The Church has a problem.
We are caught between the Scylla of our long history of practicing — and strongly defending — plural marriage, and the Charybdis of having given up that practice and now having to disassociate ourselves from modern polygamous groups.
From the standpoint of defending the Church, how should we navigate that strait?
The Church has clearly taken the position that they aren’t going discuss it, except to say “yes, we did practice it; no, we don’t practice it anymore.” Here are some of the few statements that can be found on the Church web site and in recent Church publications:
The brief primer “Polygamy: Latter-day Saints and the Practice of Plural Marriage” in the Newsroom section is probably the most comprehensive statement available. (You have to use the search feature to find it; the “Polygamy” link under “Background Information: History of the Church” is broken.) This document is as interesting for what it says as for what it does not say:
Plural marriage is described as “an important part of the teachings of [the Church] for a half-century” and the Church members today “honor and respect the sacrifices made by those who practiced polygamy in the early days of the Church.” With reference to modern polygamous groups, it offers President Hinckley’s October 1998 General Conference statement.
It explains that “the practice [of plural marriage] began during the lifetime of Joseph Smith,” without mentioning that Joseph himself entered into the practice with nearly 40 women, some of whom were already married, and a few of whom were quite young by modern marriage age standards.
It mentions the discomfort and foreignness that most early converts must have felt about the practice, but avoids discussing what percentage of Church members entered the practice, or how how common it was to have two or three wives (as it was among the general membership) versus five or more (as it was among general authorities).
It (correctly) separates the revelation to end plural marriage from Wilford Woodruff’s 1890 Manifesto, which was more of a political/public relations document. It does not mention post-Manifesto plural marriages or Joseph F. Smith’s 1904 “Little Manifesto.”
The only lesson in the four-year Gospel Doctrine curriculum cycle that mentions polygamy is Doctrine and Covenants Lesson 31. The lesson plan covers only the parts of D&C 132 that relate to eternal marriage; polygamy is relegated to a supplemental section that may be used “if class members have questions.” The instructor is admonished, “It should not be the focus of the lesson.”
This year’s Priesthood/Relief Society study is Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith. The manual focuses on “teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith that have application to our day” (p. xii). It briefly mentions Joseph teaching plural marriage, but does not mention his own participation in the practice or the extent thereof.
I don’t bring this up to be critical of the Church. We clearly have a public relations problem, and the Church is doing their best to deal with it. A 2007 Gallup survey asked Americans, “What comes to mind when you think about [the Mormon] religion?” The number one response — among those who view us unfavorably and those who view us favorably — is “polygamy.” That response was given by nearly three times as many people who said “good people” or “strong morals,” and nearly four times as many who said “family-oriented.” No matter how we think of ourselves, the fact is that many non-Mormons think of polygamy when they think of us. The Church’s public relations arm is trying to change that.
But the problem with downplaying polygamy is that many faithful Church members don’t hear about the more difficult issues — Joseph Smith’s involvement in particular — in a faithful Church setting where it can be put into context with the rest of Church history.
FAIR solicits questions about criticisms of the Church; FAIR volunteers try to respond to all of them. In 2007 we received more questions about polygamy than any other topic. Many of these people were just finding out about Joseph Smith’s polygamy, polyandry, and marriages to young women. We don’t talk about it in church, so they usually end up finding out about it on unfriendly web sites.
How do we solve this problem? We’re not likely to see Sunday School lessons on polygamy anytime soon. Outside of that, what can Latter-day Saints who know about these things do to “inoculate” your average Mormon in the pews?
FAIR volunteers have some ideas. We’d like to hear yours.