Historian Brian Whitney recently wrote a piece about honesty and the Church (click here), arguing that much of the bad history in the Church was less about purposeful dishonesty, and more about devotional goals and a lack of foresight. This is not Church leaders lying to us, but just a reminder that ecclesiastical authority does not extend to the craft of historical analysis. Brian brings up an important point, but I think this argument is only one part of a larger conversation we should be having about how Church leaders have dealt with Church history(1). Let me add another dimension: the doctrine of divinely approved deception as restored by Joseph Smith.
It is either a lack of understanding of this doctrine, or a refusal to accept it, that pits Mormon ecclesiast against Mormon historian, and that ultimately confuses the Mormon faithful. In the Book of Abraham, the Genesis story of Abram lying to Pharaoh in order to save his life was clarified as an act of obedience to God (See Gen. 12:10-20; Abr. 2:22-25). Joseph Smith heavily relied on this restored truth of deception as he acted in obedience to God’s command to marry multiple women, many of who were already married, and some of who were barely teenagers.
Though there are many points where we can see this doctrine play out in Church history, I’m focusing here on Nauvoo polygamy, the Church’s response to historians who wrote about it, and a brief note about how the Church today is seeking to control that narrative through its recent LDS.org essay on the topic.
In proposing marriage to Nancy Rigdon, the daughter of his own counselor Sidney, Joseph Smith explained to her in a letter, “That which is wrong under one circumstance, may be, and often is, right under another. . . . Whatever God requires is right, no matter what it is, although we may not see the reason thereof till long after the events transpire.” Sharing eyes for Nancy, Joseph’s right-hand-man John C. Bennett warned her against Joseph. Approached by Sidney, Joseph denied everything. After being shown the letter, Joseph admitted it but explained that it was simply a test of her virtue. When rumors of his involvement in polygamy reached Emma Smith, Joseph assured her that the rumors were false. With this assurance, Emma spoke forcefully to the Relief Society against polygamy and the rumors of Joseph’s involvement, not knowing that many in the room were already his wives, including her own counselor and secretary, Sarah Cleveland and Eliza Snow. Though having previously charged the Relief Society to watch over the morals of the community, Joseph now cautioned them to “hold your tongues”: “A little tale will set the world on fire. At this time the truth on the guilty should not be told openly—Strange as this may seem, yet this is policy.” Emma retorted that all those who hold their tongue to protect the sinner at the expense of the community share some guilt for the crime (2).
All the while, Bennett had been practicing “spiritual wifery,” which included a type of “spiritual marriage” that allowed him to have sex with women under the guise of Joseph’s blessing. Emma utilized the Relief Society to expose Bennett. Bennett was finally excommunicated, but Joseph wanted to keep it quiet, while Emma again utilized the Relief Society to publicize it. Responding to attacks from the now shamed Bennett, the Church’s newspaper reprinted the statement on marriage from the Doctrine and Covenants that declared polygamy a crime, and that “one man should have one wife; and one woman, but one husband.” Prominent men and women of Nauvoo signed the anti-polygamy statement, including John Taylor and Newel K. Whitney, both of whom had taken second wives, and Eliza Snow and Sarah Cleveland, both wives of Joseph. Other signers certainly knew of Joseph’s plural marriages, such as Leonora Taylor, whose husband had also married another woman. Though utilizing these deceptive tactics, those involved believed themselves honest, as they compartmentalized the meaning of “polygamy” to reference what Bennett was doing, not Joseph. Protecting Joseph and the faith of others was also a reason for the secrecy and deception (3).
Controlling the Narrative
The above information on Nauvoo polygamy came from Mormon Enigma, an award-winning biography on Emma Hale Smith by historians Valeen T. Avery and Linda K. Newell. While both were active and believing members of the Church, they believed it historically dishonest and unfair to Emma to cover up these details. Upset with this history, members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles took action to stigmatize both women and their book. Eventually, though with significant resistance on the part of Church leaders, Linda Newell sat down with apostles Dallin H. Oaks and Neal A. Maxwell. Elder Oaks told her that she was being censured by the Church for using religious meetings to sell her book. When Newell denied this, Oaks explained that the reason behind their efforts was to counter the idea that the Church endorsed her book. As it was explained to her, Mormon Enigma “represents a non-traditional view of Joseph Smith. The Brethren believe that the image of Joseph portrayed in your book undermines members’ faith in his prophetic mission.” She replied, “That’s the bottom line, isn’t it?” Elder Oaks replied, “Yes.” As Oaks went on to explain, his role as an apostle was primarily to protect the testimonies of members in the restoration of the gospel, the authority of the priesthood, and the mission of Christ. Everything else, he said, may be sacrificed in order to maintain the integrity of these essentials (4). Oaks likely did not see his efforts to stigmatize and silence these historians and their research as a dishonest approach to Church history, but rather a continuation of the long-standing policy of deception that aimed to protect the Church.
Following the 1976 publication of The Story of the Latter-day Saints, an apologetic work commissioned by the Church History Department, President Ezra Taft Benson of the Twelve gave a talk criticizing the historical profession, warning that an overreliance on historical integrity compromised the gospel message. “The simple principles of the gospel, not the disciplines of men, should always be our basis for truth.” Historical facts were to be used only to increase and defend faith, otherwise they were to be discarded (5). The truths of the gospel then transcend the truths of history, and Mormon historians were under covenant to focus on the one at the expense of the other. In 1981, Elder Boyd K. Packer similarly criticized historians and the historical profession as ignorant of these higher truths, cautioning historian Mormons against writing “as they were taught in graduate school,” and rather to write “as Mormons.” As it was, “some things that are true are not very useful.” This is a time of war, noted Packer, and “we are the belligerents defending the good. We are therefore obliged to give preference to and protect all that is represented in the gospel of Jesus Christ, and we have made covenants to do it. (6)” In 1993, in a fireside talk that occurred the same month the “September Six” were excommunicated, Elder Oaks explained that the command not to lie “does not require one to tell everything he or she knows in all circumstances.” It was then perfectly honest “to tell less than we know when we have no duty to disclose.” Indeed, there are “circumstances where commandments, covenants, or professional obligations require us to remain silent.” Against the backdrop of the Church’s excommunication of six historians, Oaks’s declaration that there is “a positive duty to keep many things secret or confidential” sent a clear message (7).
No longer able to keep these and other secrets, officially approved essays on various troubling topics for the Church have recently appeared on LDS.org. While many have celebrated this new openness and candor from the Church, criticisms have been that these essays represent a more sophisticated attempt to control the narrative in a way that continues to protect the Church, its leaders, and the faith of its members. This long-standing policy of silencing and covering up historical truth has led to significant distrust toward the Church and its leaders, not to mention the unacknowledged pain imposed on believing scholars and their families. In speaking of her personal experience with the Church following the publication of her book, Linda Newell argued it to be these tactics at historical concealment and intimidation that did “far more to undermine the faith of members than the contents of a scholarly book or article ever could.”
- I wrote a blog post (here) a while ago about the truth behind untrue history as told by the Church. The point I took was to demonstrate that there was much to learn about religion through devotional stories, even when these stories are fabrications. If we want to learn the “truth” of what Mormonism is as a religion, then we need to hear what Mormons are saying. I see this post as a type of part 2 of this. The example I used in this earlier essay was that of the Willie and Martin Handcart tragedy, where the misled religious zeal of priesthood leaders and the blind obedience of members caused the deaths of at least 145 Saints, and many more disfigured by frostbite. Church leaders and officially approved literature recraft this story to teach at least two Mormon truths: 1) that suffering happens even to the faithful, and 2) that you can fully trust and look to your Church leaders and gain salvation through your own heroic response. This is not dishonest history; it’s theodicy and theology. It’s the “higher truth” that sacrifices historical truth. But to mistake these devotional tellings for history (as many do) is dishonest and leaves members unprepared when they learn the difference.
- Linda King Newell and Valeen Tippetts Avery, Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith. 2nd Ed. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994), 111-115.
- Newell and Tippetts, Mormon Enigma, 119-129.
- Narrative as taken from Linda King Newell, “A Time to Speak: Emma Smith, the Church and Me,” Mormon Women’s Forum: An LDS Feminist Quarterly. Volume 5, Number 2 (July 1994), 1-7. A special thanks to Joe Geisner for this document.
- Ezra Taft Benson, “The Gospel Teacher and his Message.” Address to CES Religious Educators. September 17, 1976 (Intellectual Reserve, Inc., 1976).
- Boyd K. Packer, “The Mantle Is Far, Far Greater Than the Intellect.” Brigham Young University Studies. Vol. 21, No. 3 (Summer 1981), pp. 259-278.
- Dallin H. Oaks, “Gospel Teachings about Lying.” As found: http://www.lds-mormon.com/oakslying.shtml (accessed 10/30/2015)