Peculiar Questions Briefly Answered: Charles W. Penrose on Polygamy, Etc.

By February 1, 2008

In the decades following the demise of polygamy, Church leaders were continually called upon to answer questions concerning the practice of plural marriage. The answers provided illustrate the negotiations that these leaders undertook between the presence of the past and demands of the present. I believe that it is simplistic to argue that leaders only downplayed polygamy. Rather, narratives of polygamy were often shaped during this period with not only Protestant America in mind (which led to a marginalizing of plural marriage) but also the RLDS (which led to a centralizing of polygamy in the Mormon past). The following excerpt comes from Charles W. Penrose, “Peculiar Questions Answered Briefly,” Improvement Era 15, no. 11 (September 1912):  [sorry, GospeLink doesn’t give page numbers].

Peculiar Questions Briefly Answered
A letter has been received from Australia propounding some peculiar questions, evidently prompted by persons who desired to provoke controversy rather than to obtain information. This may not have been the motive of the writer of the letter, therefore answers have been sent, brief, but to the point and without detailed explanations. For the benefit of persons who may meet with similar queries but are not familiar with the subjects presented, the questions and replies are published in the IMPROVEMENT ERA, as follows:

Sir:-Your letter of inquiry has been received at the office of the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and this is in reply to the questions which you propound:

Question 1: What is the “New and Everlasting Covenant?”
Answer: The “New and Everlasting Covenant,” referred to in the revelation written July 12, 1843, Doctrine and Covenants, section 132, is the covenant of celestial or eternal marriage “new” to this dispensation, being a matrimonial union for time and all eternity, whereas marriage as previously understood and solemnized in the world was simply until the pair were parted by death.

Question 2: Do you believe that Jesus was married?
Answer: We do not know anything about Jesus Christ being married. The Church has no authoritative declaration on the subject.

Question 3: Do you believe that Adam had more wives than one, either in this world or in the spiritual world?
Answer: We do not know of any wife of Adam excepting Mother Eve.

Question 4: Is plural or celestial marriage essential to a fulness of glory in the world to come?
Answer: Celestial marriage is essential to a fulness of glory in the world to come, as explained in the revelation concerning it; but it is not stated that plural marriage is thus essential.

Question 5: Do you believe that a man who has been polygamously married or married under the law of celestial marriage in your temples, can commit any sin whatever, excepting the shedding of innocent blood, and yet have part and come forth in the first resurrection?
Answer: We believe just what is stated in that revelation concerning persons who have been sealed up unto eternal life but who commit sin that is not declared unpardonable, and in their redemption after they have paid “the uttermost farthing” of the penalty imposed by eternal justice, and have been “delivered unto the buffetings of Satan unto the day of redemption.” (See par. 26, also Matt. 12:31; Mark 3:29; I Cor. 5:5.)

Question 6: Can a Latter-day Saint be a true member of the Church and in good standing, who flatly denies the divinity and authenticity of the revelation on plural marriage?
Answer: No one can be counted a true Latter-day Saint who flatly denies the divinity of a revelation accepted as divine by the Church.

Question 7: Supposing that a true Saint has been married the second time-his first wife being dead-he is sealed to both for time and eternity, does this mean that polygamy will exist in the celestial glory?
Answer: If a man has had more than one wife sealed to him for time and eternity, of course it means that if faithful they will be his in celestial glory, as in the case of Abraham and others whose wives were “given to them of the Lord.”

Question 8: Will not a righteous husband and wife, who have fulfilled every other ordinance, be together throughout eternity, although they have not been sealed in a temple?
Answer: Every righteous husband and wife whom “God hath joined together” by his holy ordinance and authority will be one in eternity if they never saw “a temple.” But the ceremonies of men that God has not appointed have an end when men are dead. (Sec. 132:13-18. However, there are means provided for sealing ordinances in behalf of the worthy dead so that none will lose that which they merit.

Question 9: Do you believe in “blood-atonement,” or in other words, do you accept and believe in the principles taught in Brigham Young’s sermon of 8th of February, 1857, Journal of Discourses, volume 4, pages 219, 220?
Answer: We believe in “blood atonement” by the sacrifice of the Savior, also that which is declared in Genesis 9:6. A capital sin committed by a man who has entered into the everlasting covenant merits capital punishment, which is the only atonement he can offer. But the penalty must be executed by an officer legally appointed under the law of the land.

Question 10: Do you believe that Jesus Christ was begotten by the Holy Ghost, as described in Matthew 1:18-20Luke 1:35?
Answer: We believe that Jesus of Nazareth “was the only begotten of the Father.” It is not stated in either text cited that he was “begotten of the Holy Ghost,” and the contrary is described in Luke 1:35. It was the “power of the Highest” that overshadowed Mary, and Jesus was “the Son of the Highest.” The Holy Ghost came upon her, she “conceived” under the influence of that divine Spirit, but Jesus is nowhere declared as the Son of the Holy Ghost, but as “the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14; Heb. 1:5.) Even the sectarian creeds do not fall into the error that beclouds the minds of some apostates, but say of Jesus that He is the Son of God, “conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary,” etc.

Question 11: Do you acknowledge that the other factions of the Church held or do hold the authority of the priesthood, inasmuch as they honestly fulfil the law of the Church, so far as they understand it?
Answer: There are no “factions of the Church” which was organized April 6th, 1830, and has continued as an unbroken entity and organism from that day until the present. Those persons who go out from the Church no matter how they may establish themselves or what name they may take are not and cannot be parts of the one Church which Christ set up, nor do they hold authority that he recognizes, for that would be contrary to his own repeated declarations, as well as order and common sense.

Question 12: Baptism for the dead-How do we know which of our deceased relatives are to be baptized for, and how do we know when we are to be baptized for them?
Answer: If instead of “we” the questioner had used the word “you,” we would answer: Often by personal revelation, always by the law of kindred and genealogy, and the direction of those divinely appointed to administer the ordinances commanded. It is not likely that he or those who prompted his queries would know anything about these matters.

Question 13: Should there be more than one temple in use at the same time and why? Please give Biblical evidence.
Answer: Yes. There should be as many temples as may be needed for the immense labors in behalf of the dead, for the hearts of the children who have received of the spirit of Elijah are turned to their deceased ancestors, and the hearts of the fathers are turned to their children who can act as saviors for them upon Mount Zion, without whom they cannot “be made perfect,” and there are millions and millions who are awaiting their redemption. It would not matter if there was not a Biblical reference or allusion to this magnificent subject, any more than there is to the colonization of Australia, or the Constitution of the United States. Some folks ought to hunt through the Bible for their own names to be sure they are alive. But let our inquirer read Malachi 4:5, 6; Heb. 11:39, 40; I Peter 3:18-22; I Cor. 15:29; Rom. 11:26; Philip 2:10, 11; Rev. 20:14etc.

Question 14: Do you believe that the President of the Church, when speaking to the Church in his official capacity is infallible?
Answer: We do not believe in the infallibility of man. When God reveals anything it is truth, and truth is infallible. No President of the Church has claimed infallibility.

Question 15: Do you believe that Christ will come to the temple at Salt Lake City, and is Salt Lake City Zion?
Answer: We have no revelation on that matter, nor is it preached or discussed. Any city is Zion that is under control of “the pure in heart.”

Question 16: Why do the elders of your Church use Masonic signs and emblems, and has ‘Mormonism’ anything to do with Free Masonry?
Answer: We might answer: “Because they don’t.” Seriously, Elders or other ministers of the Church, as such, do not use any signs of secret orders. Some of our brethren may be or have been members of the Masonic society, but the Church has no connection with what is called “Free Masonry.”

Question 17: Was Joseph Smith, Jr., a Mason?
Answer: Joseph Smith the Prophet was a Mason.

Question 18: Was Joseph Smith, Jr., a polygamist?
Answer: Joseph Smith introduced and practiced plural marriage. The proofs of this are abundant and complete.
These questions are answered, so that it may not be truthfully claimed that we avoid them. Some of them are not subjects of discussion among the Latter-day Saints, but are brought forward usually by persons who desire to cavil and contend, and rarely from a real desire for information. It is to be hoped that our correspondent is not among that number.

Yours sincerely,
Of the First Presidency.

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Accommodation From the Archives Memory


  1. This reminds me of something I’d read on the FAIR blog. The main differences being, of course, that Penrose was responding to actual pressures and threats, and FAIR primarily responds to anticipated and imaginary threats; and you’re analyzing it here for historical value, David G., whereas FAIR would use this today as a legitimate response to their imaginary enemies.

    Comment by Patrick — February 1, 2008 @ 1:33 pm

  2. Haha, I saw your exchange at FAIR, Patrick.

    Comment by David G. — February 1, 2008 @ 1:34 pm

  3. This is very interesting and informative. Both the questions and the answers say so much about their respective speakers! Thank you for sharing this. 🙂

    “Some folks ought to hunt through the Bible for their own names to be sure they are alive.” — I’m remembering that one! *lol* Methinks Brother Penrose was getting a bit fed up.

    Comment by Proud Daughter of Eve — February 1, 2008 @ 1:47 pm

  4. I like the nuance in your argument David. I think that your work is a nice corrective to earlier scholarship (some of it by yours truly) that focused perhaps too intently on the LDS effort to distance itself from plural marriage in the early 20th century.

    Comment by SC Taysom — February 1, 2008 @ 2:14 pm

  5. SC: I do think that it’s important to pay close attention to the context within which these narratives were constructed. Your work is of course still the best thing on the subject, and it uncovers the “marginalizing” narrative very well.

    Comment by David G. — February 1, 2008 @ 2:31 pm

  6. Thanks for posting this.

    Comment by Eric Nielson — February 1, 2008 @ 2:40 pm

  7. Nice analysis David.

    Patrick, I missed whatever exchange there was, but as one who’s seen internal FAIR emails, I’m not sure it’s accurate.
    “FAIR primarily responds to anticipated and imaginary threats”

    FAIR primarily responds to LDS struggling to contextualize historical or doctrinal questions they have. Real people, real problems. /threadjack

    Comment by Ben — February 1, 2008 @ 2:55 pm

  8. Ben, no they don’t.

    Comment by Patrick — February 1, 2008 @ 3:07 pm

  9. Alright, guys. Take this discussion to the FAIR blog.

    Comment by David G. — February 1, 2008 @ 3:08 pm

  10. Patrick and Ben, please take your threadjack elsewhere.

    David, I’m very interested in Penrose’s analysis in light of Mormon tensions with both Protestant and RLDS (as you point out). Do you see question 15 as a response to RLDS?

    Comment by Christopher — February 1, 2008 @ 3:10 pm

  11. Chris: I imagine that it is, although I don’t know enough about the LDS/RLDS debates over Zion to be sure.

    Comment by David G. — February 1, 2008 @ 3:14 pm

  12. Link to the FAIR post so we can avoid the threadjack here?

    Comment by Clark — February 1, 2008 @ 4:49 pm

  13. Link.



    Comment by David G. — February 1, 2008 @ 5:01 pm

  14. I don’t doubt that question 15 could be a response to the RLDS dominance in Mo. It might also be evidence of the effort to get Mormons to stay in their own countries and not emigrate to “Zion” in Utah. I have encountered a lot of Mormons, although I’m sure this doesn’t apply to anyone in this conversation, who think that this decentralization of the zionic presence was a late effort (ca. 1970s). In fact it was evident in the late nineteenth century.

    Comment by SC Taysom — February 1, 2008 @ 5:32 pm

  15. SC: I agree that the second part of the answer can be read like you’re saying. But the reference to Christ coming to the SL Temple seems to be a reference to the tension between Jackson County and SLC. But I really don’t know enough about that area of LDS/RLDS debates to know for sure how that tension was articulated. I do know that the RLDS made a big deal about going back to Zion. I’ve sent David Howlett the link to the post so hopefully he knows.

    Comment by David G. — February 1, 2008 @ 5:40 pm

  16. SC, David G., and Christopher:
    Yes, I think you are right that this reference was about the RLDS emphasis on gathering to Zion at this point. Joseph Smith III had moved there only a few years earlier and the RLDS church headquarters for was completely transferred from Lamoni, Iowa, to Independence by 1919. The questions from an Australian person sound an awful lot like questions RLDS would be asking LDS in this era. For an RLDS member looking for a fight, these would have been just rhetorical questions, too. I grew up knowing to ask LDS elders questions just like these–and I used to take delight in it. Sorry guys!

    Comment by David Howlett — February 1, 2008 @ 5:54 pm

  17. I wonder how different question six would be answered today. I know plenty of members who “flatly den[y] the divinity of [the polygamy] revelation.”

    Many leaders of Mormon “faction” groups could have answered question 11 and it would have been accurate and legitimate according to their understanding.

    Comment by Rob — February 1, 2008 @ 5:59 pm

  18. David G., ya, you’re right about the SL Temple part. I was going to suggest getting Howlett in on this! I’m glad somebody did it.

    Comment by SC Taysom — February 1, 2008 @ 6:12 pm

  19. Robin: I’ve found a letter from Melvin J. Ballard, written in 1936 or so to a fundmamentalist Mormon, that explicitly said that the church did not with hold temple recommends to persons not believing in the divinity of plural marriage.

    David H.: Thanks for sharing that insight. Although I never actually met an RLDS growing up, I definitely wanted to, for the reasons that you articulate. One of my most shameful memories from my mission was when an RLDS elder called my apartment and left a message saying he wanted to talk with us. As my companion called him back to leave a message, I mumbled in the background that WE were the TRUE church. Needless to say I would not react so now.

    Comment by David G. — February 1, 2008 @ 6:57 pm

  20. The de-emphasis on the gathering is an interesting issue. I always took it as primarily started around the 1920’s – 30’s. But you are right that elements started well before.

    Part of me has often wondered if some of the problems of the Godbeite movement contributed to this. After all that was primarily due to a massive influx of British saints used to having more autonomy than they had in Utah. Part of me wonders if the leadership of the period wanted to avoid those sorts of conflicts.

    Of course the persecutions of the Saints and then the post-manifesto situation obviously had a lot to do with it. What point is there to a gathering if there is to be no practical political and economic kingdom to build up?

    Comment by Clark — February 1, 2008 @ 8:14 pm

  21. I was just going through my notes and came across an item found in Scott Kenney’s Papers (Box 1 Folder 10) that relates. It is a 1914 letter from Charles Penrose to Joseph F. Smith and highlights his concern over the Reorganites.

    It is regarding the interpretation of “Son of Man.” It includes an introductory letter then a five and a half typescript position paper. The introductory letter outlines conflict with an unnamed apostle (most certainly Joseph Fielding) who he asserts is publishing an untenable interpretation of the term, “Son of Man.” Penrose pleads to meet with JFS to discuss the issue. The position paper has point by point arguments that references scripture, source language, and prior church authorities that “Son of Man” doesn’t refer to Jesus Christ’s Divine lineage or Godhood. Instead, it means that he was born from a mortal woman. As well, Penrose states that the unnamed apostle is giving ammo to the enemy, e.g., the “Regorganites” who say that the Utah Mormons worship a man.

    Penrose was at the forefront (with Joseph F. Smith and Talmage) of the systematization of Mormon doctrine for the new century.

    Comment by J. Stapley — February 1, 2008 @ 8:59 pm

  22. Part of me has often wondered if some of the problems of the Godbeite movement contributed to this. After all that was primarily due to a massive influx of British saints used to having more autonomy than they had in Utah. Part of me wonders if the leadership of the period wanted to avoid those sorts of conflicts.

    Clark, that’s an interesting point. It runs counter though to the argument of Steve Fleming, PhD. student in rel. studies at Santa Barbara, who contends that the gathering functioned as a means to ensure that no one would be setting up their own little fiefdoms on the periphery. But I think that you raise a good point about it also having the opposite effect by bringing in strongwilled folks like the Godbeites that clash with the leadership in the metropolis.

    J.: You make a good point about Penrose being in the thick of things. Unfortunately, none of the Bushman fellows from this past year did much with him (we covered the period from 1890 to 1930), although he was mentioned a couple of times in our discussions. He deserves more attention.

    Comment by David G. — February 1, 2008 @ 10:48 pm

  23. apropos Fleming’s argument (which may or may not be accurate, but certainly merits consideration), has anyone done much work on John Greenhow (Liverpool Conf President) and Benjamin Winchester (Phillie church leader)? They seem very similar to each other, both were important writers of semi-doctrinal works in the early period, both were well-versed in Protestant and Christian history (for the period), both drawn strongly by charismatic, NT Mormonism, and both left the church after JSJ died (Winchester may have left slightly before; I’d have to look).

    Comment by smb — February 1, 2008 @ 11:53 pm

  24. sam – Fleming’s done at least some on Winchester, who seems to have been something of a headache. I lost count of how many times he was excommunicated/silenced/suspended in Fleming’s MHA presentation. See here.

    Comment by matt b — February 2, 2008 @ 12:15 am

  25. Matt’s right that Steve has done some good work on Winchester. David Whittaker has also written perhaps the best biographical work on him. John E. Page was another charismatic leader that was active in the branches that worried the brethren in Nauvoo (Fleming also looks at Page). I’m not aware of anything on Greenhow, but I’m not as familiar with the British branches.

    Comment by David G. — February 2, 2008 @ 1:30 am

  26. R. Ben Madison published an article on John Greenhow in the 1995 issue of the JWHA Journal.

    Comment by Justin — February 2, 2008 @ 12:33 pm

  27. Thanks, boys. i think these figures are interesting in an important way that gets missed when our attention is drawn to Hiram Page, Francis Gladden Bishop, and the other wild charismatic dissidents. These more “rationalist” dissidents can tell us a great deal about what it meant to be a Mormon in the antebellum Anglo-American milieu. I will try to read those articles. does anyone have an e-copy of the JWHA 1995?

    Comment by smb — February 2, 2008 @ 2:30 pm

  28. David the problem of fiefdoms or more typically doctrinal and ritual ‘evolution’ certainly are problems of the so-called Mormon diaspora and the end of the gathering. (How often has that story about how folks in Europe changed the sacrament during WWII been told as a kind of support for correlation? — I half wonder if the story is apocryphal anyway) I suspect the emphasis on correlation which after WWII really got going has a lot to do with this. (And of course one could argue that from a ‘corporate’ perspective correlation became essential by the end of McKay’s presidency and the real internationalization of the church)

    However the other problem always is there too. I think though that there really has never been a large mass movement like what we saw with the gathering of British saints in the 19th century. So today the groups that the leadership worries about like the Godbeites just don’t evolve in that fashion. (Think of the worry about Sunstone and private study groups in the 80’s and early 90’s)

    It is interesting to analyze a lot of church practice in terms of these sorts of group dynamics. Of course it only tells a small part of the story. So focusing in on it can be misleading or distorting. But keeping those caveats in mind it can be quite illuminating too.

    Comment by Clark — February 3, 2008 @ 12:43 am


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