Friday, February 22, 2013

On Unfairness and "Spiritual Reinforcements"

I just finished listening to a very interesting podcast on "A Thoughtful Faith" with Brian C. Hales, discussing his new three-volume series on Joseph Smith's Polygamy.

This was a fascinating interview.  I long ago came to much the same conclusion Bro. Hales has drawn, which is that if you believe Joseph Smith was a prophet and that he received a commandment to institute the practice of polygamy, then much of what looks "shady" about it makes a lot more sense. The argument that Joseph was motivated primarily by his personal libido doesn't seem -- to me -- to be sustained by the historical evidence we have available to us.

Like the interviewer, Sarah Collett (who does an outstanding job as an interviewer in this podcast!), I have long been troubled by certain allegations about Joseph Smith's polygamy.  One was the allegation that Joseph was actually marrying women who were already married -- effectively taking wives away from other men.  Another was the allegation that Joseph was marrying extremely young women -- as young as 14 years old. 

Finally, the impact of Joseph's polygamy on his first wife Emma, and the way she was subsequently treated by Brigham Young after Joseph's death, has always seemed particularly heartless to me.  Sarah posed some excellent questions about the "fairness" of polygamy.

Brother Hales' work is probably the most in-depth treatment of this subject that has ever gone into print.  (I pre-ordered my own copy through  There's a substantial discount if you order in advance.)

In the interview, Hales says that, based on his in-depth research, there is no compelling evidence that Joseph Smith took other men's wives -- for time anyway.  There were eleven women Joseph was sealed to for eternity who were married for this life to other men.  While this must certainly have been a blow to the men who were essentially being told by their wives that they preferred Joseph Smith as a companion in the next life, the implication of being married for eternity but not for time was that these women remained married to their original spouses for all temporal intents and purposes.  No wife-stealing in these eleven cases -- in this life at least!

There were three other cases where Joseph was married to women for time and for eternity who appeared to have been married to other men at the time.  In two of the three cases, Hales was able to document to his satisfaction that the women in question had effectively ended their relationships with their prior spouses.  There's one case in which there does not appear to be evidence either way.  In other words, there's no actual proof, says Hales, that Joseph "stole" other men's wives (or, as some historians have put it, engaged in "polyandry").

Hales also puts to rest the allegations regarding fourteen-year-old brides.  He argues, again, based on painstaking analysis of the data, that while some of Joseph's brides were quite young, none were as young as fourteen, and all were old enough to meet contemporary standards of propriety for age of marriage.

That leaves the question of Emma.

Sarah Collett broached the larger issue in her interview of the "unfairness" of polygamy to women.  The anguish that Emma Hale Smith went through could be seen as emblematic in many ways of this larger issue of unfairness.

Hales, to his credit, does not try to downplay this or minimize it in any way.  He admits that polygamy was -- from a temporal standpoint anyway -- "sexist" and "unfair" and -- his words! -- "indefensible".  His only way of mitigating this was to suggest that things in eternity may not work the way they work here.  Things that seem unfair from a temporal perspective, where we experience intense limitations on our time and resources, might look completely different in the context of eternity, where no such limitations might exist.

Hales, also to his credit, insists that Latter-day Saints need to be nicer to Emma Smith.  While Emma's reputation has long been besmirched in LDS circles by accusations of selfishness and lack of faith, Hales agrees that Emma did the best she could with an extremely painful, difficult and unfair situation.  There were moments when she almost accepted Joseph's polygamy, almost came to terms with it.  But ultimately she could not make peace with it.  Hales refuses to believe that her ultimate inability to accept the polygamy of her husband, in the temporal sphere anyway, will be a mark against her in the eternities.  At any rate, he refuses to judge her, and he thinks other Latter-day Saints should extend her the benefit of a doubt as well.

Hales also talks about "spiritual reinforcements" that God sends to those of us who experience unfairness -- for a variety of reasons -- in this life.  He describes historical evidence that is available to us that many LDS plural wives received such "spiritual reinforcements," that gave them comfort and helped them find peace in a situation few of our contemporaries could characterize as anything but unbearable and unjust.

I had to admit that I squirmed as I listened to him talk about this.  It sounds too much like "pie-in-the-sky" type religion, which I've always rejected.  The doctrine of "just lie down and take it, and everything will be all right in the next life" is and should be repugnant to every decent son and daughter of God.

God placed a yearning for justice in our hearts for a reason.  Justice delayed is justice denied, and if it is delayed till eternity it might as well be denied for eternity.  There is so much in religion that makes no sense at all, if we don't see the highest principle of religion, the highest form of love, as the achievement in time as well as in eternity of fairness.  The word "righteous" itself is a synonym for: "just," "rightful," and "fair."  There is no righteousness without fairness.

I will admit, I have experienced the kinds of "spiritual reinforcements" Hales describes in my own life.

If nineteenth-century Mormon women experienced "unfairness" under the institution of plural marriage, those who feel the sting of "unfairness" most acutely today in relation to Mormon beliefs and practices related to marriage must be gay men and women.  And the moment when I felt the sting of that unfairness most deeply was the day after the election results of November 2008, when I learned the results of the Prop 8 vote in California.  That really hurt. 

And as the sense of anger and betrayal welled up in me, I remember the Spirit speaking very clearly to me.  The Spirit said in essence: "Don't be angry.  Don't be afraid.  Your Heavenly Father loves you and is proud of you, and this will be made right."  It took some effort on my part to follow that prompting; to take a deep breath, and to set aside the anger.  But when I did, I experienced this incredible peace rushing in.  I attended Church the following Sunday, and greater spiritual gifts followed.  Spiritual reinforcements, indeed.

But what God told me in those moments was not, "You just have to learn to accept this unfairness."  It was, in essence, "Be faithful.  Be loving.  Be patient.  I will make this right."

The spiritual reinforcements I've received have helped keep me from spiraling down into unproductive rage; to focus instead on doing what I can to bear witness of what I know, bring comfort to others, and to work to make things better.  That's how real spiritual reinforcements work in my experience.

I don't know how this worked for women in plural marriages.  I know that many were satisfied with their lot and found deep, deep happiness.  I also know that many struggled, experienced deep pain, and some were treated horribly.  Family stories I'm aware of of one of my great-grandmothers bears witness to some of the horrible ways in which unrighteous dominion could be used in plural marriages to devastating effect.  I'm certain my ancestor Charlotte experienced spiritual reinforcements too, reinforcements that gave her the courage to pack her bags and walk away from an abusive home environment, heading for Salt Lake never to turn back.

I still wrestle with polygamy.  It's one of those things I've sort of put in a box and that I wrestle with from time to time.  I try not to let it interfere with my faith, which is one of the greatest sources of hope and strength in my life.

I am grateful for the work Brother Hales has done to make sense of Joseph Smith's polygamy.  He's helped answer some deeply troubling questions, and his spirit of kindness and humility in the interview posted on "A Thoughtful Faith" was comforting, even if I had trouble with some of the things he said.  The full interview was well worth listening to, and I look forward to reading his books.


Neal said...

Thanks for the honest appraisal.

Have not listened to it yet. Did he address the issue of Joseph and others lying about their involvement in Polygamy? First to Emma, and then public denials by him and others?

J G-W said...

Yes, he does. Sarah asks about it, and he discusses it.

That has always caused me less difficulty than some of the other stuff. Given the explosive nature of what they were dealing with, and the intensity of the persecution the Saints were facing, the public lies are understandable. (Or maybe that just shows how willing I am to rationalize.)

The lying to Emma has always been a bit more difficult for me to accept. Hales argues that there was a point in their marriage where Joseph pretty much came clean with everything... He makes the case. You'll have to listen to it and decide if you buy it. (I think I do.)

I actually love this guy (though a few of the things he said really were disturbing to me). He comes across as very honest, and genuinely concerned with documenting the truth of what actually happened. He has clearly wrestled with the ugly stuff, and has come to his own place of resolution, without implying that anybody else needs to find the same kind of resolution or accept what happened.

Dean said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts, John. I have polygamist ancestors on both sides of my family. It was a source of great tension for both sides.

Anonymous said...

maybe Joseph was just constantly horny

hawkgrrrl said...

Excellent post. I too struggle most with the lying in their marriage (more than casting his so-called pearls before swine by going before a hostile public with his confessed polygamy). I'm not sure I'm ready for this book as I find polygamy repugnant, but your own experience dealing with injustices are so similar to my own feelings in the temple when confronted with the sexism or when I prayed about the counsel to stay at home (which felt totally wrong to me) rather than having a career. I tend to think God does a better job than man at understanding individual needs.