Tuesday, November 11, 2014

This Just In: Joseph Smith Was a Polygamist

Of course, to those of us who are students of history and seekers of truth, this is not news. Joseph Smith’s practice of polygamy, polyandry, and his efforts to justify such behavior have been well documented and accessible to curious people like us for decades. The real news here is that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has finally been forced to face some of the truth of its history in a more direct manner than it has chosen to in the past.

In an essay recently posted on the Mormon Church’s official website the LDS leadership now publicly admits to its members what Church leadership has known all along: Joseph Smith took many wives—as many as 40—and one of them was only 14 years old (although the carefully worded essay prefers to describe her age as “several months before her 15th birthday.”) He did this in secret for several years and lied about it at first. Some of these women were already married, and yes, Joseph Smith did have sex with these other women, but apparently not all of them.

So why is this such a big deal? Because Joseph Smith is the only pillar upon which the Mormon Church rests. It was Joseph Smith who received the golden plates and translated them from Reformed Egyptian into the Book of Mormon and thus started the Mormon Religion. If Joseph Smith was not a true prophet, if instead he was a liar, a con-artist, a fraud, then the entire Mormon Religion comes crumbling down. We’re talking about a powerful organization with millions of members and billions of dollars in assets. A lot rides on Joseph Smith’s shoulders.

This creates a great deal of tension for faithful Mormons—tension that even the brightest Mormon historians have difficulty resolving (see my review of the biography Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling to see what I mean.)  

The most unfortunate aspect of all this is that now, with the publication of this essay, it has become abundantly clear that LDS Church leadership has intentionally and willfully misled its members and has attempted to cover-up or deny the more difficult aspects of Mormon history. Again, this is not news to me, but it is news to many faithful Mormons who have been taught very differently about Joseph Smith. Imagine the pain of realizing that your religious leaders have been hiding the truth from you because the truth wasn’t deemed to be “faith promoting.” This is no simple matter.  I’ve visited several blogs by Mormons discussing this development and have read the comment threads with sympathy. Mormons are part of a rich and vibrant culture that is woven into every part of their identity—their family, their friends, their ancestors, their church. Their faith permeates every aspect of their lives. When a Mormon starts to think about walking away from their religion, they’re walking away from so much more than a system of beliefs—in many cases they are literally walking away from everything.

If I haven’t already, I hope I make it abundantly clear that I hold a deep regard for Mormons. I have many Mormon friends and neighbors who are wonderful people with good hearts. I do, however, have a major problem with any individual or institution that willfully manipulates, misleads, or coerces a vulnerable population for their own gain.

The good news here is that for those who must abandon their religious beliefs as they seek truth, on the other side of the painful process of letting go there exists a wonderful freedom. Truth really does set us free. And when we are free, we are much more likely to find God. And for most of us, that is what we really want.    

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