More young people are leaving the Church. I’m not sure anyone knows the exact number, but it’s safe to say that most people know someone under the age of 40 who has left in the last year. There’s a common theme for those leaving—Concerns over the Church’s “truth claims.” In large part, these concerns begin with or are made worse by what the Church teaches about Joseph Smith and polygamy.
The Church’s claims about their founding prophet are incompatible. On one hand, “Joseph Smith, the Prophet and Seer of the Lord, has done more, save Jesus only, for the salvation of men in this world, than any other man that ever lived in it.”
On the other hand, he was secretly practicing polygamy, which included having sex with other women, some as young as age 14, some of which were married to other men, ALL while simultaneously openly teaching that polygamy is an abomination and while excommunicating others for doing the same.
This flagrant contradiction makes it very hard for an honest and moral person to believe Joseph was worthy to do God’s work and to be His servant.
After all, the scriptures teach that adultery is wrong; that polygamy is wrong, that pedophilia is wrong; that orgies and whoredoms are wrong. These are all things, ironically, the Church today teaches as wrong and unlawful. Our youth today are taught to not even watch rated R movies or to wear immodest clothing, but somehow whoredoms were commanded by God for almost 100 years in the Church. It’s a hard idea for most to reconcile. (If you think whoredoms is too strong of a word, then I would cite you to Jacob chapter 2.)
No wonder, based on the Church’s claim that polygamy was started by Joseph Smith, so many conclude the Church simply cannot be true and that he cannot be a true prophet.
Consider how you might feel today about Warren Jeffs and his followers. Many of us will conclude by their fruits that he is not a true prophet and that his people are deceived. If we who are active LDS feel so biased against today’s polygamists, then how can we expect that some of our own will not come to the same conclusions about our polygamous history? Do you feel inclined for example, to read Warren Jeff’s revelations he’s getting in prison? Why not? “Because his fruits are evil. He’s a pedophile. He’s a womanizer. So why even insult God by considering his teachings…” Right?
Hence the Church’s great dilemma. This is how many of our youth are now seeing this issue of the Church’s claim that Joseph started and practiced polygamy. And why wouldn’t they? After all, can good fruit come from a bad seed or from a completely immoral and unworthy man?
But was Joseph really practicing polygamy?
I know for some that sounds like a silly question because the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and many other historians have been so “clear” on this subject. Why would the Church say Joseph Smith did practice polygamy if he in fact didn’t? Why be dishonest about something so unflattering? These are good questions, but let’s start with the obvious:
If Joseph did not practice Polygamy as did Brigham his successor, then the LDS Church’s claim of being “true” and of having the Keys, is seriously undermined.
It’s a curious idea—If the Church had evidence that showed Joseph never actually practiced polygamy and was always faithful to Emma and cleaved to none other, what would become of the Church?
I posed this question to a young man who left the Church recently who had just read the CES Letter. His initial response was: “The Church and its leaders would be so relieved!” I gave him an inquisitive look. Being a very smart young man he corrected his response to: “The Church would be ruined.” That’s exactly right sadly. Why would it be ruined? Because where a jury may not be able to convict Joseph of polygamy on evidence, it clearly can convict all the Church leaders after him up to 1945. And if polygamy was wrongly practiced after Joseph’s death, then today’s LDS Church has a much harder argument proving it was worthy to procure or keep the all important Keys it claims to have from Joseph.
Let’s pause at 1945 for a moment. As a missionary I was instructed to tell people that polygamy was outlawed in 1890 and Mormons stopped practicing it abruptly, then. This is one of the Church’s “truth claims.” But is it completely accurate? I won’t turn you to the many troubling stories of what happened after the Manifesto in 1890, but anyone who has delved even a little will find that Mormons were winking and nodding for many years thereafter. Members and leaders alike were going to Mexico to be married to plural wives. One elderly prophet engaged in a plural marriage to a woman several decades younger than himself off the West coast, on a boat (international waters), many years after 1890. And then there’s President Heber J. Grant, the last polygamist prophet of the Church who died in 1945. He had been married to 3 women at the same time, but all of them died before he became the leader of the Church. So technically, the last prophet of the Church who actually believed in and taught AND practiced polygamy died when my dad was 2 years old.
When a young missionary or young Mormon person is led to believe that polygamy came to a hard stop without resistance because it was made illegal in 1890 and because President Woodruff had a revelation, and because “we believe in honoring the laws of the land,” they are often confused when they find that technically a man who was prophet of the Church until 1945 was an avowed polygamist and that many so-called law abiding Church leaders before him were disobeying the laws of the land that they swore to honor.
The other truth claim aforementioned is that polygamy only ended because a prophet received a revelation or had a vision. This truth claim is also troubling to many honest thinkers. On one hand we have Brigham Young who prophesied that Polygamy was the only way for a man to enter the Celestial Kingdom and unequivocally stated that if the Church ever abandoned the practice, it would lose its Priesthood and be destroyed as a Church. On the other hand, we have Wilford Woodruff receiving a “revelation” contradicting Brigham’s teachings and prophesies. Which is it? Again, an honest person recognizes the dilemma. And then we add to the dilemma of prophets contradicting one another, the historical facts that strongly point to Mormons being forced by governmental pressure to abandon polygamy all the way down to the Manifesto being written by a non-LDS lawyer and the requirement that his words (the Manifesto) be added to the Doctrine and Covenants so that Church members would be more inclined to take it seriously. Do you not find it strange that such an important revelation is only a footnote in the back of the D&C rather than its own section? Same for blacks and the Priesthood?
So here’s the second question I posed to my young friend who just left the Church: “What if Joseph Smith never practiced polygamy and never had sex with anyone but Emma and was telling the truth about the abomination of polygamy? Would that change how you feel about the other concerns you have?” His response was predictable. “That’s impossible. History proves Joseph was a polygamist. It’s not even a question.” So I asked a follow up question. “But, where does this most of this ‘unquestioned history’ come from?” The answer of course is that it largely comes from the Church itself. I continued, “Did you know that not only did Emma not believe Joseph was ever a polygamist and gave that testimony until her death, but neither did Joseph’s mother or Joseph’s children believe it? In fact, none of the believers of the future RLDS Church seemed to believe that Joseph was a polygamist nor did they believe polygamy was a revelation from God.”
As members of this Church we are generally unaware of the great schisms that existed upon the death of Joseph and Hyrum. Brighamites, Josephites, Strangites, Cochranites, Rigdonites, etc. This hints at another truth claim regarding succession that we won’t go into completely now, but that is often troubling for those hearing it for the first time. Many have no idea that Brigham Young was never ordained by the 12 (or anyone) for example, and was not unanimously sustained by them either. Nor do many know that the Church was 3-1/2 years without a President. Or that Brigham campaigned on the promise that he’d never be the prophet and would only act as the Church’s custodian until Joseph III was old enough to be the Church’s rightful leader. Or that Brigham all but abolished the Relief Society during this time, because he saw Emma and her organization as a threat. He actually blamed the Relief Society for the deaths of Joseph and Hyrum, in part because she was advocating for monogamy and morality. Or that Brigham’s first thought by his own words upon hearing that Joseph was gone was “We’ve lost the keys…” The succession crisis was just that– a succession crisis– but the Church does not offer a lot of transparency on this topic thus causing some honest and often young minds to see the Church as dishonest about its history.
This crisis led to the formation of several new branches of Mormonism. Emma, Lucy and much of the Joseph Smith family refused to follow Brigham. Emma confronted Brigham on the topic of polygamy and reaffirmed that Joseph had told Brigham in her presence that it was not of God. To say that Brigham and Emma did not like each other would be an understatement. What divided them? Polygamy among other things.
In fact, an argument could be made that Joseph lost his life because of the charges of polygamy being leveled against him and subsequently the Church split into fragments largely based on the differing beliefs surrounding polygamy.
And yet, as I mentioned earlier, Joseph cannot be convicted of polygamy. Consider the following facts and ideas:
- There is zero DNA that links any child or descendant to Joseph Smith.
- This despite the teaching that the Lord commands polygamy (see Jacob 2 and case of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) in order to raise up seed.
- There is nothing but hearsay evidence, often decades later from less credible, uncorroborated sources. If you don’t think people won’t lie for what they think is for the greater good then I cite you to the recent Justice Kavanaugh hearings where at least one woman literally lied about events that never took place. Perjury in order to advance a narrative and agenda. Lawyers and a propaganda machine funded her and stood by her side because they needed her story to be true. Why would it have been any different in Brigham’s day? Their religion, their society, and their very way of life were dependent upon being able to pin polygamy to Joseph, the founder of their religion.
- There is no eye witness that caught Joseph in the act of being unfaithful. No bath house, group massage, group-anything experience. No hotel owner or inn keeper. No setting in which Joseph is seen with a woman in a sexual or unfaithful situation. Never seen walking down the streets of Nauvoo with some other woman inappropriately or in some back alley. All this while male secretaries are following him and recording his history.
- Even Joseph’s own wife is positive Joseph was not a polygamist. Why would she lie? Especially if she wasn’t going to be a part of Brigham’s group? In her mind she was going East and would likely never see Brigham and the LDS Church again.
- Why would Emma as the Church’s most prominent female leader, edit and publish the Voices of Innocence, a publication bashing polygamy, adultery, and fornication, and have that document sustained by 8,000 members of the Church in 1844—a document Joseph wrote?
- Why would Joseph be tried in Far West by the Stake for “the girl business” in 1838 only to be exonerated by that Council? If he was guilty and there were witnesses, then why was he not convicted?
- Why was section 132, which is the Church’s only document from Joseph on polygamy, not published in the D&C until 1852, years after Joseph’s death? Why is it not all in Joseph’s handwriting? Why did the Church edit it? Add to it? Subtract from it?
- When in the history of the world has the Lord commanded an entire people to practice polygamy? (See Brigham Young’s teachings) Will Nephi not be exalted because he was not practicing polygamy? Paul? Peter? Isaiah? Others?
- If polygamy was intended to be the Church’s new law and was the only way into the Highest heavens, then why would Joseph receive section 49 that teaches a man must have only one wife?
- Why would Joseph point to the former D&C section 101 that teaches against fornication and polygamy when defending himself against John C. Bennet? For that matter why did Brigham Young remove section 101?
- Did the LDS Church have pure motives in the Temple Lot case when it provided affidavits against Joseph as a polygamist in order to try to prevent the RLDS Church from getting the Independence Temple Lot?
- Why doesn’t the Church release the William Clayton diaries? Or other records that might shed light on the subject? If the William Clayton diaries convict Joseph, that would only help the Church’s narrative.
Interestingly, Joseph’s own grandson Israel Smith says the following on the subject:
“Joseph Smith was the greatest victim of fraud and conspiracy of the last 500 years. Nothing like it in recorded history. He was simply lied about when something had to be done to justify … Utah Mormon polygamy.”
Is it possible that Joseph was in fact a victim of fraud and conspiracy? Is it possible he was telling the truth the whole time? Was there motive from the polygamist Cochranites and those they persuaded that spiritual wifery was of God, to push this system on Joseph and on the Church? Are there holes in the testimonies of those who followed Brigham? Can we really trust the witnesses of women who were supposedly once married to Joseph but then who subsequently became Brigham’s wives? Would they not have an agenda to pin polygamy on Joseph? For the “greater good” and to preserve their way of life?
If Joseph is exonerated of being a dishonest and immoral man, then the Church sadly has the most to lose. If Brigham was an adulterer and polygamy was an abomination, and Joseph was doing neither, it’s hard to argue that Keys can be transferred upon such principles of unrighteousness. But, if Joseph is exonerated, it’s also far more likely that people will not be so quick to throw away the Book of Mormon, the teachings of Joseph Smith, the D&C and Pearl of Great Price, and most importantly, the restoration itself.
Sadly, the LDS Church needs Joseph to be as guilty of polygamy as was Brigham and the Church needs to continue to push the teaching that polygamy came to Joseph as a revelation from God. If they lose that argument, they may just lose the Church. Yet, by holding onto it, they lose great people whose consciences no longer allow them to believe that an immoral man is one of God’s true messengers.
For those interested in reading more on this topic, I’d recommend strongly the following links, which provide far better research than what’s contained in this short blog post.