Andrea’s recent comment about the portrayal of Joseph Smith’s marriage relationship(s) in popular Mormon history and art prompted me to do this little study. What have LDS Church members learned from the media produced by the institutional Church about Joseph Smith’s polygamous marriages?
First, some theory.
The Exemplification of religion in the Media:
We have to be careful about assuming effects from the media because, with so many variables in play, media effects generally are not uniform nor strong. With that important caveat, empirical research in the field of mass communications on the theory of exemplification has demonstrated that the examples selected by storytellers (e.g., news reporters) do have an effect on people’s perceptions of the world—whether historical or current. This theory helps to explain why, after the passage of time, people tend to remember concrete examples rather than abstract assertions or numerical data.
Theorists have concluded from empirical evidence that the following process occurs in the brain: people use given examples to make intuitive leaps to a whole picture in their minds. In other words, “knowledge” of how the world works tends to be based on isolated, often-atypical evidence that is imprinted visually in the brain.
I would argue that this theory also has implications for religious education. Not only do religion teachers often carry the weight of propounding authoritative Truth, they also often rely on exemplification as a teaching method. That is, the use of examples (verbal and visual) to convey a larger concept is arguably an intuitive storytelling and/or educational strategy. Zillmann (1999) has explained the concept of exemplification:
“Everybody is familiar with examples. Everybody has been given examples, and everybody has related examples to others, in efforts to elucidate a broader concept or issue. Everybody, therefore, has some tacit understanding of a relationship between an example and a larger entity to be exemplified by it. Implied is that more than one example exists” (p. 72).
So what have LDS Church members learned from the media produced by the institutional Church about Joseph Smith’s polygamous marriages? You can see immediately how complex the teaching process is in such a geographically diverse church because there are so many intermediaries that stand between LDS Church curricula and the gospel knowledge of the membership, not to mention competing messages that come from all corners of life, with the opinions of family members, friends, and trusted mentors carrying special weight. Finally, church members, like all people, are not simply automatons that can be told what to believe or do. My belief is that at some point, whether sooner or later, maturity demands independent thought and accountability.
All of those caveats aside—What if religious education were to occur in a vacuum, without any intermediaries or outside influences standing between the person who produced the magazine article, for instance, and the church member? In such a hypothetical situation, what would the church member likely learn or retain about Joseph Smith’s polygamy? It is likely that, with the passage of time, this hypothetical church member would recall the specific examples provided of Smith’s marriage relationship(s) and from them make intuitive leaps about Joseph Smith’s character as a husband and as founder of the Church. He or she likely would not recall—at least not as easily—the teacher’s or writer’s assertions or commentaries about the meaning of or “correct” interpretation of these examples.
So I conducted a cursory, non-scientific exploration of this question on lds.org. I entered “Joseph and Emma” and also “Joseph Smith polygamy” into the “Search Church Sites” field on the lds.org home page. I limited my content analysis to the first 20 results under “Top Results” for each search, for a total of 40 articles.
Findings on the Exemplification of Joseph Smith’s marital relationships:
Church magazines and lesson manuals contrasted significantly with the Church web sites:
- Church magazines and lesson manuals most often provided examples of Joseph and Emma’s relationship (14 out of the 20 search results for “Joseph and Emma” linked to Church magazine articles or to lessons from Church manuals; the other 6 results linked to Church Web sites, including the Joseph Smith Papers Project Web site and finding aids for lesson and talk preparation).
- LDS Church Web sites most often referenced Joseph Smith’s polygamous marriages (18 out of the 20 search results for “Joseph Smith polygamy” linked to Church Web sites, specifically to the new Gospel Topics Essays, the Joseph Smith Papers Project Web site, Mormon.org, and the Newsroom for the LDS Church. Only 2 of these 20 search results linked to Church magazine articles or lesson manuals).
The above finding is perhaps the most significant one because it illustrates the fact that Joseph and Emma’s marriage relationship has been incorporated into church curricula, whereas Joseph Smith’s polygamous marriages have not been.
In addition to counting the kinds of LDS Church sources available on Joseph and Emma’s relationship and on Joseph Smith’s polygamy, I also counted examples of each within the articles and Web sites that showed up in the search results.
The most common examples of Joseph Smith’s marriage relationships found in the search results for “Joseph and Emma” were that:
- Joseph and Emma were young newlyweds during the “Susquehanna Years;” Emma gave birth to several children, the first of whom died (14 examples);
- Joseph relied on Emma’s help in the founding of the Church: to acquire and translate the gold plates, to create a hymnbook, and to care for the sick among the Saints (14 examples);
- Joseph and Emma wrote love letters back and forth to each other (9 examples);
- LDS artists have painted domestic scenes of Joseph and/or Emma with one of their newborn children or with their older children (at least 4 examples; as PDFs of past magazines and manuals are not currently available, I was only able to count the images included on the Web site versions of the magazine articles and lesson manuals) (See Liz Lemon Swindle, “A Father’s Gift,” “But For a Small Moment”; Joseph Brickey, “Family Visit to Liberty Jail”).
- This Ensign article provides good visual examples of my findings.
The most common examples of Joseph Smith’s marriage relationships found in the search results for “Joseph Smith polygamy” were that:
- Joseph Smith received the revelation on celestial marriage that became Doctrine & Covenants 132, with a link to the passage or a quote of it (6 times);
- Wilford Woodruff ended plural marriage with the “Manifesto” that became Official Declaration 1, with a link to the passage or a quote of it (10 times);
- Joseph Smith’s establishment of plural marriage was in line with God’s standard as found in the Book of Mormon, with a link to the scriptural passage (9 times).
- Joseph Smith married plural wives in Kirtland and Nauvoo. I found 7 names of, and/or accounts of, known plural wives of Joseph Smith (although most of these women’s names/accounts were found only on the Joseph Smith Papers Project Web site and not in the Gospel Topics essays; and for the accounts on the Joseph Smith Papers Project Web site, I had to read through lengthy introductions to the documents. Because their names are provided in the Gospel Topics essays, Joseph Smith’s marriages to Fanny Alger and then to Helen Mar Kimball are probably the most prominent examples of his practices of polygamy, notable for being the first, and the youngest, respectively, of his wives).
The last bulleted point has reference to the recent historical work being made available on Church Web
sites–work done by Church historians on the Joseph Smith Papers Project, and on the new Gospel Topics essays. The first points come largely from Mormon.org, the Church’s Newsroom, and LDS lesson manuals. The difference in the historical specificity is striking.
I conclude from this cursory exploration that the LDS Church is making great strides to correct the imbalanced historical picture of Joseph Smith’s domestic relationships. The facts of Joseph Smith’s plural marriages do not transform his love letters to Emma into fabrications. One can (simplistically?) question his sincerity but not the historical reality of the letters. Further, the correspondence between Joseph and Emma still has pride of place on the church member’s bookshelf. Ultimately, the concern raised by Joseph Smith’s practice of polygamy is not about sex so much as the abuse of power. The Gospel Topics essays go farther with providing details and examples of Joseph Smith’s polygamy than have any of the other recent, general statements acknowledging it on the Church Web sites. Still, these recent Gospel Topics essays on polygamy contain few concrete examples that would be easy for readers to picture and remember. Rather, these recent essays emphasize the historical events that argue for polygamy’s divine origins and divine discontinuance—the prophetic writing of Jacob 2 in the Book of Mormon, of Doctrine & Covenants 132, of the Manifesto–and interpret the examples provided of his plural marriages in this light. Church members still have to dig for primary accounts of how Joseph Smith approached and proposed marriage to women in Nauvoo, and of how the women reacted to these invitations. I would argue that the LDS Church’s interpretation is appropriate, given that all historians interpret and synthesize primary source material. It offers one possible interpretation among many, and the Church has the right to join the conversation. Observers have the right to dismiss the faithful interpretation, as they always have. Further, people are welcome to take the time to sift through primary source material on their own (the material available on the Joseph Smith Papers Web site truly is phenomenal). At the same time, only when the accounts of Helen Mar Kimball, Marinda Hyde, and Sarah Pratt, for instance, are as well-known as stories from Joseph’s and Emma’s Susquehanna Years will church members have a more complete—though, alas!, because of the fragmentary nature of historical evidence, the difficulty of appraising its accuracy, and the unobtrusive way our brains fill in lacunae, still incomplete–picture.
When it comes to the fear of prompting faith crises by more broadly publishing this historical information, I agree with a statement made by Kathleen Flake at a Q&A following her April 2014 Tanner lecture at the University of Utah. She said that a personal conviction of the truthfulness of Mormonism does not come from scholarly, factual, or historical information. Ultimately, LDS Church leaders know this, and it is the reason why they are struggling with the Church’s role in relation to the proliferation of historical information on the Internet.
Zillmann, D. (1999), “Exemplification theory: Judging the whole by some of its parts,” Media Psychology, 1, 69-94.