The recent news concerning Joseph L. Bishop, the former president of the Provo Missionary Training Center (1983–1986) who admitted to sexual misconduct with one sister missionary and is accused of attempted rape of another, has rightly outraged many. So “serious and deeply disturbing” are the allegations that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints issued an official statement addressing the matter. If in fact Bishop is guilty of what he is accused of (and there is more than just incidental evidence pointing to serious misconduct on his part), then he should be held accountable before a Church disciplinary council. (Due to the statute of limitations in this case, Bishop appears to be unaccountable before the law.)
One of the points many have raised in this case (and many others like it in the growing #MeToo movement) is how important it is to “believe women,” which means essentially “to discard the reflexive disbelief of those who complain — simply because they are women. ‘Believe women’ seeks presumption of innocence from ulterior motives.” Certainly one should not dismiss claims of sexual assault or other crimes just because they are coming from a woman. Nor should one be callous or needlessly skeptical if a woman comes forward with serious allegations just because she’s a woman. At the same time, however, due process for the accused is crucial in order to maintain the integrity of law enforcement and the judiciary. In cases of alleged rape or other forms of sexual violence where emotions understandably run high, it can at times be a very delicate balancing act in impartially dispensing justice based on cold hard evidence and reliable testimony while also attending to the emotional needs of the victim.
That all being said, ex- and otherwise disaffected Mormons with an axe to grind against the LDS Church have been quick to enlist the otherwise sensible “believe women” maxim for their own polemical gains. For instance, in response to the Church’s official statement on this sad affair, which factually related the detail that Bishop’s and his accuser’s accounts conflict with each other, a blogger at Feminist Mormon Housewives thunders: “How dare you signal that [the victim] is not reliable, that because her story differs from the story of her abuser, despite the existence of a tape where he confirms his misdeeds, it’s too complicated for you to figure out and is ‘out of your hands’.” Gina Colvin, another blogger who appears to never miss an opportunity to be critical of LDS Church leaders, insists that “the force and clarity of [Bishop’s] admission have nothing to do with the character or stability of the woman in question. Mormons,” she warns, “don’t you dare spin this to get another sexually abusive religious leader off the hook by making her wear the guilt for what he did.” John Dehlin, an excommunicate who has made himself a name by systematically attempting to undermine peoples’ faith in Mormonism through his podcasting, bemoans that the “victim is now being attacked via the [LDS] church’s PR machine,” by which he means the Deseret News because journalist Tad Walch reported the defence offered by Bishop’s son Greg on his father’s behalf.
In short, many of the Church’s online critics are upset because the Church and its members are (in their view, at least) blaming Bishop’s female victim and denying her any good faith or credit. The Church is guilty of enabling and defending sexual abusers by not believing women such as Bishop’s accuser when they come forward. All of this, of course, plays very well into their larger narrative that the LDS Church is irredeemably abusive, toxic, demeaning, oppressive, and degrading towards women. For these and other antagonists, the LDS Church’s misogyny and exploitation of women begins with Joseph Smith himself. Thus the righteously vindictive ex-Mormon bloggers at Zelph on the Shelf, who in an impressively fact-challenged and condescending “message to Mormons” inform their benighted Latter-day Saint readers that “Joseph Bishop preyed on a vulnerable sexual assault victim who he had authority over and told her nobody would believe her if she told. Joseph Smith preyed on vulnerable girls as young as 12 and told them the salvation of their whole families depended on them marrying him.” They insist that “sexism . . . [has] run rampant throughout [LDS Church] history and still [does].”
Since Zelph on the Shelf brings it up, I think it’s worth taking a quick look at what Joseph Smith’s wives actually had to say about their experience with plural marriage. For this exercise I am going to focus on surviving firsthand statements and testimony given by the wives themselves. Remember, it is of paramount importance to “believe women” when they retell incidents and details about their personal lives. So if we follow how disaffected ex-Mormons have appropriated this principle of “believe women,” then pursuant to the parameters they themselves have established, the following testimonies are beyond dispute, and disbelieving them or otherwise scrutinizing them is nothing less than misogynistic oppression.
Eliza R. Snow is one of Joseph Smith’s more prominent plural wives, given her impressive legacy and contributions to Mormon history. Towards the end of her life she reflected, “Plurality of wives is a great trial. If you want to sit in the courts of heaven, honor polygamy. Don’t suffer your lips to say ought even if you do not believe in it. When I entered it I had no anticipation of ever being acknowledged as a lawful wife. I believed in it because I felt the work was true and I longed to see a prophet. I feel proud that I ever embraced it” (spelling and grammar standardized).
Mary Elizabeth Rollins reported in multiple, lengthy autobiographical sketches that she was visited by an angel as she anguished through a faith crisis when confronted with a proposal by Joseph Smith to enter plural marriage. This visitation and her witnessing other proofs of Joseph’s prophetic ability convinced her to become a plural wife. At the close of her life she recounted additional visitations which reaffirmed her faith: “I want to say to you as I said before that Joseph said if I was faithful, I should see greater things than the angel. Since then I have seen other persons, three came together and stood before me just as the sun went down — Joseph, Hyrum and Heber C. Kimball. It was prophesied that I should see Joseph before I died. . . . It gave me more courage and hope than I ever had before.”
Helen Mar Kimball was fourteen years old when she was sealed to Joseph Smith. (As of yet there is no evidence that their sealing involved sexual behaviour.) One of Helen’s great trials in being sealed to the Prophet at such a young age was her effectively being deprived of a typical romantic and social life for a young woman. Despite her trial of faith, however, Helen would go on to be a fierce advocate for plural marriage, publishing at least two book-length defences of such. In her 1884 volume Why We Practice Plural Marriage, Helen urged polygamist Church members to withstand “the fierce prejudice and old, stereotyped opinions of those who are either too narrow-minded to receive any more or afraid to follow even their honest convictions for fear of the public lash.” She acknowledged that practicing polygamy for her and others “required courage, and a great amount of it, too, to stand and contend against the prejudices and customs of the age,” but nevertheless roused her readers with reassurance of a “courageous and daring spirit that possesses those who will take upon themselves this cross, and endure all that is put upon them, to be numbered with the ones who are so highly honored by the Almighty” (p. 53).
Zina Diantha Huntington was sealed to Joseph Smith in 1841. As with other early Mormon polygamists, accepting plural marriage was a trial of faith for her. She once penned that practicing polygamy was “a greater sacrifice than to give my life for I never anticipated again to be looked upon as an honorable woman” (spelling and grammar standardized). Although her faith was tried, in 1895 she affirmed, “I received a testimony for myself from the Lord of this work, and that Joseph Smith was a Prophet of God before I ever saw him, while I resided in the state of New York, given in answer to prayer. I knew him in his lifetime, and know him to have been a great, true man, and a servant of God. . . . I wish to bear my testimony to the principle of celestial marriage, that it is true.”
Presendia Lathrop Huntington joined her sister Zina in plural marriage in 1841. One contemporary remembered her for being “familiarly associated with the Prophet and his teachings.” According to this source, “She knew Joseph to be a man of God, and she had received many manifestations in proof of this.” This is confirmed by Presendia’s own testimony, such as her 1880 letter to fellow plural wife Mary Elizabeth Rollins wherein she expressed longing for a celestial reunion with her husband and family. “Won’t it be a happy time for us if we can gain the place where Joseph and our loved ones mingle?” She died never “hav[ing] doubted the truth of this great work, revealed in these, the last days.”
Emily Dow Partridge “has one of the best documented of all of Joseph Smith’s plural marriages.” The documentary record for Emily includes an articulate 1899 letter in which she revealed her most personal feelings about her experience practicing polygamy. “Did Joseph Smith, the Prophet claim to have a revelation on polygamy, or plural marriage? … It is a positive fact that he did so claim, and teach, and also practice. I am a living witness of the same. With me it is neither guess work on or hearsay. I had it from his own mouth. To us, it was the word of the Lord. I accepted the pure and sacred principle, and was married, or sealed, to him, as his wife, for time and all eternity.”
Lucy Walker was not only another plural wife to Joseph Smith but also left valuable recollections “of several declarations of Joseph Smith regarding plural marriage.” When she wasn’t reporting others’ views on polygamy, she was leaving her own, such as this statement made in 1905: “When the Prophet Joseph Smith first mentioned the principle of plural marriage to me I felt indignant and so expressed myself to him, because my feelings and education were averse to anything [of that] nature. But he assured me that this doctrine had been revealed to him of the Lord, and that I was entitled to receive a testimony of its divine origin for myself. He counselled me to pray to the Lord, which I did, and thereupon received from him a powerful and irresistible testimony of the truthfulness and divinity of plural marriage, which testimony has abided with me ever since.”
Looking at the collective testimonies of these and other women, one source observes that “although most of the wives left no written record” of their experience with Joseph Smith, “the historical record is [nevertheless] striking for the lack of criticism found among those who had once been Joseph Smith’s plural wives.” This includes the fourteen women who were sealed to Joseph Smith while legally married to a living husband. “No credible accounts from any of the fourteen wives exist wherein they complained about it, even though many complaints about polygamy [in general] are recorded.” These women gave clear, succinct testimony concerning their experiences with Joseph Smith and plural marriage. A number of these women, in fact, reported divine encounters which prompted them to accept his difficult proposal for a plural union. Yes, it was a major trial for them (as it was for Joseph’s first wife Emma). Yes, some rejected Joseph Smith’s proposals. Yes, there remains uncertainty and doubt about the precise nature of some of these women’s relationship with Joseph Smith. Yes, there are completely understandable feelings of unease that linger even a century after the abandonment of plural marriage. But “to assume that Joseph Smith could have callously transgressed his own teachings without disillusioning followers like Brigham Young, John Taylor, Eliza R. Snow, Zina Huntington, and many others is problematic. Most of Joseph’s closest followers were too perceptive to be bamboozled and too religious to become accomplices in a deliberate deception.”1
So for any ex-Mormon to ignore or brush aside these women’s testimonies; to accuse these women of being gullible, manipulatable, or impressionable; to say they were duped by a conniving sexual predator, being too stupid to realize they were being taken in; to deny them their privilege to tell their own story; to invalidate their experience; to silence their voices; to reduce their faith to psychosis or superstition; to scoff at their sincere religious convictions; to posthumously gaslight these strong women by recasting them as little more than helpless victims; to caricature them as being paralyzed by cognitive dissonance; to dispute their intelligence; to besmirch their moral fortitude; to be dogmatically skeptical of their sincerity; or to negate their agency and identity as autonomous women (sexually and otherwise) is to commit gross violence to factual history and is the absolute pinnacle of hypocrisy.
If Gina Colvin and John Dehlin and Zelph on the Shelf want us to “believe women,” or “discard reflexive disbelief” and “seek presumption of innocence from ulterior motives,” that must include believing the intelligent, strong women who made great sacrifices and demonstrated great faith by practicing plural marriage. That must include believing their testimonies concerning Joseph Smith and the religion in which they made their lifelong spiritual home. Otherwise, these professed moral gatekeepers and adversaries of the oppressive patriarchy are guilty of perpetuating precisely the same sexist misogyny they feign to loathe.