At the April 2013 Midwest Pilgrims Retreat, Linda King Newell gave a presentation on her experiences co-authoring Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith. (Sadly, I wasn’t there, but a friend summarized it for me.) When I read that book 10+ years ago it was eye-opening. I knew polygamy existed, but didn’t know of the extent of Joseph Smith’s plural marriages, or the heartbreaking circumstances around them.
Around the time of Linda’s presentation I happened to see the film “Emma Smith: My Story.” While not produced by the Church, this film uses the same cast and crew as Church-produced films about Joseph Smith, and even a few cuts from a Church-produced film. And I saw it on a Church-run TV station in Utah. It covers Emma’s life from her marriage to her death, but (not surprisingly) ignores that polygamy was part of it. I know it’s drama, not history, but at some point leaving out such a huge part of someone’s biography becomes untruthful. And needless to say, Gospel Doctrine manuals on the Doctrine & Covenants don’t get into Joseph Smith’s polygamous life. You could argue those manuals are about teaching doctrine not history, but I think being really selective about which parts of history are included in those manuals (because they do have some history in them) can start to smell fishy when only the flattering stories are told.
But then, as Jana Reiss wrote in a recent blog post about Emma, toward the end of Emma’s life she pretended polygamy never existed, too.
All this has me thinking about the right approach to teaching Church history. One of the commenters on Jana’s post wrote, “I think I have some indebtedness to my slightly unorthodox seminary teacher who believed (as I do) that presenting the truth – even when somewhat unpleasant – is a greater protection against disbelief than a more palatable falsehood which, when discovered later in life can cause serious dissonance and perhaps apostasy.”
That’s what I think, too. Did I get that “protection against disbelief” as a young person in the Church? Sort of, but it could have been a lot better. Did you?