Last week the LDS Church published an essay attempting to put a new face on their racist past by obfuscating the history surrounding their policy forbidding people with dark skin tones from receiving the same rights as conferred upon 8-year-old boys. This week LDS.org confronts another skeleton in the Mormon history closet: polygamy.
An essay has just gone up on LDS.org (the official channel for proclamations from the LDS church) entitled Plural Marriage and Families in Early Utah. In it reasons are given for the polygamy:
“The Book of Mormon identifies one reason for God to command it: to increase the number of children born in the gospel covenant in order to “raise up seed unto [the Lord]” (Jacob 2:30). Plural marriage did result in the birth of large numbers of children within faithful Latter-day Saint homes. It also shaped 19th-century Mormon society in other ways: marriage became available to virtually all who desired it; per-capita inequality of wealth was diminished as economically disadvantaged women married into more financially stable households; and ethnic intermarriages were increased, which helped to unite a diverse immigrant population Plural marriage also helped create and strengthen a sense of cohesion and group identification among Latter-day Saints. Church members came to see themselves as a “peculiar people,” covenant-bound to carry out the commands of God despite outside opposition, willing to endure ostracism for their principles.” -- Plural Marriage and Families in Early Utah from LDS.org December 2013
Interesting amongst these reasons for plural marriage is the notion that “marriage became available to virtually all who desired it”. In the western territories at the time that the Mormons were openly practicing polygamy men outnumbered women more than 2 to 1. Polygamy, as a numbers game, reduces the available wives even further. It is hard to pretzel up a logic that would have polygamy actually contributing to the availability of marriage options for over 30% of the population.
Much is made of the denouncement of polygamy after a revelation by the prophet Wilford Woodruff in 1890. It is a fairly strong denouncement, and it is canonized into the Mormon scripture as declaration 1 of the doctrines and covenants. Here are the first couple paragraphs of the holy revelation:
Press dispatches having been sent for political purposes, from Salt Lake City, which have been widely published, to the effect that the Utah Commission, in their recent report to the Secretary of the Interior, allege that plural marriages are still being solemnized and that forty or more such marriages have been contracted in Utah since last June or during the past year, also that in public discourses the leaders of the Church have taught, encouraged and urged the continuance of the practice of polygamy—
I, therefore, as President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, do hereby, in the most solemn manner, declare that these charges are false. We are not teaching polygamy or plural marriage, nor permitting any person to enter into its practice, and I deny that either forty or any other number of plural marriages have during that period been solemnized in our Temples or in any other place in the Territory. Official Declaration 1 given by prophet Wilford Woodruff October 6, 1890
The recent official essay makes it clear that much of what Wilfred had to declare was a lie. It also makes it clear that he knew it was a lie. According to the new historical essay: “Only the Church President held the keys authorizing the performance of new plural marriages.” That would mean that only plural marriages authorized by Wilford would have been recognized as genuine plural marriages. The essay goes on to reveal that:
“a small number of plural marriages were performed within the United States during those years.” [1890-1904] “In 1904, the Church strictly prohibited new plural marriages. Today, any person who practices plural marriage cannot become or remain a member of the Church.” -- “Plural Marriage and Families in Early Utah” from LDS.org December 2013
The LDS church considers plural marriage sacred. It devotes an entire section of its doctrines and covenants to the rules governing it. Ampongst these is the admonition that only one person (the high prophet aka first president of the first presidency) of the church:
“And verily I say unto you, that the aconditions of this law are these: All covenants, contracts, bonds, obligations, boaths, cvows, performances, connections, associations, or expectations, that are not made and entered into and dsealed by the Holy Spirit of promise, of him who is eanointed, both as well for time and for all eternity, and that too most holy, by frevelation and commandment through the medium of mine anointed, whom I have appointed on the earth to hold this gpower (and I have appointed unto my servant Joseph to hold this hpower in the last days, and there is never but one on the earth at a time on whom this power and the ikeys of this priesthood are conferred), are of no efficacy, virtue, or force in and after the resurrection from the dead; for all contracts that are not made unto this end have an end when men are dead.” – Doctrines and Covenants 132:9
The new LDS.org essay does not expound on Wilford’s lies. Instead they suggest that the declaration is simply one of advice. Like a gentile suggestion that was not really made law until everyone who was anyone stopped doing it… at least in the US. The last sentence in the declaration does use the word advice, but the context of the declaration makes it clear that it was much more than gentle advice.
“And I now publicly declare that my advice to the Latter-day Saints is to refrain from contracting any marriage forbidden by the law of the land.” – Official Declaration 1 given by prophet Wilford Woodruff October 6, 1890
I should point out that it was not until Loving v Virginia in 1967 that the law of the land (in significant parts of the US) more clearly forbade the marriage of people with different skin tones.
Secrecy and obfuscation have always been a part of the LDS history of polygamy. Joseph Smith received his revelation that he could “marry” multiple women, and he obeyed by “marrying” dozens; some for only one night. He only shared this revelation with a few special confidants. Then, nine years and several denials after the revelation, the institution of polygamy was revealed to the general Mormon population.
“The doctrine which Orson Pratt discoursed upon this morning was the subject of a revelation anterior to the death of Joseph Smith. It is in opposition to what is received by a small minority of the world; but our people have for many years believed it, though it may not have been practiced by the elders. The original of this revelation has been burnt. William Clayton wrote it down from the Prophet's mouth; it found its way into the hands of Bishop Whitney [father of Smith's 16th wife Sarah Ann Whitney], who obtained Joseph Smith's permission to copy it. Sister Emma burnt the original. I mention this to you because such of you as are aware of the revelation, suppose that it no longer exists. I prophesy to you that the principle of polygamy will make its way, and will triumph over the prejudices and all the priestcraft of the day; it will be embraced by the most intelligent parts of the world as one of the best doctrines ever proclaimed to any people. You have no reason whatever to be uneasy; there is no occasion for your fearing that a vile mob will come hither to trample underfoot the sacred liberty which, by the Constitution of our country, is guaranteed to us. It has been a long time publicly known, and in fact was known during his life, that Joseph had more than one wife. A Senator, a member of Congress, was well aware of it, and was not the less our friend for all that; so much so, as to say that were this principle not adopted by the United States, we would live to see human life reduced to a maximum of thirty years. He said openly that Joseph had hit upon the best plan for re-invigorating men, and assuring a long life to them; and, also, that the Mormons are very good and very virtuous. We could not have proclaimed this principle a few years ago; everything must abide its time, but I am now ready to proclaim it. This revelation has been in my possession for many years, and who knew it? No one, except those whose business it was to know it. I have a patent lock to my writing-desk, and nothing gets out of it that ought not to get out of it. Without the doctrine which this revelation makes known to us, no one could raise himself high enough to become a god.” – Brigham Young 1850
There has been substantive speculation that Joseph Smith had originally envisioned polygamy as including “marriages” between white men and women with darker skin tones. The dark-skinned people are often called “lamanites” in reference to Mormon scripture. This original polygamy revelation occurred ten years before the one reproduced in the Doctrines and Covenants (132). This means two decades of divinely-inspired polygamous activity may have passed before the general Mormon population was brought in on the practice.
“Verily I say unto you that the wisdom of man in his fallen state, knoweth not the purposes and the privileges of my holy priesthood. but ye shall know when ye receive a fulness by reason of the anointing: For it is my will, that in time, ye should take unto you wives of the Lamanites and Nephites, that their posterity may become white, delightsome and Just, for even now their females are more virtuous than the gentiles.” -- The revelation by Jesus Christ to Joseph Smith of 17 July 1831 as related by W.W. Phelps to Brigham Young.
So polygamy occurred for 20 years prior to admitting that it occurred, and then went on for 14 year after the practice was soundly denounced. The story of polygamy is more than simply a string of multiple wives tales, but a history of outright lies by the authorities of the church. In order to really answer the important questions about plural marriage in the LDS church the facts and reasons behind the lies need to be addressed.
I recommend addressing them in a kind and gentle way. Violence and anger is counter productive. These lying prophets were most likely doing what they could to create a system that they believed in. We do not need the system any longer. If you are a member of the Mormon Church take a moment to gently write down your resignation letter, and leave it. If you were a member of the church, or will soon be one, do not let anger at the LDS Church consume you.