A common experience a lot of ex-Mormons have is discovering, to their shock, unsavory or problematic parts of LDS Church history that they had never heard in church, seminary, or on their missions. Predictably, some apologists respond by ridiculing these members who were foolish enough to get their church history and doctrine from approved church sources. LDS Church News writer Scott Lloyd calls such members “lazy and intransigent” for not taking the time away from scripture study and raising a family to study outside sources of church history. Besides, such apologists say, none of this controversial stuff is hidden by the church. For example, when a church member is troubled to find that the Book of Mormon was translated when Joseph Smith “would put the seer stone into a hat and put his face in the hat” they can point to a mention of this in a 1993 Ensign article from Russell M. Nelson. Apparently, if it was stated once, in passing, in a church magazine, it must be widely known. The bottom line is that, for such apologists, members who do not know such things are intellectually lazy, and those who do learn such things ought not to be troubled by them (why, they never say).
But does the church hide its history? I don’t think it’s so much about hiding information as it is about controlling how, when, and where the information is presented. I remember that the Clinton Administration in the US talked often about “message control”: unpleasant information was revealed at times when most people would not be paying attention. Often, information would be discussed or “leaked” late on Friday afternoon, as most people don’t pay much attention to the news over the weekend. By Monday, the information would have been covered in the media and discussed on the Sunday talk shows and would have mostly blown over. I think this is how best to understand the way the church presents information.
As I mentioned, the head-in-hat method of translation is well-known among critics and former Mormons and has been mentioned in the Ensign twice (the other is in a passing reference in a discussion of a tight vs. loose translation method in the September 1977 Ensign). Many church members do read the Ensign, but a significant number do not. If you happened to have been old enough to read the Ensign in 1977 (I was 12) or 1993 (I knew about the head in hat method by then), you would know about this; otherwise, you wouldn’t. The institute manual “Church History in the Fulness of Times” does not mention the seer stone or how it was used. Nor do the seminary and Sunday School manuals. Instead, all of these sources speak of the use of the Urim and Thummim as traditionally understood.
This issue came up for me when a church member I know said that everyone knows that Joseph Smith was a polygamist. It is taught in seminary, and people who are surprised by this were just not paying attention in class. Of course, very few church members know any of the details, the secrecy, the coercion. If you asked most Mormons about polyandry in the early church, they would most likely not know what you were talking about.
So I did a little experiment and searched lds.org for mentions of Joseph Smith and polygamy (the web site contains just about everything the church has published since 1971, so if you can’t find it there, you won’t find it).
I searched for the following terms:
Fanny Alger (Joseph Smith’s first alleged plural wife): 0 hits
Sylvia Lyon (one of Joseph’s “polyandrous” wives): 0 hits
Helen Mar Kimball (the young of Joseph’s wives): 1 hit, no mention of plural marriage
Zina D.H. Young (another polyandrous wife): 19 hits, mentions of being Joseph’s plural wife: 0
Eliza Partridge (orphan who moved into Joseph’s home as a teenaged “nurse girl” and was married to him without Emma’s knowledge): 1 hit
Emily Partridge (Emily’s sister, same story): 1 hit
A fairly explicit discussion of Emily and Eliza appears in a 1979 Ensign article by church historian Dean Jessee:
Emma Smith needed help with her newborn son, and hired first sixteen-year-old Emily, then twenty-year-old Eliza too.
Although little Don Carlos Smith died a short time later, Emily and Eliza continued to live in the Smith home, where, in the summer of 1842, both girls “were married to Bro. Joseph about the same time, but neither of us knew about the other at the time; everything was so secret” (Emily, “Incidents,” p. 186).
Louisa Beaman (sometimes considered Joseph’s first plural wife): 1 hit, as follows, from the “Church History in the Fulness of Times” institute manual:
Moreover, Joseph Smith and the Church were to accept the principle of plural marriage as part of the restoration of all things (see v. 45). Accustomed to conventional marriage patterns, the Prophet was at first understandably reluctant to engage in this new practice. Due to a lack of historical documentation, we do not know what his early attempts were to comply with the commandment in Ohio. His first recorded plural marriage in Nauvoo was to Louisa Beaman; it was performed by Bishop Joseph B. Noble on 5 April 1841. During the next three years Joseph took additional plural wives in accordance with the Lord’s commands.
Joseph Smith Plural Marriage: 94 hits
Some representative quotes:
Gordon B. Hinckley’s “Truth Restored” (ostensibly a history of the LDS church) contains only this about plural marriage; the rest of the section covers the persecution polygamy engendered)=:
Although polygamy is no longer practiced in the Church, no account of the Church’s history can be complete without some discussion of the practice. It was first announced by Joseph Smith at Nauvoo in 1842. Many of those close to him knew of it and accepted it as a principle of divine pronouncement. However, it was not publicly taught until 1852.
In the families that practiced polygamy, each wife, with her children, occupied a separate house, or, if the wives lived in the same house, as was sometimes the case, in separate quarters. No distinction was made between either of the wives or the children. The husband provided for each family, was responsible for the education of the children, and gave both the children and their mothers the same advantages he would have given to his family under a monogamous relationship. If it was thought he could not do this, he was not permitted to enter into plural marriage.
While the practice was extremely limited—only a small minority of the families were involved—it was the kind of thing of which enemies of the Church could easily take advantage.
A 1977 article from church historian Davis Bitton:
Starting during Joseph Smith’s own lifetime but limited to a few dozen families until its official announcement in 1852, plural marriage brought a powerful new challenge to the equanimity of Latter-day Saint family life.
The church’s main page about plural marriage says:
After God revealed the doctrine of plural marriage to Joseph Smith in 1831 and commanded him to live it, the Prophet, over a period of years, cautiously taught the doctrine to some close associates. Eventually, he and a small number of Church leaders entered into plural marriages in the early years of the Church. Those who practiced plural marriage at that time, both male and female, experienced a significant trial of their faith. The practice was so foreign to them that they needed and received personal inspiration from God to help them obey the commandment.
Liahona, April 1980:
July 12 . A revelation on the “Eternity of the Marriage Covenant and Plural Marriage” (D&C 132) was recorded, giving fuller meaning to the “new and everlasting covenant” which had been mentioned as early as 1831. The Prophet had explained the doctrine to a few, and plural marriages had been performed in 1841.
Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith:
This book also does not discuss plural marriage. The doctrines and principles relating to plural marriage were revealed to Joseph Smith as early as 1831. The Prophet taught the doctrine of plural marriage, and a number of such marriages were performed during his lifetime. …
In 1841 the first sealings of couples were performed, and in 1843 the Prophet dictated the revelation that describes the eternal nature of the marriage covenant (see D&C 132). The doctrines in this revelation had been known by the Prophet since 1831. As commanded by God, he also taught the doctrine of plural marriage.
The only mention in the Gospel Doctrine Doctrine and Covenants manual:
The revelation to practice plural marriage in this dispensation
In this dispensation, the Lord commanded some of the early Saints to practice plural marriage. The Prophet Joseph Smith and those closest to him, including Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball, were challenged by this command, but they obeyed it. Church leaders regulated the practice. Those entering into it had to be authorized to do so, and the marriages had to be performed through the sealing power of the priesthood.
A D. Michael Quinn article from the Ensign in 1978 is unusually frank:
How a family accepts members who join it by marriage is, in some ways, analogous to how a Church accepts members who join it by baptism. The experiences of plural marriage make the analogy even closer. The Whitney family rose nobly to the challenge in a way that was an example to the Church. On 27 July 1842, the Prophet Joseph Smith recorded a revelation to the Whitneys on plural marriage.
“My husband revealed these things to me; we had always been united, and had the utmost faith and confidence in each other. We pondered upon them continually, and our prayers were unceasing that the Lord would grant us some special manifestation concerning this new and strange doctrine. The Lord was very merciful to us; He revealed unto us His power and glory. We were seemingly wrapt in a heavenly vision, a halo of light encircled us, and we were convinced in our own minds that God had heard and answered our prayers and intercedings before Him.” In obedience to the command of the living prophet, Newel and Elizabeth Ann gave their daughter Sarah Ann in marriage to Joseph Smith. Nearly a year later, Joseph Smith dictated the general revelation about the eternity of marriage and the nature of plural marriage, and Newel asked to have his own copy, a providential request, since the first copy was destroyed. Thus, Newel’s desire to have the word of the Lord has blessed the entire Church by preserving what is now Section 132 [D&C 132] in the Doctrine and Covenants.
As I read these accounts, I noticed something. Through the 1970s, the church discussed some of these things far more openly than they do today (the Quinn and Jessee articles being notable), but in the early 1980s, references to Joseph’s practice of plural marriage became more guarded, usually brief references in the passive voice (“and a number of such marriages were performed during his lifetime”). There is a reason for that.
In the 1970s, the church historian’s office was being run by professional historians, such as Leonard Arrington and Dean Jessee. According to Arrington, “historians, at Brigham Young University and elsewhere, were given full access to the Church Archives and commissioned to write accurate and reliable treatises on a variety of assigned topics” (“The Writing of Latter-day Saints History,” Dialogue, 14:3 [Autumn 1981], p. 126). Several publications came of that new openness from the historian’s office: “The Expanding Church by Spencer Palmer, published in 1978; the biography of Heber C. Kimball by Stanley Kimball, published by the University of Illinois Press; the biography of Jedediah M. Grant by Gene S. Sessions, recently accepted by the University of Illinois Press; and Voices of Women by Ken and Audrey Godfrey and Jill Mulvay Derr, now being published by Deseret Book Company” (Ibid., p. 127). Two works were commissioned for the church’s 1980 sesquicentennial: The Story of the Latter-day Saints, by James Allen and Glen Leonard and published by Deseret Book; and a projected multivolume (reportedly it would have 16 volumes) “History of the Latter-day Saints, 1830-1980,” though no volumes were ever produced.
Suddenly, in 1981, the frank discussion ended, access to the church archives was severely restricted, even for trusted church historians, and Arrington and his staff were transferred from church employment to BYU. Since then, when church history is discussed in manuals and magazines, its presentation follows the admonition of Boyd K. Packer, not coincidentally delivered at almost the same time as the dismissal of the professional historians and closing of the archives:
Church history can he so interesting and so inspiring as to be a very powerful tool indeed for building faith. If not properly written or properly taught, it may be a faith destroyer. … There is a temptation for the writer or the teacher Of Church history to want to tell everything, whether it is worthy or faith promoting or not. Some things that are true are not very useful. There is a temptation for the writer or the teacher Of Church history to want to tell everything, whether it is worthy or faith promoting or not. … In the Church we are not neutral. We are one-sided. There is a war going on and we are engaged in it. It is the war between good and evil, and we are belligerents defending the good. We are therefore obliged to give preference to and protect all that is represented in the gospel of Jesus Christ, and we have made covenants to do it.
Packer is describing a rather extreme form of message control, in which only the positive is to be revealed out of fear for destroying the faith of church members. I think we’re all pretty familiar with the “sanitized” version church history that has resulted over the last thirty years or so. What happened to cause such a change?
As I mentioned, the book “The Story of Latter-day Saints” that was commissioned for the sesquicentennial and published by Deseret Book Company. Before the book was published, Ezra Taft Benson and Mark E. Petersen tried to kill the project. Arrington writes:
Kimball began by saying that The Story of the Latter-day Saints had raised some concerns. Benson admitted that he had read only portions of the book but that at least one of the Twelve had read all of it. Calvin Rudd, an institute teacher, had given him a two-page list of his concern in very general terms: the book would make young people “lose faith,” it “demeaned” Joseph Smith, it gave only sixteen lines to the founding of the church. For five or ten minutes Benson continued his “grave warnings” about “the problems and dangers and risks” of the existence of such a book. I responded. Then Petersen expressed his concerns very strongly and openly. I again responded. Then both Benson and Petersen took another turn.
Arrington was asked by Delbert Stapley to “have members of the Twelve review manuscripts. … Stapley added that some members of the Twelve insisted that we exclude any information from our publication that might put the church in a bad light.”
Shortly after the publication of the book (which was not reprinted until 1986, when the controversy had died down), G. Homer Durham took over the responsibility for the historian’s office. The church stopped cooperating with outside publishers and universities and severely restricted access to the church archives. The historian’s office was now part of the “faith-promoting” mission of the church. To the church’s credit, they have produced a few volumes of the Joseph Smith papers, but then we already know that Joseph Smith tended to leave the unsavory out of his own histories, so that’s a safe, mostly faith-promoting project.
Ironically, back in the 1970s, the church could almost completely control the flow of information to its members, but it chose not to do so. Today, the church has lost all control of information, as many primary sources of controversial issues are readily available on the Internet. It’s quite possible that, had Arrington been allowed to produce a more open and accurate history thirty years ago, the information that is so shocking to so many church members might have elicited only a yawn.