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.