One of the thorniest issues in the LDS Church is justifying the past practice of polygamy. In fact, there are 3 Gospel Topics essays devoted to the topic. Dr. Newell Bringhurst and Dr. Matt Harris will critique these essays and tell us the strengths and weaknesses of the essays.
Newell: Gary Bergera wrote the first of the three [polygamy] essays, which deals with Joseph Smith and the origins of polygamy and critiques the way in which the Topics essay on Joseph Smith and polygamy dealt with that issue, and it’s a very balanced essay, I must say. I think all three of our essays, including George Smith’s, as well as my own and Gary’s, we’ve tried to carefully point out the strengths of the essays, the respective essays, as well as the shortcomings.
Gary gives credit to the essay for its frankness, and pointing out Joseph Smith’s controversial nature of marrying younger women, of the polyandry, that is, Joseph Smith marrying women who are already married to other men, as well as concealing the practice from Emma Smith, in the early stages. So, he gives [credit]– but the thing that he really hits hardest on is the selective use of documents in writing the Gospel Topics essays, that the author or authors of the Gospel Topics essays, downplay sources, that are not only unfavorable, but more contemporary to the practice of polygamy during the lifetime of Joseph Smith. One of the real problems with documenting Joseph Smith in the practice of polygamy, is the lack of contemporary documentation for the time that Joseph Smith lived, when polygamy was being practiced. So, the great reliance is on secondary sources and the few primary sources that are available concurrent with the time of Joseph Smith, tend to be critical because throughout his ministry, Joseph Smith continually denied that polygamy was being practiced, saying “No, it’s not being practiced.”
So, that was the real trick is how to handle the documentation. He gets into the issue of memory and selective use of documentation and so on. The thing he really hits the hardest on is two issues: number one, Gary is very critical of the fact that the essay continually emphasized Joseph Smith as a reluctant polygamist, as this guy, that was– there was the angel, holding a sword over his head, commanding him to practice polygamy, and that this guy was really, he just really was repulsed by the idea that– and he [Gary] says that just doesn’t ring quite true. He says there was a deliberately playing down of Joseph Smith, the sexuality, the idea that polygamy was a means of multiplying and replenishing the chosen seed and so on. The other thing he’s critical of, is the downplaying of the theological underpinnings, based on the use of D&C 132. He’s also critical of the fact that some of the most important books are not even cited in the Gospel Topics essay, particularly Lawrence Foster’s Religion and Sexuality, George Smith’s book, Nauvoo Polygamy: But We Called It Plural Marriage or polygamy.
We’re moving on to a critique of the Race and Priesthood essay on the LDS Church website. What are the strengths and weaknesses? Is it a definitive repudiation of racism? Dr. Matt Harris & Dr. Newell Bringhurst will weigh in.
Matt: I want to start with the positive, first, I suppose. The first one is that the Race and Priesthood essay gives Latter-day Saints an authoritative document to wave in the air and say to the brother at Church, “Look, the Church no longer teaches that black people are cursed, or that they were less valiant in the pre-existence.” Before, when some Latter-day Saints would do that, they would get push back, “Who says that? Where?” They just didn’t have anything to appeal to, really. But now you’ve got an official document where somebody can wave in the air at church or anywhere else and say, “Look, this is not what the Church teaches. It once taught this, but it no longer teaches it. So please don’t say that, brother or sister”. So I think that’s really important to know.
Matt: The second thing is that the Race and Priesthood essay talks about it being a temple and priesthood ban. That’s not a small distinction, that it used to be just really a priesthood restriction. But really, it always impacted black Latter-day Saints in their ability to go to the temple. They could always do some rituals in the temple, like baptisms for the dead, for example, but they were clearly forbidden from being sealed in the temple as husband and wife, and also receiving their endowment. So, it is a temple and priesthood restriction. The essay makes that clear. I think that’s really, really an important point to make. The essay also denounces the idea of interracial marriage as a sin. Since I’m into the second book now in Blacks and Mormons, it’s just extraordinary to me how much of the fear of interracial marriage governed the brethren towards their views on civil rights, or whether to have black people, black students come to BYU. Interracial marriage, it was at the bedrock of all of this. Certainly, I don’t want to give the impression that Latter-day Saints and BYU policies were unique, because that’s just not true. Lots of Americans in the 20th century did not favor interracial marriage, and the church was one of them.
GT: Can I pause there, just for a second, Matt? There was an essay by a black member of the church, [Andrew S at] Wheat & Tares , a few years ago. One of the things that he said about the Race and Priesthood Essay was that it’s kind of a Rorschach test. You can read that God was not responsible for the ban, and that it was a man-made thing, or you can also read that it was God commanded. It kind of depends on your purpose. The essay was purposely written vaguely so that it wouldn’t offend either the liberal or the conservative members of the Church. Can you comment on that? Do you agree with that?
Matt: Absolutely. That’s absolutely true. I talked to a couple of people. There are a number of people that participated in this essay. I mean, certainly, you mentioned that Paul Reeve wrote a lengthy draft, and he did. But there were a number of people who weighed in. It was sort of like the Declaration of Independence. We give credit to Thomas Jefferson. But the truth is, if you look at the first draft that Jefferson writes, it gets pretty watered down by the third and fourth draft when the Congress sinks their teeth into it.
Matt: When the document came out, I shared with my brother who was in a bishopric at the time, and I said, “What does this mean to you?” He didn’t read the same things that I read into it. So, your point is well taken. Then I walked through it with him. I said, “Now, what do you make of that paragraph? Read it carefully.” Now, my brother has a doctorate degree, [and] two Masters. He’s a smart guy, and he didn’t read it [the way that I did] on the first attempt. So, I walked him through a paragraph where it talks about the cultural conditions in the 19th century, and his response was, “Okay, I guess I can see your point now”. Obviously, I was influenced by my conversations with a couple of scholars that worked on this. But it wasn’t as clear in its writing as we would like, but that was by design, I think.
GT: That you would like, but the Church leaders were fine with it, right?
Matt: Here’s what I think. I think too often we paint broad brushes with the Church leaders. We say they’re all this or they’re all [that]. That’s just not true. I mean, these guys have different opinions, they have different thoughts and different ideas. That’s not revolutionary on my part. I know that brethren have admitted this over the time. But there are plenty of instances where they disagree.
What are your thoughts on these 2 essays? Do you agree or disagree with Newell & Matt?