The Supreme Court decisions on DOMA and Proposition 8 have gotten me thinking about marriage, and a recent phenomenon I’ve noticed. Many people are “Googlging themselves out of the church.” The story usually goes that John Doe is bothered by something he heard at General Conference, or something a friend told him, or something somebody said or did at church, or he’s been having a problem with pornography, or he encounters some other challenge. Then he gets curious. He starts to wonder, “Is this church I’ve belonged to my entire life really true?” So he goes out on the internet and puts “Joseph Smith” into Google and starts reading.
JD then spends a while wallowing in the anti-Mormon sludge, and finally concludes that Joseph Smith was a cad and adulterer, and therefore nothing he taught could have been true, and therefore problem solved. Finally, JD writes a letter to his bishop asking to have his name removed from the records of the church, posts a snarky “I’m an Ex-Mormon” video on YouTube, and celebrates with a bottle of “Outer Darkness” beer.
Unfortunately, we Mormons have often been guilty of sticking our heads in the sand and letting our enemies monopolize the conversation on plural marriage. I don’t mean just the fact that early Mormons practiced polygamy for 60 or 70 years. Everybody knows that. I’m talking about some of the more difficult details of Joseph’s personal involvement, like allegations that he would sneak around Nauvoo to visit his numerous wives or insinuations of polyandry.
I want to start with a few basics, and probably follow up with one or two additional posts in the next few days.
1. Joseph Smith was called as a prophet of God, received priesthood keys, and never fell from his prophetic calling. The error I think many people make is that they try to use the polygamy question as the foundation for their analysis of whether Joseph was a true prophet. To borrow Elder Jeffrey R. Holland’s memorable image, that’s like trying to stuff a turkey through the beak. Our view of Joseph’s teachings about plural marriage should be colored by whether we believe he was a prophet, not vice versa. As Jesus taught, by their fruits ye shall know them. Start with the Book of Mormon, the most important fruit of Joseph’s prophetic ministry. If it is true (it is), then Joseph was and is a prophet.
2. Joseph Smith was an imperfect man, with human flaws and foibles. He was guilty of weakness, and confessed the same to the Saints. In fact, he was personally rebuked by the Lord numerous times in his own revelations. But he was not guilty of adultery. This flows from point 1. Hopefully we can agree that no man guilty of that sin, greater than any other except shedding innocent blood and denying the Holy Ghost, could be or stand as a prophet. If Joseph had committed adultery, he would have had power only to appoint another prophet in his stead before being rejected by God.
3. The fact that Joseph did not commit adultery does not necessarily mean that Joseph’s handling of the doctrine of plural marriage was flawless. Joseph probably made mistakes. That said, I will not be the one to judge what he did right and what he did wrong, and I certainly won’t pretend that I would have done any better under the circumstances.
With those basics set down, it should be clear who my audience is and what my purpose is. My audience is those who have, or thought they had, a testimony of the prophet, but who are troubled by allegations of sexual misconduct, and find themselves wondering. I am not here to convince the avowed enemies of Mormonism to believe in the prophet Joseph Smith. (If you comment below attacking Joseph Smith or the church, it will simply be deleted.) My purpose is to help those who find themselves struggling with an apparent dichotomy between the good things that they have found in the church, and troubling allegations that the church’s founder was a libertine.
More in the next post.