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.