They are still commissioning the other women’s statues that will be hidden in bushes around the square.

The church’s new polygamy essays are progressive and more transparent than prior statements on this topic.  For example, a few short years ago when I was teaching Relief Society, the manual regarding the teachings of Joseph Smith specifically forbade teachers from discussing polygamy.  There was also an entire lesson devoted to the “love letters” of Joseph to Emma, a dubious endeavor given their troubled relationship.  I could not in good conscience teach that lesson, a lesson that not only was light on gospel substance (devoid, in fact), but also deliberately misleading about the nature of the troubled relationship between Joseph and Emma, implying that the couple was some great example of marital love and trust to which we should all aspire. [1]

While I’ve been aware of Joseph Smith’s plural marriages for a long time, because the church has been so hush-hush about it, the matter was still open to see what the church’s stance would be when it finally spoke on the historical facts.  We hadn’t heard the church’s closing arguments, so to speak.  Now that they have spoken, it feels a little like we went from denial and side-stepping to admission coupled with justification.  What’s missing is real empathy for the harmful effects of this practice that hurt women far more than men.  We get a very brief nod to this, including stating how difficult it was for the men!  I mean, I’m glad if they felt it was awful.  It was.  But it was far worse for women.

A family man, perfect in every way

The essay seems as though it was written absent any female input or any interest in how women perceive this difficult subject.  As someone who has sat in Relief Society for two and a half decades, I can state with some authority that the sisters are not okay with polygamy, either here or in the eternities.  The most positive views of it are:  1) shelving it for now by imagining that we’ll feel differently at some undetermined point in the future, or 2) complete denial and unwillingness to look at what really  happened; this includes seeing what the FLDS do as completely different from what early Saints did.  That’s the best we’ve got.  And that’s the most charitable subset of the women, of which I am not one. [2]

While I applaud the increase in transparency, I felt a little bit like I did watching the OJ Simpson trial.

JURY:  OJ is so cool.  I wonder if he will sign an autograph for me?

PROSECUTION:  It’s a million to one chance that he did it.  The DNA proves it.

COCHRAN:  If the glove does not fit, you must acquit.

JURY:  Pithy phrases are so much easier to understand than science or DNA.  There’s still room for reasonable doubt.

PROSECUTION:  No, there really isn’t.  Weren’t any of you listening to the expert testimony?

JURY:  Not guilty!

AMERICA:  ????

Idealizing Emma & Joseph

Those of us outside the jury were pretty much convinced of his guilt the whole time, and when he got off, everyone was in shock.  Only the gullible and unsophisticated jury was convinced he would never do such a thing.  And of course, after he got off, he wrote the book If I Did It, detailing the grisly murder in a hypothetical account.  This essay felt like the church went from “If the glove does not fit, you must acquit” to “If I Did It,” in one fell swoop; like that book, the approach is defensive of something that most would find reprehensible.  Obviously, plural marriage isn’t on par with homicide, but it was a pretty unsavory business, involving coercion of minors and spousal deception, as well as refuting truthful accusations.  By some accounts, it included more egregious actions than that, actions the church has not conceded in this essay.

Patrick Mason, Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University had this to say about the new approach:

“It’s a win for transparency and honesty.  It’s a win for the relationship between the church and scholarship. I think it’s a win just for historical honesty and accuracy and the confidence that we can deal with tough issues inside the church.”

The only ones who don’t win are (once again) the women.  How are we dealing with the “tough issues” when we don’t care how the ones who bear the larger burden are impacted?  There’s no mention of the mortification these women experienced as they sat in the first Relief Society, knowingly deceiving Emma, their president, hiding the fact that they were married to her husband, to say nothing of Emma’s betrayal and heartbreak.  The essays fail to truly acknowledge how plural marriage harms women, very disproportionately to men.  I suspect this is for three reasons: 1) no women were involved in writing or reviewing the essays (although if there were, they would probably find the one woman it doesn’t make vomit), 2) many church leaders descend from polygamists and are loath to criticize the marriages of their great grandparents, and 3) some church leaders believe and hope that plural marriage is their right in the eternities.

On the upside, I am hopeful that nobody will again ask us to teach a lesson about the exemplary, harmonious marriage that Emma & Joseph didn’t really have.


[1] OTOH, is still touting this version of Joseph.  To wit, “The heavy burden of leading the Church did not distract Joseph from his responsibility to his wife and children; it increased his love for them.  One of the later Prophets of the Church told the members, “No other success can compensate for failure in the home.” This statement came more than a century after Joseph Smith died, but Joseph exemplified this idea all his life. Even though Joseph was often persecuted and sometimes imprisoned on false charges, his first thoughts were always for his family. He wrote to his wife, Emma, while he was imprisoned in Missouri:  “Tell the children that I am alive and trust that I shall come and see them before long. Comfort their hearts all you can, and try to be comforted yourself all you can.”  Joseph lived the doctrine he preached—that strengthening our families should be an important focus of our lives. When his life was in jeopardy, Joseph relied on his faith in Jesus Christ not only to sustain himself, but his wife and children as well.”  Given Joseph’s at times secretive polygamy, this hagiography goes beyond wishful thinking.

[2] The most charitable defense of polygamy I ever heard was by my seminary teacher when I was a teen.  She said it would be better to be a second wife in a good marriage than a first wife in a bad marriage.  I never understood what she meant by a “good” marriage in which the husband was also sleeping with other women.  Perhaps she meant it was better than physical domestic abuse.  If so, that’s a low bar.