Polygamy, Secrets, & Kolob
I don’t remember when I first learned that Joseph Smith had practiced polygamy. (Never mind behind Emma’s back. With teenagers.) But I remember feeling disgusted–but mostly betrayed. This historical omission was clearly intentional. Now I’m not an idiot where polygamy is concerned. My paternal grandmother, born in 1885, was the daughter of a second wife, and Grandma told us lots of stories about hiding out in Star Valley, Wyoming while family #1 was hanging out in Logan. We all know about Brigham and his bagillion wives. Icky but whatevs. And maybe I’d feel that way about Joseph and his harem, if we ever mentioned it in our endless rotations of Church History. I hate to admit it, but at this point I am more disturbed at our secrecy regarding Joseph’s actions than by the actions themselves.
That being said, I have not yet passed these historical tidbits onto my children, who range from 14-6. So my question is, when do I tell my kids that a) Joseph had several wives, b) at least three were between the ages of 14 and 16, and c) he married several of them without Emma’s knowledge? I want them to believe. I want them to have a solid foundation before being exposed to doctrinal earthquakes. And yet, there has to be a point where we shine the light into our dark corners, and say, “Yup. That happened.” It distresses me that the Church seems to be shaking its finger at its members saying, “You can’t handle the truth!”
Case in point. Here is an email I received this month from my good friend Parry, who, like me, serves in the Young Women’s program:
I’m sitting at Jiffy Lube reading my YW lesson for tomorrow. I read the paragraph [on the kindness of Joseph Smith] below, which I will let you read now…
Mercy R. Thompson, a woman who knew the Prophet Joseph, wrote: “I can never forget the tender sympathy and brotherly kindness he ever showed toward me and my fatherless child. When riding with him and his wife Emma in their carriage I have known him to alight and gather prairie flowers for my little girl” (“Recollections of the Prophet Joseph Smith,” Juvenile Instructor, 1 July 1892, p. 399).
• What attitude did Joseph Smith show in performing this act of service?
And then in my own cynical brain I thought, “Yeah, if he was picking flowers for your poor fatherless child then I’m guessing he was wooing you into marrying him.” Then I felt a little bad for thinking that–but I looked it up and my instinct was dead on. Later, Mercy married him. Why does it irritate the crap out of me that the Church used not only this story but that they refer to her as “a woman who knew the Prophet Joseph”? Really though she did KNOW him. Blech. I would have made a terrible pioneer.
Now I’m not saying we have Sunbeam lessons on polygamy and or reenact the Mountain Meadows Massacre for Sharing Time. But at some point kids need to know these things, and better to have them explained by a friend than a foe. I remember teaching a Primary lesson many years back and mentioning that until 1978, Black men could not hold the priesthood. My class of 11 year-olds was incredulous. I swear they thought I was making it up. And most of my LDS friends who are younger than me have no idea that when I was a kid, women couldn’t pray in sacrament meeting. These facts aren’t secrets, but sometimes it’s easier to pretend the wacky stuff never happened and hope that the young and uninitiated among us will never stumble upon such embarrassments. It reminds me of what my English professor Gloria Cronin always said, “Catholics say the Pope is infallible, and nobody believes it. Mormons says the Prophet is fallible, and nobody believes it.”
Maybe it’s because I live in Mitt Romney’s town, but I feel like there has never been so much discussion about our faith and practices, some flattering, some not. Some true, some not. And let’s be clear that while I think we obfuscate way too much, I can’t deny that I wish some aspects of our theology and history could stay buried. For instance, when the occasional religious scholar delves into the nether regions of our beliefs, I start rocking in a corner muttering, “Please don’t mention Kolob! Please don’t mention Kolob!” So I get the desire to hide stuff. But with the media microscope on us, its impossible to manage what we are exposed to. In an attempt to deal with this, one of our youth leaders talked to the kids about some of the common criticisms of our faith, hoping to prepare them when they face detractors. I believe he mentioned that there were not horses and elephants in the Americas during Book of Mormon times, and that stories like Jonah and Job are most likely allegorical. This did not go over well with a couple parents and “cease and desist” emails were sent. When I asked my son about it, he said this man was his favorite teacher because “he’s not afraid to tell it like it is.” But how would I have reacted if my son came home and asked if Joseph really married a girl his age? The truth is I don’t know when or how to get into the really messy stuff with my kids. Does that make me complicit in the secrecy?
So I’m conflicted. I don’t want to spend my time digging up historical dirt on the Church. I’m a here and now gal whose religious mantra tends to be, “Look at the fruits, not the roots.” Living the gospel makes me a better person regardless of the authenticity of the papyri that make up the Pearl of Great Price. So I stay, happily. But I do not like to be lied to about said roots, however dark and twisty they may be. It’s time to ditch the shame and acknowledge our stuff, even if it’s out there. Maybe even as out there as Kolob.