Question: Do Mormon histories have a long history of omitting mention of plural marriage as a cause for the Saints' troubles in Illinois?

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Question: Do Mormon histories have a long history of omitting mention of plural marriage as a cause for the Saints' troubles in Illinois?

The claim that six Latter-day Saint histories omit plural marriage as a cause for difficulties in Nauvoo is clearly false

Note: This wiki section was based partly on a review of G.D. Smith's Nauvoo Polygamy. As such, it focuses on that author's presentation of the data. To read the full review, follow the link. Gregory L. Smith, A review of Nauvoo Polygamy:...but we called it celestial marriage by George D. Smith. FARMS Review, Vol. 20, Issue 2. (Detailed book review)

"Mormons accepted as sufficient the explanation that Joseph Smith’s death was due to an angry mob, without caring to know specifically what those Illinois neighbors had been angry about,” writes one critical author, citing five works from 1888 to 1979 (pp. 5, 449–50, n. 105). These references provide a textbook example of footnotes that do not support one’s claims. [1]

The author's claim that these six histories omit plural marriage as a cause for difficulties in Nauvoo is clearly false.[2]

Roberts: Contrary to the author's claim about Roberts’s Comprehensive History, Roberts described plural marriage

Contrary to G. D. Smith’s claim about Roberts’s Comprehensive History, Roberts described plural marriage, concluding, “Bearing this situation in mind, I am sure the reader will better appreciate the many complications which follow in this Nauvoo period of our history.”[3] Roberts’s discussion of the Expositor reminds the reader of “the introduction of the practice of the new marriage system of the church, permitting under special conditions a plurality of wives,” and notes that the dissident paper had “charged the Prophet with exercising illegal authority, both in ecclesiastical and civil affairs; with the introduction of the plural wife system, and other supposed doctrinal heresies; with gross immoralities; and malfeasance in the administration of the affairs of the church.”

Roberts did not deny that errors by the Saints played a role:

This bitterness had been created in the public mind in large part through the misrepresentations that had been made of the purposes and designs of the church leaders; in part by the unwisdom of church members, for whom no claim is made of impeccability, either in word or action; nor is absolute inerrancy in judgment and policy claimed for even the leaders of the church.[4]

Joseph Fielding Smith: Admits the introduction of plural marriage by Joseph Smith and writes that the Prophet was arrested on a charge of polygamy

For his claim that plural marriage was ignored as a cause of Joseph’s death, G. D. Smith also cites Joseph Fielding Smith’s Essentials of Church History. Yet Joseph Fielding Smith both admits the introduction of plural marriage by Joseph Smith and writes that the Prophet was arrested on a charge of polygamy.[5]

Berrett argues that one of the new doctrines that set the Saints apart was "the doctrine of plural marriage"

G. D. Smith’s appeal to William E. Berrett’s The Restored Church for the suppression thesis is likewise unpersuasive. In a section titled “Causes of the Conflict in Illinois,” Berrett argues that one of the new doctrines that set the Saints apart

was especially responsible for bringing persecution upon the Church. That was the doctrine of plural marriage by divine sanction. . . . In 1840, the doctrine was taught to a few leading brethren who, with the Prophet, secretly married additional wives in the following year. This secrecy could not be long kept, yet the doctrine was not openly discussed. This state of affairs gave rise to serious slander outside the Church. . . . He was convinced that the practice of the doctrine would bring bitter persecution upon the Church and eventually cause him to lose his life. . . . The Prophet was aware that the social order he contemplated would arouse bitter opposition in Illinois. . . . And this not because the Mormons were hard to get along with, or because non-Mormons were wicked, but because the teachings of the Church and the existing social orders were so directly in conflict. (italics in original)[6]

That Berrett’s work was originally published by the church’s Educational Department in 1937 (a fact not noted in G. D. Smith’s footnote) is significant.

Whitney tells the well-known story of Joseph requesting Vilate Kimball as his wife

G. D. Smith’s footnote also suggests that Orson F. Whitney’s biography of Heber C. Kimball supports his view. Whitney’s biography tells the well-known story of Joseph requesting Vilate Kimball as his wife and introduces the martyrdom by declaring that “without doubt, the revelation of the great principle of plural marriage was a prime cause of the troubles which now arose, culminating in the Prophet’s martyrdom and the exodus of the Church into the wilderness.”<ref<{{Book:Whitney:Life of Heber C. Kimball|pages=323–29, (emphasis added)</ref>

Arrington and Bitton: “An additional element [that] contributed to the Mormons’ problems in Illinois—as if more were required—were the rumors of plural marriage that began to circulate in Nauvoo"

Finally, Smith appeals to Leonard Arrington and Davis Bitton’s The Mormon Experience. These authors again note the contribution of polygamy that G. D. Smith insists Mormon histories ignore. The following language contradicts his thesis: “An additional element [that] contributed to the Mormons’ problems in Illinois—as if more were required—were the rumors of plural marriage that began to circulate in Nauvoo,” and “paradoxically, continuing revelation . . . contributed to the divisions of Nauvoo because of the development during this period of certain unusual doctrines, . . . especially plural marriage.” “From the first, polygamy was an explosive issue,” according to Arrington and Bitton. “A scandal to non-Mormon neighbors, it also caused a number of defections within the Mormon camp even before the death of Joseph Smith. . . . By the fall of 1843 the subject of plurality was on every tongue in the city.” Arrington and Bitton also point out that the Expositor “contained inflammatory allegations about the sex lives of Mormon leaders and members.”[7]

Godfrey: “Saints were accused of believing in plural marriage...this doctrine and practice became a major source of non-Mormon resentment.”

G. D. Smith even goes so far as to claim that “one LDS Educator in 1967 wrote about the ‘causes’ of conflict in Nauvoo and mentioned Joseph’s death as a watershed moment . . . without mentioning plural marriage.” He cites the seventh chapter of Kenneth W. Godfrey’s 1967 PhD dissertation for this claim.[8] This chapter is actually entitled “Plural Marriage.” “As early as 1836,” wrote Godfrey, the “Saints were accused of believing in plural marriage. But it was not until the Nauvoo period . . . that this doctrine and practice became a major source of non-Mormon resentment.”[8]:91 Godfrey discusses the first hints of plural marriage in 1831, the Fanny Alger marriage, and Oliver Cowdery’s angry reaction.

When he treats the Nauvoo period, Godfrey notes that “by 1841 or 1842 plural marriage was secretly being practiced with increased frequency.” Godfrey even follows, without comment, Brodie’s exaggerated estimate of forty-nine wives for Joseph.[8]:95 He also details the secrecy surrounding plural marriage and the deception used to maintain it:

Possibly Joseph Smith, partly because of Gentile opposition, kept the doctrine as secret as possible. . . . It was kept so secret that many members of the Church denied that it was even taught. . . . Even though some members of the Church denied the existence of plural marriage, there are a number of documents to support the view that, among the faithful, many such marriages were being performed.[8]:97-98

Contrary to G. D. Smith’s claim that polygamy’s impact was ignored by Latter-day Saint historians, Godfrey wrote that “gradually rumors became more and more persistent regarding the Mormon matrimonial system,” adding that one author “argues that ‘spiritual wifery was one of the leading causes of the Mormon-Gentile trouble in Hancock County.’”[8]:99-100 John C. Bennett and Oliver Olney had published about polygamy, and Godfrey argues that “such extensive publicity appears to have aroused the public against Mormonism and its marriage system.”[8]:103 Bennett’s claims about a Cyprian order of women “available to any Mormon who desired her . . . was . . . not true but nevertheless it was somewhat effective in arousing the public mind against Mormonism.”[8]:108

Godfrey also quotes extensively from the 25 April 1844 edition of the Warsaw Signal to demonstrate the animus in which polygamy was held.[8]:92n930 As his narrative approaches Joseph’s death, Godfrey argues that “one of the reasons for the publication of the Nauvoo Expositor was to publicly proclaim opposition to the plurality of wives doctrine as taught by the Prophet.”[8]:106-107

The Warsaw Signal listed spiritual wifeism as one of the major reasons for its opposition to the Mormons, and many claimed that the Prophet . . . was a licentious seducer of young women. Such declarations played their role in arousing public indignation against the Mormons and their marriage system. If polygamy was not the main reason for the Mormon expulsion, at least it can safely be said that it aroused the moral indignation of many people.[8]:108-11

Contrary to what G. D. Smith asserts, Godfrey dealt with polygamy as a cause of the hostilities towards the Saints in Nauvoo. His abstract and conclusion summarize his views:

Peculiar religious beliefs held by Latter-day Saints caused some of the difficulties they experienced in Illinois. Such doctrines as plural marriage . . . led to further hostility. . . . Perhaps in retrospect both Mormons and non-Mormons were to blame for the disharmony. . . . The Mormons . . . engaged in a marriage system held by Gentiles to be adulterous. . . . Since polygamy was unannounced yet practiced, credance [sic] was given to the claims of former Mormons which cast even more doubt upon the Prophet’s character. It become [sic] almost impossible to overstress the role exscinded Mormons played in arousing people against leaders of the Church.[8]:2-3, 215

The claim that an “LDS educator” discussed the Illinois troubles “without even mentioning plural marriage” is false.


Notes

  1. George D. Smith, Nauvoo Polygamy: "...but we called it celestial marriage" (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2008), 449–450. ( Index of claims , (Detailed book review))
  2. Other histories that include mention of plural marriage as contributing to the problems in Nauvoo include Church History in the Fulness of Times, CES Manual for Religion 341–43, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City: Intellectual Reserve, 2003), 256, 263, 268, 274; Glen M. Leonard, Nauvoo: A Place of Peace, a People of Promise (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and BYU Press, 2002), chap. 13; and Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Knopf, 2005), 529.
  3. Brigham H. Roberts, Comprehensive History of the Church (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1965), 2:93-110. GospeLink (requires subscrip.)
  4. Roberts, Comprehensive History, 2:221, 227–28.
  5. Joseph Fielding Smith, Essentials in Church History: A History of the Church from the Birth of Joseph Smith to the Present Time (1922), with Introductory Chapters on the Antiquity of the Gospel and The “Falling Away” (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1922), 282, 300–301.
  6. William Edwin Berrett, The Restored Church (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1974), 247–48, 251.
  7. Leonard J. Arrington and Davis Bitton, The Mormon Experience: A History of the Latter-Day Saints, 2nd ed. (New York: Knopf : distributed by Random House/University of Illinois Press, [1979] 1992), 55, 69, 77–78. ISBN 0252062361. off-site
  8. 8.00 8.01 8.02 8.03 8.04 8.05 8.06 8.07 8.08 8.09 8.10 Kenneth W. Godfrey, “Causes of Mormon Non-Mormon Conflict in Hancock County, Illinois, 1839–1846” (PhD diss., Brigham Young University, 1967). G. D. Smith’s footnote (p. 450) mistakes the title, citing “Non-Mormon Conflict” instead of “Mormon Non-Mormon Conflict.”


Further reading and additional sources responding to these claims