by Peter Benyola
Two weeks ago, an article was published in The New York Times, It’s Official: Mormon Founder Had Up to 40 Wives, in response to several anonymous essays, Plural Marriage in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo, and Plural Marriage and Families in Early Utah, recently published on Mormon.org. While monitoring social media in various Mormon and ex-Mormon forums, I’ve observed a range of reactions varying from surprise, to confusion, to anger, to indifference.
I don’t think there’s anything new about this; the practice of polygamy has been a doctrine of Mormonism since at least 1843, and Joseph Smith Jr.’s own multiple marriages were well-documented and always have been available in LDS-church archives for anyone willing to look. The revelation here is not that some new information has surfaced. The true revelation has been on the part of the leadership of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, that their paradigm of telling their version of history and allowing the more difficult aspects of their doctrine and history to remain buried is not working anymore. The advent of the internet and the fluidity it affords information is forcing the Mormon church to gradually become more transparent on these issues. Too many unwitting church members are browsing online and stumbling upon information that was missing in their Sunday school classes and ward/stake/branch meetings. Additionally, the nefarious anonymity of the internet allows people to dig as deep as they want into these topics without anyone around knowing about it.
Many members have been frustrated and angry with church officials for mishandling these difficulties over the years, or not handling them at all. In one sense, we really can’t blame the Mormon church and other Mormon denominations for not really dealing with these issues over the years, because they are simply indefensible. Polygamy is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg, and the reality of many of the doctrinal and historical problems with Mormonism has led to crises of faith for many members.
It’s been scientifically verified through textual criticism that the Book of Abraham, which Joseph Smith published as part of the Pearl of Great Price just five years after the Book of Mormon and which also claims to have been of ancient origin, is actually a fraudulent document. It’s of course also been recorded in various 19th-century historical sources that Joseph Smith married 30 to 40 wives, some of whom were already married.
To be frank, I’m not really concerned with Joseph Smith Jr. and his sordid exploits. I haven’t paid much attention to most of this history since I, myself, had to come to terms with the facts about what I was raised with. What concerns me are the particular truth claims of the LDS Scriptures, especially the Book of Mormon, and their import to the gospel of Jesus Christ as ratified in the Holy Bible. What interests me is that when Mormons enter this aforementioned crisis of faith, that they come out the other side with a faith that is in the right place — specifically, in a person. None of the historical issues that currently have many Mormons in consternation obviously help the credibility of Joseph Smith’s status as a “prophet and seer of God,” and make it more spurious — but they also are not a good enough reason to reject it as a fraud. They are decoys away from the real issue with the Mormon faith, which is its teachings about salvation.