I meant to write this all out in one post, but it is long, and it may take a few posts to cover things adequately.
As many of my readers already know, a woman named Meg Stout has created a web site containing what she believes is clear and conclusive evidence that Joseph Smith did not engage in sexual polygamy. Her latest post is a condensed version of her lengthy series (I count 30 posts) on “A Faithful Joseph”:
After reading the digest, I dug in and started reading the articles themselves, and what follows is my response. First of all, let me say I feel more than a little guilty that her comments on my blog have become a sort of Internet meme, which I didn’t intend.
The beginning is not auspicious, as she seems to believe that those of us who accept the evidence of sexuality in Smith’s marriages believe that he was “just a pervert.” I can’t speak for anyone else, but I can think of any number of reasons he would have “restored” the practice of polygamy that do not involve lust or perversion. It apparently doesn’t occur to her that the “Joseph as sex fiend” theory is a straw man. Lack of imagination on her part is not a problem for me.
Next, she tells us that learning about Joseph Smith’s polygamy “shattered the simple testimony of [her] childhood,” and she spent “decades” trying to come up with an “explanation.” Needless to say, what she is doing is trying to find an explanation of Joseph Smith’s behavior that doesn’t conflict with her testimony that he was a prophet. So, let us not mistake what she is doing for historical research; this is apologetics, plain and simple. She already has her conclusion (Joseph Smith was a righteous prophet), so she will interpret the evidence to support that conclusion. A historian, on the other hand, follows the evidence to reach a conclusion. Thus, her approach is, to steal a phrase from her, “fundamentally flawed from an evidentiary and logical standpoint.”
One piece of evidence she tackles immediately is the lack of offspring from Joseph Smith and his plural wives:
I realized that there is something odd about the reproductive history of the women Joseph covenanted with prior to his death. In addition, modern DNA analysis cannot prove any children born to Joseph’s plural wives were engendered by him, with only one case even being inconclusive.”
Basically, then, she believes the lack of proof that Smith fathered children is evidence there was no sexuality in the marriages. This is, of course, the argumentum ex silentio, or argument from silence, a logical fallacy that states that the absence of evidence is evidence of absence. Setting aside the poor logic of this argument, we have testimony from multiple women who said they had sexual relations with Joseph Smith, and their testimony is corroborated by others. Also, we have testimony from multiple women who said that they believed Smith may have fathered their children or that they knew of the existence of such children. Such testimony makes no sense if there had been no sexuality in the relationships. In short, either everyone involved was lying, or at least some of the relationships were sexual.
In the next section, Ms. Stout outlines her belief that God demanded polygamy so that all might have an opportunity to be saved in the celestial kingdom. “If strict monogamy were to continue when the New and Everlasting Covenant was implemented, then men could only be sealed to one of their earthly wives, and children of women who were not sealed would remain eternal orphans.” Unfortunately, this doesn’t make much logical sense. Polygyny might ensure that children are sealed to someone else, but what happens to faithful men whose children are not sealed to them because their wives are sealed to someone else? They are left as eternally childless. In the early days of the LDS church, this problem was overcome by allowing people to be sealed as children to a non-relative “parent.” Such was the case with John D. Lee, for example, who was sealed to Brigham Young in just that way. So, there is no theological need for plural marriage to seal all children, and Ms. Stout’s logic doesn’t hold up.
Following that, Ms. Stout discusses “precursors” to Mormon polygamy. I’m not entirely sure what her purpose is in providing a medical, social, and religious context for the emergence of Smith’s polygamy, so I’ll have to withhold judgment for the time being. I did have to chuckle at this gem: “But Cochran’s free love spiritual wifery turned women into sluts while Smith’s concept of marriage turned women into queens (albeit potentially sharing their ‘king’).” This is just subjective judgment, nothing more. One might just as easily say that Cochran’s free love put women into an egalitarian position with respect to men, whereas Smith’s practices put women into a permanently inferior position, akin to a man’s property.
Next she moves on to “The 1831 Revelation Regarding Plural Marriage.” I’m puzzled here because she spins what she calls a “a bit of a midrash,” suggesting that it was Joseph Smith’s translation of the Bible that prompted his inquiry about plural marriage. However, she quotes from the 1843 revelation that is now canonized as section 132 of the LDS Doctrine and Covenants. This is problematic because the claimed 1831 revelation is one in which the Lord supposedly tells missionaries sent to preach to Native Americans to “take unto you wives of the Lamanites and Nephites.” In short, there is no evidence, other than Ms. Stout’s “imagined” narrative, to suggest that section 132 was received in 1831. This is argument by assertion, another obvious logical fallacy. Saying something without evidence does not make it true.
Her next post, “The Decade of Delay,” is fascinating. Someone who didn’t know the actual history might be quite confused and misled, were they to accept Ms. Stout’s creative timeline. In beginning this section, we see Ms. Stout once again explaining her reasons for writing what she does: Joseph’s behavior fills her with “dread” and makes her wish the issues would “all go away.” I suspect it’s that unwillingness to face unpleasant facts that drives this section of her work.
She insists that, between 1831 and 1841, Joseph Smith “delayed” implementing plural marriage owing to a “series of disasters” that befell him and his family. The first such disaster is the tarring and feathering of Smith and Sidney Rigdon in February 1832, which some historians say was motivated by revenge for Joseph’s having made a sexual advance on Marinda Johnson, who would later become one of Joseph’s wives. The assault broke Joseph’s tooth, left Rigdon mentally damaged, and resulted in the death of Joseph and Emma Smith’s first child from exposure. Needless to say, such a traumatic event might make Joseph a little shy about looking for another spouse.
Next, we are told about one Hannah Dubois Smith, whom later writers associate with Joseph Smith. Hannah was married during this time to a John F. Smith, though according to Ms. Stout, no such individual with that name can be found. Rumor had it, apparently, that the name was a pseudonym for Joseph Smith. Ms. Stout, however, claims that, if there had been a Smith involved, it would have been Joseph’s younger brother William. All the evidence she provides consists of vague generalizations, as well as the assertion that William’s giving of a patriarchal blessing to Hannah’s children was unusual (it wasn’t, as he had been appointed church patriarch). The only specific claims is that, “when William is sent to Tennessee in disgrace, circa 1842, Philo Dibble and Hannah accompany him.” I’d like to see some documentation for that, as the evidence shows that William was editor of the LDS newspaper, The Nauvoo Wasp, until December of 1842, at which time he resigned to serve in the Illinois General Assembly. So, unless she has some documentation, I’m taking that one with a grain of salt.
Then Ms. Stout discusses Jared Carter, a member of Zion’s Camp, whose brother died, leaving a wife and seven children. Carter apparently believed he would be justified in taking her has a plural wife but was “chastised” by the church.
Finally we come to the case of Fanny Alger. Most readers will be familiar with the basics of the story: Miss Alger had been hired as a housekeeper in the Smith household, and sometime later, Emma discovered a relationship between Joseph and Fanny, and Fanny was compelled to leave the Smith home. Ms. Stout accepts evidence from Todd Compton that the relationship was a proper marriage, with Joseph having engaged in an “exchange of women,” promising Levi Hancock a wife if he helped acquire Fanny as Joseph’s wife. Then, without any justification whatsoever, Stout declares, “I propose Emma knew of and agreed to the marriage with the stipulation that it remain platonic until some future ‘safe’ time.” Let me just be clear:
- There is no evidence that Emma knew of or agreed to the marriage.
- There is also no evidence that the marriage was intended to be platonic for any length of time.
To insist otherwise is wishful thinking and argument by assertion, and it certainly is not rigorous historical research.
But Ms. Stout takes these unsupported assertions and runs with them. Thus, when multiple sources say that Emma discovered Fanny and Joseph together in some kind of compromising position, Stout says with an apparently straight face:
At some point around 1836 Emma found Joseph and Fanny together in the barn, but this needn’t have been bouncy illicit sex or even sex at all. Two people in love, even if not sexually intimate, can project an impression of togetherness that would be misunderstood by others unaware of the possibility of plural marriage. I submit Emma had a post-traumatic stress disorder reaction – not that she didn’t know of the marriage, but what she was seeing could so easily be misunderstood and result in a repeat of the mobbing in Hiram, Ohio.
In essence, then, Stout would have us believe that all of Joseph’s contemporaries, including Emma, jumped to the conclusion that this was, in Oliver Cowdery’s words, a “dirty, filthy, nasty
scrape affair.” I could go through all of the relevant evidence and testimony, but then Ms. Stout is undoubtedly familiar with it but chooses to ignore it. She sums up this section as follows:
I like to think of this imprisoned Joseph as a man who had as yet not consummated a plural marriage–a man who was, rather, traumatized by the thought of entering into plural marriage and the failed and unconsummated proposal to Marinda and marriage with Fanny. My Joseph is a man whose dearest hope was to return to the side of his beloved Emma and forever relinquish the horrific requirement of plural marriage.
This is all we need to know: this is “her” Joseph, the man she wants him to be, no matter the evidence.