights and responsibilities as a parent.

Make no mistake about it: the LDS church is an authoritarian institution that tolerates no dissent. I have long believed that the institutional culture–the personality of the church, if you will–is a direct reflection of Joseph Smith’s personality. If you have read anything about Joseph Smith (well, outside official publications), you know he could not accept challenges to his authority, direct or indirect. He was at the top of the structure, and he expected those subordinate to him to do what they were told. When anyone stood up to him, Joseph Smith became angry and sometimes violent. There are numerous accounts of him physically attacking people who stood up to him. Benjamin Johnson wrote:

Criticisms, even by his associates, were rarely acceptable. Contradictions would arouse in him the lion at once. By no one of his fellows would he be superceded. In the early days at Kirtland, and elsewhere, one or another of his associates were more than once, for their impudence, helped from the congregation by his foot.

And there’s an account from my own family history describing his completely losing his temper and shouting at my ancestor, who physically ejected Smith from his home when Smith became violent.

It’s hard to think of any incident in the life of Joseph Smith in which he accepted correction from a subordinate or ever acknowledged being in the wrong, let alone needing forgiveness. I’m reminded of the loss of the 116 pages of the Book of Mormon translation, but what you see there is that he acknowledges wrongdoing only in the sense that he gave in to the cajoling of a subordinate, in this case Martin Harris. Even when caught quite literally with his pants down in a barn with Fanny Alger,  Joseph said he would not confess to adultery or anything else. When men became upset at his advances on their wives and daughters, he denied everything and publicly denounced the women as liars and whores. In his speeches and writings, including scripture, Joseph reserved the harshest denunciations for dissenters and apostates, and those attitudes have persisted to this day, as members are still taught that “dissenters [are] base traitors and sycophants.”

I’m convinced that this inability to take correction or instruction from anyone beneath Joseph Smith is what shaped the office of President of the Church after his death. Brigham Young, aptly called “Old Boss” by his subordinates, assumed nearly absolute authority over the church and Utah Territory, even to the point that, when he ordered that someone be “used up,” that person was sure not to be alive for very long. I’m pretty sure that Brigham’s forceful personality explains a lot of this, and the autocratic rule seems to have diminished after his death. But what remains is still a belief that dissent from the ranks is not to be tolerated at all.

Most Mormons are familiar with recent teachings about dissent. Dallin Oaks, for example, has taught that “It’s wrong to criticize leaders of the church, even if the criticism is true.” Russell Ballard has said:

In the Lord’s Church there is no such thing as a “loyal opposition.” One is either for the kingdom of God and stands in defense of God’s prophets and apostles, or one stands opposed.

None of this is new. The church has never tolerated dissent, even polite and respectful dissent, so no one should be surprised by the events of the last week.

What I think is happening is that people who supported John and the Ordain Women movement allowed themselves to believe that things were different, that things had changed. If nothing else, we’ve been given a reminder that institutions do not change in an instant, or even in the 21 years since the last coordinated purging of dissent.

Is it possible for the church to change? Perhaps, but it’s a big ship, and it takes time and effort to turn a ship, especially one essentially chained to its past by an inability to question its own authority. As Eddie Vedder put it, “Everything has chains” holding it back from growth, and too often you find that  “absolutely nothing’s changed.”

In the meantime, the big danger to the church is that they are likely to alienate a lot of people who love the gospel but recognize that the church is an extremely conservative institution run by fallible men. As long as people like Dehlin, Kelly, and Waterman were in the church, those who didn’t necessarily accept the “official” version of the church’s history, origins, and practices could believe they weren’t alone. The three of them seemed to show kindred spirits that it was OK to be different and still participate in the church. Many times I’ve had conversations with Mormons in which they sort of nervously give the party line, but once they know it’s “safe” to speak openly with me, they relax and talk about what they really think and believe. Dehlin, Kelly, and Waterman were symbols that there were such people still in the church, that it was safe to talk about your beliefs and hopes and dreams, even if they didn’t exactly coincide with the church’s program for your life. With the recent moves, the church has made it abundantly clear that it’s not OK to think differently, unless you keep your thoughts to yourself, and there are likely to be far fewer people with whom it is safe to share your thoughts.

And that is the problem. Any institution that requires you to swallow who you are and what you think on penalty of expulsion is not a healthy organization. What I hear from people considering leaving is that they don’t believe the church is capable of becoming healthy again, and they wonder if staying in an unhealthy organization is healthy for them as individuals. I can’t answer that question for anyone but myself. And beats the hell out of me what I’m going to do.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 218 other followers