Drink Deep: Resources on Early Mormon Plural Marriage

Look, we can’t kid ourselves or others by pretending this never happened. It happened, but there’s no reason to freak out about it.

The early Mormon practice of plural marriage is one of the most controversial legacies of Mormonism. Understandably, many people, including members of the Church, are often troubled by what they hear are seemingly undeniable proofs of Joseph Smith’s lechery and debauchery. Joseph Smith had sex with teenage girls! Joseph Smith sent men on missions and then secretly married their wives while they were away! Joseph threatened eternal damnation to any woman who wouldn’t accept his proposal for marriage! And so the list goes on. You can readily find these and other accusations on a number of Internet websites, as well as in plenty of books.

It’s also understandable that members of the Church who encounter information about Joseph Smith’s practice of plural marriage can feel blindsided. Let’s face it, this sort of stuff isn’t spoken of very much, if at all, in the Church. Either out of simple ignorance or not wanting to have to deal with the often hazy and sensitive history of early Mormon plural marriage, many (most?) Church members, including many I’ve met, adopt something of a “don’t ask, don’t tell” attitude towards the history of Mormon polygamy. We’re over that, they say, so there’s no reason to go back to it. Just read Official Declaration 1 and then move on.

I’ve spoken to a number of individuals who have either left the Church or have gone through a crisis of faith over this issue. While I sympathize with the individuals who have found themselves in this situation, I also make it a point, whenever I get the chance, to ask them what material they’ve read on this topic. Where did they get their information? From whom did they first hear or learn about this? I ask this because I’ve found that, more often than not, many individuals who go through a crisis of faith over early Mormon plural marriage are getting their information from dubious or otherwise highly questionable sources. (I won’t go into it here, but there is a shortlist of the usual suspects that I inevitably hear.) In other words, I feel that a significant contributor to their crisis is that they are perhaps not getting the best information on the topic, or were not practicing good historical research. Historian Steven C. Harper put it this way. Although he was speaking specifically about the accounts of Joseph Smith’s first vision, his comments here also apply to plural marriage.

This combination of seeking by study and by faith enables seekers to discern whether Joseph [told the truth]. The foremost historians [of Joseph Smith] are seekers of the study and faith variety. They are disciplined practitioners of the historical method who were trained in respected universities. By contrast, people who go from belief to unbelief when they confront historical documents are comparatively ignorant of the historical method. Having visited with many of them, I believe that they are genuinely sincere but poorly informed souls who assumed they were well-informed and then found themselves in a crisis of faith when they encountered evidence that overturned their assumptions. They did not practice a disciplined method. They did not seek by diligent, systematic study along with exercising faith. Googling is not a synonym for seeking. (Steven C. Harper, Joseph Smith’s First Vision: A Guide to the Historical Accounts [Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 2012], 11–12, emphasis in original.)

This isn’t to accuse anyone of being lazy or stupid, and I don’t think that’s what Harper is doing. I realize that most normal people, unlike neurotically obsessive compulsive nerds like myself, don’t have time to wade through every academic journal or every 600 page book or every 2 hour long lecture on Mormon history, let alone scrutinize the minutia of highly specific topics within Mormon history like Joseph Smith’s plural marriage. They have families, jobs, social lives, etc., that keep them plenty busy without adding countless hours of reading and research. What this is to say, however, is that it is dangerous to only scratch the surface on a very complex and controversial topic like Mormon polygamy and then give up quickly and assume that there’s no more digging to do. Elder D. Todd Christofferson recently emphasized this at a devotional at BYU–Idaho.

When I say don’t be superficial [in studying Mormon history], I mean don’t form conclusions based on unexamined assertions or incomplete research, and don’t be influenced by insincere seekers. I would offer you the advice of our Assistant Church Historian, Rick Turley, an intellectually gifted researcher and author whose recent works include the definitive history of the Mountain Meadows Massacre. He says simply, “Don’t study Church history too little.” While some honestly pursue truth and real understanding, others are intent on finding or creating doubts. Their interpretations may come from projecting 21st Century concepts and culture backward onto 19th Century people. If there are differing interpretations possible, they will pick the most negative. They sometimes accuse the Church of hiding something because they only recently found or heard about it—an interesting accusation for a Church that’s publishing 24 volumes of all it can find of Joseph Smith’s papers. They may share their assumptions and speculations with some glee, but either can’t or won’t search further to find contradictory information.

Elder Christofferson then went on to quote the English writer Alexander Pope.

A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.

To this end, I have included here what I believe are some necessary sources on early Mormon polygamy. These are the resources that I would strongly recommend as a good counter-weight to the highly problematic stuff you might read online or even in some printed volumes.

1. Hands down the number one fellow to read is Brian C. Hales. Hales has written several articles and three recent books about Joseph Smith’s polygamy. You can check out his website here to purchase his books and find out more about some of the fantastic research he’s been doing lately. Anyone who wants to be up-to-date on what sort of historical research is going on with Joseph Smith’s polygamy must read Hales. His depth and thoroughness is unlike anything previously accomplished by any other researcher. (This is largely thanks to his indefatigable research assistant Don Bradley, whom I’ll mention more about later in this post.) To get an idea of the kind of new stuff Brian Hales has turned up in his research, you can read this article here, a sort of very brief Reader’s Digest version of his three volumes, if you will. This is just a taste of his work, though. Really, do yourself a favor and buy his books.

2. The FairMormon wiki has some extensive resources addressing pretty much every criticism of polygamy that you can think of (see here, here, and here). A good chunk of this material comes from Gregory L. Smith, an acquaintance of mine whom I’ve had the pleasure to work with on some projects at FairMormon and Interpreter.

3. Speaking of Greg Smith, he’s published some excellent material on Mormon polygamy, including an important critique of a volume published a couple of years ago by Signature Books. He also has an article titled “Polygamy, Prophets, and Prevarication” that’s very good, as well as a 2009 FairMormon Conference presentation.

4. Another fine Mormon historian who’s published work on polygamy is Craig L. Foster, another acquaintance of mine from FairMormon and Interpreter. Craig has co-edited the excellent volume The Persistence of Polygamy: Joseph Smith and the Origins of Mormon Polygamy. This volume includes research by Brian Hales, Greg Smith, Craig himself, and others. It’s a must read. My understanding is that this is the first volume in a multi-volume series, and that the next volume on Utah-era polygamy should hopefully be coming out soon. You can also read some of Craig’s thoughts on polygamy scattered throughout this article as well as in this presentation.

5. Ugo Perego is a geneticist who has done extensive work on genetic ancestry testing, including genetic ancestry testing of some of Joseph Smith’s supposed offspring from his polygamous marriages. You can access Ugo’s articles from his website here. To get an idea of the kind of work Ugo has done, you can read this article from the Deseret News. Again, my understanding is that Ugo is conducting further work on this topic.

6. Three articles on Mormon polygamy from Allen Wyatt, Richard L. Anderson, and J. Spencer Fluhman can be found herehere and here.

7. In the way of various media (such as podcasts and videos), I would recommend these.

The first is a 4-part series of interviews of Brian Hales by John Dehlin (which includes Hales giving the insufferable Grant Palmer a good shellacking).

Part 1
Part 2

Part 3
Part 4
There is also this highly informative roundtable discussion about early Mormon polygamy put on by the Interpreter Foundation that features Brian Hales speaking with Craig Foster, Greg Smith, and Andrew Smith.
FairMormon also has podcasts with Brian Hales and Greg Smith that you can listen to here and here.
8. Last but not least, don’t forget that the Church has an article on Utah-era polygamy, which you can read here.

I have never had a crisis of faith over the early Mormon practice of plural marriage. I don’t say this to brag, but to highlight the purpose of this post. Maybe it’s because, as some critics online have assured me, I’m either an idiot who has not looked hard enough at the seedy facts of Mormon polygamy or I’m an insincere, intellectually dishonest liar who knows the truth but is too afraid to acknowledge it. Well, I happen to disagree with these critics. Instead, I am confident that my early exposure (you could say “inoculation,” if you wish), to the facts of early Mormon polygamy–––as early as around 14 or 15 when my father lovingly and patiently walked me through this subject while encouraging me to drink deep from what historical scholarship had to offer–––gave me a good foundation to build on so that when I did later encounter the standard accusations against Joseph Smith I was prepared to face them.

I am therefore confident that, while we won’t know everything about the whys and hows of early Mormon plural marriage in this life, and while there is still reasonable room for further questioning, drinking deep in the above resources will greatly help those who may yet face a crisis of faith or those who are currently experiencing one. Or, for those like me who haven’t and probably won’t experience a crisis of faith over the history of Mormon plural marriage, these resources will at the very least help clarify and illuminate this indelible part of our heritage. Polygamy, after all, is in my DNA. I’m a direct result of it. I have direct polygamous ancestors on my family tree; polygamists like Benjamin F. Johnson and Abraham O. Smoot, to name just two. I owe it to them (to say nothing of Brother Joseph, Brother Brigham, and others, not the least being those faithful sisters who sacrificed so much to live “the Principle”) to understand their story the best that I can.

I’ll conclude with the example of Don Bradley, whom I mentioned earlier, to illustrate my point. You can read Don’s story on the website of the Salt Lake Tribune. It’s quite remarkable. I also had a chance to interview Don for an article that I wrote for the Student Review. In my interview Don mentioned how his onetime paradigm that Joseph Smith was a fraud in it for the sex, money, and power drastically changed as he worked with Brian Hales on his books. Don mentioned to me how he gradually came to see that the deeper he delved into Joseph’s practice of plural marriage, the more he realized that this paradigm was severely undermined by the historical evidence. This in turn led him to question this paradigm and forced him to carefully re-think how he’d previously been approaching his studies of Joseph Smith as an ex-Mormon atheist. Seeing the deficiencies in this paradigm, among other important factors, eventually led Don to rejoin the Church. (Don has joked with me about how ironic it is that many people leave the Church over Joseph Smith’s polygamy, and yet his return to the Church was largely influenced by his research with Brian Hales on Joseph Smith’s polygamy.) Indeed, besides his comments in my article, here’s what Don said to the Tribune.

The questions we ask largely determine the kinds of answers we find. … I had pushed the cynical interpretation [of Joseph Smith] as far as it could go, tried to explain as much as I could using that model, only to find the model ultimately deficient. It could not explain the spiritual power of Joseph Smith and of the faith he founded. … I have no doubt, on historical grounds alone, that Joseph Smith is vastly bigger than the cynical caricature of him and that he was a sincere seeker after truth and a magnanimous soul.

So if you have any fears about drinking deep from LDS history, just look to Brother Bradley as your example.

In the end, though, all I can do with the above material is hopefully point you in the right direction and encourage you to drink deep for yourself.

2 thoughts on “Drink Deep: Resources on Early Mormon Plural Marriage”

  1. "They sometimes accuse the Church of hiding something because they only recently found or heard about it—an interesting accusation for a Church that’s publishing 24 volumes of all it can find of Joseph Smith’s papers."

    Such a jerk thing to say when these documents are just now being made available after more than a century. While the level of transparency of the church has increased significantly in the last 5 years, this is so insulting. Even with this information being made publicly available, it sure won't be discussed at length during church meetings. Otherwise, the church correlation department may as well cease to exist.

    Also, I would refute the concept that those who have faith crises over church history don't do enough digging, more often than not. Certainly people are everywhere on the faith spectrum in the LDS church, but I would venture to say that most people don't just let go of their faith after they read one article on MormonThink or one of the church essays.

    However, that being said, I just don't think that the answer to a faith crisis over these issues is "keep digging." I have gone through a great deal of Brian Hales' website and while it is thoroughly researched and well put together, it still doesn't resolve a lot of the troubling things regarding polygamy. At best, one must accept that God was putting Joseph and Emma through a so-called Abrahamic trial and that was the main reason for this. No other explanation really makes sense from a faithful perspective. I have studied plenty of primary sources on this and at the end of the day, Joseph Smith's polygamy is just disturbing to me.

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