Graph by Gregory L. Smith. Used with permission.
It used to be that sectarian criticism against the LDS Church dominated the anti-Mormon scene. That class of criticism has been continually recycled over the years, so the apologist’s job was fairly easy. Merely pointing to previously formed answers was generally sufficient. The new wave of secular criticisms have brought forth new challenges and the allegation that Joseph Smith and his polygamous followers were statutory rapists is one such. More research will be required to properly address this criticism which appears to have been popularized by Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven and further permeated American society by media coverage of Warren Jeff’s trial and HBO’s Big Love, which O’Donnell plays a role in.
Shortly after Romney’s JFK speech, O’Donnell levied the charge that Joseph Smith was a rapist in three different forums, the last of which shows that he was thinking in anachronistic terms of statutory rape and extending his criticism to 19th century Mormon polygamists in general.
Dec. 7 (McLaughlin Group): “Look, Romney comes from a religion founded by a criminal who was anti-American, pro-slavery, and a rapist.”
Dec. 11 (Hugh Hewitt Radio Show ): “There’s no one in your audience who isn’t a Mormon who believes that a single Divine revelation has ever occurred to any Mormon, least of all Joseph Smith, the criminal, adulterous, rapist founder of the religion.”
Dec. 13 (The Huffington Post) “Critics also use the Church’s 70 year delight in polygamy and sex with very young girls, which also happens to be true. Critics of Mormonism have plenty to work with without inventing anything.”
Let me note four valuable resources that have addressed this accusation from a faithful Mormon perspective so far. Kaimi Wenger introduced the topic to the Bloggernacle in his Brides among the Beehives at Times and Seasons back in June. One commenter introduced the IPUMS census database from which marital ages in 1850 could be estimated. This has lead to further number crunching to compare the marriage demographics between 1850 and modern United States, Mormons before and after the effectual introduction of polygamy, and Joseph Smith’s plural wives. Other FAIR members have participated in the statistical analysis and the result has been incremental improvements to the FAIR wiki’s coverage of Joseph Smith’s marriages to young women article. The big pay off will be when FAIR affiliated author Dr. Gregory L. Smith (see Prevarication, Prophets, and Polygamy ) publishes his forthcoming book on polygamy. Dr. Smith has been so gracious to provide a rough draft of his chapter Age of wives which is definitely worth checking out. Finally, perhaps the most valuable resource is a Farms Review of Krakauer’s book. In Doing Violence to Journalistic Integrity, Craig L. Foster surveyed scholarly literature addressing young brides. He writes (I have taken the liberty of removing footnotes):
[M]arriages of younger girls were not uncommon in the past. Peter Laslett, the noted social historian, published an interesting essay concerning the age at menarche in Europe since the eighteenth century. Laslett noted that while girls in Britain and Western Europe reached menarche at a later age, girls in America and Eastern Europe started menstruating at a younger age. Indeed, according to Laslett’s research, in eighteenth-century Belgrade, Serbia, girls as young as eleven and twelve were not only marrying, but having children. In fact, at one point, eighty-seven percent of all women between the ages of fifteen and nineteen were married. On the American side of the Atlantic, between 1634 and 1662 about 220 marriageable girls were brought to Quebec to marry. These girls were called les Filles du Roi, or the king’s daughters. While most of the girls were sixteen to twenty years old and the second largest group were between the ages of twenty and twenty-five, at least seventy-six (the fourth largest grouping statistically) were between the years of twelve and fifteen. Thus it was not surprising to have women marrying and bearing children at a younger age. Indeed, it was common in newer regions of settlement and farming in both the United States and Canada for women to marry at a younger age.