Book Review: The Plural Marriage Revelation

This is a book review for The Plural Marriage Revelation by William Victor Smith. It is a part of the Textual Studies of the Doctrine and Covenants series published by Greg Kofford Books. 

 

As a YSA not that long ago, I ventured into the world of online dating. (No, I did not meet my eventual husband that way.) But I did meet some nice guys, and some strange guys, and some great guys, and mostly, I had fun. Often I had a single date, and it was clear the guy was not for me. I had my own list of first-date deal-breakers (as did the guys), and as Mormons, we often seemed to get down to business pretty quickly. After all—if we weren’t going to be a match—we needed to be on the hunt for someone else!

 

One not particularly memorable date was turned into a brief meeting— we didn’t get beyond the front door of my dormitory. He was strikingly handsome, to be honest. I am sure he worked out. But after chatting for about 3 minutes about where he was from and about his family, he dropped the fact that his “sister nearly left the church because of polygamy.” He looked at me very seriously as he (possibly? thankfully?) over-shared that information. “She just could not come to terms with the fact that she would have to submit to her husband and be the first of many wives.”

 

He looked away reverently, yet very seriously, and continued. “Before I can think seriously about taking you out on a date, I need to know if you have a problem with polygamy.” Like many singles in my mid-twenties, I was keenly skilled at managing my first-date facial expressions. But my pokerface at that moment was red-flagging all of the “tells”.  It wasn’t the first, or last time a Mormon man implied that I could be one of his wives. But each time, I had the same visceral reaction: diffuse the situation and run.

 

So I made a joke about how I was okay with it as long as I got to have as many husbands as I wanted, too. He didn’t think that was funny. Without missing a beat, he sweetly asked, “I need to know if you’re prepared to share me with other women when the time comes.” I almost laughed, flabbergasted at how increasingly asinine this situation was becoming. But I didn’t laugh, and without any lies (white or otherwise), we both concluded that going on a date was not something either of us were comfortable with.

 

And I robustly prayed to thank God for the security locks on the dormitory doors.

 

I wish I could say that this was the end of the story, but it is not. At least not for Mormon women. And quite frankly, I think most Mormon women have had similar conversations with potential Mormon marriage partners. Though I can’t even recall the name of the-date-that-never-happened, my interaction with him was not new, or even old. Polygamy is a part of Mormon heritage and history. We own it as members of the church and the discussions about it are possibly as heated now as when it was clandestinely practiced in the early church days in Nauvoo.

 

Thankfully, William Victor Smith’s (WSmith, no relation to Joseph Smith, Jr.)Textual Studies of the Doctrine and Covenants: The Plural Marriage Revelation offers a fresh look on a topic that so many of us fear and/or are sickened to consider. This book, a part of Greg Kofford Books’ Contemporary Studies in Scripture is fundamental footing to understand the background of the revelation and structure in which the section of the Doctrine and Covenants was developed.

 

To be clear: I don’t have a problem with polygamy in a historical sense: It happened. I can’t change that about church history, and here I am an active member of the church. So while I do not like this part of church history, I must own polygamy as a historical part of the religion wherein I believingly participate. To be clear, I DO have a problem with practicing polygamy. Ever. I do not want to do it. I do not want to do it now, and I do not want to do it “in the eternities.” Thus, I began reading the book with gloved hands; I read at an impersonal level as a matter of historicity. However, by the conclusion of the first chapter of the book, I found myself amazed at how much this revelation truly impacts me today as a temple-attending Mormon, as a Mormon woman, and as an adoptive mother. My grasping knuckles were laid bare and I was equally mesmerized, shocked, and educated at the forthcoming of this revelation, and the major players involved in its inception.

 

As much as the books discusses the plural marriage revelation (Section 132), WSmith’s meticulous research causes him to consider the historiography of the concept and practice of “sealings.” Familial “sealings,” either by marriage or adoption was one of the primary purposes of plural marriage—and early temple work:

 

“… a relatively robust practice developed of sealing men to other men as father and son, without a biologically relationship. Called “adoption,” it served two salvific purposes with a background based in Malachi 4:6: “And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.” Smith had redefined “turn” as “seal” in sermons, and the curse of an impending second coming of Jesus and the “smite the earth with a curse” combined to place a sense of urgency in the binding together of the Saints” (pg 209)

 

 

The concept of sealings encapsulated polygamy, and thus was as profound in the text as was the discussion of plural marriage. I found it fascinating to read the background of this particular revelation in context with the personal struggles of Joseph Smith, Jr, (JSmith) and his (first) wife Emma. WSmith dedicates an entire chapter to Emma (chapter 8, a look at verses 51-57), and though I was tempted to read this chapter first, reading the book in sequentially rewarded me with a rounded view of Emma’s situation in context with her husband’s developing theology around sealings and marriage. In this, the volatility of their marriage was combined with discussion of Victorian sensibilities (which added financial as much as sexual tension to the situation), as well as contextual journals and writings of the time which offered both insight and contradiction in regard to the seemingly always-problematic revelation.

 

The book is written chronologically by theme, treating the sections of information and revelation in the order that the scriptural verses are recorded. This format allows the subject and subsequent revelations to be landscaped in a manner that reveals the construction of what is current cannon in the church. It is refreshing to read the empathetic tones of the author, WSmith’s, as he relates his perspective that this revelation in its many adaptations and forms (all which are detailed in the text), was likely not meant for public consumption. Rather, his view is that this section of scripture is a personal letter to Emma.

 

 

I was captivated in reading of the fluidity in which this and other revelations came into play, as well as the changes therein, such as: the change from women as eternal (next life) child bearers, to being child-bearers primarily here and now. This and the concept of a Heavenly Mother who has the same gestational childbirth cycle as earthly women, giving reason or excuse for multiple mothers. Indeed, fertility is an ongoing concept—one that JSmith seemed to view with an eye to raising generations and tracing them back to himself, or perhaps even Adam. (page 99 and 115) This alone raises the kind of historical problems that Mormon women seem more likely to consider: though the author’s perspective on infertility as a part of this revelation does not exactly match my own, serious considerations are included in this work which discuss its place in the developing concept of plural marriage.

 

 

Moreover, the place of adoption is viewed in narrow terms—most likely because JSmith himself did not flesh out parental adoption. This seems an odd thing to leave out in the fervour of this revelation timeframe until one considers the place of Emma: should the children that she and Joseph adopted be sealed to her—the woman who burned the original revelation (154) and refused to go west with Brigham Young? But it’s absence in this book is telling of the revelation itself: we don’t know what was intended, or in which way the doctrine should be developed, or further revelation was sought.

 

 

In the end, I could not help but consider how much or how little JSmith sought the revelation for himself, or if it was ever intended as a church-wide practice. JSmith’s perspectives on the biblical, including Sarah, Hagar and Abraham, as well as Bathsheba, Uriah and David receive strong consideration in addition to the journals (William Clayton, among others), in addition to analysis of past versions of the developing revelation and numerous other sources.

 

 

At the end of the day—do I recommend this book? Yes, whole-heartedly. And to be honest, I strongly recommend this as a resource for women. We all know that Emma inspired the revelation on the word of wisdom. We also know that Eliza R. Snow’s literary concept of a Heavenly Mother brought Her revelation to Mormonism (page 98). Thus, we know that women have historically encouraged revelation and created dogmatic change within the church when there were problems and unanswered chasms. Therefore, because there is an ongoing question (crisis?) in regard to Mormon polygamy with its many theological layers, I believe it is best that we come to understand its development, history, contextual history and relative theories. In doing this, we can be best seek and encourage further intellectual and spiritual revelations in creating a superior sealing doctrine – one that I would hope does not offend or degrade women.

 

For those in the Provo area, there is a roundtable discussion on Tuesday, March 13 at Writ & Vision (274 W CENTER ST). The event begins at 7PM and, those who attend have been promised cookies.

 

Spunky

Spunky lives in Queensland, Australia. She loves travel and aims to visit as many church branches and wards in the world as possible.

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9 Responses

  1. Moss says:

    Thanks for the review! I am looking forward to reading this for myself. There’s is a lot of hand-waving and gaslighting that goes on when Mormons, in general, talk about 132 and it is valuable to lay out exactly what the revelation actually says. Perhaps this book will help finish what the first and second manifestos started.

  2. Andrew says:

    Wow – that guy in what you relate. I, fortunately, have not met anyone quite like him. I can’t think of a single man I have met who was expecting plural marriage. And I can’t think of many who welcomed the idea either. Though I confess not all wouldn’t if they had to.

    The only person I have ever met who would welcome it tomorrow was woman – our stake YWP – who sees it as a way of sharing the load of household duties. I am not convinced her husband would be so willing.

    It might be worth mentioning that this book is available on Amazon in Kindle format.

    • spunky says:

      Thanks for including the Kindle note! Yes, that is much better than the price of shipping– espeically overseas. Either way, it is well worth the investment.

      Your poor stake YWP! Perhaps her lazy husband will be perfected so he can do all of the heavenly chores and they can both escape the clutches of polygamy!

      • Andrew says:

        Spunky, for some the “clutches of polygamy” make sense, and they are happy within that framework. For many, and I suspect the majority (male and female) it doesn’t.

        However, I find it hard to dismiss it entirely. It certainly appears to be God instituted (assuming we can take scripture to be correct and not the fabrication of men hoping to perpetuate polygamy).

        Abraham had children with at least three women. If God saw Abraham’s taking of Hagar, she flees and is sent back to Abraham by an angel. God also permitted her to have a child – something He could have stopped.

        Likewise on down the line. Jacob wasn’t looking for four, or even two, wives. He worked for Leah. But he still wanted Rachel. Again, God saw fit to make it hard for Rachel so they use their hand maids.

        If God had wanted a pure House of Israel with one Matriarch He could certainly have done it. However, that isn’t what happened.

        So God uses polygamy for His purposes. And so it must be righteous when done correctly. The problem occurs when it isn’t. Nothing in the story of Abraham or Jacob indicates that these men wanted plural wives. They didn’t make the situations in which it happened.

        I have never believed that polygamy is an essential part of receiving exaltation – or a benefit of achieving it either.

        When I have the time I will get the book and have a read. At the moment my work, church and life commitments make it hard – maybe holiday reading in the summer.

  3. Em says:

    Thanks for the review!! I’m excited to read it.

  4. Bird says:

    Thank you for your review! I really enjoyed it, and it piqued my interest in a book I might studiously avoid otherwise.

    Polygamy–or rather its unspoken (except in the case of that guy you met YIKES) assumptions/implications that still color rhetoric and ontologies today–is a pretty consistent source of rage/pain to me. There’s a large yet immature part of me that doesn’t care what they were thinking because it just seems so nakedly juvenile and self-serving. But that’s not the way to come to terms with things.

    I am dismayed, though, to see that it seems like all that women were ever thought of as were child-bearers, whether now or in the eternities. How despair-inducing.

    • spunky says:

      Listen, it is not an easy read. But stick with it– by the end, you really see what a strange mess it always was, always has been– and IMO, makes a strong case for its removal from Mormon dogma.

  5. Steve LHJ says:

    The book review part is interesting, but man that opening story was shocking. I haven’t seen these thoughts in my own circles, and I really hope its not a prevalent way people think in the church. For what it’s worth, which is probably not much coming from random internet commenter, I have learned for myself that polygamy is not the highest order of heaven, nor “eternal” in the sense of everlasting or infinite – alternate forms of marriage exist (not just polgyny) for specific growth purposes unique to the situation if and until the time those purposes are accomplished.

  6. Here in Australia, I’m afraid the polygamy eternal marriage notion has thrived. I have had more than one encounter with people who are recruiting for when polygamy is re-instituted. In past years there has even been a mission president who was recruiting sister missionaries as brides-to-be. Before I married, I even had a married man approach me when his wife was out of ear-shot to recruit me as his next wife should his wife pass away. I am now divorced (but still sealed) and my ex has applied to be sealed to his current wife. The betrayal of what was sacred to me, is acute. In the modern day context, the undertones are still there. It is an uncomfortable space to be in at the Temple etc when a woman can’t stand on her own two feet and be spiritually whole and in good standing before God unless she is married, after all she can do. The Church could do alot more in this space to apply the principles of Jacob 2, to heal the broken tender hearts of women and children.

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