Book Review: William Smith, The Plural Marriage Revelation

By April 13, 2018

William Victor Smith, Textual Studies of the Doctrine and Covenants: The Plural Marriage Revelation (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford, 2018).

William Smith turns his considerable knowledge of Mormon history and Joseph Smith’s thought to the study of Doctrine and Covenants 132, the plural-marriage revelation. Smith proceeds sequentially, dividing the book into eight chapters that each cover a portion of the text. At each stage, Smith delves into the topic that the different portions raise, and gives context both in terms of Smith?s theology and later Mormon debates on those topics.

Overall the book succeeds in contextualizing the revelation, but at times Smith either seems to wander to seemingly unrelated topics, or just touch on topics superficially. For instance, in the introduction, Smith gives an overview of what he calls “the high priesthood cycle” and the “apostolic cycle” but doesn’t discuss these issues much in the book (6-7). When he does mention them in chapter four, they seemed off topic as if they were part of another project (51-55). In another instance, Smith tells of John Taylor applying the “destroyed in the flesh” clause to an adulterous woman, but Smith doesn’t explain what Taylor meant exactly (121). Smith later says the phrase probably meant excommunication, but that context (if it were correct) would have been useful for the Taylor story.

Nevertheless, Smith’s study is extremely useful for all those interested in the topics of polygamy and Mormon thought. Not much is new in terms of these topics, but having all these ideas and sources brought together is extremely helpful to any readers.

If the book has a thesis, it seems to be a point that Smith makes in chapter 11: “As discussed through the volume, the plural marriage revelation seems to have been dictated for a limited audience–particularly Emma Smith–and was never meant for public consumption.” Smith notes some of the revelation’s troubling language and then declares, “This raises the question of what such a revelation might have looked like if it were meant from the beginning to be public, out-in-the-open, Divine Counsel” (178). This leads Smith to the unusual move of presenting an edited and cleaned up version of the text minus all the talk about destroying Emma, in addition to other changes.

Such is a peculiar move and highlights the unusual relationship that Mormonism has between its theology and its history, and the role that historian play in that relationship. Can such a revision be made? That’s up to other people, but Smith raises convicting and interesting questions in that direction.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


Comments

  1. Thanks, Steve. I think it’s an important book and continues Bill’s important textual work, both in terms of production and reception, on the revelations. You raise good critiques, especially in regards to the organization and flow of the text that might have been improved at the editing stage.

    Comment by David G. — April 13, 2018 @ 4:28 pm

  2. Good points, David. I could have listed many more strengths of the book, and those quibbles I mentioned probably took up an inordinate amount of this review. Bill is doing very important and useful stuff.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — April 14, 2018 @ 9:49 am


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