Sunday, July 25, 2010

Why Mormon History Is Not What They Say

Now and then I'll hear from some fellow latter-day saints who have gotten their backs up over something I’ve written.  But after my last entry on this blog I was surprised by some fiery objections from a totally unexpected quarter.

I’ve not only managed to offend a few faithful Mormons, now I’ve somehow gotten most of the  ex-Mormon community arrayed against me, too.

Most people I know who have chosen to leave the church are quite reasonable, and I count many of them as friends. But on some ex-Mormon boards and blogs, the response by some people to my article on the origins of LDS polygamy can best be defined by one word:  Angry.

Others have responded with sarcastic ridicule.  The proprietor of  the blog “Molly's Muse” referred to the name of my blog, Pure Mormonism, as “hilariously titled.”

Ouch.  That hurt.

Then she goes on to say that my “theory is as laughable as the writing is dull.”

Double ouch.

(A parenthetical note to newcomers: The decision for this blog’s title derives from my observation that the organic religion founded by Joseph Smith was nondogmatic and libertarian, while the church today appears defined by a tone of authoritarian rigidity. Anyone assuming I believe modern Mormonism is pure has misread my intent.)

All this controversy stems from my review last month of the book Joseph Smith Fought Polygamy, by Richard and Pamela Price.

The Prices offer a multitude of contemporary proofs that Joseph Smith vigorously denounced the practice of plural marriage and tried without success to eradicate it prior to his death.  They also carefully document how history was tampered with by the prophet's successors in order to “attach his name” to the practice.  

The reactions I got from the majority of active Mormons were varying degrees of surprise and interest, but judging from most comments, it really didn’t shake their faith.

By contrast, some of my ex-Mormon friends came at me with both barrels for what they saw as an attempt to rehabilitate the reputation of Joseph Smith, who they insist is an irredeemable nogoodnik.

With all due respect to those who have chosen to exit the church, it appears to me that more than a few have become overly invested in the view that Joseph Smith just has to be a complete huckster and unquestioned fraud.  To some of these people, utter disdain for Joseph Smith has become their new religion.  Any attempt to portray Brother Joseph as anything other than a con man and a hustler is seen as a direct attack on their faith.

Now, before you smugly sniff “who cares what a bunch of apostates think?” I would remind you that most of these people used to be just like you and me.  Actually, they were better than you and me, if righteousness is measured by total devotion to the church and all its programs.  These people were not Jack Mormons.  Far from it.

In almost all cases, if you look beneath the surface of a member who has turned away from the church in disgust, you’ll find someone whose testimony was at one time unshakable, a stalwart guardian of the faith who once spent countless hours online and in person defending the church from its anti-Mormon enemies.  Here’s an even-handed video by John Dehlin that accurately describes who these people are and how they got that way:

As you can see, a common thread among these “heretics” is the discovery that many of the things they were taught in church and seminary turned out to be not quite as officially presented.  Consequently, these members felt betrayed by the institution they revered as a beacon of truth and light.

As one former latter-day Saint put it recently, “I remember getting into a discussion with a co-worker who asked me about [some things he had learned about the early LDS church].  I remember telling him that all that stuff was anti-Mormon lies.”

As it turned out, the things the co-worker brought up were historical facts he could back up using actual Mormon sources, and this member ended up feeling he had been deceived by the official church materials he had relied on.

“That experience and others like it,” he continued,” is one of the main reasons for my level of anger today. I looked like a complete idiot, a dupe and blind follower, because the church has chosen to treat me like a 10 year old who cannot handle the truth.”

What’s more, he says, this tendency of the church to protect its image at the expense of historical veracity is counterproductive to the missionary effort. “Any investigator is going to go home and google ‘Mormon Church’ and in one hour will know more about the history of the Mormon Church than the true believer who has been a member for 40 years.”

Let me make it clear that I neither judge nor begrudge any person whose search for truth takes them on a path different from my own.  Who am I to insist that anyone hold the same beliefs as I do?

Where I do have a problem is with those who claim to be on a search for truth, yet refuse to consider any evidence that may challenge their already fixed beliefs.  That’s what I ran into with some of these former members of the church.  They seem to have settled into their new belief system and want nothing to do with any new information that might challenge even a tiny part of it.

Most of their arguments with me came down to 1.) Joseph Smith lied about everything else, so it’s obvious he lied about being against polygamy, and  2.)  The historical record is clear that almost three dozen women were secretly married to Joseph Smith, and the historical record does not lie.

As for point number one above, that is an intellectually lazy position.  Let's say for the sake of argument that Joseph Smith did lie about (x) and (y).  It does not then automatically follow that he is lying about (z).  A criminal may be a forger, but that doesn’t mean he is also a murderer.  (Okay, Mark Hoffman just came to mind, so I’m going to have to work on that analogy.  Still, even Hoffman was not charged with either crime until all the evidence against him had been meticulously examined.)

The more I look into this, the more I'm inclined to see that the evidence is very strong that Joseph Smith vigorously opposed the practice of polygamy, while the evidence that he secretly practiced it anyway appears quite flimsy.

As to the argument of the historical record being unimpeachable; Well, it turns out that a great deal of what passed for true history prior to the twentieth century has turned out to be wildly unreliable, and that goes double for the historical record on polygamy.
Everything You Know Is Wrong

A couple of weeks ago Jeff Rigenbach sent me his latest book, Why American History Is Not What They Say: An Introduction To Revisionism.

 I’ve had a passion for revisionist history for as long as I can remember, but something I read in Riggenbach’s informative volume caught me up short.  It was an essential factor that I had never considered before and which just so happens to have direct application to why the historical record about Joseph Smith and Polygamy is so confusing and contradictory.

While doing the research for her biography of Joseph Smith back in the 1940's, Fawn Brodie wrote to a friend that “the more I work with the polygamy material, the more baffled I become.” She has not been alone.  Every biographer since has struggled with the dichotomy of what Joseph Smith asserted and what the historical record appears to show.

I think Jeff Rigenbach may have uncovered the explanation for us.

Correcting The Past

If the study of history can be defined as "the science of discovering what happened," then revisionism is the forensic science of methodically re-sifting through the evidence of the past to get at the truth of what really happened.  According to Joseph R. Stromberg, “revisionism refers to any efforts to revise a faulty existing historical record or interpretation.”

Harry Elmer Barnes, the father of modern revisionist history, describes revisionism as “the effort to revise the historical record in the light of a more complete collection of historical facts, a more calm political atmosphere, and a more objective attitude.”  As Riggenbach himself succinctly puts it, “We need to revise the historical record when we have new facts.”

What surprised me about Riggenbach’s book -and which is directly applicable to our discussion here- is his revelation that until quite recently there was no such thing as “history” as we usually think of it; that is, the kind of history that could actually be relied upon:         
“It was the tail end of the 19th century before the calling of the historian had been professionalized and academicized to such an extent that a majority of practitioners in the field had come to hold the view of their discipline that we now take for granted -the historian as dispassionate seeker of truth, a scholar, much more like an anthropologist...Still, there were holdouts.” (Pg 27)
One “holdout” in the arena of Mormon historians may have been Joseph Fielding Smith, whose book Essentials in Church History was a book all missionaries were armed with in my day, and which turns out to have been of no more real use to the student of Mormon history than the 911 Commission Report is today for the person desiring to find out the complete truth about that particular event.

I relied upon Elder Smith’s book during my mission when I gave a presentation to a class of high school seniors in Milan, Missouri where I used it to refute “anti-Mormon lies” about Mormon complicity in the Mountain Meadows Massacre.  Elder Smith (an apostle at the time he wrote it) placed the blame for the massacre squarely on the local Indians and John D. Lee, who he painted as a renegade Mormon with only a tenuous connection to the church.  At any rate, he strongly implied, the members of the Fancher party were asking for it and had it coming.

Even today I feel like a dupe and a fool when I remember how vehemently I defended the official church position against what was the real truth of that sordid affair.

But to give him his due, Joseph Fielding Smith was little different than any other compiler of American history a hundred years ago, including the most famous and reputable of all, George Bancroft, whose ten volume History of the United States, published in 1874, remained the unchallenged standard work for decades.  But even Bancroft’s classic History was far from objective:
“Bancroft believed that his job was to write a chronicle that would make his readers proud of their country’s history, and when it suited his didactic purpose, he fabricated.” (Why American History Is Not What They Say, Pg 27)
It was not only Bancroft who was making up history to suit his agenda; Riggenbach demonstrates how this "style" was common among virtually all historians of the time.   He shows how "most of them saw themselves in particular as the providers of an important kind of inspirational literature."  Facts were elastic.  This practice of bending reality to fit the lesson plan was rampant in the 19th century.  It was systemic.  And it was considered normal.

One can easily see the parallels between writers wishing to portray actions of the American government favorably, and those within the LDS church tasked with portraying Mormon history in the most positive light.  According to Riggenbach:
“The American history taught in most schools during the past hundred years faithfully reflected received opinion, and received opinion sees the United States as a consistent, devoted partisan of the same spirit of individual liberty that once moved its founders -a peace-loving nation that wishes the rest of the world only the best, and never goes to war except in self-defense.”
“Apply this set of principles to what we know of the past and, at the end of the day, you’ll wind up with quite a pile of facts that didn’t meet the criteria and now litter the cutting room floor.”

“The facts about the gross violations of individual liberty that have been championed by U.S. presidents almost since the beginning, for example -John Adams’s Sedition Acts, Andrew Jackson’s genocidal treatment of the American Indians, Abraham Lincoln’s military conscription (to say nothing of his suspension of habeas corpus and his imprisonment of newspaper editors who dared to disagree with his prosecution of the Civil War), William McKinley’s brutal suppression of the independence movement in the Philippines after the Spanish American War, Franklin Roosevelt’s order to round up American citizens of Japanese ancestry and imprison them in concentration camps- are any of these inconvenient facts likely to be selected for inclusion in a textbook based on the “commonly shared principle” of the saintliness of the U.S. government?” (Pg. 24)   
Similarly we Mormons may ask ourselves if we should really expect inconvenient facts that reflect poorly on the “saintliness” of our church leaders to find their way into books and Sunday School manuals published by the church.

History: It Ain’t What It Used To Be

In 1972 the church appointed LDS Professor Leonard J. Arrington as the official Church Historian.  This was the first time a true historian, a trained academic, had been given that post.  This important office had always been held by a general authority.  Arrington opened up the massive church archives to other Mormon academics, and the era of The New Mormon History was born.  Surprise, surprise; that magic era didn’t last long. Just barely a decade.

The archives were a treasure house of information for the excited historians involved.  They were soon discovering things that even the current leadership of the church hadn't known about.  Paul Toscano reports that Hyrum L. Andrus was opening wooden crates full of church records that had been nailed shut since they left Nauvoo in 1846.  All kinds of fascinating stuff was in there.

Books and essays were written based on these newly found letters, diaries, journals, newspapers, and records. But not all of the information in these documents was seen as favorable to church leadership.  Some of the revisions clearly contradicted elements of what had become the official church history.

A massively ambitious multi-volume church history was planned, utilizing the talents of the church's most qualified scholars and historians.  Then one day the order came down from on high to scrap the project, and the historian's office was "reorganized."  Arrington, who had been introduced at general conference with great fanfare for a vote of approval ten years earlier, was quietly released in 1982 without even a mention in conference or any vote of thanks. The position of Church Historian was again placed into the hands of a trusted general authority.  The archives were closed to all but a select few, and have remained closed to this day.
For a perfect example of the work of a revisionist Mormon historian, and why revisionism is such a volatile subject to some in the church, let’s look at Richard Van Wagoner’s reexamination of the famous Transmogrification of Brigham Young.

Mighty Morphing Fact Arrangers

We all know the basic story. It goes something like this.  After the death of Joseph and Hyrum, the church was left leaderless.  So the million dollar question on everyone's mind: Who was next in line to lead it?

A meeting was called, and Sidney Rigdon was first to speak.  As the story goes, Rigdon got up and campaigned for himself to be the new prophet.  Then it was Brigham Young’s turn, and as he spoke, the gathered throng witnessed a miracle.  It looked to them as if Brigham Young had been transformed into Joseph Smith before their very eyes.  Brigham’s visage became Joseph’s visage, his voice was Joseph’s voice, his mannerisms were Joseph’s.  Clearly the spirit of Joseph Smith himself had returned to witness to the membership that Brigham Young was to be his anointed successor.

That's the way most of us have heard it, but virtually every element of that story is false.  Nothing even remotely resembling the described supernatural transformation took place.  How do we know?  We have new facts.  Using letters, diaries, journals, newspaper accounts, and church records, Van Wagoner walks us through the event.  He revises the history.  You can read his essay here, entitled The Making of a Mormon Myth.  (You can find another excellent analysis by Reid L. Harper in the Fall 1996 Journal of Mormon History.)

The simple but true facts are that on August 8th, 1844, Sidney Rigdon, as remaining member of the First Presidency, spoke to a large gathering of the Saints, advocating that the church continue to be led by a triumvirate with himself as President.  The next day, Brigham Young gave a speech proposing that the church instead should be governed by the twelve apostles as a body.  He was not campaigning to be the next leader himself, nor would anyone have accepted him if he had made such a proposal. 

The membership eventually voted in favor of Brigham’s plan because he made the better speech and it was considered wiser that church government be spread among the twelve rather than to continue with a First Presidency under the ailing Sidney Rigdon.

And that was it.  No image, no visions, no voice.  Just a rip-roaring good sermon by Brigham Young.  There was no transfiguration of Brigham Young into the form of Joseph Smith, no morphing, no eerie ghost noises, no nothing.

Again, how do we know?  From primary sources; the letters, diaries, journals, and newspapers of the time.  Brigham's speech was reported on in detail in both Nauvoo newspapers and recorded by scribes for the official church records.  Hundreds of members present wrote about Brigham's fine performance in great detail in their private journals.  Nowhere was there a mention of the miraculous or divine.  Not a hint.

Until years later.

Van Wagoner takes us through the transformation.  Not the transformation of Brigham to Joseph, but the transformation from historical truth to historical legend.

You Really Had To Be There              

After the saints were settled in Utah, church leadership began to shake out in the form of a hierarchy with certain apostles recognized as having seniority over others.  Almost immediately Brigham Young forsook the plan he had proposed that church affairs should be administered by the twelve equally, and quietly adopted the plan that had been proposed by Sidney Rigdon -with himself in Sidney Rigdon's place.

Although in his famous speech in the grove at Nauvoo Brigham had insisted that “you can’t put anyone at the head of the Twelve,” in no time he managed to maneuver himself at the head of the Twelve and into the role of successor to the prophet Joseph Smith.

This aggrandizement was not what the Saints had originally voted for, but Brigham had more than proven his leadership abilities by getting them across the plains and settled in, and who were they to question the senior member of the Quorum?

It was soon being spoken about that “the mantle of Joseph had fallen on Brigham.”  What that meant exactly was anybody’s guess.  “Mantle” is both a verb and a noun, and is a very abstract term.  Nothing tangible or spiritual or visible had actually “fallen” on Brigham Young. It was meant as a metaphor.

But In 1857, 13 years after the speech in the grove, Albert Carrington took the account one step further.  In a speech before a huge gathering of Saints, he said that he couldn’t tell Brigham from Joseph that day when Brigham was speaking.

Someone else soon claimed that he had sensed the very spirit of Joseph Smith while Brigham had been speaking.  Then another person declared that he saw the very personage of Joseph take over Brigham’s body.

That was all it took.  Mark Twain has famously said that a lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on. Human nature being what it is, there was soon no shortage of pioneers declaring that they had seen the miraculous transformation too.  It was a sign! It was a miracle!  Brigham Young had been transformed by the spirit of Joseph Smith into the image of Joseph Smith himself!

Some of the most prominent church leaders got caught up in the illusion.  “His words went through me like electricity," testified apostle Orson Hyde in 1869, “It was not only the voice of Joseph Smith but there were the features, the gestures, and even the stature of Joseph before us in the person of Brigham.”

Eight years later, a full thirty-three years after the original event, Hyde embellished further:
“I heard the voice of Joseph through him, and it was as familiar to me as the voice of my wife, the voice of my child, or the voice of my father. And not only the voice of Joseph did I distinctly and unmistakably hear, but I saw the very gestures of his person, the very features of his countenance, and if I mistake not, the very size of his person appeared on the stand. And it went through me with the thrill of conviction that Brigham was the man to lead this people. And from that day to the present there has not been a query or a doubt upon my mind with regard to the divinity of his appointment; I know that he was the man selected of God to fill the position he now holds.”
There’s just one problem with Orson Hyde’s testimony.  He hadn't been there.  Orson Hyde did not arrive in Nauvoo until August 13th. 

Other prominent Mormons who weren’t present added their testimonies too.  John D. Lee’s personal diary, Van Wagoner tells us, “makes it clear that he did not return to Nauvoo until 20 August, nearly two weeks later.”   But that didn’t stop Lee from later saying "I myself, at the time, imagined that I saw and heard a strong resemblance to the Prophet in him."  Wilford Woodruff told the story from the pulpit many times over the years, embellishing it more than any of the others with each retelling.

Interestingly, Woodruff was present that day and had written the most detailed and complete  contemporary account of Brigham’s speech on the day he gave it.  But in that original account he failed to mention any of the supernatural sights and sounds he miraculously recalled years later.

If the church leadership were inclined to exaggerate, the rank and file were up to the challenge too.  According to Van Wagoner:
“Retrospective retellings of a ‘transfiguration,’ in a variety of forms, can be found in dozens of sources, yet no two seem to agree on precise details. Elizabeth Haven Barlow, a cousin of Brigham Young, for example, wrote that her mother told her that ‘thousands in that assembly’ saw Young ‘take on the form of Joseph Smith and heard his voice change to that of the Prophet’s.’  Eliza Ann Perry Benson reminisced that the Saints arose ‘from their seats enmass’ exclaiming ‘Joseph has come! He is here!’”
Too bad the newspapers neglected to notice the crowd going wild.  It would have made good copy.

Thankfully, not every member of the church got caught up in the collective delusion.  According to Van Wagoner:
Bishop George Miller, present at the gathering, later recalled that nothing supernatural had occurred on that day. Young made a “long and loud harangue,” Miller later wrote, for which I “could not see any point in the course of his remarks than to overturn Sidney Rigdon’s pretensions.”

Why It Matters, And Why It Doesn’t

Just as 19th century historian George Bancroft believed there was nothing wrong with fabricating and reshaping the facts as long as the resulting stories “would make his readers proud of their country’s history”, so did 19th century Mormons profess to fudging the facts if it led to promoting the faith.

But such Mormon urban legends have a way of backfiring.  Rather than strengthening testimonies, once the deception is revealed, testimonies are often destroyed. Witness the hoards of good and faithful people leaving the church in droves every year after discovering their testimonies were dependent on deeply held beliefs that had been manipulated by those they trusted most.

 Nearly a hundred years ago B.H. Roberts was already concerned about this trend: 
“Suppose your youth receive their impressions of church history from “pictures and stories” and build their faith upon these alleged miracles [and] shall someday come face to face with the fact that their belief rests on falsehoods; what then will be the result? Will they not say that since these things are myth and our Church has permitted them to be perpetuated …might not the other fundamentals to the actual story of the Church, the things in which it had its origin, might they not all be lies and nothing but lies?”

Whack-a-Mole Wives

Members and ex-members alike deserve to take an objective look at the women who started popping up in late nineteenth century Utah claiming to have once been secretly married to Joseph Smith.  We deserve to carefully analyze their claims one by one, and that's just the kind of research Richard and Pamela Price have been engaged in for over thirty years.

Are these tales of secret marriages not that much different from tales of miraculous transfigurations, thought to aid in affirming the glorious doctrines of the Lord's true church?  If apostles would claim to witness miracles they did not see, is it not conceivable that their women could claim weddings they did not experience?  Did any of these women come forward earlier than the late 1870's?  Do we have any contemporary accounts of their secret marriages written in their diaries near the time they supposedly took place? Why don’t we hear anything of this until these women were well past middle age and the practice of plural marriage was under attack?

Anyone could have claimed to have been married to Joseph Smith, since the marriages were alleged to have been secret and no marriage certificates exist.  One wife would not even have known about any of the others. “You were married to Joseph Smith? No kidding! I was married to Joseph Smith!

“Well, howdy-do and pleased ta meetcha!”

All of these dubious claims were made by women who were firm believers in The Principle, having lived their entire adult lives as plural wives, nearly all of them to men of prominence in Utah society.  They were absolutely convinced that the doctrine was introduced by Joseph, so a little exaggeration to affirm the legitimacy of the practice couldn't hurt. Doubtless some of these gals may have come to believe Joseph Smith actually would have married them for real if he had actually met them.   

Let’s take a quick look at just a couple of cases of women who have been presented to me as proof positive, absolutely-airtight-smoking-gun-evidence that Joseph Smith was a sex-obsessed Lothario.

The Smoking Gun Is A Toy Cap Pistol

 1.  Nancy Rigdon

Nancy Rigdon was the pretty nineteen year old daughter of First Councilor Sidney Rigdon, and the way the story is often told, Joseph Smith made advances toward her in a letter and she rejected him.

In volume II of Joseph Smith Fought Polygamy, the Prices examine this story in depth and document all the juicy details.  You can read the complete analysis here.  I’ll give you the short version.

A letter was delivered to Miss Rigdon which she was told was from Joseph Smith.  The letter did not contain Joseph’s signature, and Miss Rigdon rejected it because she knew where it had come from.  She suspected it was the work of John C. Bennett, who held incriminating knowledge about her seduction by Chauncey Higbee and hoped for her cooperation in entrapping Joseph. What ended up happening to the poor girl was that her affair with Higbee was made public, causing her no end of  humiliation.

Wouldn’t you know it, Bennett somehow had a copy of the letter to Nancy Rigdon of his own, which he published in the Sangamo Journal, and later in his book, claiming it was written by Joseph Smith to Nancy Rigdon.  Gee, I wonder how he got that copy?

Joseph Smith made affidavit denying authorship of the letter, and Nancy Rigdon herself affirmed it had not come from Smith, “nor in his hand writing, but by another person, and in another person's hand writing.”  Nancy’s father didn’t believe the letter was from Joseph either.  Neither copy of the notorious letter has been found to this day.  All we know of it is from what Bennett published.

Some smoking gun.

2.  Helen Mar Kimball

I suppose if we came across the diary of an innocent fourteen year old girl expressing apprehension about her upcoming wedding to Joseph Smith, an adult man in his mid thirties, that would be pretty damning evidence, wouldn’t it?

That’s how the journal of Helen Mar Kimball is often presented.  But the journal was written by Helen when she was nearly fifty and had been one of the plural wives of Orson F. Whitney her entire adult life.  Helen tells a retrospective tale of desiring to be obedient to her father who wished her to be given to the Prophet to wife. The actual purpose of her story was to bolster support for the practice of plural marriage, to which she was a devoted acolyte.

Far from being the private diary of a reluctant underage girl, this was a story Helen composed in the late 1870's which she wrote for publication.  Her story has all the earmarks of the type of fabricated "history" created to build testimonies among those who may have come to question the doctrine of plural marriage.  Her conclusion was that plural marriage was wonderful.  She was in with both feet.  Why, she even had the privilege of being married at one time to the living Prophet himself, that's how super-duper the whole thing was.

“I learned that plural marriage is a celestial principle,” she testified, “and saw... the necessity of obedience to those who hold the priesthood, and the danger of rebelling against or speaking lightly of the Lord’s anointed.”

Helen makes it clear in an accompanying poem that her marriage to Joseph was for eternity only.  That is, the marriage was never consummated.  This is a typical caveat of the women who came forward with these claims.  They seemed to enjoy the status of an eternal marriage to the famous founder of their faith, but most were careful to make the point that there was never any hanky-panky going on.  Joseph would claim them as his celestial mates later in the hereafter.  They even had themselves sealed "again" to Joseph in the Utah temple in case anybody didn't believe them.

Those who insist that Joseph Smith was a sex-obsessed letch scoring dozens of clandestine conquests at Nauvoo will have to explain to me how the biggest celebrity in the city, during the busiest time of his life and with everyone's eyes constantly watching his every move, would be able to woo, court, and wed two to three women every month.  And then explain to me this unusual penchant he had for always picking chickies who refused to put out. 

Helen Mar Kimball’s purpose in writing her tract was to help support unquestioning loyalty toward Church leaders at a time when they were coming under attack from outside the church and adherence to "The Principle" was generating questions inside.  Like anyone else of her generation and in her position, when it suited her purpose, she fabricated.  She didn't write what she did because she was fishing for sympathy, she was trolling for converts. 

Art or Science?

Today the study of history is a social science, no longer the malleable "art" that it was prior to the twentieth century.  So perhaps it's time Mormons as well as ex-Mormons applied the scientific process when trying to determine whether Joseph Smith was being honest in his denunciation of polygamy, or whether he was a flaming hypocrite.

"Occam’s Razor" is the scientific principle embodied in the statement that “the simplest explanation is usually the correct one.”

Perhaps Fawn Brodie's frustrated bewilderment at the conflicting evidence tying Joseph Smith to plural marriage was simply a result of her having been raised in the church (as were most subsequent Joseph Smith biographers) and accepted as a “given” that the doctrine of polygamy originated with Joseph Smith.  Was she predisposed to ignore the simplest explanation?

How many of us have ever thought to check the provenance of D&C 132? Haven't we always just assumed that it was written in Joseph's hand?  We unquestioningly accept as truth what has been handed down to us from people whose own recollections of key events changed radically depending upon the lesson they wished to convey, and who lived in a time when even the professional historians were no sticklers for accuracy.   

After weighing all the evidence in any historical controversy, the best we can conclude about any given event is that it was more likely to have happened one way, and less likely to have happened another. Important factors to consider are primary and contemporary accounts (accounts written at the time), versus secondary accounts, hearsay, and later recollections.
So here’s what it comes down to.  On the one hand we have countless contemporary accounts in Joseph’s own words testifying of his incessant crusade to root out polygamy in the church and his threats to prosecute its practitioners.  On the other hand we have scribes as early as 1847 testifying to their complicity in tampering with the dead man's journals, along with an entire gallery of pinch-faced dowagers appearing from out of nowhere with a claim to fame for their secret weddings to a long dead super-celebrity.

Taking Joseph Smith at his word and approaching the later claims as hyperbole typical of the zeitgeist is the only way to make sense of all the contradictions.  It’s the only way the pieces of the puzzle fall into place.

No one really knows the truth about what happened back then. I wouldn't pretend to.  I’ve only read half of the revisionist history on the topic, and I'm told there's much more yet to be made available.

But if I were to offer an early opinion based on the evidence I’ve seen so far, I would have to say that it seems more likely that Joseph Smith was sincere about eradicating polygamy in the church; and given what we know about the 19th century proclivity for embellishing reality without shame as long as it was for a good cause, I’d have to conclude that it’s less likely that we can rely on the claims of Joseph Smith’s several “wives”.

I don’t quite understand this reluctance some people have -both believing Mormons as well as others raised in the parochial Mormon culture- to automatically reject new information that might force a paradigm shift in their thinking.

I like how B.H. Roberts looked at it: “I find my own heart strengthened in the truth by getting rid of the untruth, the spectacular, the bizarre, as soon as I learn that it is based upon worthless testimony.”

I actually like discovering I might have been wrong about something.  It's kind of exhilarating.  It tells me I’m still learning.

[A couple of notes about leaving comments:    1.  Some readers have expressed confusion because the process demands a user name first.  The simplest way (Occam's Razor, Dude!) is to select "Name/URL" from the drop down menu.  Just use the "name" box and ignore the box for the URL.  You don't need it unless you have a blog or a website, in which case you can post your URL so other readers can link to your site.     2. In a couple of cases, readers have not seen their comment post after they clicked "Post Comment."  If that happens to you, simply close the program out, then come back in.  Your comment should be there.  (For your own safety, you should copy your comment into notebook before leaving just in case.)      One final reminder:  I don't screen or delete comments, so if you want to criticize me, have at it; your diatribe WILL be published.  I read all comments, so please be civil and polite, as I cry easily.  (I'm talkin' to you, Molly Muse.)]


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Anonymous said...

I'm in NJ, but I was thinking of some type of web-based crowd-sourcing project, in which people could share and synthesize their ideas on this. The Prices' research "Joseph Smith Fought Polygamy" is excellent and there are ideas scattered across different blogs and what not. But, it would be interesting to get an idea of just how many like-minded people there are on this issue, especially within the LDS, and to list/discuss issues that nobody seems to have noticed yet. For example, I have found many prophetic scriptures that appear consistent in very detailed ways with this cancer in the LDS church. I would even go a bit further that many of today's problems can be traced to contorting the gospel to fit this polygamy fraud---there is a discernible cascade pattern of silly doctrines and practices.

Anon 23 said...

Your research sounds interesting Anonymous. I would love for someone to start such a blog. I don't have the slightest how to do it. It would be great though. Hopefully soon someone will, for I think there are many people who believe Joseph was innocent and have studied it on their own and have found further interesting insights they could share. I love the Price's work.

Rock's blog here is wonderful & is working well for bringing people to the light about polygamy and being able to discuss such things.

Gilbertmom said...

Thank you so much for all your research, and your clear writing style that presents the information. I am on a quest for Truth just like everyone else. I am an active member of the church. I think the overwhelming evidence does support that Joseph Smith was never involved with Polygamy. One thing I can't piece together is Fanny Alger (The first alleged wife of Joseph Smith). In all the stuff I have read, she seems to be the most likely that there was some sort of affair going on. What are your thoughts on this? Thanks so much for your blog. I love the open minded perspective!

Anonymous said...

If Joseph Smith did teach/practice polygamy, then I'm leaving the church. The truthfulness of the church hinges completely on the veracity of Smith's claims. If he taught/practiced polygamy, then based on his public statements to the contrary and his denunciations of anything like unto it, Joseph Smith is a duplicitous deceiver and a hypocrite. Therefore, all of his claims are suspect, and likely part of a continuing fraud.

Alan Rock Waterman said...

Anonymous at 8:02, in my view, the Fanny Alger story is the least likely to have any veracity, as there were no witnesses present to the alleged incident. According to the story, Emma came upon Joseph and Fanny in the barn. There was no one else present, so who started that story? Joseph denied the rumors, Emma denied the rumors, and Fanny Alger is not known to either confirm or deny the story.

Oliver cowdery is often trotted out as evidence of the story's veracity because he is said to have commented on it, but he was a witness to the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, not to some tryst in a barn. He might have been a credible witness had he been there at the time, but he heard it second hand just like everyone else.

A reader sent to the Huntington Library where that original Cowdery letter resides and sent me photocopies of the pages, and guess what? It wasn't even written by Oliver Cowdery. It purports to be a copy of a letter Cowdery wrote, in the handwriting of a pastor of some church. The reference to the dirty, nasty affair could be in reference to the gossip. What would Cowdery (or the good reverend) know about any affair involving Joseph Smith?

This story seems to have gone into wide circulation by Eliza Webb, former wife of Brigham Young who went East and performed on stage telling stories of her life in Brigham's harem. She said the Fanny Alger story was a story she had heard from some of the other wives. I don't know it's provenance, but we have to ask ourselves: if Joseph didn't spread it, and Emma didn't spread it, and Fanny Alger didn't spread it, who was on hand who started the rumor of this dirty filthy nasty affair?

Musta been a ghost.

AV said...

Anonymous 4:27,

Great logic! Congrats. But even if he didn't lie I believe we should still all leave the Church, for it's not the same Church that Joseph started. But one started by & upheld today by false prophets, which Joseph said we would be damned if we fell for & supported them.

And very few people put it together that if Joseph really did live polygamy then the Church is in even a 'worse' place then if he told the truth and didn't live polygamy. For then not only Brigham was a false prophet but Joseph Smith too!

It seems to me, based on far more than just his words, but his sacrifices & behavior too, that Joseph did tell the truth and he was completely innocent of polygamy. He spoke & acted like a true prophet would.

Anonymous said...

Can anyone revise the history of the Relief Society shutting down in 1844 for me? I've assumed for years that Joseph disbanded it because Emma kept trying to root out polygamy and he got a little nervous about getting caught.

Now it sounds like Emma and the Relief Society were doing exactly what Joseph wanted.

Who, then, disbanded the Relief Society if not Joseph? Or is the assumption that it disbanded prior to Joseph's death not accurate?

JBL said...

As far as having nothing to worry about in your writing style that is perhaps true, however, I would put a bit of effort in checking your quotes. You have an entire tangent of this document based on having left one word out of Orson's comments as they are actually recorded in the Journal of Discourses.

Above you state:

"Some of the most prominent church leaders got caught up in the illusion. “His words went through me like electricity," testified apostle Orson Hyde in 1869, “It was not the voice of Joseph Smith but there were the features, the gestures, and even the stature of Joseph before us in the person of Brigham.”

However the one word which is missing is the word "only" which kind of undermines some of your conclusions as exampled below.

The words that Orson Hyde actually spoke were:

“or is it really the voice of Joseph Smith ?“ This is my testimony; it was not ONLY the voice of Joseph, but there were the features, the gestures and even the stature of Joseph before us in the person of Brigham...Everyone in the congregation—everyone who was inspired by the Spirit of the Lord—felt it They knew it. They realized it.(Journal of Discourses on page 181 vol 13 in a talk titled "The Right To Lead the Church", by Orson Hyde.)

Rock Waterman said...

Thank you for catching that omission. I did indeed misread the quote, not catching the use of "It was not ONLY the voice" of Joseph Smith. My clumsy reading of it had Pratt saying "it was NOT the voice..." I will make the necessary correction to the post.

However, none of this undermines the conclusion of the piece, which is that when recounting the incident two and a half decades later, Orson Pratt was bearing false witness to the congregation in Salt Lake City. On no less than two occasions (1869 and 1877), Hyde testified of witnessing this miraculous transformation IN PERSON, when in reality he was not in Nauvoo the day Brigham Young gave his speech, and did not arrive until five days after it was all over.

As Van Wagoner delicately put it, Hyde was "prone to exaggerate, particularly when undermining the claims of his archenemy, Sidney Rigdon."

Rock Waterman said...

The Relief Society was never formally disbanded. Following the murders of Hyrum and Joseph, they simply curtailed meeting together because of the calamitous environment and chaos in and around Nauvoo. There weren't regular Sunday church meetings going on then, either.

The rumor that Joseph had disbanded the Relief Society to spite Emma was started decades later by John Taylor, and reported as fact by the authors of Mormon Enigma. Brigham, Taylor, et al were constantly getting their digs in about Emma for the simple reason that she was calling them liars and usurpers. The official history says the opposite of what Taylor reported.

Brigham Young did put the Relief Society on hiatus for a few years while the Saints were busy crossing the plains. I don't know if those who stayed behind continued associating as a women's auxilliary or not. There continued to be active branches of the church all across Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, and Ohio, etc, but I don't know if the Relief Society continued in those brances. It was more of a Nauvoo society than something that spread throughout the church.

As Emma had been the president of the Nauvoo RS, following the murder of her husband she did not seem inclined to continue life as before. So I don't know what happened to the society outside of the Utah church.

Those of us who grew up in the Church were taught that Emma's recollections were unreliable. I am finding now that her statements are a lot more reliable than those in Utah constantly tried to undermine her. It must have really rankled the Brighamite wing that not one member of the Smith family recognized their authority.

JBL said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

JBL said...

My apologies...I have never seen my post displayed and so tried again tonight as it still had not shown up and now I look the over persistent fool. Please feel free to delete the multitude to the one you wish to keep if that is possible.

Alan Rock Waterman said...

You don't the over persistent fool, JBL. This platform confuses a lot of folks, as once the comment count exceeds 200, readers are required to load a second and sometimes third page, and that notification is not only difficult to see, but it sometimes takes forever to work.

Anyway, I'm the one feeling foolish for having overlooked that one key word you kindly pointed out. I have edited the piece to conform to your findings.

Anonymous said...

Given 'human nature' & seeing the way LDS members & leaders today act and blindly believe & repeat whatever falsehoods they are told, I totally see how hundreds would have lied or unknowingly pasted on rumors & hearsay about Joseph living polygamy. Only a rare righteous person back then would have 'known or believed' the truth about Joseph's innocence. All others would have believed whatever the current gossip was. But this is not 'simple' to see it seems.

So I believe that the 'simple' answer is that Joseph & Emma told the truth, that true prophets don't lie & abuse their wife & run around after other women, let alone teenagers (shocker).

And since, as Joseph even taught, everyone then & today will be deceived, except a rare few, so of course people framed & lied about Joseph (for multiple reasons) or they went along with & repeated vile rumors about him, for that is human nature.

Most people like the sound of & more easily follow & fall for 'imperfect' prophets then for true nearly perfect prophets. So of course, more people would like a prophet who practice polygamy, just look at all the 'so called 'good & wonderful' members today who want & choose to believe in such prophets who would do such vile things. They choose to follow blindly and not think about it, for that just easier. Same back then.

To think that most member's testimony about Joseph would have been 'right' is not in line with human nature nor is it normal for society or church members & leaders. People are usually wrong in their assessment of others, especially righteous people & true prophets.

So, it is more likely that hundreds lied and passed on false stories, and that very few knew & told the real truth, that Joseph was innocent.

Greg S said...

Great post Alan. I read this book a week ago and am now reading part two. Have been a member all my life and served a mission in South Korea. Over last 4 to 5 years I have done much studying of a broad range of subjects. Now consider myself a Voluntaryist/Anarchist and believe the Electrical theory of the Universe is the most probable one out there. I like you haven't seen all the evidence out there regarding JS and polygamy but I like the logic in the JS Fought Polygamy book. It tastes good to me. I don't give a lot of credibility to the accounts of the women who many years later said they had married him, sworn or not.
I have gone through a legal trial where I sued the city for a false arrest and learned much to my surprise how the 'justice' system works and how many people lie under oath. I spent a lot of money, time and effort combating those lies and once they are out there they are really hard to overcome. Because of that experience I have a small understanding of what JS had to deal with.
Anyway my question is if polygamy was a revelation from God and instituted to further his work how did it do? What were the good 'fruits' it bore?
I personally can't come up with any, can you?
It ripped apart the church, ripped apart marriages and families and made liars out of the saints and caused even more enmity between them and their neighbors and government. Might even have been the cause of JS being murdered. And if it was such good doctrine and was in fact the Lord's doctrine why isn't it still being practiced? Why did the church almost get destroyed by the state over it? In fact, it caused the church to become subject to the state and bowing to its authority ever since.
What other doctrine has had so many negative effects on the spread of the gospel? The only one I can think of which is even close is the ridiculous blacks are inferior/less worthy/less righteous false doctrine. And in my opinion both of those can be laid right at the feet of Brigham Young and his racism and prejudices.
The idea that women upon attaining exaltation would submit to being one of many wives is ridiculous to me. What is the benefit to them? Why would a goddess agree to such a thing? Polygamy is a man's idea not a woman's.

Greg S said...

I have always had issues with the idea of the eternal family. Seems kind of infantile. We were all adult so to speak before we came here and probably had lots of friends, relationships and important spirits in our lives. So we come to earth and become part of a family and maybe have our own family and hopefully form some really close and rewarding relationships with them.
So far so good, right. Now we die and go back to the relationships we had before and renew them. Would they be as important as they once were or would they have faded in significance? I doubt that as they could have already existed for millions or billions of years(in earthly terms) And as for our relationships formed here would they be as important or more important than those we had previously?
As an adult and still raising kids I look forward to the time when my kids will be grown and independent and hopefully self-sufficient. I don't want to have to live with them again down the road nor do I want to ever live with my parents again. I love them all and enjoy their company but I don't want to live with them for eternity. If I become a god what would prevent me from thinking of them as my family and by acting as if they are? And vice versa?
The idea that only by doing some ritual in a temple to make that possible is not logical. Am I going to get my memory of them wiped? Am i going to be forbidden to associate with or communicate with them or they with me if we are in different kingdoms and if so why?
I get the concept that if we are all scattered about in different kingdoms we wouldn't be able to see each other as much as if we were all in the same place but we would still think of each other as family and in terms of proximity it doesn't seem like things would be a whole lot different that they are now. And why couldn't we still communicate somehow? The ones in the higher kingdoms could easily come don to the lower and on down so all could get together as desired.
I really don't get the whole benefit of the eternal family concept. Don't understand why we never get the logistics of these things 'revealed' to us.

Anonymous said...


How nice to have a man see polygamy logically and through a woman's eyes. For many women have already learned that polygamy would make 'heaven' a worse 'hell' then being single in the real 'hell. It's far better to be single then to have to live polygamy and be one of many. It's 'true exclusive love' or nothing.

True 'exclusive' love for a spouse (the kind even polygamous men pridefully demand from their wives but don't believe they have to give in return) is God's requirement for husbands too. Marriage is only worth it when men have this kind of love for their 1 wife.

I think the easiest way to see how wrong polygamy is, is to put it to the Golden Rule Test, as we are asked to do with every doctrine. For where is there a man who would want to live alone all his life with his houseful of kids, doing all the chores, meals, gardening, farm work, etc & sleeping alone and just maybe get to see his wife once in a while, if he's lucky, when she isn't off being wined & dined by one of her many husbands in hawaii or Europe for a few years.

For remember that many early church leaders often chose one of their wives to take on missions with them, unless he left them all home and went to look for new ones.

Anon 23 said...


All families are eternal, no matter what religion they were or no religion at all, and even no matter if they were righteous or wicked. There is no such thing as or need of 'sealings or endowments for that matter. Study Brigham Young more til you come to realize he as one of the worst false prophets who ever lived.

You are right, we knew each other, especially our family members, and had strong relationships way before we came to earth. We had probably billions of years to create relationships and chose who we want to be with on our very vital short time on earth. For they will be able to help us make it back or we help them make it back.

I believe we chose who our parents, children & spouse would be on earth and what premortal friends we would want around us during our life too, and God has a way, (because of his great foreknowledge of what we would do down here) of bringing us together with our spouse and friends.

When Christ taught that there is no such thing as divorce, you really begin to understand who important & eternal marriage and our spouse is. If it's impossible to ever be separated from our spouse, then God must of helped us get with the right person who we fell in love with in our premortal life. For surely, if we chose our parents and children we surely chose the even more important person, our spouse. But we knew our spouse may not be righteous on earth or even want to stay with us, but they will just have to repent and return and make it all up to us in the next life.

Though family members will always love & care for each other, that does'nt mean they will all end up in the same kingdom. But we can visit each other like we do in this life. Of course children will not live with parents, each couple will have their own place.

If neither spouse was righteous, then they will still be spouses and live together in love in a lower kingdom. They just won't have the power to continue to create children & worlds. Love never ends, marriage never ends, we will always be the spouse of our spouse.

If at least 1 spouse is righteous and keeps their marriage vows to the other, instead of finding someone new to live with on earth, the scriptures teach we can save our unrighteous spouse, so they can live with us in the Celestial Kingdom and where we can continue to have children in the eternities.

True love is the most powerful thing there is, it is the power to save souls.

We come to earth to learn how to have true love, especially for our spouse, so we can save them and our children if need be, so we can bring them to the Celesial Kingdom with us.

Unfortunately few even believe in having 'true unconditional Christlike love' in marriage today, let alone possess it.

bjalder26 said...

TuNeCedeMalis Occam's Razor doesn't seem to apply here to me. To quote Wikipedia, "In science, Occam's razor is used as a heuristic (general guiding rule or an observation) to guide scientists in the development of theoretical models rather than as an arbiter between published models." So I would argue that Occam's razor is NOT intended as a method of deciding which theory is true, but rather a guide for people to help form their own theories.

There is actual science that can and has been applied to this problem though (indirectly). I know of 5 children speculated to be children of Joseph Smith from polygamous marriages that had DNA test to determine if they were Joseph Smith's children. All 5 were determined to NOT be Joseph Smith's children. I think it's fair to assume that the 5 tested represented some of the most likely polygamous children (that were possible to check), which would suggest that there are few if any likely children of Joseph Smith from polygamous marriages. I think it's fair to say that it is unlikely that Joseph Smith had any children from polygamous marriages. And I think it's fair to say that speculation about Joseph Smith having children with polygamous wives went well beyond the truth.

In comparison, to Joseph's zero (proven) children from the claimed 27+ polygamous wives, Joseph had 9 children with Emma (5 stillborn, died immediately, or died in childhood, while 4 lived to adulthood).

Keep in mind this is before birth control (didn't even have the rhythm method).

So for me, the assumptions I have to accept to to believe the Joseph Smith practiced polygamy seem much harder to swallow than the assumptions I'd have to accept to believe he actually had polygamous wives.

I think how Joseph Smith becomes a polygamist in the minds of most people is they assume that there's some truth to both sides, or that there's always some truth to allegations. In my experience I haven't found that to be the case. What I've found is people who lie, count on people believing there's some truth to what they're saying, whether or not their story adds up.

If people were forced to choose between believing Smith married all the wives that are claimed, and had sexual relations with all of them that were claimed, or choosing to believe Smith didn't have plural wives, then I think most of them would say it's more likely he didn't practice plural marriage at all. So I would say that the belief that Joseph Smith practiced plural marriage rests heavily if not solely on the idea that allegations carry SOME truth. There certainly isn't any scientific evidence to support it.

(For the record, I couldn't care less whether he practiced polygamy or not)

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