Question: Did Joseph Smith institute polygamy because he had a "voracious sexual appetite"?

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Question: Did Joseph Smith institute polygamy because he had a "voracious sexual appetite"?

It is unjustifiable to argue that he and his associates were insincere or that they were practicing their religion only for power and to satisfy carnal desires

It is claimed by some critics of Mormonism that Joseph Smith (and/or other Church members) had a voracious sexual appetite, and that because of this, he instituted polygamy.

One might reasonably hold the opinion that Joseph was wrong, but in the face of the documentary evidence it is unjustifiable to argue that he and his associates were insincere or that they were practicing their religion only for power and to satisfy carnal desires. Those who insist that “sex is the answer” likely reveal more about their own limited perspective than they do of the minds of the early Saints.

Neutral observers have long understood that this attack on plural marriage is probably the weakest of them all

George Bernard Shaw, certainly no Mormon, declared:

Now nothing can be more idle, nothing more frivolous, than to imagine that this polygamy had anything to do with personal licentiousness. If Joseph Smith had proposed to the Latter-day Saints that they should live licentious lives, they would have rushed on him and probably anticipated their pious neighbors who presently shot him. [1]

Brigham Young matches the explanation proposed by Shaw. When instructed to practice plural marriage by Joseph, Brigham recalled that it “was the first time in my life that I had desired the grave." [2]

John Taylor had similar opinions:

I had always entertained strict ideas of virtue and I felt as a married man that this was to me…an appalling thing to do…Nothing but a knowledge of God, and the revelations of God…could have induced me to embrace such a principle as this…We [the Twelve] seemed to put off, as far as we could, what might be termed the evil day. [3]

Joseph knew these men intimately. He would have known their sensibilities. If it was "all about sex," why push his luck with them? Why up the ante and ask them to marry polygamously? It would have been easier for him to claim the “duty” singularly, as prophet, and not insist that they join him.

As non-Mormon church historian Ernst Benz wrote:

Mormon polygamy has nothing to do with sexual debauchery but is tied to a strict patriarchal system of family order and demonstrates in the relationship of the husband to his individual wives all the ethical traits of a Christian, monogamous marriage. It is completely focused on bearing children and rearing them in the bosom of the family and the Mormon community. Actually, it exhibits a very great measure of selflessness, a willingness to sacrifice, and a sense of duty. [4]

Furthermore, Joseph Smith would not permit other members’ sexual misconduct

For example, he refused to countenance John C. Bennett’s serial infidelities. [5] If Joseph was looking for easy access to sex, Bennett—mayor of Nauvoo, First Counselor in the First Presidency, and military leader—would have been the perfect confederate. Yet, Joseph publicly denounced Bennett’s actions, and severed him from the First Presidency and the Church. Bennett became a vocal opponent and critic, and all this could have been avoided if Joseph was willing to have him as a “partner in crime.” The critic cannot argue that Joseph felt that only he was entitled to polygamous relationships, since he went to great efforts to teach the doctrine to Hyrum and the Twelve, who embraced it with much less zeal than Bennett would have. If this is all about lust, why did Joseph humiliate and alienate Bennett, who Joseph should have known he could trust to support him and help hide polygamy from critics, while risking the support of the Twelve by insisting they participate?

There were certainly easier ways to satisfy one’s libido, as one author noted:

Contrary to popular nineteenth-century notions about polygamy, the Mormon harem, dominated by lascivious males with hyperactive libidos, did not exist. The image of unlimited lust was largely the creation of travelers to Salt Lake City more interested in titillating audiences back home than in accurately portraying plural marriage. Newspaper representatives and public figures visited the city in droves seeking headlines for their eastern audiences. Mormon plural marriage, dedicated to propagating the species righteously and dispassionately, proved to be a rather drab lifestyle compared to the imaginative tales of polygamy, dripping with sensationalism, demanded by a scandal-hungry eastern media market. [6]

Those who became Mormons were those who were least likely, culturally, to be thrilled at the prospect of polygamy

Douglas H. Parker wrote,

Polygamy, when first announced to the Saints, was an offensive, disgusting doctrine, difficult to accept…The men and women who placed faith in the bona fides of the revelation were Victorian in their background and moral character. The hard test of accepting polygamy as a principle revealed and required by God selected out from the Church membership at large a basic corps of faithful members who, within the next few decades, were to be subjected to an Abraham-Isaac test administered by the federal government as God’s agent. [7]

Perhaps the best argument against the “lascivious” charge is to look at the lives of the men and women who practiced it. Historian B. Carmon Hardy observed:

Joseph displayed an astonishingly principled commitment to the doctrine [of plural marriage]. He had to overcome opposition from his brother Hyrum and the reluctance of some of his disciples. Reflecting years later on the conflicts and dangers brought by plural marriage, some church leaders were struck with the courage Joseph displayed in persisting with it. And when one recalls a poignant encounter like that between [counselor in the First Presidency] William Law and Joseph in early 1844, it is difficult not to agree. Law, putting his arms around the prophet’s neck, tearfully pleaded that he throw the entire business of plurality over. Joseph, also crying, replied that he could not, that God had commanded it, and he had no choice but to obey. [8]

One can read volumes of the early leaders’ public writings, extemporaneous sermons, and private journals. One can reflect on the hundreds or thousands of miles of travel on missionary journeys and Church business. If the writings of Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff, Heber C. Kimball, George Q. Cannon and many others cannot persuade someone that they were honest men (even if mistaken) then one should sincerely question whether such a person is capable of looking charitably upon any Mormon.

Paul Peterson’s comment about the diaries of Joseph Smith resonates well in this regard:

I had not fully grasped certain aspects of the Prophet’s psyche and personality. After just a few pages into Personal Writings, [9] it became clear that Joseph possessed religious dimensions that I had not understood. For one thing, it was apparent I had underestimated the depth of his dependence upon Deity. The Joseph that emerges in Personal Writings is an intensely devout and God-fearing young man who at times seems almost helpless without divine support. And his sincerity about his prophetic calling is also apparent. If others were not persuaded of his claims, it could not be said that Joseph was unconvinced that God had both called and directed him. Detractors who claim that Joseph came to like the game of playing prophet would be discomfited if they read Personal Writings. Scholars may quibble with how true his theology is, but for anyone who reads Personal Writings, his earnestness and honesty are no longer debatable points. [10]

Notes

  1. George Bernard Shaw, The Future of Political Science in America; an Address by Mr. Bernard Shaw to the Academy of Political Science, at the Metropolitan Opera House, New York, on the 11th. April, 1933 (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1933) as cited in Richard Vetterli, Mormonism, Americanism and Politics (Salt Lake City: Ensign Publishing, 1961), 461–462.
  2. Brigham Young, "Plurality of Wives—The Free Agency of Man," (14 July 1855) Journal of Discourses 3:266.
  3. John Taylor, "President John Taylor's Recent Trip To Bear Lake, Selections from his Discourses delivered in the Various Settlements," (1883) Journal of Discourses 24:232.
  4. Ernst Benz, "Imago dei: Man as the Image of God," FARMS Review 17/1 (2005): 223–254. off-site
  5. For an extensive discussion, see Danel W. Bachman, “A Study of the Mormon Practice of Polygamy Before the Death of Joseph Smith,” (1975) (unpublished M.A. thesis, Purdue University).
  6. Richard Van Wagoner, Mormon Polygamy: A History (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1986), 89.
  7. Douglas H. Parker, “Victory in Defeat—Polygamy and the Mormon Legal Encounter with the Federal Government,” Cardozo Law Review 12 (1991): 814.
  8. B. Carmon Hardy, Solemn Covenant: The Mormon Polygamous Passage (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1992), 9; an account of this encounter between Joseph and William can be found in Joseph W. McMurrin, "An Interesting Testimony / Mr. Law’s Testimony," Improvement Era (May 1903), 507–510.
  9. He here refers to Dean C. Jesse’s landmark volume Personal Writings of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1984).
  10. Paul H. Peterson, “Understanding Joseph: A Review of Published Documentary Sources,” Joseph Smith: The Prophet, the Man, edited by Susan Easton Black and Charles D. Tate, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1988), 109–110.