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.