Remarkable Transparency

Today I woke up thinking how good I feel after having lost some weight and working out regularly, so Mormonism wasn’t on my mind at all. On the way to work, I heard a report from NPR about the prosecution of members of Warren Jeffs’s polygamous clan for food stamp fraud. What I found interesting was that the news announcer specifically read out the Jeffs group’s name, Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and then went on to explain that this group was not related to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (she read out the full name here, as well), which she said was more commonly known as “the Mormon church.” I was briefly amused at the effort NPR was making to ensure listeners would not conflate the LDS church with its crazy stepchild, the FLDS church.

Then I got on with my day, until a friend pointed me to an article in the Deseret News (for those who may not know, the Deseret News is owned and operated by the LDS church and is usually a reliable indicator of the church’s public positions). The article in question, LDS Church signals ‘remarkable’ transparency with new book on ‘First Fifty Years of Relief Society,’ announces the publication of a new book about the origins of the church’s Relief Society, which is its organization for adult women (that’s giving it short shrift, but I would imagine most of my readers know what Relief Society is).

According to the article, the new book’s openness with complicated history is

refreshing to Melissa Inouye, a Latter-day Saint who is a lecturer at the University of Auckland and an associate editor of the Mormon Studies Review.

“In the first place, it shows that the LDS Church is willing to own its women’s history,” Inouye said. “This history as presented by the documents in the book is rich, complicated, inspirational and often troubling. To bring these documents out via the most mainstream channel of church historical discourse demonstrates Mormonism’s growing maturity as a religious movement. Every religion has a human history. We are becoming more comfortable with ours.”

It’s important to portray that history of humanity because of what it teaches us, said Jill Mulvay Derr, one of the book’s co-authors and a retired senior historian in the Church History Department.

“In this book we’re able to discuss the way that plural marriage was confidential at that moment [in] time and some of the confusion caused by that confidentiality. … The issues are very complex, and I think in this volume we’re able to address them, maybe not to everyone’s satisfaction, but at least in ways that are transparent and that show you the humanity of these people and the way they understood things differently.”

That has changed the way Derr, also a Mormon, sees her own faith.

“We just see the rich nuances here of human beings interacting, and I think for me that’s been the most instructive things in terms of my expectation for what my church experience will be. I see it will be full of human relationships and ups and downs and people who occasionally offend and ways to reconcile and to move on. That is our history.”

Before I read the article, I was curious as to how the book would treat the suspension of Relief Society in 1844, a subject I have written about before. Fortunately, the article answered my question:

One of the lesser known stories, published before but in stark contrast in the new book, is the schism that developed between Emma Smith, Joseph Smith’s widow, and Brigham Young, who as president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles became the church’s leader after Smith was shot to death in June 1844.

Emma was known as an “Elect Lady” and the first president of the Relief Society. As she sought to look after her family’s welfare and supported others who opposed the Quorum of the Twelve and wanted to assume church leadership, President Young worked to stabilize the church.

The book’s four co-editors wrote that, “President Young believed that Emma Smith’s efforts to thwart the practice of plural marriage” — including the use of Relief Society meetings as a forum for her objections — “contributed to the furor against Joseph and Hyrum Smith and helped lead to their deaths.”

“What are relief societies for?” President Young said in March 1845, nine months after Joseph and Hyrum were killed. “To relieve us of our best men. They relieved us of Joseph and Hyrum.”

“Brigham feels under siege,” Grow said. “He’s grieving. Emma Smith is also grieving, and they said hard things about each other in that grief. Brigham and other church leaders decide that safety for the church will necessitate a move somewhere in the West. As part of that they make a number of changes in church activities, including suspending the Relief Society. They suspend missionary work for a time. We have to see it in that context, that other things are being suspended, closed in at the same period of time so that there can be this focus on moving to the West.”

Let me see if I can unpack this a little. According to the authors, the timeline goes something like this:

  1. Joseph Smith is killed in June 1844.
  2. Brigham Young, as president of the Quorum of the Twelve apostles, becomes “the church’s leader.”
  3. Brigham believes that Emma’s public opposition to plural marriage–and “use of Relief Society meetings as a forum for her objections ‘contributed to the furor against Joseph and Hyrum Smith and helped lead to their deaths.'”
  4. The widowed Emma works hard to “look after her family’s welfare” and does not support the leadership of Brigham Young and the Twelve.
  5. By March 1845 Brigham already has negative feelings about the Relief Society organization.
  6. “Brigham and other church leaders decide that safety for the church will necessitate a move somewhere in the West.”
  7. “As part of [preparations for the move West] they make a number of changes in church activities, including suspending the Relief Society. They suspend missionary work for a time. We have to see it in that context, that other things are being suspended, closed in at the same period of time so that there can be this focus on moving to the West.”

To summarize, the article–and apparently, the book’s authors–want us to believe that the suspension took place after the deaths of Joseph and Hyrum Smith in a time of upheaval when a lot of the church’s activities, including missionary work, were temporarily suspended. Unfortunately, this is not what actually happened. The crucial fact that is omitted is that it wasn’t Brigham Young who suspended the Relief Society. As the article notes, Emma was vehemently opposed to the practice of plural marriage, and she began to use the Relief Society organization to publicly denounce the practice.

At the risk of making this post way too long, I’ll just repost here what I wrote before:

In early 1844, a few months before the murder of Joseph and Hyrum Smith, the Relief Society, organized two years earlier and headed by the prophet’s wife, Emma Smith, suspended its operations. The society would not meet again for more than twenty years.

In the weeks before the suspension, a man named Orsimus F. Bostwick had circulated rumors about Hyrum Smith’s practice of polygamy. At Joseph Smith’s instruction. W. W. Phelps wrote a refutation of the rumors entitled “A Voice of Innocence from Nauvoo,” which Emma presented to the Relief Society on March 9, 1844.

She explained that the women had met to lend their collective voice to a proclamation that countered Orsimus Bostwick’s slander of Hyrum Smith. Emma read the “Voice of Innocence from Nauvoo” aloud to the group. … Emma received a unanimous positive vote from the women, who were willing to “receive the principles of Virtue, keep the commandments of God, and uphold the Prest. in putting down iniquity.” With a remark that may have seemed pointed toward Elizabeth Whitney and Vilate Kimball, whose young daughters had married Joseph, Emma told the women, “It is high time for Mothers to watch over their daughters and exhort them to keep the path of virtue” (Newell and Avery, Mormon Enigma, p 173).

She then read the First Presidency’s original letter to the Relief Society on its founding in 1842:

We therefore warn you, and forwarn you … we do not want anyone to believe anything as coming from us contrary to the old established morals & virtues, & scriptural laws. … All persons pretending to be authorized by us … are and will be liars and base imposters & you are authorized … to denounce them as such … whether they are prophets, Seers, or revelators, patriarchs, twelve apostles … you are alike culpable & shall be damned for such evil practices” (Ibid., 173-174).

In a later session that afternoon, Emma emphasized that the church had publicly declared itself opposed to plural marriage in the Doctrine and Covenants and reiterated that the Relief Society’s original charge was to root out iniquity.

[Emma] then presented both the “Voice of Innocence” and the presidency’s letter, stating that the two documents contained the principles the society had started upon, but she “was sorry to have to say that all had not adhere’d to them.” Referring to Joseph’s original charge to search out iniquity, Emma reminded the women that she was the president of the society by the authority of Joseph. The minutes record, “If there ever was any Authority on earth [to search out iniquity] she had it–and had [it] yet.” Emma urged the women to follow the teachings of Joseph Smith as he taught them “from the stand,” implying that his private teachings should be disregarded. Reminding them that “there could not be stronger language than that just read,” she emphasized that those were Joseph’s words” (Ibid., 174).

The Relief Society would not meet again. “When Emma had the women take a public oath with their hands raised in support of virtue, she caused enough consternation in the men’s councils to stop the Relief Society meetings” (Ibid., 174). Church president John Taylor explained that the “reason why the Relief Society did not continue from the first organization was that Emma Smith the Pres. taught the Sisters that the principle of Celestial Marriage as taught and practiced by Joseph Smith was not of God” (174).

Yet the official history of the Relief Society states that the Relief Society’s meetings “were suspended in 1844 due to the various calamities which befell the saints” (174). At the Relief Society’s sesquicentennial. Sheri Dew wrote that “by 1844 Relief Society membership exceeded 1,300. But after the martyrdom, and with increasing persecution, Brigham Young decided to “defer” operations of the society, and it ceased to function” (Ensign, Mar. 1992, 51).

Here’s how the CES Manual “Church History in the Fulness of Times” describes it:

Although at that time Latter-day Saint women had to apply to become members, the Relief Society was very popular and grew rapidly. Membership had grown to over thirteen hundred women at the time of Joseph Smith’s death. Because of the crisis created by the Martyrdom and the exodus to and settlement in the West, there were few Relief Society meetings until the organization was revived in 1867.

Some apologists constantly ridicule critics and former members for stating that the church “covers up” embarrassing history. But this kind of rewriting of history is exactly that. The truth is uncomfortable, so it is swept under the rug, and church members are left to choose to believe Sheri Dew over John Taylor.

I wrote that post almost 7 years ago. To recap, the Relief Society was suspended in March 1844, 3 months before Joseph Smith’s death. At that point, there was no discussion of moving west and no obvious schism between Emma Smith and Brigham Young. The Relief Society was suspended because Joseph Smith was unhappy that Emma was using the meetings to “thwart the practice of plural marriage.” My guess is that Joseph understood that too much investigation would reveal the extent of his practice of polygamy, including the awkward fact that both of Emma’s counselors in the Relief Society presidency were intimately involved in polygamy, with Sarah Cleveland having married Joseph Smith and Elizabeth Whitney having given her daughter Sarah to Joseph as a wife.

Yet here it is 2016, and the church is still insisting that the suspension was Brigham Young’s doing and was a by-product of the move to the West.

So much for “remarkable transparency.”

Correction: The original version of this post listed Elizabeth Whitney as one of Joseph Smith’s plural wives, which is incorrect.

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12 Responses to Remarkable Transparency

  1. malkie says:

    Ahhh, Runtu, you’re missing something here!

    The “transparency” truly is “remarkable”.

    It’s just that the church leaders would rather that you not “remark” on the “transparency”.

  2. John Proctor says:

    I think what’s remarkable is how they try so hard to paint Emma as the bad guy. I mean, it’s not like Joseph Smith and Brigham Young used the “doctrine” of polygamy as a means to sleep around with the progressively younger girls in mormondom, right? Should fidelity be an expectation in marriage? Yes. Was Emma justifiably angry that Joseph was trying to use God to justify being unfaithful? Vehemently yes. Will the LDS church ever admit that Emma was justifiably tired of being cheated on? No. But what do I know, an Angel with a flaming sword made Joseph cheat on his wife… That sounds like something God would command.

    • David Macfarlane says:

      Yeah, that last part just boggles my mind. I wonder how many members have read the essay and managed to just skip over the angel with a flaming sword mention. To me, it blows the whole enterprise out of the water. Additionally, nowhere in the Bible does it say God commanded Abraham and others to practice polygamy. You have to read that into the text. And yet JS is still convincing people it’s an ancient practice required of God’s chosen people. And the church is still trying to paint Emma as the Yoko Ono of Mormonism.

  3. CAB says:

    There is no spin like sanctimonious spin.
    Brigham hated Emma long before Joseph’s death. The Church’s practice of painting her with a tarred brush began with him.

  4. Tom Doggett says:

    I think you are overstating the issue of the closing of the RS slightly with your dependence on Mormon Engima above other sources. Newell and Avery’s biography and history is still unequalled, to be sure, but on this issue they provide as many sources as they can but have to fill in the rest of the story through context.

    There are no original sources contemporary to March-June detailing anything of why another meeting never occurred. We have statements made long after the fact by leaders in Salt Lake City, but as far as I know nothing contemporary. To me, it seems that who you think made the final decision to not have another meeting shows more about how you view the politics of 1844 Nauvoo than it does about how the actual decision went down.

    There’s three options:

    1) Joseph shut it down as a result of Emma’s use of the organization to fight against the growing practice of polygamy. Occurring before the assassination in June, this narrative plays well into Joseph’s use and abuse of his power in Nauvoo. Also, it doesn’t require, as the other two routes do, for no further meetings to occur merely because of lack of access to space for such meetings.

    For the other two, these options usually assume that, following Emma’s statement that the RS would meet again when a large enough venue was found, the reason for no meetings between March and June is because of the logistics of finding a meeting place for the growing organization. Perhaps this difficulty was made worse through non-overt influence of male Church authorities.

    2) Brigham shut it down during his power plays after the assassination. Just as Brigham took over access to and assumed spiritual authority for the unfinished Temple and its rituals, so too did Brigham attempt to put down anything threatening to his authority. Knowing of Joseph’s frustrations with the Relief Society he forbade those who followed him from meeting again. We know that he _did_ forbid the Society from arising again for decades through explicit orders to not let the women assemble together until he reformed it in a fashion firmly under his control.

    3) Emma shut it down. To have it be Emma’s decision implies that she stopped the organization after her husband was killed due to stress and/or grief.

    All three options are unfounded and made without any direct evidence. If you ask me, I’d actually choose the third option, if only because we don’t see Relief Societies in the Reorganized traditions. Brigham’s animosity towards Emma and her use of the RS explains how the RS disappeared among the Brighamites until it was radically reinvented by him decades later. The lack of the RS among the Reorganized tradition seems to me to be very much the decision of an Emma Smith Bidamon who wanted to put all of Nauvoo behind her. It seems like she made a choice herself not to re-institute it or call for it to be reinstated, and to me that decision could easily be pushed back to 1844 after she lost her husband.

    I don’t see anything wrong with how the new book approaches the timeline, apart from their attempts to paint the loss of the Relief Society under Young’s direction as somehow relating to preparations for “crossing the plains”. That is bullshit, pure and simple. Young was afraid of the power Emma had held, hated Emma herself and anything associated with her, and would never be placed in the same position as Joseph of allowing dissent.

    • runtu says:

      I appreciate the comments. I’m not relying on “Mormon Enigma” alone. Here’s Maureen Ursenbach Beecher’s take on it:

      “The third season began auspiciously in the spring of 1844 with Emma Smith again taking the lead. Knowing the limits of space, she conducted the same meeting four times, at ten o’clock and one o’clock on March 9 and 16. There she delivered a double-talk indictment of plural marriage, a coded but unmistakable opposition to the practice which her husband was ever more widely promulgating. After those four sessions, as John Taylor later explained, “the meetings were discontinued” because “Emma Smith the Pres[ident] taught the sisters that the principle of plural marriage … was not of God.”12 Eliza R. Snow left the situation ambiguous by acknowledging to a Relief Society in 1868 that “Emma Smith … the Presidentess … gave it [Relief Society] up so as not to lead the society in Erro[r].” (The “Leading Sisters”: A Female Hierarchy in Nineteenth-century Mormon Society, in New Mormon History, ed. Michael Quinn, p. 160.)

      And this is from the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, which I worked on at the Church Office Building, so I know it was vetted and approved by the church: “Beset with differences between its president and Church leaders-differences related to the introduction of plural marriage-the society ceased to function formally after the meetings of March 1844.”

      You mention the possibility of there not being a large enough venue, but apparently that problem had been resolved by a decision made the year before. From the minutes of the Relief Society for 7 July 1843:

      “In consequence of having no room sufficiently commodious for the whole Society, it was recommended by the President that the Society be divided for the purpose of meeting, according to the 4 City Wards, and meet by rotation, one Ward at a time, that all might have equal privileges: Accordingly notice was given at the Grove on sunday the 2d of July that the members residing in the first City Ward, would convene at the room occupied as a Masonic Hall, on the friday following, at 2. o,clock.”

      I am assuming you are aware that the Relief Society usually met during warmer weather months, so the first “season” was from March to September 1842. The 1843 season didn’t begin until June 1843, and most sources suggest the delay was caused by Emma’s health problems through the winter and spring of that year. That the 1844 season began with 4 meetings on the 9th and 16th of March suggests that Emma was planning a full season of Relief Society. But the meetings stopped abruptly after that first week after Emma had denounced polygamy and announced plans to investigate and root out all such immoral practices in Nauvoo. Coincidence? It’s certainly possible, but John Taylor’s statement suggests the reason for the shut down.

      In the end, however, my disagreement with the timeline given in the DesNews is that it doesn’t line up with the cessation of the meetings. Even Jill Mulvay Derr, one of the authors of the new book, accepts elsewhere that the Relief Society ceased as an organization in March 1844: “The Nauvoo society held its last recorded meeting on March 16, 1844, apparently unable to maintain unity of purpose during the factious events preceding the June 1844 martyrdom of Joseph Smith” (Derr, Jill Mulvay and Janath R. Cannon, “Relief Society,” Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 1992). You state, “To have it be Emma’s decision implies that she stopped the organization after her husband was killed due to stress and/or grief.” Again, that just doesn’t line up with the actual dates. Derr has it “preceding” Joseph’s death, but you have it “after.” I guess it’s my choice to accept the scholarly consensus here; apparently most historians agree with my view of Nauvoo politics in 1844.

      In short, I used “Mormon Enigma,” but I could have chosen any number of sources that agree with with Newell and Avery, which I have noted here.

  5. jiminpanama says:

    I was telling a friend a while back that the transparency is so close, and then right at the money shot they bail out and turn off the course. Do you know if the transparency is also being offered in Spanish? Nobody here knows anything about it. Glad you’re back for another round. Que tenga buen noche.

  6. […] reader suggested yesterday that in my previous post, Remarkable Transparency, I was overly reliant on a single source for my assertion that the Relief Society was suspended in […]

  7. BHodges says:

    Hi, runtu. I came across your post because someone linked to it at BCC. I just finished reading all of the intro matter and some of the documents in the new RS documents book. It seems to me you misunderstand the position laid out in the book. Take for example your claim that Sheri Dew was wrong to state “after the martyrdom, and with increasing persecution, Brigham Young decided to “defer” operations of the society, and it ceased to function” (Ensign, Mar. 1992, 51).

    The volume editors include transcripts from two meetings Brigham Young held, one with high priests, the other with seventies, in which he openly (and brashly!) puts a definitive halt to RS gatherings.

    ///”Reli[e]f society—going to meet again—I say I will curse every man that lets his wife or daughters meet again—until I tell them[…].”///

    These notes appeared on the page before this summary of the remarks: “He made a few remarks in relation to the revival of the Female Relief Society, and disapprobated it.”

    Claims that BY suspended, deferred, the RS are accurate if he’s to be believed on account of this report. What’s interesting is in his remarks later that day to the seventies he claims:

    ///”When I want Sisters or the Wives of the members of this church to get up Relief Society I will summon them to my aid but until that time let them stay at home & if you Females huddling together veto the concern and if they say Joseph started it tell them it is a damned lie for I know he never encouraged it but I know where the Chit was laid [a shoot or sprout, first germination of a seed]…”///

    Again we don’t see BY claiming that the RS is done for good. We also see him making the strange claim that JS did not “start it.” This can be interpreted in two ways. On the one hand, one could argue that BY was referring to JS not starting up the RS again after evidently disbanding it. Where is a contemporaneous claim that JS disbanded the RS, or even wanted it disbanded rather than simply expressing frustration with it? On the other hand, BY can be understood as saying JS didn’t start the RS. Barely technically true, since he didn’t initiate it, but there’s no question JS approved of the society and helped shape it.

    As you note in the comments, evidently, it was customary to initiate RS meetings in the spring, work through summer and fall, suspend things through the winter, and meet again in the spring. (See p. 168 of the new RS documents book.) The last recorded RS meeting occurred on March 16, 1844. This is when Emma undertook her most express opposition to polygamy. The intro in the new docs book is very clear about this. It notes that Joseph Smith seemed to blame the “Voice of Innocence” document as promulgated within the RS for public outcry which we know culminated in his assassination. So at the least, while the editors here don’t claim JS himself disbanded the RS, they note his negative remarks about it. They are clear that polygamy was a precipitating factor in JS’s death. This is how they attempt to fill in the gaps:

    “The tensions surrounding plural marriage seem to have led some church leaders to lose confidence in the Relief Society sometime in the spring or summer of 1844. Neither the minutes nor other sources document additional Relief Society meetings during 1844, and by spring 1845 the society was defunct.54 In the aftermath of Joseph Smith’s death, the majority of Saints in Nauvoo voted in August 1844 to sustain the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles as the governing council of the church. In March 1845, when women may have anticipated beginning another season of Relief Society meetings, Brigham Young, president of the Quorum of the Twelve, announced his decision to ‘stay’ Relief Society proceedings (Document 1.13), and subsequently ‘the labors of the Society ceased'” (14-15).

    While the editors note the tumult in Nauvoo and the preparations for the trek as the context in which the RS was suspended, they don’t attribute its suspension directly to these factors, which is completely reasonable. The editors also note that in 1880 (date in text, not footnote so as to highlight the late reminiscence) John Taylor blamed disturbances created by Emma over plural marriage for the RS’s suspension, but they do so not to simply agree with Taylor but to make a specific point:

    ///Even though a direct relationship between Relief Society activities and the fomentation of the dissidents cannot be further documented, a tenuous connection seems to have lingered in the public mind.///

    This is when they quote Eliza Snow and John Taylor to give evidence of this suspicion—not necessarily to agree with either of them, but to point out how Mormons interpreted events at the time even though, as they lay out in the intro matter, things were actually more complicated.

    I think it’s an uncharitable stretch to claim the story as presented in the Deseret News article (based on the new documents book) represents some sort of cover-up. Earlier church materials that fail to mention polygamy in the narrative of the RS’s suspension are obviously taking protective liberties with the history, but this new book isn’t a continuation of that. The DesNews article as I read it isn’t trying to establish a set timeline or to define what it would mean to “suspend” the RS—which seems to be your main complaint, that it gets the timing of the suspension wrong. Would we date the suspension from the time of the last recorded meeting, or from the pronouncement of the leader stating there would be no more RS meetings until further notice? Given the tumult in Nauvoo and Emma’s firm opposition to polygamy, and the fact that she was presider over the RS, then the martyrdom and the ensuing fear and chaos, it’s reasonable to assume there were multiple factors why the RS didn’t finish out the season. Then when it came time to start it back up, as was tradition, BY put the kibosh on it. And he apparently didn’t say “because JS said so.” In fact he seems to have denied JS’s involvement with its establishment.

    In short: based on the available records I think reasonable people can say the RS was suspended either in 1844 or 1845. I think the editors of a documentary record book would need more definitive proof than it seems they have in order to be more specific than they were. Documents can only take any writer so far. I see these authors/editors making judicious use of the documents, laying out the textual evidence in a way that both supports their claims and allows readers to formulate their own conclusions (as you suggest people should). In other words, they’re doing solid professional documentary editing work here. DesNews coverage can be expected to present a simplified overview.

    • runtu says:

      Hi, Blair,

      I think it’s an uncharitable stretch to say that I’m suggesting there’s some kind of cover-up. Maybe we’re both reading the other position as harder than it is. I’m just saying that the DesNews seems to be putting a slight spin on things, and I don’t think the evidence warrants that. If that makes me uncharitable, I can live with that.

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