A non-Mormon man wondered if he might be able to participate in polygamy. Helen Mar Kimball wrote a scathing response to this man while offering a strong defense of polygamy. Dr. Larry Foster discusses this interesting defense of polygamy.
Larry: There was a very interesting defense of polygamy by one of Joseph Smith’s plural wives, Helen Marr Kimball, who then became married to Whitney– Helen Mar Kimball Whitney, later, but I forget which Whitney she was married to, but she was briefly a plural wife of Joseph Smith. She wrote a defense of why we practice plural marriage. She starts with a very interesting story about a man who had written her. He described a very complicated situation in which he was unable to have sex with his wife. He loved her. He was taking care of her, but it was impossible to have sex with his wife, and he wondered if he were to become a Mormon, if it’d be acceptable for him to have another wife. She wrote back to him, chastising him and saying, “This is terrible. You’re awful.” I guess he was living in this type of relationship and he wanted to see if it could be regularized as a Mormon. And she said, “This is terrible, your great sin,” and so forth. But if it had been under the authority of the Mormon Church, it would have been okay. This is very interesting to me. She was a very thoughtful writer. She appreciated the problem that he was in, but she really gave him an earful about how he really needed to repent.
GT: It wasn’t under proper authority.
Larry: It wasn’t under proper authority, and I don’t think she ever got to the question of what would happen if he joined and tried to do it?
Larry: Brian Hales, he’s done great work by giving us a 3-volume, 1600-page collection with accurate transcripts of virtually all the stuff that relates to polygamy, pro, anti, but he interprets it wrong, ahistorically. I think his major goal is to actually argue that none of these women that were sealed to Joseph Smith, who were married to other men actually had sex with him in this life, that they were only sealed for eternity and did not have sex with him in this life. I think this has been almost definitively disproven by Michael Quinn. Michael Quinn is one of the most knowledgeable and most reliable, I think, historians of all aspects of Mormonism, especially 19th century Mormonism. He’s done a lot on the 20th century as well.
Larry: Right, but this is about possible children by some of these women.
GT: But I know that Sylvia Sessions Lyon was one case, and he’s since changed his opinion since he wrote those books, but he was arguing with Sylvia Sessions that she was married to Brother Lyon, I can’t remember his first name–it was consecutive marriages.
Larry: It doesn’t hold up. If you look at the detail, and that’s what Michael Quinn has done, but here’s the thing about that particular case. In that particular case, she’s told her daughter.
GT: Josephine Lyon.
Larry: Josephine Lyon, just before she died, she said, “I wanted you to know this, I have kept this from you all these years, but you’re really Joseph Smith’s progeny.”
Larry: Well, then we did the DNA testing and it showed that she wasn’t.
GT: Right, she was a daughter of Brother Lyon.
Larry: Listen to this. What does the fact that she told her daughter that she was Joseph Smith’s progeny mean? She then knew that she had had sex with Joseph Smith, even if that particular example of the sex didn’t produce progeny from him. It was exceedingly controversial to have children in Nauvoo from 1841 to 1844 as a polygamist. It was illegal. It would have been totally disapproved up by most Mormons who were taught to have to be strictly monogamous and thought that was heinously sinful to have more than one marital partner, or relationship of any sort, outside of marriage. So, any children that would have been born, would have been covered up. I know we have some examples of how that happened.
Joseph Smith said his name would be known for good and evil. Boy was he right. Dr. Larry Foster thinks the truth is somewhere in the middle and dismisses both strong critics and strong apologists who don’t recognize the complexities of Joseph.
Larry: It seems clear to me after more than 40 years of studying Joseph Smith, among a number of other things, that one has to separate behavior of a prophet from the teachings of the Prophet. Brigham Young himself said, he didn’t care if Joseph Smith did all sorts of terrible things, but he was still a prophet of God. That’s what was important to him. That was in the Journal of Discourses, by the way, I’m not quoting him [directly], but I’m just giving the general gist of it.
Prophets often are a little bit excessive in various ways, including sexually. But I’d say it should not necessarily be viewed as discrediting their larger teachings. Let’s take a case that is not religious. Isaac Newton was a really weird character, really, really weird character. He was also absolutely brilliant. He developed all sorts of ideas about celestial mechanics and how the world works. He was a man who is unparalleled genius. But that doesn’t have anything to do with the validity or lack of validity of his [ideas about] celestial mechanics. I think that we would be well not to assume that one possible defect of a prophetic leader, if that’s what it was, a defect, necessarily discounts the positive accomplishments that they’ve made. Right now, we’ve just had a devastating blockbuster set of revelations on Martin Luther King Jr.’s, much wider than we had expected sexual life, and it’s really painful for many of us, who highly regarded him, but he still was a great man. He did some very important things, even if he had feet of clay in one area. I think [that if] Latter-day Saints are serious about understanding Joseph Smith, [they] need to be aware that there is this problem with his behavior toward the end of his life. Some of it is organized, and some of it can be explained. But it’s very hard, ultimately. In Section 132, he reports something to the effect that God forgives him for any sins he might have committed or might commit in the future. That’s a pretty broad thing.
One of the things I find really interesting about Dr. Larry Foster is that he seems to disagree with both critics and supporters of Joseph Smith. In our final conversation with Larry, we will close up some loose ends and seek to find a middle ground that best explain Joseph Smith.
Larry: I think it’s really hard for people who have the sort of complete hero worship idea, or sort of a pasteboard saint, to really understand Joseph Smith. It’s really hard for people who think he was just a total scoundrel and crook and con man and confidence man, or whatever it was, to see him properly. I think that there’s an element of both in him. So, my latest piece on trying to reconcile the fact that so many people for so many years, have either thought that he was a true prophet of God that could do no evil, or he was a terrible scoundrel and con man.
I think that the fact that so many people have had those opposing viewpoints [means that neither can be the whole truth.] I always believe that most people are trying to do the right thing or be honest, unless I see otherwise. So, I think there’s something that’s very special about Joseph Smith. There’s also some stuff about him that looks like he’s manipulative, and so forth. So, I argue that he was genuinely committed to his religious beliefs and ideals, but that he was also willing to cut corners and even lie or make false statements in order to try to accomplish his goals.
GT: Now, I just spoke with Dan Vogel recently.
Larry: Yeah, we’re very much on the same page on this.
GT: So, you would go with pious fraud?
Larry: No, I don’t use that. [I call him] a sincere charlatan. That was the term that I developed. I think pious and fraud both are [problematic.] Pious sounds like you’re not really true, and fraud is fraud. I mean, charlatan, trickster would be better, maybe than charlatan. But I think that he really had a genuine religious vision and ideals. I also think that he was willing to manipulate other people as part of that in ways that from outsiders’ perspective look like he was a fraud. If you don’t bring the two together, you can’t understand the overall dynamic. He was a great man. He was also a flawed man. And he, of course, recognized that the prophet is a prophet only when it’s acting as such. But even though he was acting as such, sometimes he may have deviated.
Questions for you:
- What are your thoughts concerning Joseph Smith?
- What are your thoughts regarding polygamy?
- Do you agree that critics and apologists don’t have a correct view of Joseph Smith?