Exemplification and Religious Education: Reactions to the News of Joseph Smith?s Polygamy as an Indicator of Concern

By November 20, 2014

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.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Great analysis, Liz! I really like your point about concrete examples, and that Joseph’s marriage to Emma is full of concrete stories and images in how it’s portrayed, but Joseph’s polygamous marriages totally lack this in how they’re portrayed.

    Comment by Ziff — November 21, 2014 @ 10:52 am

  2. Excellent analysis. Thank you for this.

    That is very interesting that the highest results for ?Joseph Smith polygamy? were 1) the manifesto (which didn’t end polygamy, and 2) the Church trying to explain the stark contradiction between Mormon polygamy and the teachings of the Book of Mormon regarding polygamy.

    It feels like most material is in fact damage control.

    Comment by Manuel — November 21, 2014 @ 10:57 am

  3. I think this is the real issue. While polygamy has been mentioned more by the church than some suspect, the real issues are where we perceive power imbalances. Things that, beyond the basic problem of polygamy, just strike us as unjust.

    I think there are some ways to work this out. But clearly they won’t be satisfactory to all. I think we have expectations that are perhaps a tad unfair. Not in the sense of being wrong. I think we have a much better view of power and gender today than in the 19th century. And I think we still should (and hopefully over time will) do better on gender relations. But I’m not sure it’s fair to judge people in the early 19th century according to those standards.

    Assume Joseph was just told about polygamy and then told to live it in a fashion akin to how the brother of Jared was told to go build a boat to cross the ocean. If true, then Joseph was left to figure out how to do it in his ignorance. That would explain a lot of his actions given the constraints he worked under. (I recognize this is less history than grappling with the theological and moral issues in history)

    The counter-move though is to ask why God wasn’t inspiring Joseph when he was thinking about something unjust. We believe that God warns us over minor ethical lapses to the degree we listen to the spirit. One would think that ethical problems in relationships should get more promptings (not to mention racism). This theological problem of how God could inspire you to find your keys but not to see your unconscious sexism is a thorny theological issue I think.

    Comment by Clark — November 21, 2014 @ 12:45 pm

  4. To add – it’s these thorny situations where the relationship seems inherently unjust that the Church hasn’t remotely grappled with. It’s also the majority of narratives left out of Church resources yet pushed by critics.

    I don’t think discussing polygamy the way they once did and now are starting to again really gets at these issues. As I mentioned it’s not just these issues of polygamous courting or marriage but a range of topics like racism, violence and more.

    All that said while I can appreciate the problem I’m glad I’m not the one to have to solve it. For people with strong testimonies these aren’t really going to shake it. For people that they are huge problems I’m not sure there’s an answer that will resolve the hurt and concern. The best solution is to strengthen people’s testimonies but is that enough?

    Comment by Clark — November 21, 2014 @ 12:49 pm

  5. Agree with Clark. The only thing that will get people through this is increasing testimonies in other aspects of the gospel. These early polygamy issues are just plain ugly (hence the common avoidance technique). I’m not sure how to fix it from the “example” point of view. Artists painting Joseph embracing various other women isn’t going to appeal to anyone. When people hear the story of Joseph asking Heber C. Kimball for his wife, they get a warm feeling at the end when Joseph declares Heber to have passed the Abrahamic test (unless they actually start thinking through implications, but most people don’t). If we start adding at the end how Joseph really did take the wives of other followers, so it wasn’t an empty threat, suddenly the story doesn’t seem so precious. And I just can’t see anyone really latching on to a cute story of a married guy asking a much younger woman to become a plural wife.

    Comment by Mary Ann — November 21, 2014 @ 1:24 pm

  6. I am really looking forward to the publication of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s book on early Mormon plural marriage and women’s activism. I anticipate it will throw light onto facets and possibilities not seen before. It is my hope that these kinds of stories will become more commonly known among LDS Church members.

    Comment by Liz M. — November 21, 2014 @ 4:42 pm

  7. Thanks, Liz. This raises all kinds of good points.

    Comment by Saskia — November 23, 2014 @ 12:46 pm

  8. @ Manuel I feel that these essays aren’t even “damage control” since the damage has been done and most of those who were troubled are simply angrier or more hurt by the essays. I believe it is inoculation for the future (which many of us have been asking for for years).

    Comment by Terry H — November 25, 2014 @ 8:54 am

  9. Personally, I’m not a big fan of the inoculation theory–if the goal is to keep people believing. I don’t think early exposure to Mormonism’s messy history will ensure that members stay members in the long-run, but I do believe it will reduce the number of times youth and new church members experience a sense of betrayal at not being given all the facts.

    Comment by Liz M. — December 4, 2014 @ 12:02 am

  10. I think there are two inoculation theories. One says present all the same stuff anti-Mormons do but in a more faithful context. I don’t like that idea in the least. I certainly think it inappropriate in Sunday services.

    The othe view of inoculation is to touch on briefly controversial topics so people know they are there but don’t delve into the details. Likewise emphasize the humanness of everyone including great leaders like Smith or Young. This is much more defensible. Even in the scriptures it’s not hard to find major figures who are weak or make mistakes. The story of Jonah is the most well known example of this. But I like to bring up Captain Moroni turning on his leaders in the Book of Mormon or even the later Moronis writing on weakness in Ether. For the matter the story of the Nephite religious leaders censoring the story of Samuel until Jesus forces them to include it is a great example. (And frankly easy to relate to the stories of Jonah or even the Good Samaritan)

    For a great example of this style of innovation I love the way Madsens well known talks on Joseph Smith. In many ways it’s still. Dry selective hagiography yet he also emphasizes Joseph’s weaknesses and flaws. I think that’s the sort of innovation we should do more of.

    Comment by Clark — December 7, 2014 @ 1:04 pm


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