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Yup, both. I don't think we'll ever totally understand or interpret Emma Smith in this life. I know I couldn't have put up with the things she put up with.

My wife just finished Mormon Enigma, and really enjoyed it. A question she and I have had is whether the Scholarship in it is up to date. (It is 20 years old.) My wife is now reading RSR for comparison purposes. What say you?

Mormon Enigma would be a much better book if Newell and Avery had known how to separate documented fact from hearsay and second-hand (or even third-hand) reports. (The same problem mars Compton's In Sacred Loneliness.)

Skepticism is a critical tool in the historian's belt.

I'm not sure you can compare Mormon Enigma and RSR. Perhaps paying attention the Bushman's comments in the footnotes when he cites and discusses Mormon Enigma would be a place to start.

Dave, that is an interesting comment. I have often heard that Mormon Enigma is the "best Emma Smith biography" but you say it shouldn't be compared with the "best Joseph Smith biography". Why the difference? I am really curious.

Well, I thought they'd be hard to compare because RSR is about Joseph and Mormon Enigma is about Emma. Bushman declined to use any of the reminiscences about Joseph recorded 20 or 30 years later in Utah -- he stuck with contemporaneous accounts and documents. But Emma lived 35 more years after Joseph died, so later accounts are more relevant and defensible for an Emma Smith biography.

I thought Bushman's comments, if any, in the notes would be a good place to start just because he is very balanced in his use and evaluation of the work of other scholars in Mormon Studies.

The best we can hope for is some combination. I like the idea of Emma Smith:Mormon Lady a lot better than Emma Smith:Elect Enigma. Don't you?

Can anyone out there help me out? Seriously. I've actually talked to Marlin K. Jensen about Joseph Smith's polygamy issues. Specifically, polyandry and the answer I got made no sense. "It has to do with family relationships"--that was it. For example, Joseph Smith married 11 already married women (Zina Huntington is the case study but there were 10 others) and there's indication that he had sex with and fathered at least one child (and possibly others) with these already married women. How can that possibly be right? If I'm not mistaken, the reason Joseph Smith was incarcerated in Carthage Jail was for the destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor and the reason for the destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor was for it doing an expose on polygamy. Supposedly, William Law, who had been a counselor in the FP to Joseph Smith, had left the Church and set up the Nauvoo Expositor because Joseph had tried to marry his wife. Wilford Woodruff's comments on the manifesto indicate he was told by the Lord that unless polygamy was ended the gov't would ruin the Church. That doesn't sound to me like the Lord was pleased at all with what the Church was doing with regard to polygamy.

So how do intelligent people rationalize this kind of conduct away? Polyandry, really. Think about it, are we supposed to be willing to hand over our eternal companions to some "higher authority"? That's the ultimate reward we're all working for and if you give that up what reward do you have. Really???

I saw the program on CNN last night on Warren Jeffs, and I made the observation to my wife that if you changed the names (Joseph Smith or Brigham Young for Warren Jeffs) and the dates (1844 for 2007) you would be looking at a window to our polygamous past. Warren Jeffs was taking other men's wives, he and his followers were marrying and having sex with underage girls--just like Joseph Smith, Brigham Young and others. How can any intelligent person stand behind this kind of history? Really. I want to know, I want to believe, I want to understand but I just cannot swallow this. It is all verified, I checked IGI, I checked the apologetics (FARMS, FAIR, etc.) they don't deny these occurances. There are records to back all of this up. It happened and it casts a huge cloud over our religion which I do believe in. I'm not going to apostacize, there's really nothing better out there and I love the Church, I just want to understand this stuff, I don't want happy talk, just the truth. Any takers to explain this?

Larry: The problem with discussing polygamy is that the historical documents, even when contemporary and written by people actually in Nauvoo, contain hearsay, gossip and outright back-biting. It's hard to sort out even for those of us who have looked carefully at primary documents. I wonder whether Joseph actually had sexual relations with any of his polyandrous wives who were already married. The DNA evidence that I am aware of puts into question whether he actually had sexual relations at all with anyone except Emma! I'm not closed to the possibility that Joseph had sexual relations with plural wives (and I believed that he did until I became aware of conflicting evidence).

With respect to such marriages, Joseph's view was that civil marriage was not recognized by God and the state had no authority with respect to marriage. Thus, he regarded women married civilly to really not be bound to their husbands or wives. There are several cases where the husbands had essentially abandoned their wives and that is why they consented to marriage with Joseph.

We must also remember that "underage" is relative to culture. The average age of marriage in most states in the early 1800s was 17 years. We have a different life-span and a different standard of what is too young -- though I think that 16 and under is too young (it is still legal in many states for 16 years olds to marry). Fanny Alger was of age when Joseph supposedly married her. But we don't know if Joseph had relations with her. Fanny refused to confirm it and those who accused him weren't in a place to have first-hand knowledge whether he did. So you get an idea of the kind of deficit in really reliable evidence we face in many of these cases.

Some of the marriages were dynastic -- meant to forge bonds with families. Some were merely tests where Joseph asked for a wife but relented and didn't require marriage when the time came. However, I believe that in the end the purpose of polygamy was precisely to act as an Abrahamic test such that one could not assume that God had to match one's own moral demands or one's own preconceptions about how God had to be before even encountering God. This explanation gets a bit involved, but here is how I see it. When we meet others we overlay them with all of our past experiences and we at first encounter them as being like so and so that we knew before and we project onto them expectations, fears, judgments and so forth before we can even get to know them. Even people who have been married for long periods project their expectations and demands onto their spouses almost unconsciously.

It is much worse with our relationship with God. My experience is that virtually everyone has the belief that God is good and he must be good in precisely the sense that they believe in "The Good" or God cannot really be God. That is a fairly arrogant view and it is something that it is hard to avoid doing. After all, you've already stated your criteria: God has to meet your idea of what is moral and proper or you won't accept it. Here is how I believe polyandry really functioned for faith: those who were challenged with a call to marry another wife or to marry a man with other wives either had to give up all of their preconception and prejudgments about God or they had to reject God's revelation as coming from God. Only by removing the glasses that already colored their world to see what God had to reveal about Himself could they truly come to know and see God. But it is painful to even consider that one's most dearly held commitments could be called into question. By removing these prejudices and demands on God, however, it opened a way for God to finally reveal himself without the veneer already imposed on him by those who thought they already knew how he had to be. It became a way to truly know God as he reveals himself rather than as we insist he must be before he can even get through to us.

So polygamy functioned to obliterate the categories and prejudgments and expectations that early Mormons had about God precisely so he could reveal himself to them. The reason that so many women accepted Celestial Marriage was that they believed it would facilitate eternal life. Joseph repeatedly told them that they were entitled to their own witness. To know God is eternal life -- and thus the obliteration of these categories and prejudices opened a way for God to reveal himself to them in a way that they could truly know God as he reveals himself to be rather than as how they assumed He had to be to meet their own criteria and demands.

No here is the kicker: once polygamy becomes socially acceptable and thus no longer a test, it cannot fulfill this function as an Abrahamic test. It no longer serves the purpose of forcing one to remove all preconceptions before God can reveal himself. Thus, it ceases to serve its purpose and just becomes another socially imposed belief. At that point, it no longer serves as a means to eternal life and can be abandoned. I suggest, however, that you really cannot "understand" this challenge until you confront it for yourself. Polygamy was and is a tough challenge -- and that is what it was supposed to be in the first place.

Does any of that make any sense to you?

Just to add to what Blake is talking about, I'm also open to the idea that Joseph Smith was either occasionally or often, disorganized and haphazard in his own management of his marriages, and his approach to polygamy. Joseph Smith was not a very practical man, as I understand him. He was an idealist, a visionary, and rather brilliant. But he had a knack for messing up the nuts and bolts of day-to-day administrative stuff.

Brigham Young, by contrast, was much more practical and hard-nosed about religious life. I see him as instituting, implementing, and making Joseph's radical ideas work in practice. I think Brigham Young's run at polygamy was arguably far more successful than Joseph's.

Joseph Smith was, in the end, just a human being. And we have to allow for the possibility that there are areas in the Gospel program where he, frankly, might have made a hash of things.

Look at Old Testament Jacob's family life! Running a tight ship on the homefront does not appear to be a pre-requisite for being a prophet.

Larry, thanks for your comments, but I had to take down your last two lengthy core dumps on polygamy. You can ask "Can anyone here help me out?" and state your concerns and engage in conversation, but you can't make my comment section your soapbox.

And I appreciate Blake taking a good chunk of time to compose a reasoned and insightful response to the question. That obviously reflects a great deal of research and reflection trying to come to a deeper understanding of what God might have been up to if He commanded or required the early LDS practice of polygamy. Thanks, Blake. And Seth.

Mormon thinkers spend a great deal of time trying to bring polygamy into some sort of larger picture. What's interesting is that Evangelicals make almost no effort to come to terms with the contemporaneous practice and biblical defense by Southern Protestants (the direct forerunners of Evangelicals) of slavery, specifically the enslavement of black Americans. Yet they are happy to attack Mormons for polygamy. While carefully ignoring their own heritage of defending racism and enslavement. How convenient. How obtuse. How hypocritical.

Every religion has skeletons in its closet. Every one, Larry. That's part of the human condition. If you are actually a practicing Mormon who is wringing his hands over historical polygamy, you should just dial it down and focus on the here and now. Do you wring your hands over the American treatment of Native Americans over the generations? Do you lie awake at night in angst over the US having dropped two atomic bombs on Japanese civilians? Why not? If you can let lie those historical moral wounds (and dozens of others) while you get on with life, you can certainly do so with Mormon polygamy.

Like I said, it may be you are really active LDS with a real concern over polygamy. In which case I commend Blake's and Seth's comments to you, or if you are really still troubled you can email me for an alternative view. But no more soapboxing.

Of course, it may very well be that you are just a Christian do-gooder throwing out a typically self-righteous criticism of LDS doctrine or history under the guise of "please explain to me ..." In which case you're just another Christian hypocrite and I don't really care what you think. Try wringing your hands over slavery or the Crusades or biblical polygamy (it's in the Bible, you know) rather than Mormon polygamy.

BTW, I don't want anyone to think I'm suggesting all Christians or all Evangelicals are hypocrites. I would hate to be pinned down to a percentage. 50% maybe? Of course, that's the guess of a Mormon who is judging Christian integrity based on how some (too many) Christians think and talk about and treat Mormons. The better half, some of whom comment here, deserve recognition and praise for rising above cultural Christian prejudices. May we all do likewise.

Larry, I say no more soapboxing, so you respond with a comment that starts out, "Yes, I'm on a soapbox," then you rant for three more paragraphs. You're not responding to anything anyone has said, you're just blathering. Go blather somewhere else. Polygamy certainly isn't your only problem.

"Bushman declined to use any of the reminiscences about Joseph recorded 20 or 30 years later in Utah -- he stuck with contemporaneous accounts and documents."

Dave, I am not sure this is accurate. I don't have my copy of RSR with me, but if I recall correctly, Bushman's principal (and often sole) source for most of the early chapters is Lucy Mack Smith's bio. Not sure when she wrote it but I don't think it was contemporaneous, was it?

Polygamy!! Now there is a very serious subject for Mormon Apologetics. I'm disturbed by the accounts of the young mormon boys from the polygamous towns being forced out so that the girls can be appropriated by the elderly "righteous" men. Something I don't think Joseph, and Brigham, thought about. So much for "God" higher law.

And don't remind me how the "church" doesn't believe in polygamy anymore. I'm sure that the surplus of unmarried young men had to have been an issue a hundred and fifty years ago as well as now. In spite of the myth we were always taught as youths that there was an over abundance of women in the church which accounted for the principle of polygamy. Give me a break.

Seems like you get plenty of breaks, Duff. And polygamy has been a primary subject of Mormon apologetics for quite some time, although I don't think its fair to lay at the feet of Mormon apologetics the "overabundance of women" stories you were taught as a youth.

Hey Dave,

You've got a SPAM comment higher up in this thread. Something about mortgage stuff. FYI.

Thanks, Seth. That one slipped through, somehow.

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