SALT LAKE CITY — The two essays published by the LDS Church about its polygamous past are noteworthy for what they say about the faith's early leaders like Joseph Smith, say Mormon studies experts.
The essays, titled "Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo" and "The Manifesto and the End of Plural Marriage," also reveal something about today's church leadership, which continues to signal a willingness to openly address difficult topics.
"It's the most open and frank any official church statement has ever been on Joseph Smith, polygamy, age of wives and polyandry," said Paul Reeve, who teaches classes on Mormon, Utah and U.S. history at the University of Utah. "It's the most open the church has been about post-Manifesto polygamy."
The lengthy essays posted on LDS.org describe the beginnings and endings of plural marriage in the faith's early history and call it "one of the most challenging aspects of the Restoration," a "difficult" one few Mormons initially welcomed in the 1840s but that also caused "complicated, painful — and intensely personal — decisions" at its end in the years after the 1890 Manifesto.
"These bookends of polygamy — the introduction and the end — are wrenching for Mormonism," Reeve said. "And those two bookends are the two periods we know the least about. The church went from secrecy about polygamy in Kirtland to openness in Utah back to secrecy after the Manifesto, and from monogamy to polygamy and back to monogamy in this 60-year period."
The essays don't break new ground. Official church acknowledgement of key information in them does, such as the number, ages and previous marital status of Joseph Smith's wives and the practice of plural marriage after the Manifesto.
"The actual details here are not new to scholars, which is true for many of the essays on its history that the church has released in the past year," said Patrick Mason, Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University. "Scholars have been publishing about Joseph's wives, their ages and polyandry (marriage of a woman to more than one man) for years. The significance is that the church is being open and honest and transparent about it.
"That, I think, is a positive development."
Joseph Smith, who married Emma Hale Smith in 1827, balked at the principle of plural marriage in the early 1830s, telling others that he was rebuked by angels for not following it. He eventually married his first plural wife, Fanny Alger, in Kirtland, Ohio, in the mid-1830s, according to the Kirtland/Nauvoo essay. He next was sealed to Louisa Bearman in Nauvoo in 1841.
It is unknown how many wives Joseph had before his death in 1844, though one of the essay's footnotes says careful estimates place the number between 30 and 40.
The essay also provides context. For instance, it makes a distinction about the era's temple marriages, known as sealings, that might seem foreign to modern Latter-day Saints.
In that era, the church distinguished between two types of sealings. Some marriages, as they are today, were for time and eternity, which meant they "included commitments and relationships during this life, generally including the possibility of sexual relations."
Others were for "eternity only," which indicated relationships set aside for eternity alone. Joseph Smith was sealed to several married women and a 14-year-old girl — at the time a legal age for marriage — who reported their sealings were for eternity only.
The essays say a "significant number" of Mormons practiced plural marriage, though the majority was always monogamous.
Anguish and complexity
Those involved in polygamy at the beginning or at the end faced challenges, anguish, complexity and pain.
The essays state that "the beginning and end of the practice were directed by revelation through God’s prophets," and "marriage between one man and one woman is God’s standard for marriage, unless He declares otherwise, which He did through His prophet, Joseph Smith."
Still, the faithful's belief in latter-day revelation didn't make either era easy. Leaders and members found that revelations didn't always come with clear ways for carrying them out.
The first essay, "Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo," says "the principle was among the most challenging aspects of the Restoration — for Joseph personally and for other church members. Plural marriage tested faith and provoked controversy and opposition. Few Latter-day Saints initially welcomed the restoration of a biblical practice entirely foreign to their sensibilities. But many later testified of powerful spiritual experiences that helped them overcome their hesitation and gave them courage to accept this practice."
"Polygamy was torturous for a lot of people," Mason said. "It was hard on Joseph Smith. The essays are correct that he didn't rush into this. He later did become an enthusiastic proponent, but for all that, it was one of the most difficult things they did.
"Both of these essays do credit to the sacrifice and challenges members had, not only with opposition by the government and critics but internally and on a personal level, it was a real struggle. Polygamy was really hard on those 19th-century church members."
That was never more clear than after the Manifesto ending polygamy was issued by church leaders in 1890, which is covered in the second essay, "The Manifesto and the End of Plural Marriage."
"One thing I liked was that the essay makes it clear the Manifesto provided no clear directive about what it meant for families already in polygamy," Reeve said. "That led to a 14-year period of ambiguity where some members of the hierarchy are entering into plural marriages and marrying people into plural marriages. That's a very important acknowledgement to have on the website."
A second Manifesto in 1904 put church members "on notice that new plural marriages stood unapproved by God and the Church," the essay said.
The essay uses the term "anguish" to describe the difficulties for Mormons trying to live their faith while managing changes to marriage and family relationships.
"We lose two members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, and one is later excommunicated," Reeve said. "This disabuses members from the notion that the Manifesto came out in 1890 and polygamy was gone. … It was a complicated process, and the essay addresses in a way that hasn't been done in an official publication before."
For Mason, the bookend essays provide important insight into the times.
"The beginning of it is messy, and the ending of it is messy," he said. "I'm glad these came out at the same time."
Both essays continue the church's new practice of publishing academically rich essays on its website about its history and doctrine, an effort begun last November. A dozen of the essays now exist in the Gospel Topics section of LDS.org, which is found under the LDS.org home page tab for "Teachings."
Links to the new plural marriage essays are found on a Gospel Topics page called "Plural Marriage in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints." Another link on that page takes readers to a third essay, released earlier this year, "Plural Marriage and Families in Early Utah."
"I think they're terrific," Mason said. "They are very much in line with the other essays that have come out from the church history department on the Gospel Topics pages. They show a clear effort to get ahead of the issue, to deal with issues as transparently and honestly as they can while still in a context of faith.
Some of the essays released in the past year include "Race and the Priesthood," "First Vision Accounts" and "Book of Mormon Translation."
Each essay is guided and approved by the church's First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, church historian Steven E. Snow said last year. He said church leaders are providing the essays to help members study chapters of their history with the best information available.
Reeve and Mason said they know some critics don't think the essays go far enough, but while they think the information "tiptoed" around some subjects, their main concern is that few Mormons are aware of any of the essays released over the past year.
"Most of the people in the pews don't know about them," Mason said. "Far more people know about 'Meet the Mormons' than know about the essays."
Reeve said, "But I understand they are walking a tightrope, where they want to provide this information for those who are struggling with these issues and having a crisis of faith while not creating one for others."
"These are sensitive issues," he said. "They have shaken the faith of some people. I understand wanting to help those with questions but not wanting to hurt those who don't have those questions. I think that's a responsible and appropriate position to take, especially from a pastoral perspective."
There are signs, Reeve said, that the essays are beginning to be used in church seminary and institute courses, which are classes for teen- and college-age members. He said they may be incorporated into online curriculum for youth classes on Sundays and a similar new curriculum being developed for adults.
Other essays published by the church in the past year include: "Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham," "Book of Mormon and DNA Studies," and "Are Mormons Christians?"
Mason called the appearance of the essays a win-win situation.
"It's a win for transparency and honesty," Mason said. "It's a win for the relationship between the church and scholarship. I think it’s a win just for historical honesty and accuracy and the confidence that we can deal with tough issues inside the church.
"The signal is, 'we're not going to argue about history and we're not going to argue about fact. We can broadly agree on what happened. Now, what does it mean?' That's a theological question, not a historical one."