Sunday, March 30, 2008

Got Polygamy?

I just finished listening to Dreams from My Father, Barack Obama’s book about his search to discover and understand his roots. Obama wrote it just after finishing law school. It was especially personal because Obama reads it himself. I heard him tell the story. It felt like Obama shared a very private part of his life. One full of details most people don’t want to get out.

Much of the book revolves around Obama’s efforts to figure out how his absentee father informs who he is. His father was physically present in his life for only the first two years and then for a short time when he was ten. Obama reveals that on his father’s side it was common for men to have more than one wife. Obama’s father was a either a bigamist or polygamist depending on how you slice it. He had children by 4 women. The marriages over lapped each other with little regard for when one started and another stopped.

When Obama’s father left his birth place in Kenya to attend college in Hawaii, he left behind a pregnant wife and a child. In Hawaii, he met and married Obama’s mother. They had Barack and his sister. He parted with Barack’s mother two years later when he left for Boston to attend Harvard. While there, he entered into a relationship with a woman who would follow him to Kenya and bear him two children. His original Kenyan wife would later bear him two additional children. Going back a generation; Obama’s grandfather was a true polygamist. He had three wives at the same time.

What fascinated me was how Obama deals with all of this. His technique is simple -- he just lets it out. He plainly tells the story. His family’s polygamous practices are just part of how he came to be who he is. He doesn’t extol the practice, he doesn’t denigrate it, he just tells about it. He takes pride in and draws strength from his ancestors. He is not embarrassed or appalled by what they did, he doesn’t, as did Mitt Romney, sweep it away by saying it was “bizarre” or “awful.” He just tells you about it and how it has shaped him.

So my question to myself and others is this -- if you have polygamist ancestors, how does it inform your sense of self? Are you ashamed? Are you proud? Was it a mistake? Was it awful and bizarre? Are we just lucky that it’s a relic of the past? What is your take?

I for one am not the least bit ashamed. My mother’s mother and father grew up in large polygamous families. I am fascinated by their lives. Their religious practices are big part of who I am why I am where I am today. I am the product of a grand religious experiment. My great grandparents were so committed to their vision of the truth that engaged in a practice that made them criminals. They put their religion and their God before their country. I am in awe of their conviction. I feel that the Mormonism I am asked to live is a watered down version of theirs. And no, I don’t want to be a polygamist. I couldn’t do what they did not would I want to. But they were more committed to religious convictions that I am. I have it easy.


jupee said...

When my great grandmother fell ill, her sister came to live with and help out the family. My great grandfather got her (the sister) pregnant within six months, and quite a while before his wife evenutally died. Shortly thereafter my great grandfather converted to Mormonism and immigrated from Switzerland to Salt Lake City with his second wife (the sister). I've always wondered if part of his conversion was an attempt to legitimize his actions.

The Faithful Dissident said...

I think that if it were me, I'd definitely think it was bizarre, maybe not something that I'd want to broadcast to just anyone. But I definitely don't think it's something to be ashamed of. If I were the actual polygamist, then I think I'd feel some shame. But if I were merely the descendent of a polygamist, bigamist, whatever, I've got nothing to be ashamed of. Your ancestors were who they were and there's not a dang thing you can do about it now. I say embrace the good, the bad, and the ugly and, like Obama, simply tell it as it was. On my mother's side of the family, we had a prostitute and a dead-beat dad to children with at least 2 women. On my father's side, his grandfather (a staunchly proud Englishman) apparently contracted gonorrhea from a Frenchwoman during WWI. So much for my upright and proper great-grandpa. LOL. If anything, i just take pride in the fact that my ancestors were human and just as dysfunctional as anyone else's family. I think I would have had a harder time with my ancestry if I had belonged to a long line of righteous pioneers and builders of Zion. I certainly don't think my ancestors' mistakes give me a license to be bad, but the latter would have felt like a cloud over my head and a lot of pressure to live up to their standard.

kframpton said...

I will post my thought on this on my blog tonight or tomorrow. I have a bit to say...

Fifthgen said...

As you all might suspect, I have always been proud of my Mormon heritage. I descend from Mormon pioneers on all sides, and consider Mormonism my culture. Like Sanford, I am awed by the sacrifices and hardships my ancestors made because of their religious beliefs. Many left Europe at great person sacrifice and crossed this continent under exceptionally difficult circumstances, performing heroic acts along the way. They arrived in a wilderness from which they created not only homes, but a community and a society out of little more than sagebrush. All this because they firmly believed they were building God’s kingdom and wanted to be with those who believed as they did. Would I and my generation make the same sacrifices? Hard to say.

Some of my pioneer ancestors were polygamists. I am certainly not ashamed my polygamous roots; in fact, I am proud of them. And because of my background and socialization, I do not consider our polygamous past bizarre, although I know active, multi-generational Mormons who are uncomfortable with it. On the other hand, I understand how many outside the Mormon culture must consider it very strange and bizarre. Part of my cultural heritage (we are a “peculiar people”) may be that the very uniqueness of my polygamous background is part of what makes me proud of it. What is the point of a cultural identity if it does not distinguish you from everyone else? All that said, I think I understand many of the challenges polygamy presented to those who tried to live it, and I am really glad that it is no longer practiced in the LDS Church.

Finally, I will say that although I had become disenchanted with Mitt early on, his statements about polygamy really rubbed me the wrong way. To me, they constituted additional evidence that the guy would say anything - - even abandon his own background - - to get elected. My guess is, George Romney, and many others in Mitt’s family, turned over in their graves when he talked about how awful polygamy was. I’ll bet most multi-generational Mormons, if they were honest, would say they were at least a little disappointed in him because of those comments. In fact, I find it hard to believe that Mitt really believed what he said.

Mormon Paleo said...

I have to say I largely agree with Sanford and fifthgen. I am in awe of the faith and devotion which led people to against reason and culture take up polygamy as a lifestyle. And I wonder how that culture has affected me.

And I am embarrassed by Mitt Romney's words nearly condemning polygamy, much preferring Barack Obama's more open characterization.

pb said...

I'm coming to understand that this blog is really not the forum for people like me who have not an ounce of "faith" in the mormon church. So feel free to kick me off and delete my comments. Until censored, however, and for what it's worth, I think this discussion should consider the fact that Joseph Smith himself hid his plural marriages from the public, both denouncing and rejecting them, so to speak, throughout his life. He took the Mitt Romney approach, not against a tradition that he himself did not participate in, but against a covenant that he had created but did not have the balls to publicly espouse (no pun intended). He was therefore obviously not "proud" of it. And for good reason. As distinct from Barack Obama's grandfather and father, who were Kenyan and lived in a culture that practiced polygamy as a matter of course, Joseph Smith lived in a Christian, puritan nation that considered and considers polygamy to be intolerable, not to mention illegal. Without getting into the evidence regarding the age of Joseph Smith's wives (the youngest being 14) and the fact that Joseph Smith's first wife, who did not sign up for a polygamous union and never accepted it -- and joined the RLDS sect that continues to deny that Joseph Smith practiced it -- I think we can safely say that Joseph Smith's plural marriages were not a point of pride for him within the community. While the LDS church has taken the view that Joseph Smith died a martyr, I guess I would at least question why it is that he was so hated by his neighbors. Could it be because he was seducing their wives and deflowering their pubescent daughters? I'm struggling with how this conduct is admirable. Again, I find stark contrast between Joseph Smith, who was hated and despised in every community that he lived, and finally murdered, with those whom I consider to be more enlightened religious leaders. Buddha's ministry extended for 40 years and he died peacefully at the age of 80, loved and revered amongst the people whom he taught He incited no mob passions by living licentiously and contrary to the moral codes of his time. He was a unifier, not a divider. He advocated an unlayered approach to reality. Come to think of it, he was a lot like Barack Obama! (Kidding.)

jupee said...

pb: I did not know that Buddha died peacefully at 80. Was he able to hang on to that sweet belly even at the end? It reminds that it is always best to be born lucky. Not like Jesus (who was crucified) or Ghandi (who was shot) or Martin Luther King (who was shot) or Mohammed (who was poisoned - but then again, he was a polygamist who had some very young wives) or Michael Servetus (founder of Unitarianism burned at the stake with a copy of his book rejecting the trinity chained to his ankle) and all those poor Tibetan monks. I wonder what ideas I would be willing to die for? Money and consumerism -- apparently yes as long is the death is slow and longish, but ideas? I leave that legacy to Mormon polygamist pioneers.

mike said...

Love him or not, Joseph Smith was clearly a charismatic leader who was able to enlist others to pursue with him his new vision/religion. Isn't charismatic leadership the most bedrock foundation for ANY religion or novel venture throughout history. The power of charismatic leaders over people, whether on Downing street, Wall street or Vatican street (I made that up) cannot be understated.

I think we all can admire and respect the many, and extraordinary, hardships endured by people in the name of their religion, whether early christians, puritans leaving England, mormons leaving Nauvoo, Jim Jones and followers moving to Guyana, etc... However, I've always thought it much more likely that the large majority of those peoples endured the hardships not because of doctrinal conviction, but because of circumstance. Specifically, the circumstance of birth (parents/community) and/or existing life circumstance (i.e. the possibility of a better life elsewhere).

Honestly, how many of any new religious group leaving town are leaving because they really "believe" the vision/doctrine of the charismatic leader, or alternatively, because the leader is a cool guy that they like and they're hoping things will be better elsewhere? How many original pioneers (not just Mormons) left behind a nice job, nice homes, good futures for their kids, family, friends, etc...? A few perhaps, but my guess is most leave because things aren't that great at home.

At the risk of rehashing the obvious, really now, how many of us are true believers in the doctrine of our religious brand or are we brand x because our parents raised us that way and because our friends and family and community are also brand x. How many believers start in a neutral place and after thoroughly and rationally investigating the merits/doctrine/truth of countless brand options - choose x because they intellectually believe brand x is the one and only brand to discover the real truth and whose doctrines make rational sense? How many of us join or attend brand x or y or z on Sunday because we believe the doctrine or simply because we like the people that hang out there (and because they like us)? Or because the brand works with our existing lifestyle (i.e. I can drink beer at brand x, but not brand y)? Or because parents, friends and children would ostracize or disown us (or worse) if we bailed on the local brand? In fact, a cursory historical examination of the last few thousand years quickly reveals exclusion is probably the mildest form of retribution for disavowing the community standard.

Finally, re: pioneers and polygamy and putting moral judgments aside; isn't polygamy simply a cultural practice that is still actively practiced, legally and illegally, in many communities today - like Africa, Southern Utah Saudi Arabia, Colorado City, UAE, Malaysia, and Muslim's in India just for starters? Isn't polygamy illegal in Utah simply because the predominant culture in the larger U.S. community over the late 1800's applied continuous pressure (several legislative acts directly targeting polygamy in Utah) that finally resulted in 1890 with Wilford Woodruffs manifesto advising "Latter-day Saints is to refrain from contracting any marriages forbidden by the law of the land." If it was a vision, it seems like the U.S. gov't must get some credit for the inspiration.

So, what's the point? I think it's difficult for us to accurately understand the real motives, religious or otherwise, of people who lived a thousand or a hundred years ago (except for the timeless and universal self-interest factor). In any case, imo what matters far more than our past and/or motives is how we actually live in the present - hopefully with respect, compassion and fair treatment for all irrespective of religion or culture.

Whew! Congratulate yourself for blogging/slogging through to the end. I'm sure I have broken all good blogging etiquette with the length of this post/article - my apologies. mike

jupee said...

Mike: Well said. I couldn't agree more. Maybe a better way to write what I wrote earlier is that some Mormon polygamist pioneers risked their lives for an idea --the idea of a better life. That's cool.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting. That thing about Mitt Romney's thoughts about polygamy was also interesting

Sanford Barrett said...

I wrote this response to pb before I read mike’s entry. I will post this and then post another one in response to Mike. Oh, and here’s a shout out to jupee – slow death by consumerism – very funny. Well said.

pb says

I'm coming to understand that this blog is really not the forum for people like me who have not an ounce of "faith" in the mormon church. So feel free to kick me off and delete my comments.

This blog’s commenters (all 4 of them) range from no Mormon belief to oodles of it. While you have none, you come from the tradition and know the culture and you clearly have a take on it. If you find it worth your time to comment I welcome your two cents worth. I can count on you to make me back up what I have to say and consequently it makes me think harder about what I write.

pb says

I think this discussion should consider the fact that Joseph Smith himself hid his plural marriages from the public, both denouncing and rejecting them, so to speak, throughout his life.

I realize you don’t believe that God told Joseph to engage in polygamy. But for the sake of argument let’s assume he did or at least let’s assume Joseph believed he did. How should he have gone about rolling it out? They way he hid it in public and practiced it in private caused and continues to cause all sorts of problems. But I don’t know that he could have done it much differently without leaving the United States (which he was contemplating at the time of his death). Brigham Young was able to get the Church to place where it could practice polygamy openly but only after they were on the way to the Great Basin. I’m not sure how Joseph could have done it differently. His practices did result in his death, but he answered to a higher power.

pb says

I think we can safely say that Joseph Smith's plural marriages were not a point of pride for him within the community.

I suppose it depends on what community you are looking at. The mobs that killed Joseph certainly didn’t take pride in polygamy. But the women who married Joseph for the most part took tremendous pride in what they did. Compton documents this well in his book In Sacred Loneliness, the Plural Wives of Joseph Smith.

pb says

While the LDS church has taken the view that Joseph Smith died a martyr, I guess I would at least question why it is that he was so hated by his neighbors.

To say that Joseph disrupted the status quo would be a vast understatement. Part of what I like about him and others hate about him is that he cut his own path. He was a religious genius. How many people have founded a religion that became or is on the path to become a world religion? It is really extraordinary and I am fascinated by it.

pb says

Could it be because he was seducing their wives and deflowering their pubescent daughters?

This statement shows a lack of understanding of how Joseph practiced polygamy. The people who killed Joseph didn’t have any daughters or wives married to Joseph as far as I know. It may be hard to fathom, but for the most part, family members of Joseph’s wives supported the practice – even husbands whose wives Joseph married. And by the way, Joseph’s wife’s ages were all over the place. The youngest wife was 14, but the next youngest was 17. Three were in their 50s. And rather than seduce women, it was apparently Joseph’s practice to ask a family member first if they would consent to the marriage of a sister or daughter. It was more of an arranged union and many of the plural wives knew of each other. It’s not like Joseph went to picnics or bars and started hitting on chicks. There was a whole lot more going on there than Joseph seducing wives and deflowering daughters. That description is way too simple. It is much harder to try and understand Joseph than to castigate him.

You have issues with Joseph’s polygamy but give Obama’s family a pass because it was part of their culture. My question for you is this -- is the acceptability of polygamy dependent upon how widely it is practiced in a community? And if you want to change a community’s practice as did Joseph Smith, how do you do it?

pb said...

jupee: True, many admirable persons have been murdered by misguided extremists, though technically, Christ was executed, not murdered. (He did have a trial, as did Socrates. Maybe it's best to have a good lawyer?)

mike: I don't even understand my own motives, let alone my ancestors' (though of course I do understand yours). Sanford's point is intriguing, though. People back then did appear to be willing to make greater sacrifices for their religious convictions. I do believe that some things are of greater value than life, and certainly of greater value than comfort, but I'd have to think about what would go in that category. Maybe the right to practice yoga?

sanford: on the question of answering to a higher power -- don't we still have to examine the instruction itself, whether or not reference is made to an external source? God instructed Ron Lafferty to kill his sister-in-law and her infant daughter. We don't give him a pass because God told him to do it. My answer to the question, What was Joseph Smith supposed to do, assuming that God was his instructor? is this: He was supposed to curb his passions, get his ego under control, speak truthfully, hide nothing, consult with his wife, and ultimately figure out that it wasn't God, but his own self-interest that was driving him.

On the question Is the acceptability of polygamy dependent on how widely it is practiced? If something is widely practiced, I guess by definition its acceptable. That doesn't make it moral or admirable, but it does make it acceptable. Slavery was once acceptable in portions of the US; I don't think it was ever moral. As for polygamy, I don't think its inherently immoral -- if people want to bind themselves in a pluralistic union, that seems fine, as long as they're all consenting adults. The problem I have with Joseph Smith is that his first wife -- to whom I believe he owed a duty of loyalty -- was not consenting. And later wives (some) were not adults. I question the morality of it under those circumstances.

I also question the morality of anything that cannot withstand public scrutiny. Virtue does not shrink from the light; vice does.

As to Joseph Smith's wives (not his first) being proud of their union with him -- I don't know much about this so I'll take your word for it. My comment would be, Joseph Smith was wealthy, charismatic, and prominent. Women have always been pleased to marry such men -- and just as pleased to divorce them when the wealth & status departs.

Harrison - BBWfan said...

"So my question to myself and others is this -- if you have polygamist ancestors, how does it inform your sense of self? Are you ashamed? Are you proud? Was it a mistake? Was it awful and bizarre? Are we just lucky that it’s a relic of the past? What is your take?

I for one am not the least bit ashamed."



I bring a perspective that's a little bit closer to Barack Obama's experience than it is to your own. I am not of Mormon descent, but I am a black man of African descent.

My distant ancestors (Old World) almost certainly practiced polygamy as it is very popular throughout the African continent to this day. Arabs in countries like Morocco or Algeria also practice it, but the black nations of Africa far exceed them. So it may be a relic in the USA, but it's thriving in Africa in 2008!!!

Senegal, in West Africa, has the highest rate I'm aware of, which is 48% of adult married women living in a polygamous marriage.

Senegal is a Muslim country and that religion allows polygamy, yet even Christian nations in Africa are very pro-polygamy. However, I must add that these countries are mostly poor and pre-industrial with far too many women who are poor, uneducated and/or illiterate. The worse the woman's social status, the more likely she is to be in a polygamous marriage.

Africa is very sexist, beyond any doubt! I can't defend polygamy without acknowledging that fact. I also have to acknowledge that many African women (perhaps most) in polygamous marriages find it stressful and emotionally painful. In other words, it's anything but their first choice for a marriage!!

Nonetheless, it's part of our ancestral heritage and probably will continue to be a strong part of African culture for as long as African men find it attractive and macho...

And as long as many poor or desperate African women are willing to be a man's second or third wife in order to live with greater dignity and comfort than they would if they remained:

*the only wife of a dirt-poor man
*a single, destitute widow
*an impoverished, single Mom

So that is the dilemma: Even as it hurts and humiliates some women, sharing a man liberates other women from loneliness and/or grinding poverty.

Just like yourself, I am not the least bit ashamed to think my ancestors lived this way... Nor am I especially proud either. I respect men who value it as I do the women who accept it; and I respect women who hate it and refuse to marry into it. It works for some and it doesn't for others.

As I have no identifiable polygamous ancestors I can point to, it doesn't really affect my sense of self. I view it more abstractly.

It is simply a cultural practice my ancestors needed to survive, just as many folks still need it today. As Africa progresses and modernizes and women slowly become wealthier and more educated and liberated, fewer and fewer will see a need for it.

For now, however, I feel it's definitely here to stay in both Africa and the Mideast. And that's fine with me.

pb said...

harrison makes good points about polygamy. It is not a choice that one tends to see when women's social status and education is the equivalent or near equivalent of men. Which brings me back to Emma and Joseph. Why are we assuming that Joseph should listen to God over his wife? You say Joseph was answering to a higher power. There is no higher power than your wife.

Fifthgen said...

Mike: My great-great (etc.) grandmother sold a prosperous farm in Denmark to finance her journey to Utah, as well as that of several other families. My wife’s great-great (etc.) grandfather sold his mill England in to do the same for many, many others - - in fact his contribution formed part of the original corpus of the Perpetual Emigration Fund. So while many Mormon converts and pioneers may have been poor, or even destitute, many others were not. Many left very comfortable lives for what any reasonable person would have seen as, at best, a very uncertain future. And stories of people joining the Mormon Church despite persecution, alienation from family and friends, and other hardships are almost standard in any Mormon family, whether in present or past generations. I think there something going on here beyond just looking for a better (mortal/material) life. And I think an examination of historical evidence (journals and other documents from the converts themselves - - of which there are volumes) offers little support for the idea that these early converts did not really believe in what they were doing.

pb and others: It seems that Mormons were pretty open about practicing polygamy when they were not in immediate fear of persecution or prosecution. I don’t think it was a big secret once the got to Utah - - at least until the US government sent the federal marshals out. For good or bad, Joseph Smith did not live long enough to find himself in that situation. What would have done had he been free to practice his religious beliefs without being persecuted (or killed)? Hard to say. Some of your broad assertions about openness and virtue are, however, a bit too simplistic. Are hidden acts always suspect? Were those who harbored Jews from the Nazis “shrinking from the light” and hiding vice because they did what they did in secret? Or were they just afraid of being punished by those in power who had a different view of right and wrong? What about those who did so even though they put their own family members or others in (unknowing) danger?

Your criticism of Joseph Smith is also too simplistic (and a bit tired). Sanford offers some interesting demographic information about his wives. In addition, there just isn’t that much evidence to suggest that Joseph Smith “invented” polygamy to cover uncontrolled sexual impulses. For example, there has yet to be proven a DNA link between Joseph Smith and any descendant through a plural wife. Quite a feat for an alleged libertine with 33 wives in the days before birth control. And, there is some evidence that rather that withholding her consent from Joseph’s polygamous unions, Emma (at least occasionally) vacillated between consent and non-consent. Fianlly, as Sanford points out, the families of most of his wives did not perceive him as a seducer, but were proud of their connections to him.

There is no question that it is very difficult to understand how many (most?) early Mormons came to accept polygamy This is particularly true for those of us who are middle-class, 21st century Americans. I certainly don’t understand how it all worked. But I do not think chalking it all up to moral deficiency or profligacy can withstand analysis of all the evidence.

pb said...

fifthgen: I appreciate your willingness to engage in this conversation, despite my ignorance -- or perhaps one-sided education. I really don’t have a dog in this fight, because it makes no difference to me personally whether Joseph Smith was a prophet of God, or whether he was a prurient fraud. Yet I do enjoy engaging on the subject and find it interesting – for reasons that I guess Sanford has identified, i.e., I was raised mormon and my beloved mother, god rest her soul, was a steadfast mormon (some would say is a steadfast mormon).  My father is also mormon in the cultural sense and has emitted some very mixed messages about the whole thing, but that’s another topic. His side of the family is very, very mormon (as are some branches, or maybe twigs, on my mother's side), and I’m sure I’ve got all kinds of mormon ancestors who have stories to tell that are similar to your ancestors’.  Not being a good mormon, I haven’t looked into it.   
So with that introduction, let me respond to a point or two that you make.  First, you say that the argument that Joseph Smith was simply responding to his unbridled passions is “tired.”  I’m not in the loop enough to know which arguments are tired and which ones are not.  I thought it was quite brilliant myself.  But I will point out that this explanation for Joseph’s advocacy of polygamy is no more lacking in evidence than the explanation that Joseph Smith was obeying God’s command.  I know that believers bristle when it is pointed out that persons such as Ron Lafferty, Osama Bin Laden, and Brian David Mitchell also claim to be obeying God’s commands.  But I can see no distinction between the claims made by these people and the claims made by Joseph Smith – other than of course, the nature of the command itself. Which brings me back to evaluating the command on its own merits, as I must, since God's stamp of approval is all too arbitrarily given to have any evidentiary value.

So, putting aside Joseph’s Smith’s particular motivations – I suspect that he is a complex person who had complex motivations, which may in fact have included a sincere belief that he was interpreting the will of God – the question remains whether the command that Joseph Smith claimed to have received from God was a good one that should have been obeyed. Since FLDS communities that have rejected the LDS “watered down” version of Mormonism -- adhering much more closely to Joseph Smith’s vision -- continue to exist and thrive, I deem it elucidating to look closely at these communities.  There has been some publicity around the prosecution of Warren Jeffs, a leader of one such community, which ended with a verdict of accomplice to rape.  There’s also been a bit of publicity about the plight of the “lost boys” and legislation enacted to assist this disenfranchised group of people from these communities. I am not particularly knowledgeable about these communities, but I’m knowledgeable enough to have formed an opinion, and that opinion is that Joseph Smith’s vision, in practice, is one of a rather sick and twisted social structure that fosters sexual perversion and abuse, lack of education and oppression of young people, and the consolidation of power in the hands of a few.  I cannot articulate a substantive difference between the likes of Warren Jeffs -- who are righteously condemned by the LDS church – and Joseph Smith himself.  If there is a substantive distinction, What is it? 
As for the Nazi comparison.  I find it to be inapt.  I would agree that the adage “virtue does not shrink from the light” is simplistic, as are all adages.  I would wholeheartedly agree that, in the case of Nazi Germany, it would be appropriate to hide one’s activities from a corrupt and murderous government, the better to accomplish your purpose.  But this is not what Joseph Smith was doing. Rather, Joseph Smith was hiding his activities from his own followers.  The crime for which he landed in jail was the destruction of a printing press by which the truth about his activities had been published by his long-time friend and associate -- for dissemination not to a Nazi government, but to Joseph's own congregation. The only threat to Joseph Smith by the dissemination of the facts is that the truth would be known by the rank and file that deemed him a prophet of God. Why was this alarming to Joseph Smith? There was no gestapo threat. He was not going to be dragged away in the middle of the night or sent to a concentration camp. Why go to the trouble of committing a crime to ensure that the truth was not known?

The church of Joseph Smith splintered upon Joseph Smith's death, and remains splintered today. The LDS church, which Brigham Young, Woodrow Wilson, and others have shaped from one of the factions, bears little resemblance to the church of Joseph Smith. The current stance of the LDS Church is that "[n]ot only are those involved [in plural marriage] in direct violation of the civil law, they are in violation of the law of this Church." By this proclamation, I take it that if a Joseph Smith were to come along today advocating direct violation of civil law in obedience to a "higher law," he would be excommunicated.

Joseph Smith certainly left his legacy, however, and from my perspective, that legacy is one of a proprietary approach to the truth on the part of LDS church leaders. It's all about keeping the past well spun and palatable to the rank and file -- who it can be assumed, need to have their reality shaped for them by authority figures. The problem is that it becomes far more difficult to control information when it's not just one printing press that must be destroyed. Given the challenges, its remarkable to me how well the LDS church succeeds.

Fifthgen said...

pb: For one who does not have a dog in this fight, you seem to spend a lot of time reading, thinking and writing about it. (I would do a smiley emoticon here to convey my friendly tone, but I think they are dumb.)

With respect to your arguments, I will say that we seem to end back at this point: To the believer, God’s will defines what is right; to the unbeliever, those espousing God’s will appear to be acting arbitrarily. I am not sure how we get around that. I will say, however, that your use of a handful of highly aberrational examples of people acting abhorrently in the alleged name of God does not persuade me that everyone claiming to act in God’s name is essentially the same. One significant difference between the people you mention and Joseph Smith would include the ability to develop a system of thought coherent enough to attract and persuade a significant number of people. This puts Joseph Smith more in the category of Mohammed and Buddha (yes, Buddha!), than Ron Lafferty or Brian David Mitchell.

Regarding the FLDS church, I am skeptical that, other than the superficial connection of polygamy, that they are closer to Joseph Smith’s version of Mormonism than the “Utah” LDS Church. What evidence do you have? How is the FLDS Church the same? How is it different? And how does that compare to the LDS Church? I honestly do not know. Without understanding the similarities and differences, I do not feel that I have an informed opinion about what the FLDS Church “says” about Joseph Smith. I will say that what I know of Joseph Smith’s public teachings about women leads me to believe that the FLDS Church has at least some significant differences from his original vision (for the church - - not his literal vision - - insert smiley here, if desired). It is also interesting that Utah under Gov. Brigham Young (the Polygamist) was ahead of many other states in giving women the vote, liberalizing divorce laws and providing educational and professional opportunities for women.

My point about harboring Jews is that people keep things secret for all kinds of reasons, many of which have nothing to do with shame or hiding vice. I think I mentioned both persecution (which can arise from many sources, political and otherwise) and prosecution as possible reasons. First of all, many minority religious groups have practiced their religions discreetly in order to avoid one or the other. I don’t think secrecy is irrelevant to understanding motivation, but I don’t think it is conclusive, either. Moreover, I do not really see a meaningful difference between publishing the Nauvoo Expositor in Nauvoo, Illinois (where bigamy/polygamy was a crime) and reporting Joseph Smith to the (hostile) Illinois authorities. Either way, persecution and/or prosecution was bound to result. It does not seem surprising to me that Joseph Smith was loathe to get the word out that way. And in another post, Sanford raised an interesting question: Assuming that Joseph Smith really was preaching polygamy because God wanted him to (which I understand is an implausible assumption for you), how would you suggest he roll it out? A reasonable approach might be to start small and see how it went, adapting when necessary, while trying to stay true to what you understood God’s will to be.

Your pronouncement that today’s LDS Church (upon which Woodrow Wilson had no influence of which I am aware) “bears little resemblance to the church of Joseph Smith” does not make it so. Once again, apart from polygamy, what are the differences? Temples? Baptism for dead? The Book of Mormon? Church structure? Priesthood authority? Doctrine? Missionary work? Don’t get me wrong - - I am not suggesting that the Draper First Ward is just like the church in Nauvoo. But, I sense that there are at least as many similarities as differences (although this would be a highly subjective comparison). I do agree with you, however, that the LDS Church’s growth and standing is remarkable, given where it came from and what it has faced. Whether you see it as a source, the source, or devoid of truth, it is quite a story.

pb said...

fifthgen: you’re right, I do spend time thinking about it (though until Sanford’s blog came along to liberate me, I have not heretofore spent any time writing about it). But the “it” is not Joseph Smith, rather, it’s the whole religious idea and the undeniable desire that many of us, including me, have for some sort of spiritual direction. Hence I would repeat that I do not have a dog in the fight as to Joseph Smith, though I have formed an opinion about him. I will be the first to acknowledge my understanding of Joseph Smith is likely to be much less contextual than yours, since I have spent very little time actually thinking about or investigating Joseph Smith. However, it would be unusual, under the circumstances of my upbringing, and the fact that I was a mormon for the first 16 years of my life – all of which years were formative, or so I’m told – not to have some interest in the question of Mormonism. And just as mormons are urged to develop a testimony of the truth of the mormon church for them, or probably more accurately, the reasons that they have chosen to remain within the fold, I have found that most persons of mormon upbringing who decide to leave the fold have reasons for doing so – their testimony so to speak. My reasons had nothing to do with Joseph Smith. I never heard anything about the facts of Joseph Smith’s actual life (as opposed to
what I was taught in sunday school) until about 2 years ago, when I read a few chapters out of a book written by a friend, primarily to support him, not out of genuine curiosity. I was astonished by what I read. Truly astonished. But again, it made no real difference to me, because my decision about the fold had been made decades previously.

So moving away from Joseph Smith, and getting back to me, which is my primary interest, I guess I ultimately agree with Mike on all of this, i.e., I think that ultimately our beliefs and predilections are shaped more by emotions and experiences outside our conscious understanding, and much less by the reasons we consciously assign. Had I been the “happy little mormon boy” that Sanford said he was in his testimony -- with a consistent mormon vision portrayed by both parents -- I suppose I might be looking at all of these questions from within the fold as opposed to outside it. Instead, I had a believing mother and a non-believing father. Had my mother's mormon convictions translated into a more compelling life vision -- as conveyed through
the way she lived it (which don't get me wrong, was virtuous and admirable in every way) than my father's, than I suspect me and my 6 siblings would have more closely modeled after her. But instead, we gravitated toward the parent who, through the way he lived, appeared to be more evolved. From where I sit now, I have come to have far greater respect for the strengths of my mother, part of which were expressed in her mormonism, i.e., commitment to community, family, & relationships. But ultimately my father's strengths, in particular, his gentle, supportive, non-servile, truth-loving, independent ways won the day with me and my 6 siblings. He was never hostile toward mormonism, attended church fairly regularly (at least when we were young), often wept during the hymns, but consistently affirmed (if asked) that he did not believe and that he did not need to.

So that's it. I have now borne part I of my testimony. Amen.