Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Did Joseph Smith Lie About Polygamy?

Didn’t Joseph Deceive Church Members?

Some are quick to point out that Joseph Smith didn’t just lie to the government or to non-members, but also deceived members of the Church. This objection ignores, of course, the point that to make the announcement publicly to the Church is the same as telling everyone.

The accusation also omits some vital information. Joseph was not trying to simply act as he pleased and keep everyone else in the dark. He was anxious to teach the principle of plural marriage to any who would accept it; Church leaders such as Hyrum Smith and the Twelve were introduced to it. This is strange behavior for a deceiver, since each of these high Church leaders was in a position to denounce and ruin him. (Joseph had ample experience with such scenarios given the earlier departure of such key figures as the Three Witnesses, and many of the original Twelve Apostles during the Kirtland-era apostasy.) One source reports that over one hundred adults were taught the doctrine in Nauvoo before Joseph’s murder.44

Wouldn’t it be better to simply keep quiet about polygamy if Joseph was just a libidinous leader? Joseph persisted, however, in trying to introduce others to “the Principle.” He did make some efforts to teach plural marriage publicly–he seemed willing to accept the risk from non-members if the Church would support him. Heber C. Kimball wrote, in 1882:

On a certain Sabbath morning, previous to the return of the Apostles from Europe, in 1841, [Joseph] astonished his hearers by preaching on the restoration of all things, and said that as it was anciently with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, so it would be again, etc.45

A contemporary journal describes the reaction:

When the prophet “went to his dinner,” [Joseph Lee] Robinson wrote, “as it might be expected several of the first women of the church collected at the Prophet’s house with his wife [and] said thus to the prophet Joseph O mister Smith you have done it now it will never do it is all but Blassphemy you must take back what you have said to day is it is outrageous it would ruin us as a people.” So in the afternoon session Smith again took the stand, according to Robinson, and said “Brethren and Sisters I take back what we said this morning and leave it as though there had been nothing said.”46

Robinson feels that this reaction was not unexpected; yet, Joseph tried anyway. Note that Joseph does not come back in the afternoon and deny the doctrine; he merely withdraws it from public consideration. Upon the return of the Twelve, he would begin teaching it to them. Heber also recounted the negative reaction of Emma and others:

He spoke so plainly that his wife, Emma, as well as others were quite excited over it. Seeing the effect his sermon had upon them, he consoled them in the afternoon by saying that the time of which he had spoken might be further off than he anticipated.47

George A. Smith alluded to the same or a similar episode based upon records of those present:

The Prophet goes up on the stand, and, after preaching about everything else he could think of in the world, at last hints at the idea of the law of redemption, makes a bare hint at the law of sealing, and it produced such a tremendous excitement that, as soon as he had got his dinner half eaten, he had to go back to the stand, and unpreach all that he had preached, and left the people to guess at the matter. While he was thus preaching he turned to the men sitting in the stand, and who were the men who should have backed him up, for instance, to our good old President Marks, William and Wilson Law, and father Cowles, and a number of other individuals about Nauvoo, for this occurred when the Twelve were in the Eastern portions of the United States, and said, “If I were to reveal the things that God has revealed to me, if I were to reveal to this people the doctrines that I know are for their exaltation, these men would spill my blood.”48

Joseph considered the doctrine essential for the Church,49 and it would seem that he offered the Church members at least one public opportunity to hear about plural marriage, but they refused it. So, Joseph continued to teach the doctrine, but in private. Are other more faithful members to be forbidden knowledge which some refused to receive?

In the last years of his life, Joseph repeatedly bemoaned the fact that all the members would not accept that which he wanted to teach. He warned, from Liberty Jail in 1839, “where is the man who is authorized to put his finger on the spot and say, thus far thou shalt go and no farther: there is no man. Therefore let us receive the whole, or none.”50 Wilford Woodruff quoted Joseph in 1841:

“Some say Joseph is a fallen Prophet because he does not bring forth more of the word of the Lord,” he acknowledged in a December 1841 meeting with the Twelve. “Why does he not?” he then asked. “Are we able to receive it? No (says he) not one in this room.”51

Joseph noted in 1843 that “many seal up the door of heaven by saying so far God may reveal and I will believe but no further.”52

These factors add a new moral wrinkle to the issue: what is a prophet to do if the majority of people are not yet ready to accept a teaching? Should he announce it publicly anyway, risking the wrath of violent opponents who will seek to prevent him from teaching anything at all? Should he teach nothing, and allow the less-faithful to decide that the more-faithful may not enjoy revelation from God? Or, should he opt for Joseph’s approach–keep the doctrine private, and introduce it as people will accept it?

Critics who refuse to believe in modern prophets will find such a question pointless. But, if we give Joseph the benefit of the doubt before condemning him, this is an issue which we must confront.

As George A. Smith indicated, it is a problem with no neat, pat solution. Of the Kirtland Temple period, which he then applied by analogy to apostate William Law and polygamy, Smith said:

If the Lord had on that occasion revealed one single sentiment more, or went one step further to reveal more fully the law of redemption, I believe He would have upset the whole of us. The fact was, He dare not, on that very account, reveal to us a single principle further than He had done, for He had tried, over and over again, to do it… He was determined this time to be so careful, and advance the idea so slowly, to communicate them to the children of men with such great caution that, at all hazards, a few of them might be able to understand and obey.53

44 George D. Smith, “Nauvoo Roots of Mormon Polygamy, 1841-46: A Preliminary Demographic Report,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 27:1 (Spring 1994): 12, 15-16.

45 Van Wagoner, Mormon Polygamy, 48; citing Whitney, Plural Marriage, 11.

46 Ibid., citing Robinson, Journal, 23-24.

47 Ibid.

48 George A. Smith, “Gathering and Sanctification of the People of God,” Journal of Discourses, reported by G.D. Watt 18 March 1855, Vol. 2 (London: Latter-day Saint’s Book Depot, 1855), 217.

49 Joseph reportedly told John Taylor that “the church could not go on until that principal [sic] was established.” – Smith, “Nauvoo Roots of Mormon Polygamy,” 13; citing Joseph Smith to John Taylor in Nauvoo, between March 1842 and February 1846, Mary Isabella Hales Horne, Autobiography, 10-11, Utah State Historical Society.

50 Joseph Smith, Letter from Liberty Jail to Isaac Galland, 22 March 1839, Times and Seasons 1 (February 1840); cited in Ronald K. Esplin, “Joseph Smith’s Mission and Timetable: ‘God Will Protect Me until My Work Is Done’” Prophet Joseph: Essays on the Life and Mission of Joseph Smith, edited by Susan Easton Black and Larry C. Porter, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company 1988), 303.

51 Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, 19 December 1841, 2:142; cited in Esplin, 302-303.

52 Joseph Smith Diary, 11 June 1843; cited in Esplin, 303.

53 George A. Smith, “Gathering and Sanctification,” Journal of Discourses, 2:215.

For Additional Reading, see:

Polygamy and Lying

Critics charge that Joseph Smith and his successors made repeated public statements in which they hid or frankly denied the practice of polygamy, despite knowledge to the contrary. It is argued that this dishonesty is morally dubious and inconsistent with the Church’s purported principles.

The concept of “civil disobedience” is essential to understanding those occasions in which Joseph Smith or other Church members were not forthright about the practice of polygamy.

Like obedience to civil law, honesty and integrity are foundational values to the Church of Jesus Christ. Indeed, the success which critics have in troubling members of the Church with tales of polygamy and its deceptive circumstances is, in a way, a compliment to the Church. If the Church as an institution typically taught its members to have a casual disregard for the truth, a discovery that Joseph Smith had deceived others about polygamy would not be troubling to most. But, because the Church (contrary to the suggestions of some critics) really does teach its members to aspire to live elevated lives of moral rectitude, the discovery that deception was involved with polygamy can come as something of a shock. Disillusionment can ensue if we follow the critics in assuming that because Joseph occasionally misled others in this specific context, he must therefore have lied about everything else, and been absolutely unworthy of trust.

But, as we have seen, the practice of polygamy must be viewed in its moral context as an act of religious devotion which the Saints were unwilling to forego simply because the state or society disapproved.

Lying About Polygamy During the Nauvoo Era

The “lying” about polygamy that occurred in the Nauvoo period is partly related to this same civil disobedience. A real-life example is helpful. Suppose a Church member is living in Holland in the 1940s. Established laws command the deportation of all Jews to a grisly fate. A Church member might (as many brave Dutch did) decide that such a law has no moral force–indeed, it would be immoral to obey it. The Church member might further decide that he is morally bound to hide a family of Jews in his attic. One day, an SS team arrives, knocks at the door, and demands to know if the Church member knows of the whereabouts of any Jews.

The member has several choices:

he can decide that “honesty” is the highest moral value, and reveal the location of his Jewish guests

he can refuse to answer the question, by remaining silent

he can declare that he is not willing to comply with the request, and will not answer the question

he can lie to the German SS, and may also have to lie to his friends and neighbors to keep them from revealing the secret

Which is the correct moral choice? It is difficult to see how honesty can trump the lives of the Jews–so, option (1) is out. The SS officer is unlikely to go meekly on his way should one remain silent or verbally refuse to answer, so choosing either (2) or (3) will simply result in the Jews being found and the Church member and his family suffering the consequences of their disobedience to civil law. It seems to me that the most moral option–fulfilling the member’s duty to his Jewish guests, his conscience, and his family–requires that the member lie to the SS.

Remember, someone who opts for civil disobedience must accept the risk of punishment. The Dutch who were caught harboring Jews suffered greatly for their integrity–but, they apparently considered the risk of that suffering to be worth retaining that integrity. One cannot complain if one’s deception of the civil authorities is found out and punished–that is the price of civil disobedience on moral grounds. But, one is not morally obligated to participate in the prosecution of oneself or others for breaking laws one considers immoral.

An analogy to modern Church practice may illustrate some of the difficulties. Let us presume that current members of the Church have made covenants in the temple–but, not only do they covenant not to disclose certain concepts, but they promise not to disclose even the existence of the temple endowment itself. What would a Church member do if confronted publicly by an apostate with questions about matters they have promised to keep secret? Silence or a decision to “plead the Fifth” will simply play into their enemies’ hands by effectively confirming the story that the member will not deny. They cannot remain true to their covenants if they answer in the affirmative; to deny what the apostate is saying is to be deceptive.

It was in exactly this position that some Nauvoo-era members of the Church were placed. They had no ideal choices, and so did their best to follow God despite circumstances beyond their control.

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