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.
38 thoughts on ““Believing Women” Includes Believing Joseph Smith’s Plural Wives”
Well said, Stephen. A more trenchantly inconvenient point for the dubiously self-professed feminists mentioned here could not be made. Let their disingenuous feminism be revealed for what it is. And may all the sexist Mormons who believe the reverse–believing the plural wives while absolving Bishop–flounder in a hypocrisy of the same magnitude.
I have to offer pushback on this. Here would be my key question. Would Stephen Smoot look at a fundamentalist group today where young girls are being married off, and say the same thing? Must he “believe their testimonies” and turn a blind eye to legitimate tragedies and abuses, or else be slandering them in all those ways?
I would think we could agree that in at least some of these communities there are abuses occuring. But the thing is that nobody is blaming or besmirching the poor young girls in those communities either. Nobody is saying they are by nature any more gullible, manipulatable, duped, impressionable, psychotic, superstitious, less intelligent, lacking moral fortitude (I think I got all of Smoot’s specifically used assertions there) than any of the rest of us.
It’s not about besmirching them with any of those presumptions. It’s about recognizing the power that religious systems can have to get people to do tragic things they would never do otherwise. Just last night my wife finished reading a fictional novel (but true to many women’s accounts about their experiences with polygamy) about a young girl who was basically married off to an old man as a second wife. How she had wanted to marry another younger man, but because of messages from her priesthood leaders about the need to be faithful and enter into polygamous marriages, she married this old dude. My wife cried telling me about it. And not specifically because of how bad she felt for this girl, but because it hit her hard that her former believing self, in the same situation as this girl, would have absolutely done all the same things that she did. It made her sick to think of it. So the point is, it isn’t about besmirching these women. It’s a recognition of the power religion can have to manipulate or motivate people to do tragic things that they would NEVER otherwise do. Nobody is saying they are any of the things Smoot is listing. I disagree incredibly strongly with this post.
“Would Stephen Smoot look at a fundamentalist group today where young girls are being married off, and say the same thing? Must he “believe their testimonies” and turn a blind eye to legitimate tragedies and abuses, or else be slandering them in all those ways?”
I would want to do a careful comparison of the relevant evidence, the claims being made, the nature of the testimonies, etc., before I drew any comparisons.
What is significant is that Brian Hales and others, like Craig Foster, have done extensive work on modern Mormon fundamentalism and have found radical differences between how early Mormons and modern fundamentalists practiced polygamy. So immediately I am skeptical that we even have comparable situations.
“So the point is, it isn’t about besmirching these women. It’s a recognition of the power religion can have to manipulate or motivate people to do tragic things that they would NEVER otherwise do. Nobody is saying they are any of the things Smoot is listing.”
But actually you are. You’re basically suggesting these women were brainwashed into submission by manipulative religious leaders. They didn’t think that about themselves or their religious leaders. Maybe these women were indeed brainwashed and manipulated, but if you want to believe that you have to invalidate and gaslight them first.
I have to “invalidate” them in the sense that I think their false religion led them to do things that in some cases were tragic, and which they would never have otherwise done or endured. But it doesn’t have to mean that I belittle them in all the ways you listed. I don’t have to view them as unintelligent, gullible, psychotic, etc any more than I have to consider my former believing self to be those same things. Rather, I simply have to recognize that religions can have unbelievable power over people’s minds, especially when people are conditioned from childhood to believe certain worldview, to be obedient, and to believe they’ll be rewarded for submitting to priesthood authority.
As for comparisons between the LDS and fundamentalist groups, I highly recommend giving consideration to Lindsay Hansen Park’s treatment of the issue:
By cherry-picking quotes, you make it appear that all of these women were happy with polygamy and had a testimony of it. Did you consider Joseph F Smith’s first wife who divorced him over his polygamy? She had some choice words to say on the subject.
When referring to Helen Mar Kimball, you go so far as to state that “As of yet there is no evidence that their sealing involved sexual behavior.” Inferred in your statement seems to be a fear that such evidence may exist. Let’s take a quote from Helen Mar Kimball on the topic: “I would never have been sealed to Joseph had I known it was anything more than ceremony. I was young, and they deceived me, by saying the salvation of our whole family depended on it.” (Mormon Polygamy: A History, p. 53).
Does this sound non-sexual? Given that sealings (polygamist and otherwise) and marriage imply sex, the burden of proof is to show that they did not have sex, not that they did have sex. Are we to also assume that Brigham Young did not have sex with his 56 wives? Brigham taught regularly that he was simply continuing that which was taught and practiced by Joseph.
Polygamist marriages peaked around 1857-1858, the same time as the mormon reformation, mandatory re-baptism for all members, and the Mountian Meadows massacre. This was the the last period of negative growth for the church. Perhaps this was more than a casual correspondence.
The actions of Joseph Bishop are reprehensible, but do not in themselves reflect much on the character of the LDS church. However, the cover-up and denials, the twisting of facts & less than transparent approach to handling this in the many years following the event reflects very negatively on the church. To claim a policy of zero tolerance at the same time that bishops failed to confront the perpetrator of the crime is hypocritical.
“Did you consider Joseph F Smith’s first wife who divorced him over his polygamy?”
That may be, but it’s irrelevant to this post, which is focusing on Joseph Smith (Joseph F. Smith’s uncle).
“Let’s take a quote from Helen Mar Kimball on the topic: “I would never have been sealed to Joseph had I known it was anything more than ceremony. I was young, and they deceived me, by saying the salvation of our whole family depended on it.” (Mormon Polygamy: A History, p. 53).”
That quote actually isn’t from Helen Mar Kimball. It’s a hearsay quote by Catherine Lewis, a disaffected Mormon who published the statement in a volume titled “Narrative of Some of the Proceedings of the Mormons; Giving an Account of their Iniquities.” Doesn’t sound much like an objective, unbiased source to me.
And besides, we must infer that “more than a ceremony” meant sexual relations, since she doesn’t specify what that meant. So you’re making a debatable assumption here (an assumption which is actually contradicted by other evidence).
“Given that sealings (polygamist and otherwise) and marriage imply sex,”
Not always. In some cases the sealings were done explicitly “for eternity,” with no evidence for sexuality.
“Are we to also assume that Brigham Young did not have sex with his 56 wives? Brigham taught regularly that he was simply continuing that which was taught and practiced by Joseph.”
You have evidently misunderstand the nuanced arguments that have been made by researchers like Brian Hales on others on this point. How familiar are you with their work?
“Polygamist marriages peaked around 1857-1858, the same time as the mormon reformation, mandatory re-baptism for all members, and the Mountian Meadows massacre. This was the the last period of negative growth for the church. Perhaps this was more than a casual correspondence.”
This isn’t relevant to my point in the original post.
“However, the cover-up and denials, the twisting of facts & less than transparent approach to handling this in the many years following the event reflects very negatively on the church.”
What is your evidence that the Church is guilty of this?
Your post is about polygamy, and your claiming that other arguments relating to polygamy including how it was practiced by Brigham Young, Joseph F. Smith and in the 1850s is irrelevant to your article. I disagree.
You do however argue well, which is good, because it takes someone who is competent in arguing well to defend such a tenuous position as the righteousness of polygamy by a person who repeatedly lied about it throughout his life.
Regarding the cover-up by the church, I learned just tonight that they have updated their original press release. Evidently I am not the only one who thinks that the original release was disingenuous. A few take-aways from the original release:
1) “If the allegations of sexual assault are true, it would …. result in action by the Church to formally discipline any member who was guilty of such behavior.” As has now been verified, many of the allegations were in fact true, and neither formal nor informal discipline was given.
2) “…this former Church member, who served briefly as a missionary in 1984…” By calling them a ‘former member’ and publishing that they did not complete their mission, the church has slandered the victim to all active members.
3) “They listened carefully to the claims being made and then this was immediately reported to the Pleasant Grove Police Department, and the police interviewed her at that time. ” This message seems to infer that after hearing about the alleged rape, they reported the rape to the police. In fact, they are referring to the death threat that the woman made against her abuser. The rape allegation was not taken seriously.
4) “The matter resurfaced in 2016 when the same individual contacted a stake president in Pueblo, Colorado…” The church apparently did nothing at this time. Why do they fail to state this?
5) “…again a few weeks ago in January 2018” The statement, made on Mar 20th is probably at least 7 weeks after the church was contacted with the recording. Calling it a “few weeks” is inaccurate and meant to make the reader more forgiving of the church.
6) “Not surprisingly, the stories, timelines and recollections of those involved are dramatically different” Actually, as we have recently learned, this statement is false. Bishop has admitted to at least requesting to see the woman’s breasts and talking to her about similar topics.
7) “We have no record of an interview between Elder Carlos E. Asay (1926-1999) and this individual. ” Lack of a record does not mean that it did not occur. At least that’s what the church claims about archaeological evidence for the book of mormon and DNA evidence about Laminates. The church does know that the woman contacted her bishop at the time (about 1987), something which they left out of the article and which the woman’s bishop has confirmed.
8) “The Church, as a religious organization, does not have the investigative tools available to law enforcement agencies.” This to me is a bit of a red herring. No one is asking them to do a criminal investigation. However, they have not even questioned the reported abuser seriously or put together any kind of church discipline, in spite of at least two accusers.
9) “the Church is continuing its investigation of this individual’s claims and will act consistent with its long-standing policy of no tolerance for abuse.” What is this policy? When did it begin? What does it entail? In this case they have clearly continued to tolerate abuse even after it has been brought to their attention at least 3 times. To me this seems like this is the ‘no true scotsman’ falicy. The church clearly does not tolerate abuse, so abuse must not have occurred.
This is only 1 of 4 official or semi-official releases. You also have the updated news release from the 23rd and at least two Deseret News articles. The first one was a significant cover-up and is at least as troubling as the above news release. If you are a believing member and willing to accept leaders as the ultimate source of truth, then perhaps you can continue to view this in a positive light. But from an outside perspective, the releases from the 20th to the 22nd to me look like a cover-up and victim blaming.
That’s exactly the point, you don’t know what these women said in private vs public. Back in those days women had zero opportunities to earn a living and couldn’t even own property. Some would say anything to keep a roof over their head and food on the table. If they were to exist today and choose to stay in that relationship, they would be called ‘desparate’. Where the manipulation comes in is just take a look at girls escaping polygamy today, if you have to find someone with a running car and you escape in the middle of the night with a backpack, that’s no different than sex trafficking. Tell me these men aren’t marrying these women for sex and I have a bridge in Arizona to sell you. It is quite telling that women weren’t allowed to marry more than one man as the same right as men. Anyone who starts their conversation with ‘God told me to do it. Think again, as it sounds more like the devil and false profit to me.
“Would Stephen Smoot look at a fundamentalist group today where young girls are being married off, and say the same thing?”. i doubt he would. There are seemingly endless first hand accounts from former wives of Warren Jeffs, for example, who have vehemently testified how he was abusive and creepy. Heck there are first hand accounts of him molesting young girls. One was his own daughter who was spoke out saying he would molest her and show her pornographic images etc. These are credible first hand accounts. The accusations against Joseph Smith were slim and far between, from those he was sealed to, and many of those were from decades later and/or not first hand accounts.
I think there are more accounts like that than you think. They just don’t come from believers, but rather from “antagonistic sources,” and are thus dismissed. But the bigger point I want to make is that we my key point doesn’t require us to use an example as extreme as Warren Jeffs in order to be valid. Although some common themes can be found that are worth exploring, I wouldn’t put Joseph on the same level. There are young girls in polygamist traditions today who have a full testimony of all the disturbing things that are occurring to them. But again, this doesn’t indicate that these girls are any less intelligent or any more gullible than you or I, it is just a testament to the power religion can have to make people do things they would never otherwise do, and things most outsiders would consider tragic and abusive.
I believe their testimonies of factual events, and I draw my own conclusions about the moral implications. Clearly women were coerced to marry Joseph.
Your being quite selective in the facts you present.
Let’s take the example of Lucy Walker, as documented by LDS historians Brian and Laura Harris Hales. Joseph Smith told this 15-year-old girl that God commanded her to marry him, and here’s how she responded:
“Gross darkness instead of light took possession of my mind. I was tempted and tortured beyond endurance until life was not desirable. Oh that the grave would kindly receive me, that I might find rest on the bosom of my dear mother. Why should I be chosen from among thy daughters, Father, I am only a child in years and experience, no mother to counsel [she died in January, 1842]; no father near to tell me what to do in this trying hour [he was on a mission to a warmer climate to help his health]. Oh, let this bitter cup pass. And thus I prayed in the agony of my soul.” (http://josephsmithspolygamy.org/plural-wives-overview/lucy-walker/)
After months of increasing presure from Smith, who threatened her eternal salvation, she finally relented and married him. What other choice did she have?
“After months of increasing presure from Smith, who threatened her eternal salvation, she finally relented and married him. What other choice did she have?”
This is a distortion of Lucy’s experience:
Stephen, you clearly lack depth of understanding and maturity as it concerns sexual abuse, grooming and the emotional, mental and in this case spiritual manipulation which is employed with it.
I am not endorsing the groups and individuals you felt to ad hominem attack, but their hypocrisy is actually not that at all. Abuse of any kind of women by men in authority cannot be tolerated, seems to be their message.
Setting aside the glaring doctrinal problems of polygamy, in Smith and his successor’s case you will have some women who didn’t feel abused by them, and others that clearly did. You chose to be selective in order to take a shot at alleged hypocrites. (Which on a side note: Why do you continue to engage and attack people you feel are beneath you anyway?)
In this post are inadvertantly highlighting one of the major reasons why Joseph Smith’s polygamy should be condemned. It was institutional, spiritual, sexual abuse by men wielding unrighteous dominion of the worst kind over others.
Stick to your middle-eastern studies. Even then you’ll see examples of the types of abuses you glorified in this post.
“Stephen, you clearly lack depth of understanding and maturity as it concerns sexual abuse, grooming and the emotional, mental and in this case spiritual manipulation which is employed with it.”
“I am not endorsing the groups and individuals you felt to ad hominem attack”
If I had a dime for every time someone on the Internet misuses the phrase “ad hominem attack” I’d be able to pay off my student loans.
“Abuse of any kind of women by men in authority cannot be tolerated, seems to be their message.”
This message is such a low moral bar to clear. What’s next? A message that cannibalism is bad? A message that kicking puppies should not be defended? Nobody thinks abusing women is a good thing. Not the LDS Church. Not I. What is being disputed is whether the LDS Church as an institution is toxic for women, and also whether Joseph Smith was guilty of abusing women, or, at the very, very least, that he was guilty of abuse at the level that is often attributed to him.
“Setting aside the glaring doctrinal problems of polygamy, in Smith and his successor’s case you will have some women who didn’t feel abused by them, and others that clearly did.”
Okay so which of Joseph Smith’s wives felt abused by him?
“Which on a side note: Why do you continue to engage and attack people you feel are beneath you anyway?”
Because I don’t think hypocritical, meme-hustling, barely-literate ex-Mormons on the Internet should be allowed to define the narrative concerning the very complex issue of Joseph Smith’s practice of plural marriage. Believe me, I don’t get any pleasure in doing this, but I feel compelled to say something when I see torrents of half-truths, misinformation, and spin pass as straightforward facts.
“In this post are inadvertantly highlighting one of the major reasons why Joseph Smith’s polygamy should be condemned. It was institutional, spiritual, sexual abuse by men wielding unrighteous dominion of the worst kind over others.”
“Stick to your middle-eastern studies.”
So long as we’re calling people out to stick to their lanes, then can I call out Zelph on the Shelf (Samantha Snyder, Tanner Gilliland, and Connor Snyder) to shut the hell up about things of which they have absolutely no qualification to speak on, like, basically anything pertaining to Mormon history or scripture, or the fields related thereto?
Also for the record, my Master’s degree is in Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations with a concentration in Egyptology, but thank you all the same. I plan on graduating in two weeks. Excited to see what the future holds!
First of all, I agree with your main point (i.e., there is some hypocrisy involved in not taking the stories of JS’s wives at face value but doing so for other victims). My pushback (none of which would necessarily overturn your main point) runs along these lines:
1. Many of those who disagreed most about polygamy likely felt immense social pressure to not speak up/out about their experiences. For instance, we have almost no words on the matter from Nancy Marinda Johnson Hyde. Those who did speak out about polygamy likely felt immense social pressure to speak of it in favorable terms.
2. Since it is related to how women’s stories were received during the polygamy era, we probably shouldn’t neglect Marth Brotherton’s experience with polygamy and how she was treated after refusing to enter the institution. Her experience offers a window into the kind of choice the brides had that accepted polygamy (i.e., what kinds of consequences might befall someone who did not accept an offer of polygamy?).
We should remind ourselves that Brotherton’s affidavit is almost certainly factual, at the very least in its general outline.
Joseph Smith referred to her story as “lies”:
> Pres’t. J. Smith spoke upon the subject of the stories respecting Elder Kimball and others, showing the folly and inconsistency of spending any time in conversing about such stories or hearkening to them, for *there is no person that is acquainted with our principles would believe such lies*, except Sharp the editor of the “Warsaw Signal.”
Then, Joseph Smith was primarily responsible for distributing affidavits against Bennett which included sound denunciations of Martha Brotherton’s affidavit from BY (“the affidavit…is a base falsehood”) and HCK (“the affidavit…is false and without foundation in truth”). They even enlisted Martha’s SIL and sister to tongue lash Martha in defense of the good names of the Brethren (“Martha Brotherton is a deliberate liar, and also a wilful inventor of lies”).
Finally, following in the footsteps of JS, BY, and HCK, Parley P. Pratt would also go on to defame Brotherton in the most vigorous terms for daring to suggest the these brothers were practicing polygamy.
The irony in all of this is that the only person who told the truth was Martha, and the later history/actions of everyone involved would vindicate Martha:
* BY would eventually have Brotherton sealed to him
* PPP would eventually take Elizabeth Brotherton as a polygamous wife.
* JS lied repeatedly about practicing polygamy, but he was doing it nonetheless!
* HCK ended up marrying a total of 43 women
3. Most of your statements are later recollections that fail to capture the horror some of these women felt as it was playing out. Consider how HMK describes how she felt during the arrangement:
> Just previous to my father’s starting upon his last mission but one, to the Eastern States, he taught me the principle [p. 1] of Celestial marriage, & having a great desire to be connected with the Prophet, Joseph, he offered me to him; this I afterwards learned from the Prophet’s own mouth. My father had but one Ewe Lamb, but willingly laid her upon the alter: how cruel this seamed to the mother whose heartstrings were already stretched untill they were ready to snap asunder, for he had taken Sarah Noon to wife & she thought she had made sufficient sacrafise, but the Lord required more. I will pass over the temptations which I had during the twenty four hours after my father introduced to me this principle & asked me if I would be sealed to Joseph, who came next morning & with my parents I heard him teach & explain the principle of [p. 1] Celestial marrage-after which he said to me, “If you will take this step, it will ensure your eternal salvation and exaltation & that of your father’s household & all of your kindred.
> This promise was so great that I will-ingly gave myself to purchase so glorious a reward. None but God & his angels could see my mother’s bleeding heart—when Joseph asked her if she was willing, she replied “If Helen is willing I have nothing more to say.” She had witnessed the sufferings of others, who were older & who better understood the step they were taking, & to see her child, who had scarcely seen her fifteenth summer, following in the same thorny path, in her mind she saw the misery which was as sure to come as the sun was to rise and set; but it was all hidden from me.
Which feelings are more relevant when asking about potential abuse: the horror many of these women felt when being pressured to enter into these arrangements, or their later reflections after they have come to peace about the situation and when they are living in a society where defense of polygamy was socially rewarded and polygamy had become an ideological battleground of existential proportion?
4. _Regardless_ of how participants may have felt about polygamy, many of Joseph Smith’s actions are ethically problematic. Later acceptance of polygamy does nothing to address the ethical problems with how Joseph enacted polygamy.
* Joseph had a second sealing performed to the Partridge sisters in order to hide the first sealings from Emma. Does it matter, ethically speaking, that the Partridge sisters were okay going along with this deception?
* Joseph’s 3rd proposal to Zina came when she was a 7 month preganant newlywed. Under what ethical system is okay to proposition a 7 month pregnant newlywed for sealing? Her eventual acceptance that this was God’s will does nothing to absolve Smith. In that situation, there is immense pressure to generate spiritual experiences validating the proposal because, otherwise, the proposal is abominable and invalidates the woman’s entire worldview.
* Emma viewed Joseph’s relationship with Fanny as adulterous, suggesting that Joseph didn’t get adequate buy-in from Emma. This is ethically problematic.
* After the death of the Walker family’s mother, Joseph Smith volunteered to act as foster parent to the four oldest Walker children, encouraging the father to leave on a two year mission to the eastern states. While the father was away, he married the 17 year old, Lucy. Under these circumstances, she should not have been made to feel pressured into this situation, regardless of her later disposition towards polygamy.
See https://mormonbandwagon.com/bwv549/five-key-facts/ for sources.
This is much more responsible critique that raises genuinely good points worth discussing.
Unfortunately I cannot do such right now since I am pressed for time and my polygamy library is some 3,000 kilometers away from me at the moment. (I can only go off of what I have online and on my hard drive until I retrieve my library next month.)
But thank you for adding a comment to this discussion that is actually constructive and engages with my central argument, and doesn’t just rehash Internet slogans.
This is such a well thought out piece. Of course we should listen to and honor and validate the testimony of these women!
We should listen to honor and validate the testimony of the Women who went in with Marshall Applewhite – they also need to be respected!
Because we have to take all these people at their word without taking into consideration is the were denied informed consent, subject to indoctrination or undue influence. Those things can’t possibly affect someones perspective or their consent to and support of unorthodox actions.
Don’t you have shitty Nazi memes to make, dude? Why waste your time here?
Oh you’re trying to be clever and make an informed argument.
Better stick to your meme-making day job.
All I can say is WTF is wrong with you?????!!!
It all started when I moved to Canada. Something in the poutine, I suspect.
Nice post and comments Stepehen!
Great blog, Stephen. Well stated and fact-filled.
Speaking of believing women, I will give one example I observed while living in Utah as a BYU student. It contains severe sexual abuse so please be advised.
TRIGGER WARNING: SEXUAL ABUSE
There was a man in Utah who had his legal wife and three daughters in Vegas on the weekends, but lived in Utah during the week for work.
He lived with a woman and her several children, their mother as his second wife. Their father wanted to stay in their lives but this man scared him off with death threats.
The kids grew up under his abusive dictates and while he claimed their sister as his additional “spiritual wife” when she was 11 years old, raping her on a regular basis.
By the time she was 19, her older brothers had returned from missions and started their families. By this point, the lifelong conditioning of their stepfather had loosened its hold on them enough that they rescued their sister.
She went to the police and a letter was sent to the First Presidency. He was swiftly excommunicated and eventually convicted. Their sister suffers from devastating trauma.
All this time he had been an active member of the church, both in Vegas and Utah. He had ample help in the D&C and in church history to do what he did, to convince the mother of his stepchildren that he was doing right.
Polygamy and the instructions for it are still in the LDS scriptures. The Law of Sarah is still in D&C 132, and if you look closely, you see the church denied polygamy in public and scripture while it was being practiced.
What does that denial mean when combined with current scripture? It tells would-be abusers that despite the Church publicly denying polygamy now, one can still have God’s permission and the church’s silent approval, just don’t get caught.
I shared this story on social media, and a friend came forward. She had her own story of a man pursuing minors to be his polygamous wives, because of the church’s mixed messages.
The church still plants these seeds that grow and are used as power to victimize women. Knowing how history impacts currently is one of the aims of studying it, right?
BWV549 brings up some very good points. Stephen asked me to offer some observations.
1. Undoubtedly social pressures were important in Nauvoo and later in Utah in grooming female responses. Yet, seven of JS’s plural wives left the Church and they did not leave any criticisms. I think it is less plausible to believe that these women were so gullible that they would accept immoral activities veiled as religion. Their early and late comments treat polygamy as a religious practice.
2. I think BWV549’s discussion of Martha Brotherton is incomplete. JCB’s fingerprints are all over the affidavit. Yet, I believe many of the details are accurate. The campaign to discredit Martha did not come after she refused polygamy and left Nauvoo (going to St. Louis), it came months later after JCB helped her write the affidavit and publish it.
3. Bennett wrote in HISTORY OF THE SAINTS that JS would destroy the reputation of any woman who turned him down. This is not true. We have accounts from several women who spurned a plural proposal and the only reason we know about it is because they later wrote about it.
4. As in the case of Brotherton and also Sarah Pratt (and to a lesser extent Jane Law), JS aggressively defended himself, which included attacking claims he considered to be untrue (please see my trilogy vol. 1-2 for more discussion). I maintain if these women had stayed silent, JS would have stayed silent too.
5. Virtually all Nauvoo females did not like polygamy. Mary Isabella Hales Horne recalled: “The brethren and sisters were so averse to polygamy that it could hardly be mentioned.” Bathsheba B. Smith remembered: “We discussed it [polygamy]… that is, us young girls did, for I was a young girl then, and we talked a good deal about it, and some of us did not like it much.” Many other quotes could be recruited.
6. In my writings, I DO NOT defend polygamy. It is sexist and unfair. As observed by BWV549, it is unethical in many ways and in my opinion always will be for mortals. It is essentially impossible to practice it in the western world without being accused of unethical conduct.
7. JS was not perfect. D&C 132:56 admonishes Emma to forgive him for his trespasses. In my writings I DO defend Joseph Smith as an imperfect but worthy prophet.
8. Zina Huntington was according to her brothers, sealed to JS “for eternity” in a nonsexual sealing. Her legal husband remained true to JS as did she.
9. I believe Emma learned about time-and-eternity sealings (with sexuality) in the spring of 1843. She and Oliver Cowdery plainly believed the Fanny Alger relationship was adultery. However, the people Fanny told about the union considered it a plural marriage. The historical record contains contradictory evidences.
10. Since Lucy Walker’s father was away on a mission, the Prophet approached her brother, William Holmes Walker before proposing. William remembered that in the early 1840s, he rode to Nauvoo to visit his ailing mother: “In the spring of 1843, my father, being away on a mission, the Prophet asked my consent, for my sister Lucy in Marriage. I replied that if it was her choice: that if she entered into the Celestial order of marriage of her own free will and choice, I had no objection.”
11. While observers today may claim JS victimized Helen Mar Kimball, Lucy Walker, the Partridges, or other of his plural wives, their later statements indicate they would strongly disagree because they all continued to defend in his prophetic role. Perhaps observers today are more discerning, but I don’t think so.
Thanks for weighing in. In reference your last point–which I think is the key theme of Smoot’s writeup–I think there is another fundamental point that should be considered.
Can we agree that there are many people in the world who–because of various influences on them–would not view themselves as victims in any way even though you and I would view them as being in tragic or abusive situations in varying degrees? For example, can we agree that it would be quite common for a 15 year old girl being married off to some 48 year old dude who already has 2 wives in some polygamous sect to feel that everything is perfectly normal? Or even if she despises the situation in many ways–perhaps sees it as a huge trial–to still claim to believe that her situation is truly something God has required (through a prophet she fully believes in) and will “bless” her for doing?
My heart can break for these women while still respecting them, and recognizing that they are just embedded in religious traditions that have huge influence over them–something I can relate with because I’ve been there. I’d have endured all sorts of nonsense that would rob me of happiness because I believed the church was true.
Anyway, doesn’t this undermine the whole core argument being made? That you and I can consider people to be in tragic situations even if those same people may not be able to see it? In my mind it does.
There is literally nothing wrong with LDS polygamy. #loveislove #lovewins
Brian already covered many aspects of your reply. He called the practice unethical. You add in more elements of presentism: judging the past by today’s standards. Nearly all of these women didn’t see themselves as victims. Stephen’s point is we should believe and not distort their own stories. You seem to wanna insist that they, nevertheless, were still victims.
One could also argue that all the women today — teenage girls having sex, unmarried adult women having sex, cohabitation with or without children, single moms living with boyfriends, and many other similar against-the-commandments situations — don’t realize the gravity of their situations. Don’t realize that they’re victims of a “liberated” age. But are they unknowing victims themselves? What would someone say in 1000 years if they’ve stabilized into a more moral framework? Today’s attitude toward sex is very harmful and has created lots of victims, most of whom today would deny they’re victims.
In fact, according to our current cultural values, these women are only acting out what is permissible in a society that has few borders and boundaries. However, they will, in many cases, face diverse and often very severe less-than-ideal consequences for their actions. Sadly, few have the moral courage to call out these far-from-ideal behaviors and practices today.
Perhaps before you apply victim status to Joseph’s wives by strongly applying your standards, consider applying your former standards (LDS Law of Chastity) to current trends women follow. Are girls and women today victims of an awful culture that doesn’t value virtue?
I’m not arguing women today are more victimized than polygamous wives. Each practice (polygamy and free love) has its unique flaws. But our culture has created a view about sex that is very harmful to women, in my opinion. Of course, not only would many women object to my line of reasoning, they’d protest and riot in response to my statements about the current status of sexuality in our culture. But these liberated, free-loving girls and women often find themselves in worse situations than their married and/or chaste peers. And worse off than their ancestors who were monogamous or in some cases polygamous. Victims of a lie? I think so.
Every age has its context, mores, and cultural norms. Our age lacks moral clarity. And unknowing victims are created regularly.
Neal, all your thoughts on modern sexual standards aside, it seems to me you just confirmed my key point. You’ve demonstrated that you do the very same thing. You say that women who don’t share your sexual standards are victims even though most of them would disagree with you. Doesn’t this run contrary to Stephen’s point here? Why must I agree with Stephen’s point if you don’t?
For the record, it isn’t polygamy itself that I have a problem with. I think some women might actually find greater happiness in it (probably not most), and to them I say go for it! I wouldn’t say that all LDS polygamist women were victims. But there is soooo much in LDS polygamy history that I think would cause even most believers to mourn if they hear it, and I think most of those same women involved in those stories would absolutely tell you they had a “testimony” of what was happening, or of their leaders, that they felt privileged to do it despite the difficulty, etc. I can believe their beliefs in those things were sincere and still feel terrible for them (in varying degrees).
The two main things I find tragic in LDS polygamy are
1. That so many women clearly didn’t want to do it and found it to be a great trial, and yet did it anyway because of their religious beliefs (as someone who sees Mormonism as false, of course I will see that as tragic), and in many instances they did it because of pressures put on them by that religion or their leaders. Promises of salvation for them or their families. Belief that God required it. A culture that heavily engrains in people that submitting to priesthood leaders is paramount. And worse of all, a religion whose sacred text says that if they don’t consent to it, God will “destroy” them. AND…that if they don’t consent, their husbands are “exempt from the law of sarah” and can do it anyway–so they might as well try really hard to get voluntarily on board!
2. The age factor. However we feel about polygamy itself, I maintain that grown men courting young women whose frontal cortices haven’t even fully developed yet is something we should oppose. I believe the difference in maturity between a grown man and a young woman (we could discuss what age is a decent guideline) is such that if grown men are allowed to court them it could put the young woman at significant risk of being manipulated, taken advantage of, or being convinced to make choices that–if they could see an alternate reality they could have had–would eventually very much regret. It puts the older person in the relationship in a position of power. Whether you think this was all culturally acceptable in Joseph’s day or not, I hope we can agree today that it was a sad reality. Joseph had 10 wives under age 20, and if I remember correctly there is at least one account where he appears to have started grooming one girl when she was as young as 12 (and later married her shortly after she married and had a baby with another man). Lorenzo Snow is another creepy example. Dude married 16 year olds at age 44 and 57. 17 year olds at 34 and 43. And two other 18 year olds while over age 30. And there are tons of other examples.
Are you outraged at the several European nations have the age of consent at 14? If you aren’t please explain why.
Just a friendly reminder that none of these critics actually care about this woman but rather are salivating at the thought of using her experiences as a way to publicly flog the church and hope to uncover some vast conspiracy that will finally undo LD$ INC!
If Chief Anti-Apostle J. D-Train was the leader of a movement to which I subscribe, I would be depressed beyond compare, which leads me to feel compassion for his flock. The exchanges on his Facebook page reveal a sort of hell on earth echo chamber about the big bad church, the ruminating in which, can’t but undermine one’s own psychological well-being. Which wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing in and of itself but for the fact that just about everything claimed is a gross distortion of reality, geared for maximum rhetorical impact.
Some of those above need to review what an ad hominem fallacy is.
Please take a couple minutes. This guy keeps it simple:
Thank you for the thoughtful response, Brian. I respect your contributions to LDS scholarship, and, I think that in pursuit of truth the faithful perspective should be vigorously defended, and you’ve done an excellent job of defending that narrative given the available data.
1. I concede the point that the women who engaged in polygamy with JS viewed it as a religious practice. Minor pushback: Polygamy was viewed unfavorably by society at large, so leaving the institution and then calling attention to the fact that a person had engaged in polygamy would not have necessarily seemed wise, even if they had wanted to criticize the practice. Still, the point stands.
2. > JCB’s fingerprints are all over the affidavit.
What, in Brotherton’s affidavit do you believe was influenced by Bennett? What aspects of her affidavit do you believe may be inaccurate? More importantly, do those innacuracies undermine the primary claim of the affidavit (i.e., she was propositioned by BY with the help of JS and told to keep it secret)? What prevented LDS leadership from correcting the inaccuracies specifically, rather than throwing Brotherton under the bus completely? Aren’t LDS priesthood leaders expected to reprove with sharpness (aka “precision”) per D&C 121.
> it came months later after JCB helped her write the affidavit and publish it.
Joseph Smith and Hyrum both discredited Martha in GC (April, I think) before her affidavit was published (August, if I remember correctly). It _was_ after rumors had spread, so this is a point of minor clarification. Your main point stands: the data suggest that women were not discredited publicly until their story became public.
Finally, are you okay that women were libelled by early LDS leaders for publicly sharing that they were propositioned? From Martha’s standpoint, she was clearly standing for truth and to be a voice of warning (i.e., “LDS leaders say they aren’t practicing polygamy, but they are! Beware.”).
3. I concede this point, although, in general, I have no interest in trying to defend Bennett’s claims (too many inaccuracies and wild exaggerations). I will note that a deeper examination of these spurned proposals hardly redeems the character of Joseph Smith (https://thoughtsonthingsandstuff.com/defending-the-expositor-joseph-and-the-women-who-said-nope-a-response-to-brian-hales-part-2/) and another analysis of the consequences women faced when attempting to reject a proposal is worth consideration (https://thoughtsonthingsandstuff.com/defending-the-expositor-indecent-proposals-pt1/)
4. > As in the case of Brotherton and also Sarah Pratt (and to a lesser extent Jane Law), JS aggressively defended himself, which included attacking claims he considered to be untrue (please see my trilogy vol. 1-2 for more discussion).
I am happy to engage with any documentation that is publicly available. I’ve read most everything you have posted online and have spent a while digging in mormonpolygamydocuments, so I am comfortable suggesting that you have not directly addressed these problems yet:
A. Joseph Smith’s conference talk denouncing Brotherton constitutes a lie (two claims were discussed, one likely an exaggeration and one of them was absolutely true; Joseph denounced the claims in totality and besmirched Brotherton in doing so).
B. Joseph Smith encouraged the spreading of the affidavits against Bennett. These included multiple lies against Martha Brotherton’s statement, and Joseph Smith would have known those statements were false and misleading.
> I maintain if these women had stayed silent, JS would have stayed silent too.
Do you believe that a woman deserves to be publicly called a liar if they accurately report a private proposition in order to shed light on a system of dishonesty (e.g., they say they aren’t doing polygamy but they are)? Even if they felt compelled by the circumstances initiated by the propositioner to promise that they would keep the proposition a secret?
6. Noted and agree.
8. > Zina Huntington was according to her brothers, sealed to JS “for eternity” in a nonsexual sealing. Her legal husband remained true to JS as did she.
What impact did this sealing have on the relationship between Zina and Henry Jacobs? To whom will Zina’s children (2 from Henry and one from BY) belong in the eternities? What moral goods were brought about as a result of this sealing? What moral harms were experienced?
Perhaps more importantly, the pattern of sealings in the first 2 years (of which Zina was a part) could hardly be characterized as promoting anything other than plural marriage itself. See https://www.reddit.com/r/mormon/comments/85fvza/the_primary_focus_of_the_sealing_ceremony_in_its/
So, in its first 2 years, the “sealing” was not focused on linking families together, but linking polygamous wives to priesthood leaders. (This changed in the spring of 1843, perhaps related to when PPP was introduced to the practice)
10. I’m aware that permission was granted by the older brother. I don’t think brotherly permission fully exculpates JS in his duties as foster parent. It’s hard to imagine anyone objectively analyzing JS’s conduct in this case and agreeing that this arrangement was in Lucy’s best interest (even if polygamy were a true principle). Again, the feelings Lucy had upon receiving this proposal are a good indicator of how ethically problematic this proposal was in its structure. JS may have executed it as a perfect gentleman, but it was the proposal itself, under those circumstances, that makes it ethically problematic.
Also, was JS equally concerned that the Walker brothers receive their sealing?
11. This is a great point in defense of polygamy and JS. And, while I think it will hold much water for believing members, I think it does not go far enough because:
A) statements of these women about their _initial_ experience, thoughts, and feelings are more germane to the question of undue influence than later acceptance of the practice. To restate, undue influence is more about power dynamics and the manner in which decisions are presented to participants hence statements detailing the proposition experience itself are more relevant than later statements showing support of polygamy (I concede these are still relevant, just less so, IMO).
B) We can point to other groups whose adherents fully bought into an ethically problematic system (e.g., scientology, heaven’s gate, Jonestown, Branch Davidians, FLDS, etc). Adherent acceptance of a practice does not necessarily mean it was ethical.
Thank you again for the discussion and for considering these points.
@BrianHales and bwv549:
An on-topic discussion that is respectful with both of the parties conceding points and engaging in an intelligent conversation? This has got to be a first on the internet. Many sincere thanks to both of you for your excellent research and taking the time to have a thoughtful, meaningful debate.
D&C 42:80 provides the burden of proof needed for a church disciplinary council, absent the member’s own confession.
I hope evidence is always required both for church and civil matters — we must never condemn a fellow Saint or fellow citizen based on an accusation alone. The sooner a victim reports to a crime to the police, the better likelihood of finding evidence.