So far, we’ve talked a lot about faith crises of people who leave over church history or LGBT issues. They aren’t the only are people who leave, however. Some people develop a testimony of polygamy and join polygamist groups. I asked David Ostler about how to minister to these people as well.
GT: I recently attended the Sunstone meetings, and I attended a session in which they had close to a dozen women that got up and stated why they decided to become polygamists. It seems like sometimes we talk about the left side of the church and the right side of the church. I can’t tell you how surprising it was for me to hear over and over and over again, from these women, “Yeah, I took Seminary in high school. I got married in the LDS temple, and now, I’m a polygamist.” I just thought, “I don’t understand that at all.”
David: You know, I must confess, I haven’t researched that one.
GT: Because I think, this [book] does seem to talk about the people who are concerned about the church history and LGBT issues, and things like that. But there is another side of the church. The church does have to keep an eye out the people that believe in the Adam-God doctrine and polygamy and that sort of thing. Do you have anything for them?
David: So I think it’s the same thing. I think we meet people where they are and try and lift them to Christ. We do that with compassion and love and the like. Goodness. Brigham Young thought the Adam-God theory was right. So, he lived with that for years and years, and we don’t worry about Brigham Young’s faith. Maybe some do. But from a traditionally believing perspective, we recognize him as a prophet and a great man in the church, and yet he had beliefs that he held that now we don’t hold. So I think we can tolerate some different beliefs.
He told me about some of his experiences as a mission president in Africa, and how the Church deals with African polygamists.
GT: Believe it or not, at least I’ve heard, the Community of Christ or the RLDS Church for years denied that Joseph ever practiced polygamy. And then I believe, I want to say it’s the 1970s, so John Hamer or somebody will have to correct me if this is not correct, but they started teaching in India and Africa, places that had polygamy and they said the question is, do you baptize a polygamist? If they’re Muslim polygamists, the Community of Christ actually started baptizing polygamists, if they promised not to take any more wives. So it’s interesting to hear that about Sierra Leone, do we have a policy on that?
David: Yeah, we have a policy, we don’t baptize people who are in polygamy. We can’t baptize children that are living in a polygamist home. I remember one of my first Sundays, we went out to a branch a long ways away from the mission home and I sat in on the youth class, and it was being taught by this wonderful 17 year old sister. She was doing a great job teaching, and so afterwards, I asked, “When did she get baptized?” She says, “Well, I’m not baptized.” “Really? Well, we’d be happy to teach you.” She says, “Well, I can’t get baptized until I’m 18 because my parents are polygamists.” So she was accommodated into the church.
GT: And she taught a class?
David: She taught a class. She joined the faithful community and I’m sure she was baptized after her 18th birthday.
What advice would those who struggle with faith give to members of the Church? David Ostler reads a couple of letters from people struggling, and I think they are really impactful.
David: Can I read just one more story?
GT: Sure, absolutely.
David: So this is a guy named Mike, and I put it at the end of my book. I introduced him in the first chapter, but I put him in the end of the book, because he wrote me a follow up email about six months after I first interviewed him. I told him, I was just about to conclude the book, and when he gave me this, I threw away the conclusion, and rewrote it to include his story. He’s in a faith crisis, unsure whether he’ll stay in the church. It’s hard for him to participate. He feels still alone and isolated, even though he’s been in this particular state for more than two years, I believe. He just gives us advice on what to do. He’s thought about it because he’s felt it.
David: He said, “When I was in the dark night of the soul, there are a few things that could have really helped me. I needed someone to just listen, and then after listening, let me know and help me really believe that they trusted me and loved me, no matter what conclusion I came to. I needed someone to show me that it was love that was the strongest and largest cord that bound us together, not our common belief in the church. I needed someone to not only listen but to encourage me to seek answers and say, ‘Great, I don’t know where that journey will take you, and it’s your own journey. but whatever conclusion you come to, I will absolutely respect you, and if you want someone to walk with you for a while on your journey, call me. I’m there for you.’ I needed someone to let me know that they have never experienced what I’m experiencing, so they won’t pass judgment. I needed to feel from people, not just hear words, that they trusted me and viewed me as a worthy, intelligent and spiritually sensitive human being. I needed a different space after sacrament meeting to be nourished spiritually, and if that wasn’t available, I needed an invitation to leave during the rest of the church block to seek spiritual nourishment elsewhere. (I still need this.) I needed someone to ask me, “What would you like to do in the ward that will help you thrive here?” For me that would have been teaching. I love to teach, but I became an unsafe person, and so I haven’t taught since coming out. I used to teach and speak frequently. I also needed someone to listen and then push back a little. I needed someone with whom I could engage in healthy confrontations. This is this faithful place I was talking about, because after resolution of these confrontations, relationships can blossom.”
What are your thoughts regarding these different groups of people and how we can better minister to them?
I remember when Elder Oaks announced a special trip to Boise, Idaho, where there were incidentally a lot of Snufferites (followers of Denver Snuffer), to give a talk. Many wondered whether the trip was specifically to stem the tide of the Snufferite movement, but alas, this was completely denied by the church newsroom, which mentioned that Elder Oaks just happened to have some free time in his schedule and decided to go to Boise. Well, later on, a PowerPoint prepared for the brethren was later leaked and in it it specified that the purpose of Oaks’ Boise trip was to address “right-wing” dissent in the LDS church. The leadership was particularly perturbed about this leak and had Kirton McConkie demand that MormonLeaks take it down from their website. I recall many news articles about this particular incident and a back-and-forth between MormonLeaks’ attorney and the LDS church’s attorneys.
This leads to several questions. 1) Why did the leaders go out of their way to have it announced on the church news room that Elder Oaks was not going to Idaho to address “right-wing” dissent? Did they not want to draw undue attention to the Snufferite movement? OK. Then why bother publishing anything in the news room at all? The leaked PowerPoint was just embarrassing. Seriously? The brethren feel the need to lie about something seemingly innocuous, such as a reason for leader visit? 2) Are leaders terribly concerned about “right-wing” dissent? I simply can’t imagine that Snuffer managed to attract that many followers, or that that many people have revelations that they should marry another wife. Is it really that big an issue? Secularism seems to be a much, much larger problem for the leaders.
I don’t have much to add on ministering to polygamists other than what David Ostler says. Very wise council. I especially like what he says about tolerating differing beliefs given Brigham Young (and others) had different beliefs than many today.
I love the closing thoughts from Mike. Mike says he wanted someone to listen and pushback a little. I love this! This is why I continue to participate in spaces like this. I don’t need an echo chamber. Yes, my current conclusions have led me to being unconvinced as to the existence of God, but I still love considering the idea and receiving push back. My ideas could be wrong. My conclusions could be ill drawn. I’m open to that possibility. There is no space in my ward to have these tough conversations but it would be lovely to sit down face to face with people of differing conclusions and discuss these things. Without judgment and without trying to convert to a certain perspective but to both explain where we each are coming from and to understand other’s reasons for belief. I crave these sorts of interactions.
In the late 1960s missionaries from the then-RLDS Church encountered people in polygamous households while ministering among the Sora tribes in India. This group was among the lowest economically and socially in the region (which is an important point to keep in mind here). Up to this point in the church’s history, as well, it had been largely a Western and/or English-speaking church, the most notable exception being French Polynesia.
Missionaries checked with church leaders back at headquarters in Independence, Missouri. Basically, there were 3 options: (1) withdraw missionary work in the area and go somewhere else where it wouldn’t be an issue; (2) force all polygamists to renounce their plural marriages before being baptized; or (3) allow polygamists to be baptized, with the condition that the men would wed no more women.
The first option would maintain the “purity” of the institution, at the expense of its moral authority and commission to take the gospel of Jesus Christ into all the world. The second option would maintain the institution’s “purity and moral integrity,” at least to a degree; however, all but the first wives would be abandoned to a life without social or economic security (remember, these folks were at the bottom of the ladder already). The third option put the well-being of the individuals first, while sacrificing a degree of institutional integrity, although the argument can be made at the same time that by acting in this way the institution was, in fact, functioning in a Christ-like manner.
Church leaders chose the third option, despite a great deal of criticism and controversy. One of the enduring themes of the Reorganization from its official beginning in April 1860 onward was opposition to polygamy in the Utah church. Prophet-President W. Wallace Smith eventually addressed this controversy in the inspired document he presented to the 1972 World Conference, which became Section 150 of the Doctrine and Covenants:
“Monogamy is the basic principle on which Christian married life is built. Yet, as I have said before, there are also those who are not of this fold to whom the saving grace of the gospel must go. When this is done the church must be willing to bear the burden of their sin, nurturing them in the faith, accepting that degree of repentance which it is possible for them to achieve, looking forward to the day when through patience and love they can be free as a people from the sins of the years of their ignorance.
“To this end and for this purpose, continue your ministry to those nations of people yet unaware of the joy freedom from sin can bring into their lives. In this way they will be brought to a knowledge of the teachings of my gospel and be made ready and willing to help spread the message of reconciliation and restoration to other worthy souls. In this ministry the apostolic council, as the chief witnesses of the gospel, are directed to interpret and administer the doctrines and ordinances of the gospel in a manner appropriate to the circumstances in which they find such persons.
“The spirit of unity must prevail if my church is to survive these perilous times and continue as a viable force in the world, fulfilling its destiny. You, my people, have been called apart to assist in this great work in these last days. Put aside petty differences and join together as never before that all may labor together according to the gifts with which I have endowed you, and my Spirit will be with you now and forever more. Amen.” (Doctrine and Covenants 150:10-12)
Although a highly controversial issue at the time, this incident, I believe, has proven to be a landmark turning point for what is now the Community of Christ. Two notable cases in point: opening priesthood to women in the mid-1980s throughout the worldwide church; and priesthood ordination and marriage for LGBT persons within the pst decade (although not yet permitted everywhere in the 80+ nations where the church is located).
One of my listeners grew up in Africa, and he said that many Christian churches struggle how to handle polygamists. I think he said the Anglican Church forces people to renounce all their wives but one, and then must financially support the other wives. It is a complicated mess, but still breaks up families. I think the CoC solution is better than the Anglican solution, but polygamy is such a lightning rod that the LDS Church could never adopt such a solution, which is why they simply avoid teaching polygamists. I have recorded several interviews with polygamy experts, and we address the Exclusion Policy of polygamists (that still hasn’t been overturned like the LGBT policy was.) Lindsay Park was especially critical of the LDS Church’s policy against polygamists, and she feels by turning our back to them, it allows predators like Warren Jeffs to flourish.
What could I have used to help navigate my faith crisis? Someone that I could have known had been through one too. Why, because I don’t want to unload on someone all my questions and have them thrown for a loop too. It’s nice not being “woke” with this stuff.
It would have been nice to have someone tell me that a lot of this stuff is highly ambiguous and while you’ll search one side of the story and be convinced, you’ll then the search the other side and be also convinced and realize that with all the main characters dead, the massive rewrite of history (or what other claim was rewritten due to being highly invested in the narrative), and the large passage time… there’s just some answers you won’t be able to definitively find or at least be satisfied with.
I had to come to realize that people are people and they make mistakes. My job is figure out ahead of time what’s most important to me and what I can live with. If I find that and I can in good conscience stay in the church, then do that.
I echo Doubting Tom’s comment. I just want to talk, to explore, what I’m learning on my journey.
The thing that frustrates me is not that I feel alone, but that I’m pretty sure I’m not alone. I’m quite confident there are others in my own congregation just like me. Just imagine if we could support each other. But the institution makes is so tough. Finding them is difficult, but trusting that the other is not a mole is a completely different hurdle altogether (just ask students targeted by BYU’s Honor Code office). I wonder what it would take to change this.
The Church has a strange relationship with polygamy, strongly affirming the divine command to Joseph Smith to practice it while, at the same time, excommunicating any member who practices or advocates (?) its practice. Members on both the left and right have issues with polygamists, those on the right because 21st-century polygs aren’t “following the Brethren” and those on the left because they are practicing polygamy, perceived as anti-feminist and immoral. Modern day polygs just get no love from the Church or any of its membership — while, strangely, 19th-century polygs get all kinds of love from the Church, its leadership, and many of the members.
There is just no traction, no framework, for outreach or an activation push towards anyone practicing polygamy. In the eyes of the Church and the membership, they are pariahs. Members will sometimes circle the wagons to defend a child molester, but consensual plural marriage between consenting adults makes those persons pariahs.
Look at the November Policy. It provoked angst, even outrage, among a significant portion of the LDS membership. How dare they pick on children, prohibiting baptism to those with a gay parent until the child turns 18? It turns out that policy is modeled on similar prohibitions aimed at children with a polygamous parent. Did anyone get upset that children of polygs are barred from LDS bapstims, either before or after the November Policy was put in place? How is it that none of the progressive Mormons who are so upset about the November Policy (the poor children!) seem to give a whit about the equally innocent children of polygs?
It’s all just way too political, with too much historical baggage, to put this scenario into the same framework as “how to be nicer to doubting Mormons.”
Prior to Nov 2015, I didn’t know about the Exclusion policy for children of polygamists. I have upcoming interviews with several polygamy experts and none of them like it. I do not like the continuing policy.
“Prior to Nov 2015, I didn’t know about the Exclusion policy for children of polygamists.”
And you didn’t care to find out. That seems to be Dave B’s point.