Please review this explanation on the purpose for this section before reading the information here.
All LDS raised in my generation were aware of polygamy. Most knew pretty well how it was practiced by Brigham Young. It was not very well known how Joseph Smith practiced it. He did it secretly and generally only the most faith promoting aspects of it were well known by LDS in my generation.
In the internet age of information availability, details have emerged that have not been previously well known. Because this is such an explosive issue, I’m going to stick to facts agreed on by both faithful LDS scholars and non-LDS critics. These facts were acknowledged either directly or indirectly in the essay the church published on Nauvoo polygamy.
- Joseph married somewhere in the neighborhood of about 30 women
- At least some of Joseph’s polygamous marriages were sexually consummated, scholars will haggle on the exact number, but it is probably more than 10 and less than 20.
- He married other men’s wives, though these marriages are sometimes argued by LDS scholars as not involving sexual relations
- Joseph married several teenage girls, with the youngest as 14 (also argued by LDS scholars that this relationship was not consummated)
- He hid many of these from Emma, and when she did find out here and there about various relationships, it upset her greatly and was a source of great volatility in Emma and Joseph’s relationship
- The first marriage, Fanny Alger, seems a bit out of place with the others, occurring in Kirtland at least five years before the others
- He told people that God sent an angel with a sword to threaten his life if he didn’t start doing polygamy and sometimes used that story to convince the girl to go along with marriage
- That some of the women involved seemed to be deeply saddened by the marriage with Joseph and were upset spiritually and emotionally
Reasons that are used to justify polygamy are:
- There was a need to restore Old Testament polygamy as a restitution of all things.
- Multiply and replenish the Earth
- Link families together through sealings.
In summary, polygamy as practiced especially in Nauvoo, is very confusing. It seems to be very inconsistently applied, and none of the stated reasons make for strong rationale.
As we know, in 1890 Wilford Woodruff published the Manifesto, which ended polygamy in the LDS church. Over time, polygamy was completely eliminated from the LDS church. LDS splinter churches continued to practice polygamy, and in modern times, the church has been aggressively anti-polygamy to apparently distance the church from these splinter groups and the bad PR associated with them.
Looking back at the entire saga and where we’re at today, it’s difficult to understand why any of these reasons make sense given all the problems and weirdness from polygamy.
Like many other choices we have related to understanding LDS truth in the context of the difficult historical facts, we sometimes feel like we’re choosing between:
a) Preserving the literal narrative, but sacrificing God. ie believe Joseph was right, believe it all happened exactly the way it is explained, that God really did send the angel with sword to threaten Joseph, God ordained the plan and intended it to be so. But then the fallout is a difficulty in understanding a God that seems inconsistent and illogical.
b) Preserving God, but sacrificing the literal narrative. ie God is logical and consistent and all perfect and all knowing, but he probably wouldn’t send an angel with sword or lead his prophet into such a confusing mess.
Neither choice is perfect or easy, but the context we provide in a non-literal view of scripture and historical events helps one retain a belief and respect in Joseph Smith and testimony of the church while being able to reject certain church historical events as not always being authored directly by God.
How do informed LDS members view this information?
churchistrue.com sacramental paradigm view:
Scripture is seen as metaphorical. Faith is an expression of loyalty, devotion, worship and doctrinal alignment but not necessarily a belief in the factual accuracy of scripture or historical religious origins. Challenges to scriptural historical events are not damaging to faith. I personally feel this is the biggest mistake Joseph made. I don’t understand why. I don’t believe an angel with sword appeared to Joseph. I think he felt there was something important about eternal marriage that he needed to teach. I believe there is strong evidence that there were pure religious motives involved. But knowing the nature of man and reading some of the first hand accounts, I think it likely it became about sex some of the time. I believe Joseph felt called to be a prophet, but it’s possible he made mistakes in an attempt to bolster his credibility to others to execute the plan he felt deeply was his responsibility. I believe the fruits of Joseph’s work are true and beautiful.
Literal believing LDS view:
There are various reasons floating around for the purpose of polygamy, but we don’t understand the mind of God. It’s difficult to prove Joseph consummated the relationships with the married women and the younger girls. Polygamy as practiced by the church was ordained of God.
Nuanced LDS view:
Most nuanced LDS seem to struggle with polygamy, but are OK with understanding that polygamy may have been a mistake. Prophets are not perfect. The focus should be on the doctrines and teachings that Joseph gave us that endure today.
Shared view by all LDS:
Families can be sealed together for time and all eternity through the restoration of the sealing power to Joseph Smith. Joseph Smith may have made mistakes, but God leads this church and we love and revere Joseph as the prophet of the restoration.