I'm not sure how it began, this sudden inquiry into plural marriage, but it's been a painful descent into the seedy side—terrible pun intended—of what happened in the days of the early church.
"We never said Joseph Smith was perfect," I've heard all my life—I've taught all my life. But I had never heard that he lied to Emma about obtaining other wives. I never heard about how manipulative he was to get them to marry him, alternatively promising salvation and threatening destruction. I never realized just to what extent women were treated like property, which philosophy was crystallized, to some degree, in our theology and in our understanding of the celestial kingdom.
"Whoa, stop right there," the good Mormon says. "What anti-Mormon literature have you been reading, Mrs. T?" An even more sheltered Mormon says, "Silly woman. Joseph Smith didn't have any wives."
I respond sadly: "It's not anti-Mormon literature if it's true and corroborated by our own historians who are quoting documented, original sources." While the week of Christmas is an odd time to devote to prying open the Pandora's box of plural marriage in the LDS Church, I have done it, and while I am glad to have done it, the result has shaken me considerably. I am not alone in this: right now Mr. T is reading In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith by Todd Compton and is completely shell-shocked at how much we have massaged this topic out of our collective psyche. (From my office I can hear Mr. T in the living room; his exact words, at this exact moment, are "WHAT THE CRAP! THIS IS SO MESSED UP! WHAT THE CRAP!") Much of Todd Compton's research on Joseph Smith's wives is corroborated in Richard Bushman's Rough Stone Rolling. Todd Compton is a member of the church and a respected historian, published and awarded many times over, and Richard Bushman is a patriarch in the church and a recognized historian nationally. This is not anti-Mormon stuff. This is our history. That we don't talk about for good reason.
So if you'd like to remain in blissful ignorance, stop reading now.
And I'd pull out my scriptures and flip to 2 Samuel 12:7–8 in the Bible and to Jacob 2:30 in the Book of Mormon. Oh yes, I could defend it to the bitter end. I could then say, "We don't understand everything and just have to trust God" and proclaim mysteriously, "My grandma read somewhere once in someone's journal that the power to understand plural marriage was taken from the earth when the Official Declaration was given in 1890." I'd sweetly follow it up with the comforting, "But don't worry, monogomy is the rule of heaven; plural marriage is the exception. That is what our Church teaches . . . now. No one will be forced to live plural marriage in the next life." If pressed hard enough, I might have said, "God would give me the power to be a polygamous wife if I was called to do that—but he hasn't," I would add very quickly. And if pressed a bit further, I would probably have broken down into tears at the thought of sharing my husband with another woman and the idea that I was valued for little more than the "seed" that I could produce and the glory that I would add to my husband's crown. But such darker feelings about plural marriage were whitewashed with relief that at least I wouldn't be required to live it, at least not in this life.
The idea that my primary value is linked to bearing children, both here and in the eternities, runs deep in our culture: Elder Christofferson, in the October 2013 General Conference, said, "Most sacred is a woman’s role in the creation of life." To which I would cry out, "No, it isn't! Women are not creation machines! Some of us can't or don't want to! Let us define what is sacred in our lives! The perpetuation of life alone is not the only reason I exist! What if baby-making is not every woman's calling?! There are other joys of life that can bring just as much joy! You are not the joy police!"
The fixation on defining a woman's "role" (how I hate the word! I am myself, not a role!) in large part stems from our early theology about eternal increase, as well as the thought that there is one joy that is the highest joy and right for everybody, and that joy is bearing child after child after child—the more the better. The more you can handle, the more like God you are. Quantity over quality. Not my idea of heaven, I respond! More like a 19th-century white American frontiersman's heaven that I have adopted for far too long without regard to what I need and what I want in life (because that would be selfish!).
Worst of all—and what hurts me the most now, thinking back to my defensive behavior about plural marriage—one of the very few converts on my mission, one of the sweetest ladies I've ever met, called up in tears the day before she was supposed to get baptized, saying that she had seen a documentary about the Mormons on television and she did not know that we believed in plural marriage. My companion spoke to her and comforted her, saying that this was Satan's way of trying to deter her from the sweet blessings of baptism and church membership. And we don't practice polygamy anymore, she added comfortingly. It was only for a time.
Oh my. If I could travel back in time, I'd slug myself (as well as my companion—she deserved a good slugging as well for lots of reasons) for all the soothing things I said—never really taking the time to understand exactly what the allegations were. Well, here they are, and they are documented in both books mentioned above. Let me repeat that: they are documented. Souced. Cited. And incredibly disturbing. I list only a few that make my heart bleed the most:
1. Joseph Smith lied to Emma. I knew that she didn't like polygamy, but I had no idea that Joseph lied to her. He practiced "spiritual wifery" behind her back, particularly when she wouldn't consent to it. In common parlance, this is called adultery (the early church leaders just redefined it to make it okay by God—see #6). It happened on many occasions. For example, Joseph married the Partridge sisters, Emily and Eliza, without Emma's knowledge. Two months later Emma begrudgingly agreed to the arrangement, still not knowing that they were already married (she agreed on threat of destruction, mind you, not because she had a change of heart), and in order to prevent trouble, the ceremonies were performed again instead of revealing that they all had been married already. Plural marriage is disturbing enough without this treachery! Why would a prophet lie to his wife, and enlist others to secrecy? How can I believe in a God that would sanction this kind of lying to those who are supposed to be closest to you? To add to it, Emma was so bothered by it that at the end of her life she denied that the whole thing had ever happened, even though it did definitely happen. So she lied as well—whether to save face or driven so crazy by all the heartache she had to reconstruct her own history, I don't know.
2. Joseph made major changes on his own, without telling anybody. Joseph supposedly began the relationship with Fanny Alger—the servant at his house—without informing either Emma or Oliver Cowdery about the new order of things. This is very suspicious. He doesn't tell either his wife or his first counselor about a whole new social order, just goes ahead and does it?
3. What happens to the wives as the years go on is very telling: Emma can't stand it and kicks them out, and lots of them end up leaving the Church and marrying other men. Joseph makes no attempt to take care of them after the fact. So much for commitment. Many of the wives were divvied out to Heber C. Kimball and Brigham Young after the death of Joseph Smith, and so many of them lived sad, lonely lives of poverty. "By an almost cruel irony," Compton points out, "the greater the number of women married, the greater the man's exaltation, according to nineteenth-century Mormon theology" (xiv). Zina Diantha Huntington was 8 months pregnant and her son had the measles. "No one will know the hours of paneful[sic] loneliness that I saw by day & by night" (98). Whatever the reward they were promised, they did not receive it in this world. If we say, "By their fruits ye shall know them" (Matthew 7:20), then this fruit was rotten with sorrow and neglect and psychological damage and loneliness.
4. The "raise up seed" business is mighty suspect for three reasons, all of which refute Jacob 2:30 pretty soundly:
A) Women in polygamous marriages actually bore fewer children. From the man's perspective each man has a lot of kids, sure, but from a societal perspective each woman had fewer children overall, resulting in a lower fertility rate. Check out this article that sums it all up and even provides a study of fertility rates of American frontier polygamists. If we try to do the mental gymnastics around that (as I have) and say "Oh, this means raise up righteous seed within the church—so maybe there were fewer children, but they are more righteous and faithful," we should remember that the majority of these women raised their children by themselves. Utah's success was largely based on the massive influx of obedient immigrants arriving from all over. Also, we have an obsession with producing seed. Seriously. No leader of this church has any authority, now or then, to tell me how many children I have to bring to this life. My body, my choice, thanks.
B) Women had less resources to raise those children. Louisa Beaman's five children all died, then she died herself at a young age from breast cancer. So much for raising seed!
C) Many of the wives already had husbands of their own. Why on earth would Joseph and Brigham need to marry women who already were married to other men . . . even other men in the Church, as in the case of Zina Diantha Huntington? Read about Zina's crazy set of marriages from good ol' Wikipedia, which condenses her story. Poor Henry, her original husband, was left with absolutely nothing, in this life or the life to come. What kind of social order leaves the faithful out to dry like that? One that is seriously messed up.
5. There were actually more men than women, according to census records. You can check out Chapter 5 of Kathryn M. Daynes' More Wives Than One. It wasn't like there was a dearth of men and that women were clamoring for a man to marry, even if it meant sharing him. Additionally, the LDS apostle John A. Widstoe refuted the notion himself: "The implied assumption in this theory, that there have been more female than male members in the Church is not supported by existing evidence. On the contrary, there seems always to have been more males than females in the Church. . . . The United States census records from 1850 to 1940, and all available Church records, uniformly show a preponderance of males in Utah...This theory is not defensible since there was no surplus of women" (Evidences and Reconciliations, 1960, pages 390–392).
6. D&C 132 is still on the record, unchallenged in all of its ugly sexism and overt manipulation of Emma. Go ahead and read Doctrine and Covenants 132 again. All of it. Note how many references to "destroying" are directed to the women? Yeah, plenty of escape clauses for the men. What bothers me most upon reading it (and I don't think I've read it in its entirety since I was a seminary student in 10th or 11th grade—manuals now instruct Sunday School teachers to only read certain parts of it) is that women are given out left and right. Who has the right to give out these women? How do they feel about it? Where is their agency? Why is it that the glory goes to the man? Why is Emma threatened so horribly with destruction?
Also, although D&C 132 talks an awful lot about Abraham and David and how they did no sin in taking additional wives, the Book of Mormon states very clearly that people use the scriptures to justify committed these atrocities that break the tender hearts of their wives and daughters:
Jacob 2:23: "But the word of God burdens me because of your grosser crimes. For behold, thus saith the Lord: This people begin to wax in iniquity; they understand not the scriptures, for they seek to excuse themselves in committing whoredoms, because of the things which were written concerning David, and Solomon his son."
[We could just as well include Abraham, with Hagar and her "seed" also being kicked out of the house and left to fend for themselves. Polygamy didn't work well then, either!]
Jacob 2:24: "Behold, David and Solomon truly had many wives and concubines, which thing was abominable before me, saith the Lord."
Is D&C 132 a direct contradiction of Jacob 2? Seems like it to me, particularly when the one escape clause of "raising seed" was an obvious failure of the polygamy experiment.
From these points I conclude that D&C 132 was not actually a revelation from God. Things can start unraveling very quickly once you question whether this revelation was truly from God. What else was Joseph wrong about? The temple? His concept of heaven? I'm tempted to believe that either a) he was a false prophet, or b) he really did see God and translate the Book of Mormon, but he went crazy with power and glory and introduced false things based on his own interpretations.
As I was speaking to a friend in the ward about this, she said, "When I've searched things out as far as I can, I have to put it on a shelf and let time heal things, and then when the shelf falls down again, I take another look at it." I disagree with this eternal shelving approach. We have to confront this. It is too heavy for any shelf I have anyway. Joseph Smith is not the prophet I thought he was, that I was taught he was. Maybe Jacob's final words of that chapter apply more poignantly and painfully to our own church leaders than we could have imagined:
Jacob 2:35: "Behold, ye have done greater iniquities than the [Gentiles], our brethren [and sisters]. Ye have broken the hearts of your tender wives, and lost the confidence of your children, because of your bad examples before them; and the sobbings of their hearts ascend up to God against you. And because of the strictness of the word of God, which cometh down against you, many hearts died, pierced with deep wounds."
We women in the LDS Church are still hurting because this doctrine is still a fundamental part of our Church. It is in our scriptures. It is not like a light switch, on and off. It was never entirely turned off, as is evidenced that D&C 132 is still in our scriptures and men can be sealed to more than one wife in our temples. How many Mormon men think dreamily about getting more wives in heaven? How many Mormon women die inside with the thought of being herded with other wives into their husband's glorious kingdom, worlds without end? It still hurts us. And, apparently, it is hurting without reason, because plural marriage, from what I can gather, was a failed social order based on the glorification of the man at the extreme expense of the woman.
Addition: I wrote this article yesterday and was just about to click "Publish" when Mr. T sent me a link to an extremely similar article by a woman named Heather at Secrets of a Food Storage Mom: Mormon Journey Part 6: Polygamy. I have no connection to Heather at all but it appears that we have both been brought up in Utah—she in southern Utah, I south of Salt Lake. I find it fascinating what elements of this topic bothered us both, as well as the inconsistencies we both found. We both even mentioned shelves, independently. Heather has also linked to many other sources that I haven't, so I recommend you read her article as well. In the mouth of two or three witnesses shall all falsehoods of our church be revealed and dealt with properly!