When Did You First Hear about Joseph Smith’s Polygamy (And Other Difficult Issues)?

By November 11, 2014

I first read about JS’s polygamy in sixth grade when I read the World Book Encyclopedia entry on JS, which said he had like 30 wives.  That seemed novel to me, though since I had heard about the church practicing polygamy I had some context.  What was even more novel, I remember, was that that entry was the first time I had ever read anything on JS that wasn’t devotional.  The article wasn’t particularly negative as I recall, but I remember the distinct realization that there was another way of looking at the church’s history than what I was taught in church.  And I wasn’t really sure what to make of that.  And I didn’t discuss it with my parents or anybody else since it seemed a little awkward and at that age I sort of wanted to avoid awkward discussions with my parents.  But it left the distinct impression that there may be some unsettling issues in church history, that there were a number of viewpoints on those issues, and that I didn’t have all the answers.  As I look back, I actually think that realization served me well.

I’ve heard lots of people say that that were totally unaware of JS’s polygamy well into their adulthood and that the realization on this or other troubling issues came as a shock.  This is understandable.  The feeling often expressed is “I went to church every Sunday, attended seminary and BYU, served a mission, why didn’t I ever hear about this?” which is a legitimate question.  Such people speak of feeling lied to and betrayed.

This was not my experience, not because of the encyclopedia entry, but because I had a father who was informed on many of these issue and who was aware of nuance in church history and because of the negative way some of my older siblings would speak of seminary (I’m the fifth of sixth).  Many had bad experiences (we’re a little snarky) so that when I got to seminary I wasn’t too shocked when I had seminary teachers that didn’t seem very knowledgeable (I know these teachers vary and I don’t mean disparage, but I had a few that seemed to lack in their content knowledge).  This experience with seminary made it so that I never felt like my seminary teachers had lied or withheld information from me; many of these guys didn’t seem to have much information.  So for me as a history buff, I felt that the people who had the information weren’t seminary teachers, or even the church leaders, so much as the historians.  I think that attitude served me well also.

Going on a mission to Dallas was certainly a crash course in different points of view and some missionaries like to collect anti-Mormon stuff, and we all relished laughing at the hokier material.  But I also came to realize that not all of it was hokey; some of it was legitimate and potentially troubling.  It wasn’t that I was particularly perplexed by this realization, but that it reiterated my take aways that I had reading the encyclopedia in sixth grade: there was some tricky information, there were different points of view, and I didn’t have all the answers.

So as I became a Mormon historian, I approached what I was learning in this way; that is, my approach was one of trying to be curious to discover more rather than being defensive.  And the Mormon historians, most of whom were believing members, were very helpful.  I think that approach helped as I wrote my dissertation that covered most of the “difficult” issues that related to Joseph Smith: treasure digging, magic, Book of Mormon sources, similar ideas in JS’s environment, Book of Abraham, polygamy, the endowment and Masonry, and so forth.  That is, it is my hope to be a helpful Mormon historian myself for those looking for information and context.

Furthermore, I’m encouraged that the church is making a valiant effort to tackle and explain these difficult issues so that we can minimize people having shocking encounters with this information in the future.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


Comments

  1. Thanks, Steve. I think your point that your attitude is/was one of curiosity rather than defensiveness is key, here.

    Comment by Saskia — November 11, 2014 @ 11:35 am

  2. I agree with this statement: “So for me as a history buff, I felt that the people who had the information weren’t seminary teachers, or even the church leaders, so much as the historians. I think that attitude served me well also.”

    Comment by Liz M. — November 11, 2014 @ 11:42 am

  3. I’m always astonished when I read about people blindsided by Joseph’s polygamy. I think it must be my age, I just turned 60, and when I was growing up I was aware as a teenager that the RLDS denied Joseph’s polygamy and attributed it to Brigham Young while we acknowledged it. I wonder if it is because 40 years ago there was still the remnant of LDS/RLDS conflict from the early 20th century echoing in the church.

    Comment by KLC — November 11, 2014 @ 11:46 am

  4. I don’t have much specific memory of learning any of the so-called difficult issues. It seems like I must always have known them, although I don’t see how that can be true. I almost certainly came across them in the 1980s, after returning from my mission, when I got hooked on history and read everything I could find. Since I’ve had this reaction in other fields where I’ve read, I suppose I approached it all as “catching up on things I should have known all along” rather than as “learning shocking new things.”

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — November 11, 2014 @ 12:17 pm

  5. I remember learning about it rather young while in the car on a family trip. My ancestors were pioneer polygamists, and it was thus a part of my family history.

    While an undergrad at BYU, I did a folklore project where I surveyed a couple hundred students about where and from whom they learned about polygamy. The drastic distinction between those who were descendents from polygamy and those who weren’t were fairly startling. I mean, you can expect a difference, but I was not prepared for the degree of difference.

    Comment by Ben P — November 11, 2014 @ 12:27 pm

  6. Same here. I can’t understand how this is such a stunning revelation for any long-time members. I can see how someone could *maybe* miss that Joseph practiced polygamy if all their information came from church on Sunday and they never read the D&C carefully, but how could you miss it about Brigham Young or, you know, all the other Mormons who moved to Utah and almost had a war with the US government over polygamy? And if the church practiced polygamy after Joseph’s time, why should it shake anyone’s faith to learn that Joseph introduced it? Do they think Brigham Young is somehow less of a prophet or something but they can accept the church if Joseph wasn’t tainted by polygamy? If so, it’s yet another example of fundamentalism being the quickest road to disillusionment. (“Man, I’m sorry you left the church over that since, you know, we never actually believed the thing you just lost faith in…”)

    Anyway, as a kid who grew up in Utah and Idaho in the 1980s, I always knew about polygamy and so did everyone else around me unless they were truly, truly tuned-out at church and in seminary. I’ve learned more about the nitty-gritty details of polygamy lately with all the discussion of it online, but I’ve yet to read anything that doesn’t fall within the paradigm I was always taught, which basically boils down to: polygamy was hard, polygamy had some benefits even though it was hard, and in the beginning no one really understood how sealing should work so everyone just wanted to be sealed to a prophet.

    Comment by Owen — November 11, 2014 @ 12:58 pm

  7. I also can’t remember ever not knowing that Joseph Smith practiced polygamy. When I was growing up in the 1970s, JS’s polygamy was acknowledged in Bookcraft and Deseret Book publications that were fixtures on bookshelves in Mormon households, in particular in the homes of my parents and both sets of grandparents.

    For example:

    “That Joseph Smith actually was the person who introduced plural marriage into the Church and that he practiced it himself are amply proved by existing facts.” (Widtsoe, Evidences and Reconciliations, Bookcraft)

    “[The] Prophet and leading brethren were commanded to enter into the practice, which they did in all virtue and purity of heart despite the consequent animosity and prejudices of worldly people.” (McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, Bookcraft)

    “Moreover, he taught Joseph Smith the doctrine of plural marriage and commanded him to practice it, and this practice was in the Church for many years.” (Joseph Fielding Smith, Answers to Gospel Questions, Deseret Book)

    “In 1840, the doctrine was taught to a few leading brethren who, with the Prophet, secretly married additional wives in the following year.” (Berrett, Restored Church, Deseret Book)

    “Following are some of the names of young ladies who were sealed to the Prophet Joseph Smith in Nauvoo, as testified to under oath by themselves—this during the lifetime of the prophet: Eliza R. Snow, Sarah Ann Whitney, Helen Mar Kimball, Fanny Young (sister to Brigham Young), and Rhoda Richards (sister to Willard Richards who was with the prophet at his martyrdom in Carthage jail).” (Joseph F. Smith, Gospel Doctrine, Deseret Book)

    Comment by Nathan Whilk — November 11, 2014 @ 1:16 pm

  8. I don’t recall ever not knowing about plural marriage; it was as much a part of church history as the pioneers. (When my sisters and I were tiny, my mother would sometimes light a candle in the bathroom and give us baths “just like the pioneers,” so some of these memories go waay back.)

    I just pulled out my first set of scriptures. The edition ends with Section 136 and a single Official Declaration, and Section 132 is introduced as follows:

    “Revelation given through Joseph Smith the Prophet…relating to the new and everlasting covenant, including the eternity of the marriage covenant, as also plurality of wives….Plurality of wives acceptable only when commanded by the Lord…”

    Since it’s right there in the scriptures, there wouldn’t be any reason to expect that anyone but Joseph Smith had introduced plural marriage, or that he had not actually practiced it.

    Did I know details of Joseph Smith’s plural marriages when I was younger? No, but I didn’t know details of Brigham Young’s marriages, either, except the bit I learned at Beehive House tours or in the children’s book “Brigham Young and Me, Clarissa.”

    So on one hand, I have little sympathy for people who didn’t bother to read through to the end of the scriptures and figure out what they were talking about; on the other hand, devotional history unless done right can involve its own fallacies, and can create its own problems, and if people are not savvy enough to realize they’re getting devotional history, they certainly could feel betrayed.

    Comment by Amy T — November 11, 2014 @ 1:23 pm

  9. OK, I’ll bite; age now 53, converted age 16, graduated from Institute and managed 2 years of Seminary; former Primary, YW and RS Pres (most of those more than once) and stake callings too. Was taught that polygamy started with Brigham Young (as per Pres Hinckley’s “it started when we headed west” comment), and certainly never came across JS polygamy/polyandry in any sort of teaching manual. I’m neither stupid, nor uneducated, nor unfaithful; I stumbled across it maybe 4 years ago when reading the Millennial Star for another project, and only because I was horrified at the character assassination of a sister who had emigrated and had sent a letter back home warning others what was happening. (In 1842, prior to D&C 132).I find it all profoundly disturbing, marrying 14 year old girls, marrying the wives of men sent on missions; and just as disturbing is the fact that those who published these now acknowledged facts were excommunicated. Please don’t be so quick to pass judgement on those who didn’t grow up in LDS households, have access to discussions or literature, or evidently weren’t savvy enough to pass muster. Some of us were too busy holding down several callings whilst raising kids, feeding missionaries, working to support the family and dealing with all the aggro that anti church families and friends attract to have any time to spare to undertake intensive Church history reading courses. And the missionaries never mentioned it, in any discussion I took or sat in on. Every comment above oozes smugness and LDS privilege. And yes, I’m furious.

    Comment by Anne (UK) — November 11, 2014 @ 2:07 pm

  10. No doubt there are lots of opportunities to learn about this and it’s hiding in plain sight in the DC, but people do miss it (I know those who were vaguely aware of polygamy but not of JS’s polygamy) and it’s not emphasized in the curriculum. As Ben notes (interesting study, Ben) family background can play a big role in this.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — November 11, 2014 @ 2:12 pm

  11. I’m very sorry for your experience, Anne. I’ve heard that this is a particular problem in Europe where the members generally don’t have the connections to polygamous ancestors. I am heartened that the church is trying to tackle these issues and I hope that experiences like yours will decrease.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — November 11, 2014 @ 2:18 pm

  12. I got a whiff of it was a teenager in the mid-nineties from conversations with my Sunstone-loving aunt. It didn’t seem all that weird at the time (three of my grandparents descended from Mormon polygamists). After I became a newlywed, I was working on family history and came across accounts of Emma catching Joseph in intimate encounters with his other wives. That bugged me. Not until I got married did I have an inkling of what Emma might have felt. Many parts of the rollout of polygamy still irk me (the deception, mainly), but I do think the early exposure helped it not affect my testimony as much. We discussed the polygamy essays briefly in Gospel Doctrine last week to try to spread the word about the fabulous resources in the Gospel Topics section. I was pleasantly surprised at the positive discussion that followed. One older guy (60ish) volunteered that he had learned some new information in the essays (about the different types of Joseph’s sealings). One woman (50ish) expressed disbelief that anyone might not have been aware of Joseph’s polygamy, as it had been common knowledge in her household growing up. I don’t think everyone else in the room was quite up to her level of exposure, though.

    Comment by Mary Ann — November 11, 2014 @ 2:27 pm

  13. This would probably not be a good time for a privileged, smug person like myself to post a link to the script of this classic SNL sketch:

    http://snltranscripts.jt.org/83/83fforum.phtml

    Comment by Nathan Whilk — November 11, 2014 @ 2:42 pm

  14. Rose (UK) I heard about all of this just under 3 years ago. It resulted in myself, husband and three children leaving the church. My parents called me a liar. My mother-in-law said I’d been had by the devil. I lost friendships I’d had for years and my mother’s comment was: “Well apostates aren’t what they used to be, you don’t go about killing people anymore.” Family relations are still pretty poor. And all because we found out information that the church now claims as the truth. We simple cannot believe in a God that sends an Angel with a sword to threaten a man if he doesn’t obey being polygamist to only change his mind a few years later, upsetting and hurting so many people in the process. I and my husband were brought up LDS – both fathers stake presidents. And no, neither of us knew about JS and polygamy until 2011. Anne I totally understand why you are furious and also in the UK this information was simply NOT available openly. It was viewed as anti-Mormon. We feel even though the hardest thing to do – leaving the church – the benefits out way the negatives. We are grateful that we have each other as husband and wife plus our beautiful children who all tell us they prefer to be NON LDS. Respect to all that stay but we are happier out. We can’t live with a religion with this kind of history. Organised religion full stop makes our toes curl. We believe in a deity of love and do our best everyday to emulate goodness and feel that is enough. All best wishes to all. Rose

    Comment by Rose — November 11, 2014 @ 2:52 pm

  15. Anne, I do feel sadness for your experiences; I know it’s been very difficult for you and many others. Let me assure you that I and many others sympathize with your point of view and your feelings of betrayal and anger even though we may have had different experiences.

    But do remember that this is a blog written by (and largely for) Mormon historians, and yes, we may sound unbearably snobbish, both amateurs and professionals, : ) but many of us are working our hardest day in and day out, reading records until our eyes blur, to tell the story of our history honestly and help make up for whatever mistakes and misrepresentations people may have made in the past.

    We want to make sure that we remember people like Green Flake and Marinda Redd Bankhead and Robert Lang Campbell and Andrew Sproul, and the women who lived in plural marriages, and many others, and place their experiences accurately and truthfully within Mormon and world culture.

    So, don’t mistake my comments as dismissing or downplaying your concerns in any way — they are real and painful — but we are all working hard to try, as Steve just said, to reduce the chances of experiences like yours happening again.

    (And I realize saying this may be its own kind of painful, since I know how I feel when I hear about advances in cardiology and think how my son’s life could be different if they could have done such and such eight years ago.)

    Comment by Amy T — November 11, 2014 @ 2:59 pm

  16. I think this may be helpful to add… When I admitted to the class my distaste for the subject of polygamy in general (I would seriously rather defend biblical genocide), one member suggested that I should go talk to Bro. ___ (a very knowledgeable Mormon scholar who happens to live in the ward). The fact that she assumed since I didn’t like the subject that I obviously hadn’t done enough research took me aback. I was much more okay with the idea of polygamy *before* I learned more about it. Another class member asked if I felt better about the subject after reading the essays, and I laughed. I had to explain that I still felt the exact same way after reading the essays (since they didn’t tell me anything new), but they did make me feel better about the Church providing an official resource to help people get a handle on the difficult topic. Luckily, God doesn’t require me to like polygamy in order for me to be a productive member of the church.

    Comment by Mary Ann — November 11, 2014 @ 3:01 pm

  17. I am coming at this from the angle of a professor at a church institution. I cannot count the number of students, from recent converts, to life-long members and returned missionaries, that have confided to me about discovering Joseph’s polygamy/polyandry and feeling absolutely shattered, devastated, deceived. C’mon now– do we honestly expect a careful reading of D&C 132, along with the rare example of a historically-savvy seminary teacher to somehow trump all of the visitor’s center films, Legacy, and Liz Lemon Swindle pop art images of Joseph and Emma embracing? Polygamy is hard enough to stomach and navigate that we have placed it almost entirely on Brigham, thus leaving Joseph “unsullied” by it, at least in our collective memory and telling of Joseph. To concede Joseph’s role, along with the problems related to marital deception and young brides is not exactly something that we’ve had talks on in General Conference every year. I would echo those who have called privilege here– let’s be fair to those who legitimately never had the opportunity to hear about, because it wasn’t exactly spelled out in the 1st discussion.

    Today, as a practice “test” of this conversation, I asked my TA as we were walking to class, “When did you hear about Joseph Smith’s polygamy?” “Probably High School seminary.” “When did you hear about his polyandry.” “Um, I’ve never heard that.”

    Comment by Andrea R-M — November 11, 2014 @ 3:08 pm

  18. Someone who joined the Church 37 years ago and read the Ensign during the next 2 years would have seen Quinn’s article in the December 1978 issue in which he wrote “In obedience to the command of the living prophet, Newel and Elizabeth Ann gave their daughter Sarah Ann in marriage to Joseph Smith”, to Jessee’s article in the June 1979 issue in which he wrote “The sudden and violent death of Joseph Smith in June 1844 was particularly wrenching to his plural wives”, and to Jessee’s article in the September 1979 issue in which he wrote “One of the Prophet’s plural wives, having lived three years in his home, reflected late in her life . . .”

    Comment by Nathan Whilk — November 11, 2014 @ 3:09 pm

  19. I grew up hearing stories of my great (something) aunt who lived out in the middle of nowhere (Tooele) by herself with her children as a neglected second wife. (Oh she has amazing stories.) I’m not sure when I first heard about Joseph’s wives, but I know my Doctrine & Covenants class at BYU was the first place where we talked about polygamy as a whole frankly and specifically.

    Being in England for the last few years has really opened my eyes to just how much people who grow up outside of the western United States are just not exposed to a lot of difficult things in church settings because in general they do not have access to anything that might provide that. The gospel topics essays are a huge move to help provide a foundation, but people need to know about them. I was heartened by the transition that some CES leaders in my area were making to try and equip people to deal with difficult questions, but it was only very recent and that change has come out of necessity. I tried to give my ward as much as I possibly could teaching Gospel Doctrine and they ate it up. People need good resources.

    The Ensign used to be a place to provide a historical foundation, but it isn’t anymore. I think that the new curriculum has the potential to better prepare people to deal with some very difficult questions. With the old curriculum, no one had to take the second half of the Doctrine and Covenants. I might be wrong, but I believe it had the lowest enrollment of scripture classes at BYU.

    Comment by jjohnson — November 11, 2014 @ 3:41 pm

  20. I’d known since I was a kid that our ancestors practiced polygamy. Though I graduated from seminary and BYU (in 1988), I didn’t know about Joseph Smith’s polygamy until I was in my 20s–long before I started taking an interest in Mormon history. Once while visiting my parents I picked up my dad’s copy of _Mormon Enigma_ and started perusing it. I became so disturbed by what I was reading that I had to put it down. I didn’t want to hear what it was saying about Joseph’s polygamy and its effect on Emma and other women/girls around him, so I chalked the book up as “anti-Mormon literature” and pushed it out of my mind. While visiting my folks a few years later, I picked up a new book my dad had just bought, called _In Sacred Loneliness_. Once again I became upset when I realized that this book was confirming things I’d read in Mormon Enigma. I started asking my dad questions. Seeing how disturbed I was, he hid his book from me. Again I didn’t pursue it because, on an emotional level, I didn’t want to know about it. Not long after that, I learned about post-Manifesto polygamy for the first time when I started writing a biography of a woman born and raised in a polygamous Mormon family in Mexico. I was disturbed about polygamy again when I learned top church leaders had authorized plural marriage after 1890 in spite of the words of the Manifesto. Fast forward fifteen years, I have become a professional historian and have reached a point that I am no longer afraid to learn everything I can about the LDS polygamous past. But as I write or speak about the topic, I try to remember what it was like for me, particularly as a Mormon woman, to learn about these issues for the first time, recognizing that there are many, many people today in that position.

    Comment by Barbara — November 11, 2014 @ 3:42 pm

  21. The idea that these have been taught openly is laughable.

    Check out the most recent Joseph Smith and Brigham Young manuals. Ugh.

    Even these essays are buried and take a fair amount of effort to locate.

    I would suspect that the majority of members think today and yesterday’s media reports are examples of anti-mormon bias and don’t realize that the underlying articles are associated with the Church (despite the headlines).

    Until we openly hear the following in a First Presidency letter, the Ensign or General Conference, many will continue to be hurt by these issues: “Joseph Smith was key to the restoration. But, he had many flaws. He lied to his wife about marrying others and often pressured women into polygamy. Plural marriage and his efforts to cover it up are what led to his death.”

    Comment by Steve — November 11, 2014 @ 4:40 pm

  22. Nathan Whik (18): Surely you are not castigating a 17-18 year old girl (who did not live in the U.S.) for not reading the Ensign cover-to-cover in 1978?

    Comment by kris — November 11, 2014 @ 4:41 pm

  23. Steve, This is a really important post. I hope it gets widely circulated. While I knew about polygamy from an early age (and probably primarily from having a great-grandmother who was a second wife), there are certainly other difficult subjects that, when I found out about them, were challenges (e.g., changes to the revelations and the race-based priesthood/temple restrictions).

    Comment by Gary Bergera — November 11, 2014 @ 4:58 pm

  24. Oddly perhaps, many folks in the JI crowd are rather closely aligned with folks in the Millennial Star crowd on this very question.

    http://www.millennialstar.org/mormon-founder-joseph-smith-wed-40-wives/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+TheMillennialStar+%28Millennial+Star%29

    So much of this seems to depend on the accidents of geography and family. Same as it ever was.

    Comment by oudenos — November 11, 2014 @ 5:08 pm

  25. Steve (from comment 21, not the author of the post) — has anyone here claimed that topics like plural marriage have been openly taught?

    No?

    That’s right. No one did.

    Nathan Whilk seems to be trying to make that point, but is really not succeeding, since he can only come up with a few random references over the past 40 or so years, and very few of his examples were widely available to Church members, particularly members overseas.

    But here are a few questions for you.

    Is it possible that the Church had a real reason, or multiple reasons, for not teaching the history and doctrine of plural marriage? Is it possible that it was not discussed for many years due to the prevalence of polygamous splinter groups in Utah?

    Is it possible that Church leaders avoided discussion of plural marriage in order to give the families who suffered under the system a chance to recover instead of having the topic come up again and again? (It’s almost always better to talk about things than to try and let people recover in silence, but oftentimes people don’t understand that, particularly in previous generations. I didn’t really understand that until my brother the neuropsychologist taught this to my extended family a number of years back — long story — and I can now look regretfully back on conversations that didn’t happen that could have been helpful and healing.)

    Is it possible that church leaders, many of them chosen from regular families and careers and with more or less the same religious training that the rest of us had, simply did not preserve the institutional memory of the details of the practices?

    Did immediate concerns and contemporary needs get in the way of concerning themselves about past practices? Was it more important to them to care for the widows in their wards and stakes and to run the youth programs than to worry about the details of Joseph Smith or Brigham Young’s polygamy?

    Is it possible that people have limited time and energy and history is not always the top priority? (Gasp. Tell me it isn’t so.)

    Comment by Amy T — November 11, 2014 @ 5:26 pm

  26. Anyone who suggests that the Church has taught this “openly” has a much different definition of “openly” than I do. Also, I won’t stand for someone saying “they should have found this.” I really hope commenters above don’t think that anyone who didn’t hear this in church or seminary has been living with their head in the sand. Resources have been available if people seek it out–but if they don’t know it exists, why would they seek it out?

    As a seminary teacher, I just taught Nauvoo polygamy to 10th graders over 2 days. I gave the basic outline of Emma Smith’s life and how polygamy affected it and then answered 35-40 questions about the topic.

    I found out in Grant Underwood’s “Mormonism in the American Experience” class at BYU. My D&C teacher never broached the subject.

    Comment by J Stuart — November 11, 2014 @ 6:14 pm

  27. Is there a certain frequency of references in the Ensign that would qualify as “openly”? It’s not like the last 26 comments can be assumed to include an exhaustive list of all references.

    I wouldn’t say that anyone had their head in the sand. But at the same time, I can’t get too excited about the idea that Joseph’s polygamy was never taught openly, except for all the instances when it was.

    Comment by Left Field — November 11, 2014 @ 7:05 pm

  28. The question asked and answered was “When did you first hear about …” My answer accurately described my own experience, and did not reflect on anyone else’s.

    I have, in other discussions, wondered why others similar to me in age and experience and opportunity did not learn these same facts. With one exception, those musings have never been intended to mean “You should have; why didn’t you? what’s wrong with you?” Rather, they are statements of genuine wonder — why DID I run across these things when others did not?

    This time it isn’t about you. It really is about me.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — November 11, 2014 @ 7:54 pm

  29. My husband was raised in Utah and says he learned about the history of polygamy from discussions with his father when his great-uncle decided to become a polygamist.

    (It was his intention, but evidently he couldn’t find two women who cared to participate as plural wives.)

    Comment by Anon — November 11, 2014 @ 7:57 pm

  30. My comment wasn’t directed at you, Ardis. I also genuinely wonder why I was lucky enough to learn from someone who had a background in speaking academically and to Mormon audiences about the subject (and others). It’s part of what motivates me to blog and be active in sharing things on social media.

    Comment by J Stuart — November 11, 2014 @ 8:10 pm

  31. American serving as a bishop in a non-English speaking country.
    I always knew Joseph had 30+ wives.
    But found out about polyandry in 2005 but later read disturbing details.
    Marriages to minors (2006)
    Ruining the reputations of those who said no and spoke openly about being propositioned by Joseph (2010).
    Seeing list of cult leaders who started polygamy in their groups (2012).
    D Michael Quinn’s vs Brian Hales about whether marriages were sexual(2014)
    See essays and see the evasions and know enough to see their evasions. Can our leaders really redefine lying into “carefully worded statements”?
    None of the above materials are available to the members in their language. What should I tell them?

    Comment by EU Bishop — November 11, 2014 @ 9:29 pm

  32. Honest question: is there any evidence of Joseph having a sexual relationship with any of the underage or previously married wives? The term “marriage” seems to muddy this topic terribly.

    Comment by Owen — November 11, 2014 @ 10:01 pm

  33. To answer the question, I learned about JS’s polygamy as a teenager when I read Section 132 and asked questions about it.
    On the topic generally, as one who has visited the Middle-East often, where polygamy continues to be practiced openly and it’s not an uncommon sight to see a man traveling with several (up to four) wives, it seems more strange that westerners are so shocked at polygamy than that Joseph Smith revived the biblical practice. Is it shocking to read about Abraham and his wives? Or Jacob? The twelve tribes were headed by the sons of a polygamist. The current President of the United States is the son of a polygamist father. Sociologists say most human societies have featured polygamy. I’m also having difficulty figuring our how anyone can read Section 132 and the be surprised that Joseph practice polygamy. Can anyone explain that?

    Comment by JN — November 11, 2014 @ 10:17 pm

  34. Since my ancestors practiced polygamy in Mexico and Bluff, Utah, I can’t remember ever not knowing about the practice. It has *always* bothered me. I believe my high school seminary teacher confirmed that Joseph Smith had plural wives in Nauvoo, but that is as much as he said about it.

    When I was a freshman at BYU-Provo, I was browsing books in the BYU Bookstore and picked up a historical one on Joseph and Emma’s story. It was a small book, not Mormon Enigma. I think that was when I first came across the account of Emma pushing Eliza R. Snow down the stairs and of her (Eliza’s) consequent miscarriage of Joseph’s baby. I was very disturbed. I put the book back on the shelf, and tried to go on with my day. It was just that the more I found out about how polygamy actually worked in my family history and church history, the *more* troubled I became about it. I struggled in silence and thought I was the only person worried about the history and the theology of it, and the implications it still had for contemporary Mormonism, since plural marriage has never been authoritatively disavowed.

    Fast forward a decade or so–past a Mormon mission and family crises and life–and as a CGU student I started reading the historical literature on Mormon polygamy. It has been so helpful to learn that people have been and are bravely writing about these difficult questions–not just how it was practiced, but about women’s and men’s internal struggles with prophetic revelation and the nature of God. Where I come down on these questions may not be where my friends come down on them, and that is OK. The conversation is healthy for everyone involved. Because it is honest.

    Comment by Liz M. — November 11, 2014 @ 10:25 pm

  35. I found out about the issues from internet surfing that brought me to FAIR. It was this year that the details are evening out.

    Honestly, blogs like this have helped to keep me active and hopeful.

    Comment by Katherine — November 11, 2014 @ 10:46 pm

  36. I was born in the LDS church, but my parents were converts. We do not have LDS pioneer and/or polygamous ancestors that I know of. I cannot remember when I learned about this part of JS history. I was grateful that the church moved away from polygamy and found a testimony of the LDS gospel while recognizing the imperfections of humankind/mortals. As a historian, I learned to contextualize historical figures and to recognize my judgements and bias from my time.

    My perspective of this past was influenced by my travels and studies in West Africa where I met men and women who practiced polygamy today. I learned that I could not judge these people, since my perspective and experience differed so. I realized that I could not fully judge JS and church leaders from my perspective. I do not justify their actions either, but I am trying to understand and learn more of this history and experience.

    Comment by BB — November 11, 2014 @ 10:46 pm

  37. I’m 66, born in Ogden, Utah to an always inactive mother and a nonmember father. I don’t remember not knowing about polygamy, although it always seemed within the church to be, despite section 132, etc., a dirty little secret not to be dealt with or talked about, something to put on the ‘shelf’ for later or for hereafter.

    My extended families of origin, parts of both having had Mormon pasts, knew of it and were far less hesitant to discuss it and mostly deride and make fun of it.

    Of course, I’ve never been one to ignore the scriptural admonitions to ask, seek and to find.

    On my mission in Germany (1967-1969), we avoided bringing polygamy up like a dirty little secret and were taught, if people asked about it, to say we didn’t practice it anymore and to move on with other topics.

    Comment by wreddyornot — November 11, 2014 @ 10:48 pm

  38. #32 Owen – the website http://www.josephsmithspolygamy.org has quick answers to most of these in its FAQs. Of the 12-15 plural wives that they think Joseph had sexual relations with, the youngest would have been 17. He did not appear to have had sexual relations with any of the married women.

    Comment by Mary Ann — November 11, 2014 @ 11:03 pm

  39. I heard of polygamy as a kid. When I grew up, the people here had a really negative impression of the church. If you told that you are a Mormon, people would always make some comment about polygamy.
    I, myself, do not think that polygamy per se is a difficult issue. But the details are (polyandry, JS marrying women behind Emma’s back, the ages of the wives, post-manifesto polygamy etc.) I certainly didn’t here about these things until after my mission, when I started to read about church history from sources other than church manuals. That was when I learned about other difficult topics too.
    I think that many older members in my country have not heard of these difficult issues at all. There isn’t lot of books to read in my language. The internet has changed everything, it is much easier to learn of these things now.

    Comment by Niklas — November 12, 2014 @ 1:16 am

  40. I tried to post again last night before turning in, but got a 404. In retrospect I’m glad about that, as I think subsequent posts have made far greater contributions to the discussion than mine ever would have. Just a few thoughts:

    Steve, Amy: thank you for your posts, and for the work that is done highlighting the lives of humble, inspiring members. However, my point remains at an institutional level: if the Church is intent on being open and honest, it needs to issue an apology/reinstate those who were cast out for broadcasting (in the general sense) that which it now says is the truth. Right back to names like Oliver Cowdery, Martha Brotherton, and the Laws, all of whom were accused of being apostate as part of what we would today term a “cover up”.

    Rose: I am so sorry for the pain you have experienced. I wish yours was a rare story, but I am hearing it more often in the UK than I am comfortable with. I wish you well.

    Nathan (18) : Congratulations on finding 3 references from the Ensign in 1978/9 which reference JS plural wives. Presumably you used the Interweb to do that, unless you are possessed of photographic memory. Using Ardis’ “this is about me” theme, let me explain something gently to you. Back in the day, a YW who turned 18 in January stayed in YW until the new curriculum year started in September, when she moved into RS. Magazine drives took place to coincide with the start of the new curriculum year. Back in my ward, (not saying this was right or wrong, just how it happened) the magazine rep signed youth up to receive the New Era, as it contained the guidance specifically required for them. Home Teachers would provide the information needed from the Ensign on a monthly basis through the HT message (in my case, as this is about me, given to me in my HT’s camper van parked three streets away from my home because my parents refused to allow members into the house, so not necessarily the best place for deep spiritual discussion, with neighbourhood yobs banging on the sides). So being a newbie, I (and the other youth in the ward, only one of whom had family in the Church, the rest of us were on our own) did as I was told, and when one turned 18, one subscribed to the Ensign, which therefore started with the Conference issue as in those days the mechanism for ordering required posting lists to SLC, and in return the magazine took months to reach us. Using this system, the three issues to which you refer would have passed me by, although in using those examples as your defence, you have rather proved my point anyway.

    Steve, thank you for this discussion. We all reside in our particular “bubbles” to a certain extent, and hopefully this item will help pop some of those. As Niklas indicated, one of the first things the Church needs to do is to make translations available of all the Essays. (I know that individuals have been working on translations into their native tongues, but these run the risk of being labelled as “unauthorised”). That would pop one bubble straightaway, and shouldn’t prove too difficult to do.

    Comment by Anne (UK) — November 12, 2014 @ 1:47 am

  41. We’re all heirs of a particular tradition that is heavily dependent upon the geographic and social nets we happen to be in.

    As for me (grew up in midwest), I can’t remember not knowing Joseph Smith practiced polygamy, and tying that knowledge directly to D&C 132. Maybe it was a Seminary teacher I had or something, because I have no memory of learning it.
    It’s possible it was on my mission when I went through the D&C manual, which says

    “President Wilford Woodruff, who was closely associated with the Prophet Joseph Smith, said: “Emma Smith, the widow of the Prophet, is said to have maintained to her dying moments that her husband had nothing to do with the patriarchal order of marriage, but that it was Brigham Young that got that up. I bear record before God, angels and men that Joseph Smith received that revelation, and I bear record that Emma Smith gave her husband in marriage to several women while he was living, some of whom are to-day living in this city, and some may be present in this congregation, and who, if called upon, would confirm my words. But lo and behold, we hear of publication after publication now-a-days, declaring that Joseph Smith had nothing to do with these things. Joseph Smith himself organized every endowment in our Church and revealed the same to the Church, and he lived to receive every key of the Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthoods from the hands of the men who held them while in the flesh, and who hold them in eternity.” (In Journal of Discourses, 23:131.)”

    It’s also possible I learned about it after watching The Godmakers with my parents at age 16, or a good bit of the classic Evangelical anti-Mormon stuff thereafter or on my mission.

    I specifically recall reading Mormon Enigma while an undergrad at BYU, so there’s a terminus ante quem for me.

    Comment by Ben S — November 12, 2014 @ 6:21 am

  42. Well I joined the church in the UK in 1971 and have to say I think I was always aware that Joseph practised polygamy. I don’t think it was any secret – it was the RLDS that blamed it on Brigham Young. I think it would have been hard to be a member at that point and not be aware. Perhaps I was more aware than most as I would read every book and article about the church that I could find. I still find it strange that most converts will not and many don’t want to. There was a lot of information out there that was troubling but the spiritual experiences I have had carried me through.

    I do agree that over the last few decades since the 1980’s until just recently the church has avoided its polygamous history in lesson manuals and magazines. This has given a false impression to some and that may be especially troubling for those who have joined or grown up in the church during that period. I don’t know if my memory is faulty but in my mind the Ensign used to be a very informative magazine with some very good academic based articles instead of the insipid thing it has becomes where even paintings have been known to be touched up to bring them into line with Utah’s modesty culture. I hope the more openness that the church is showing in these online articles will carry over into lessons manuals and magazines but I remain to be convinced that this will happen

    Comment by Martin Holden — November 12, 2014 @ 6:25 am

  43. I grew up in the East with convert parents. When I was 16-17 (circa 2000-01) a mixture of curiosity and wanting to “defend the faith” led me to become familiar with most of the “troubling issues” via the internet – mostly apologist sites, but a few antagonistic sources as well. I’m not sure how convincing the apologist arguments I saw would be for me now, but they were good enough to neutralize most of my concerns at the time.

    I can imagine how someone who doesn’t consider that there is anything else to look for wouldn’t have heard of many of the issues – even after learning the things for myself I treated them as secrets not to talk about publicly. The reactions I got from a few adults on the issues were not positive. That general secrecy lasted through my teenage years and mission, though at BYU (2005-2008) it seemed to me that most people with any level of interest knew at least about JS polygamy (if not the details). Of course, by that time the cat was pretty well out of the bag due to the internet, so it’s hard to say where everyone else found out.

    Comment by Craig M. — November 12, 2014 @ 6:45 am

  44. The 1981 CES Institute Student Manual quotes Wilford Woodruff as follows: “I bear record before God, angels and men that Joseph Smith received that revelation, and I
    bear record that Emma Smith gave her husband in
    marriage to several women while he was living”.

    Comment by Nathan Whilk — November 12, 2014 @ 7:06 am

  45. Thanks everyone for sharing your experiences. No doubt this is a fraught issue that generates a lot of emotion. I think we can basically agree that while the information wasn’t totally hidden it also wasn’t exactly readily available, and we can see some of the negative consequences of of the lack of full disclosure from the statements made here.

    In terms of what does it all mean and what should the church do as a result, I’m sure there are a wide variety of opinions. I don’t anticipate the church making the kinds of statements that some are calling for here. But I do expect the research to continue (by historians and others) and continued attempts understand what this all means and what JS was trying to do.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — November 12, 2014 @ 7:17 am

  46. It sounds like several people commenting here are contemporaries with me. Does anyone else remember the Church’s handout on plural marriage that was distributed in seminary during the 1978-79 D&C Course of Study? Its background design had several copies of a woman’s silhouette juxtaposed. It would be fascinating if one of you historians could dig up a copy of that and let us know if (contrary to all the sources cited above, not to mention the scriptures) that handout claimed that plural marriage started with Brigham Young.

    Comment by Nathan Whilk — November 12, 2014 @ 7:28 am

  47. The snippets I’ve posted above are not the result of an exhaustive search of documents throughout the modern history of the Church. They specifically represent sources readily available to me when I was in high school during the Carter administration. Mormon Doctrine was everywhere, Gospel Doctrine was included in Deseret Book’s 1977 mass market paperback reference library, etc.

    And I only chose snippets that address the specific question of whether JS practiced plural marriage. On the larger question of whether plural marriage started with Brigham Young, there are other available snippets like Bitton’s article in the Feb 1977 issue of the Ensign in which he wrote “Starting during Joseph Smith’s own lifetime but limited to a few dozen families until its official announcement in 1852, plural marriage brought a powerful new challenge to the equanimity of Latter-day Saint family life”, Leonard’s article in the Apr 1979 issue of the Ensign in which he wrote: “When the Twelve returned from England they were taught the doctrine”, Steven Pratt’s article in the Oct 1979 issue of the Ensign in which he wrote: “In Nauvoo, plural marriage was another challenge to the family. Parley had been taught it as early as 1839”, etc.

    Comment by Nathan Whilk — November 12, 2014 @ 7:56 am

  48. Nathan, I think it’s not just that people may have gotten the mistaken idea that Brigham Young instituted plural marriage; it’s more that the nitty-gritty details of how Joseph Smith and others tried to figure out how to implement the practice and figure out what the doctrine of sealing meant are so very Old Testament in nature, and people have difficulty reconciling that messy process with the clean devotional history (beautiful soaring music and all) that they’re familiar with.

    Comment by Amy T — November 12, 2014 @ 7:59 am

  49. By the way, is it the settled opinion of proponents of environmental explanations of the origins of Mormonism that it is more reasonable to expect the young Joseph Smith to have read esoteric literature in the Dartmouth library than for Latter-day Saints in the mission field to have read literature that could be found on just about every bookshelf in Paragonah, Panguitch, and Toquerville?

    Comment by Nathan Whilk — November 12, 2014 @ 8:06 am

  50. So…Joseph was sealed to other men’s wives in an eternal relationship lacking “marital relations” just like my adopted daughter has been sealed to me, a man six times her age. I fail to see why I should get worked up about this.

    Comment by O — November 12, 2014 @ 8:13 am

  51. Thanks for your research, Nathan, but my sense is that people are saying they got the mistaken impressing that JS did not practice polygamy from it’s lack of mention in the Sunday school curriculum and official portrayals. So yes, as we’ve all stated here, statements on JS’s polygamy were out there, but have not been central to the curriculum for some time.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — November 12, 2014 @ 8:16 am

  52. We may do another post on this, O, and I hesitate to add more fuel to this fire but that JS’s polyandrous relationships lacked “marital relations” isn’t at all clear. Thus, the work up.

    I discuss my own thought on the issue here.
    http://www.juvenileinstructor.org/thoughts-on-polyandry/

    Comment by Steve Fleming — November 12, 2014 @ 8:21 am

  53. I joined the church as an adult in the 1990s. During my studies of the church beforehand, I probably found out while reading “No Man Knows My History.” My reaction? “If this guy really is a prophet, he’s as flawed as the ones in the Old Testament.”

    That’s still what I believe. God does his work only through flawed people.

    Comment by Eric — November 12, 2014 @ 8:45 am

  54. Thank you Steve for this thoughtful post.

    Comment by Mark Ashurst-McGee — November 12, 2014 @ 9:12 am

  55. To echo Mark, thanks Steve. I think this is really valuable. It helps all of us to see the range of experience here and to remove ourselves from our own bubbles a little more.

    Comment by jjohnson — November 12, 2014 @ 9:42 am

  56. The OP asked for comments about other difficult topics, but this discussion has been all about polygamy.

    So, on to Mountain Meadows Massacre.

    I first heard “Mountain Meadows Massacre” in church when I was a teenager. We were singing “America” one Sunday, and when we got to “purple mountain majesties” I discovered (thanks to my dad) that the meter fit “Mountain Meadows Massacre.” So I asked him “What’s that??” and I got a brief explanation there in church. And more on the way home. Then 10 or 20 years later I read Juanita Brooks’s book and have since read other things.

    And, about Andrea R-M’s comment: “somehow trump all of the visitor’s center films, Legacy, and Liz Lemon Swindle pop art images of Joseph and Emma embracing?” I think we’ve largely avoided that problem in our family by skipping all that Mormon pop culture. Liz Lemon Swindle? If it’s a swindle, I’m keeping away.

    Comment by Anon — November 12, 2014 @ 10:20 am

  57. I have a relative who served as a bishop, stake president, mission president, and area authority (all in an English speaking country). He hadn’t heard of Joseph’s polyandry until I discovered it myself accidentally about 12 years ago, told my mom, and she told him. There are many, many active members who haven’t known any details about Joseph’s marriages as they haven’t been openly taught in church curriculum. For those whose languages are something other than English, even fewer know.
    I am glad that the church is being (more) open about it’s history. I just wish I hadn’t seen so many friends leave before that happened.

    Comment by sc — November 12, 2014 @ 10:24 am

  58. Thanks Mark and Janice, I’ve enjoyed this conversation too.

    SC, the issue of polyandry is trickier since that is much less well known. I’ve never heard that taught in any kind of church setting. I first heard rumor of it on my mission but first officially encountered it during my 490 history class at BYU where history majors write a big paper. One of the members of the class did hers on Zina Diantha Huntington (bunch of names) who was her ancestor (Zina was married to Henry Jacob at the time she married JS). It was presented as somewhat scandalous and hush hush and I remember the professor herself had never heard of JS’s polyandry.

    I actually took that class with my wife (newly married) so was sort of found out together. I remember thinking “hmm, I wonder what that was all about.” I later did some research on the issue and came up with the theory that I link to in comment 52.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — November 12, 2014 @ 11:35 am

  59. I “found out” that Joseph Smith practiced polygamy sometime near the advent of the Internet, by casually browsing anti-Mormon sites. I didn’t really absorb the info at the time, as I considered it untrustworthy and/or likely to be a huge distortion. But it did leave me with the sense that the standard, traditional church narrative was omitting uncomfortable information.

    Post-mission in my mid 20s, as I felt my faith stagnating, I decided I needed to work on it more and learn church history, etc. That’s when I really started processing some of the things I’d encountered years earlier, and this time I had to decide what to do with that information. So while I was vaguely aware of certain things, I certainly hadn’t gone very far down the rabbit hole (learning that he was a polygamist is one thing; young brides/coercion/secrecy/polyandry are a totally different world IMO), and and most certainly hadn’t truly grappled with the implications of it all.

    Comment by Trevor — November 12, 2014 @ 11:44 am

  60. I am a Mexican and a convert. I first learned of the church in the late 80’s, when I got baptized. I learned about polygamy years later as my curiosity grew and because I lived near dissident Mormon colonies that remained polygamist after the manifesto.

    I attended 9 wards in Mexico and held several positions of leadership. My personal (non-scientific) assessment is that 80% of members (old and new) do not know about polygamy. Of the remaining 20%, 18% know about the “rumors” but think they are inventions of Mormon enemies to discredit them. The remaining 2% understand it was part of the actual Church practices but still have the erroneous versions perpetuated by the Church itself (only a small group practiced it, etc).

    The Church has long discouraged the study of Church subjects from non-Church endorsed materials, therefore, I find extremely troubling the attitude of some of the commenters that the Members should have known. This is very offensive to me, as a Mexican surrounded by several generations of ignorant Mormons who have remained ignorant thanks to their obedience to church recommendations.

    It is unbelievable what an amazing ability some Mormons have to wash their hands of any responsibility and justify the Church’s incredible negligence in teaching their members a conveniently washed out version of history, not to mention the actual missinformation they proliferated for many decades.

    On one of the last discussions I ever had about polygamy with a member of the Church serving a position of leadership in Mexico, I was told that if Brigham Young had been a polygamist, the Brigham Young manual sure would have mentioned something about it, yet it didn’t.

    I can only shrug at some of the comments.

    Comment by Manuel — November 12, 2014 @ 12:40 pm

  61. Manuel (#60), do you have any information on whether the new essays are being discussed in Mexico (or Spanish congregations in the US)? Assuming the essays are eventually translated into Spanish, what do you believe will be the typical reaction from members you grew up with?

    Comment by Dave K — November 12, 2014 @ 2:00 pm

  62. I am no longer a member of the Church, so I wouldn’t know if any of the essays is being discussed. But this is my wild guess: absolutely not.

    The essays are of course not available in Spanish. I just went to the LDS dot org site to find them, I couldn’t. They are not exactly “readily available,” you have to know your way around the site. I am no longer sure how to access them myself. I do not think the essays are intended to be added to the actual teaching curricula of the Church. Most members in Mexico are unaware of these hard to find online resources. Therefore, I find it very unlikely that the new information will have any effect in the short run.

    There were news articles about it in the newspaper in Spanish though, but most members will dismiss them as “anti-Mormon” media since that is the way their brains have been trained to perceive anything Mormon and controversial, so they will probably dismiss reading the article altogether and chuck it as “evil media wants to attack the Mormons once again.”

    The reaction? I can only speak for myself and from simple logic. These or similar thoughts will probably be found among the multiple reactions:

    “What? My bishop told me that wasn’t so.”
    “How come I had never heard of that before?”
    “So, the anti-Mormon teachings are true?”
    “Yes, but it was only a tiny group who practiced it and it wasn’t the way the media is portraying it.”
    “I asked the missionaries specifically about this before being baptized and they told me something completely different.”
    etc, etc, etc.

    I think the essays, excluded from actual official teaching curricula, are largely ineffective outside the Mormon scholarly privileged little circles that post around here. If they won’t include it in the manuals, it will simply take decades for the information to sink in in an effective way.

    I think they are a tool for the Church to be able to say they don’t hold the information back, when in reality they know the means through which they are diffusing it will most likely not reach the majority of members around the world in the short run, and in some cases nor even in the long run. Many members will die off misinformed and ignorant about this.

    Latin America holds a great percentage of the millions of members Mormons sometimes publicly boast of. These great percentage and these millions have been greatly misinformed, and information to privileged Mormon groups is often not available to them. Most of these millions (including myself) became members under misinformed and misleading information when it came to controversial subjects.

    That’s how this Church operates. It’s kind of like a passive version of the infamous soccer and/or baseball baptisms of old, but much more carefully crafted.

    Comment by Manuel — November 12, 2014 @ 2:46 pm

  63. As a descendant of late 19th-century polygamists, I was always aware of our own family’s polygamous heritage; indeed, my parents never shied away from it. But it wasn’t until I had an incredibly knowledgeable and sincere Sunday School teacher during my early teens that I became aware of Joseph Smith’s polygamy. Brother Hansen handled the topic not with kid gloves, but candidly, as he did other sensitive issues like the Spaulding Manuscript and the Mountain Meadows Massacre. He encouraged us to grapple with the topics head-on, developing our own testimonies and interpretations. I think the class was supposed to be lives of Presidents of the Church, but Brother Hansen made it so much more enriching (like the class where he gave us photocopies of the Deseret Alphabet Primer and had us work through the first few lessons!)

    Comment by Nate R. — November 12, 2014 @ 2:52 pm

  64. Thank you Manuel (#62). I appreciate your insight. For what it’s worth, I’ve seen church statements suggesting that these essays are intended to be included in future curriculum.

    Comment by Dave K — November 12, 2014 @ 2:58 pm

  65. Is anyone else bothered by the way most news outlets have picked this up?

    1. The church publishes the essays about 3-4 weeks ago, essays which I thought were very well written with an open and respectful tone. A couple of SLC news outlets pick it up.

    2. About a week later, a few more outlets pick up on it, but still not very widespread. However, the headlines were probably not fair to the whole of the article.

    3. Monday, 3-4 weeks after the essays were published, the NY Times puts an article on their front page with the headline “It’s Official: Mormon Founder Had Up to 40 Wives.” I had my quibbles with some things in the article, but it actually provided more nuance and research than many of the articles that followed.

    5. Given the clout of the Times, every other major news outlet quickly picks up the piece and falls into a downward spiral of who can come up with the most eye-grabbing, controversial headline, regardless of how well it addresses the actual topic. Here are some examples of the headlines:

    “Joseph Smith, Mormon Founder, Had As Many As 40 Wives” (LA Times)
    “Church: Mormon Founder Joseph Smith Wed 40 Wives” (CNN)
    “Mormon Church Polygamy: Joseph Smith ‘Had Up to 40 Wives'” (BBC)
    “Mormon Leaders Admit Church Founder Joseph Smith Practiced Polygamy” (Fox News)
    “Mormon Church Founder Joseph Smith Had 40 Wives; Members Shocked” (Latinos Post)
    “Mormon Church Finally Admits Founder Joseph Smith Was Polygamist With 40 Wives” (The Telegraph (UK))

    Has this bothered anyone else? I feel like the headlines (and usually the articles as well) don’t represent the essays very well and are tenuously accurate at best. And it seems like every news outlet is pretty much repeating the same thing as other news outlets without doing much independent research. It’s like a bad game of telephone.

    Please don’t mistake me for some conspiracy theorist against the “libruhl media.” I’m just really disappointed in how this got picked up.

    Comment by JT — November 12, 2014 @ 3:16 pm

  66. Manuel, thanks for sharing your experience. If this is a problem in Europe, no doubt this is potentially much worse in Latin America. Though I hope that while the Gospel Topics entry isn’t very far reaching at present, such may be portents of things to come.

    JT, the media certainly likes to sensationalize things, but hopefully it will have the positive effect of advertising the articles.

    Nate, as you and many others note, good mentors can be invaluable. Unfortunately, a lot of people haven’t had them.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — November 12, 2014 @ 3:38 pm

  67. I grew up in Michigan in the 80s & 90s. Both sides of my family are rich with pioneer ancestry and polygamy, so I knew very early on about polygamy in the church. But I did not know (nor was I taught) the specifics of JS’ polygamy.

    I’ve been active in the church my whole life, graduated from seminary & BYU, but it wasn’t until a few years ago (in my thirties) that I came across info online about how many wives JS had, how young some were, that he pressured some to marry him, that he hid a lot of it from Emma, and that some were already married to other men. (It was the last four points I especially had/have trouble with.)

    FWIW, my 87 year old grandma, who’s lived her whole life in the church in southern Utah, held every local leadership calling available to her, with a stake president husband (now deceased), did not know about JS’s polygamy until last year when I mentioned it while we were discussing church history.

    Comment by Hattie — November 13, 2014 @ 8:37 am

  68. I was raised LDS and, for the most part, grew up in areas with a large constituent of Mormons. I knew at an early age that Mormons in general had practiced polygamy, but based on how the LDS Church had portrayed its history I came to believe it began with Brigham Young because the LDS Church portrayed and continues to portray Smith’s life as though Emma was his only spouse. It wasn’t until I left the LDS faith (for philosophical and theological reasons as opposed to historical reasons) that I began delving into the history and discovering these hidden truths.

    Comment by Mormon to Orthodox — November 13, 2014 @ 12:09 pm

  69. Thank you, Steve, for starting this discussion. So many factors play into this. I honestly can’t remember when I first heard of Joseph Smith’s polygamy, but it must have been at home from my parents, and not much detail. Certainly over the years, I came to know more and more. In high school in the 1960s, some one explained it to me that women lined up to be sealed to Joseph after his death, which I later figured out was not an accurate story. Later, I learned more, and gradually have added more information. Again, having some ancestors involved in polygamy made it less of an issue, so I will admit to some “privilege” in that. But I also had some curiosity about things. Prior to 1978, I had seen the 1904 second manifesto printed in the Pearl of Great Price, and figured that meant maybe polygamy wasn’t quite over in 1890, later confirmed by Michael Quinn’s article on post-manifesto plural marriages, and realized that my Grandfather had been born into one of those post-manifesto marriages.

    But I also have had several close friends and acquaintances who have opted out of the church over the last few years because of historical issues including but not limited to Joseph Smith’s polygamy, and I know their pain is real. It really does seem to be accidents of family heritage or random exposures that brought some to the knowledge, but it is obvious to me that the Church didn’t broadcast these things for a long time. I suspect that with a church leadership, made up of great, sincere, but still flawed individuals, and committed to unanimity and s leadership system based on seniority, probably still felt a sense of trying to protect the Church from potential misunderstandings and misinformation. What we have learned from Gordon B. Hinckley and his successors is that we can’t control the narrative in the internet age, so we ought to make sure that the narrative we tell now is as accurate as possible. It appears that we still have some distance to go, but we are seeing at least a significant and consistent movement in the right direction.

    Comment by kevinf — November 13, 2014 @ 5:54 pm

  70. I was born in 1971. I have educated LDS parents and we moved around a lot.
    I always knew JS practiced polygamy. My parents told me that “some Mormons” liked to say that JS didn’t practice polygamy and that BY had started it, but it was very clear he did. Also, that the RLDS deny JS did it. My entire life where I went to church every single week and listened carefully (I was an ideal student) to every lesson and talk I felt like it was mentioned in passing enough that it didn’t seem like a secret. Plus, many places we lived plenty of people would mention it first thing if they found out we were Mormon! They still do that!
    I think that people didn’t want to “preach” polygamy since we don’t practice it. You can’t give a talk about it the same way you do “honesty” or “priesthood.” I think over the years the stories where it used to be mentioned in passing became fewer and farther between…..about the same time that all those farming stories started getting fewer and farther between. Remember when every single conference talk used a farm story? You can’t really play conference bingo with “farm” and “Idaho” anymore. For me, I think the church is more world wide and our pioneer history and early church history is watered down.
    Polyandry I didn’t hear about until later.

    Comment by jks — November 14, 2014 @ 12:33 am

  71. This and every other unflattering truth about JS have been known by any serious student of history for at least 150 years. Those outside of the church have known this all along. So why did the church wait so long to come out with it officially? Answer, because they couldn’t keep it quiet any longer because the internet can’t be manipulated. What has been passed off as anti Mormon literature has proven itself to be in fact true and many many Mormons are being confronted with that for the first time.

    As far as Josephs’s multiple wives, see the book by Mormon historians Linda King Newell and Valeen Tippetts Avery, “Mormon Enigma.” Not only did Joseph take wives who were already married, he took wives who were underage (Teenagers.) Not only that, he did not tell Emma the whole truth. That’s quite a prophet you’ve got representing your church and it’s not Mormon bashing to point out the truth about your faith, truth many Mormons have been shielded from.

    Comment by Lyte Lee — November 14, 2014 @ 1:44 pm

  72. This is a Mormon history blog. We’re well aware of that and many other books, Lyte.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — November 14, 2014 @ 1:53 pm

  73. I learned about it when doing a commitment to read the scriptures and encountered D&C 132. (Out of curiosity for those who didn’t encounter polygamy until later in life, what did you think when you read 132?) Polyandry I think I encountered while at BYU my first year there when reading about Zina Huntington. Honestly it didn’t shock me but made me feel better about polygamy since there was at least the fragmentary appearance of a symmetry in things. (I know that’s not how it worked in Nauvoo of course)

    Comment by Clark — November 15, 2014 @ 12:33 pm

  74. “Does anyone else remember the Church’s handout on plural marriage that was distributed in seminary during the 1978-79 D&C Course of Study?”

    I don’t recall the details but I swear in Seminary in the early 80’s it was covered in the independent study manuals. I’d love someone to check if those are available at the BYU library. I know it was while studying D&C 132 in seminary that we covered it. (Honestly, how on early can you read D&C 132 without dealing with it?)

    Comment by Clark — November 15, 2014 @ 12:39 pm

  75. Clark, my guess is that a lot of people hadn’t read 132 because a lot don’t read the DC all the way through (kind of a tough read). And I agree with the idea of symmetry in polyandry. See the link in comment 52.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — November 15, 2014 @ 2:28 pm

  76. I’d also quibble with the church not addressing it until recently. I think there was a gap from the 80s until recently that the church avoided controversial topics. But it’s discussed in many articles in The Improvement Era and in major works published by the Church that while not authoritative were quasi authoritative.Think some of the works by Talmage, Joseph F Smith, Joseph Fielding Smith or others such as Discourses of Brigham Young. When I was at the MTC these were some of the few works other than the scriptures we were allowed to read and we were actively encouraged to read them. Even McConkie’s Mormon Doctrine was there (for better or worse)

    I wish old manuals were available online to research some of these things. I’d love to see how they dealt with D&C 132 in the 70s and 80s.

    Comment by Clark — November 16, 2014 @ 12:46 pm

  77. […] 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? […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Exemplification and Religious Education: Reactions to the News of Joseph Smith’s Polygamy as an Indicator of Concern — November 20, 2014 @ 8:26 pm


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