The Doctrine of Divinely Approved Deception

Joseph and Emma Smith sculpture outside the Church Office Building.

Joseph and Emma Smith sculpture outside the Church Office Building.

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 essay on the topic.

Nauvoo Polygamy

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).

Emma Relief SocietyAll 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

Emma biographyThe 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.

Oaks and MaxwellFollowing 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 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.”



  1. 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.
  2. Linda King Newell and Valeen Tippetts Avery, Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith. 2nd Ed. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994), 111-115.
  3. Newell and Tippetts, Mormon Enigma, 119-129.
  4. 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.
  5. Ezra Taft Benson, “The Gospel Teacher and his Message.” Address to CES Religious Educators. September 17, 1976 (Intellectual Reserve, Inc., 1976).
  6. 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.
  7. Dallin H. Oaks, “Gospel Teachings about Lying.” As found: (accessed 10/30/2015)


The Doctrine of Divinely Approved Deception — 13 Comments

  1. The position announced by Elder Oaks seems to reflect the professional duties an attorney is under when representing a client, which are obviously different than the standards a professional historian is under when publishing. So the question is: What ethical standard should apply to historical statements made by individual LDS leaders or by the Church in official publications?

    I think the general membership of the Church expects LDS leaders and LDS statements to not intentionally misrepresent any facts or knowingly make false statements (keeping in mind that many historical facts are contested). That is not necessarily inconsistent with Elder Oaks’ approval of withholding some relevant but unwelcome information. It’s not clear if he would go so far as to condone intentional misstatements or intentionally misleading statements by LDS leaders or LDS publications. I would hope not.

  2. Dave, I attended the Boise Rescue at which Elder Oaks presided and Richard Turley provided support. While no outright lies were told, the presentations were full of logical fallacies and misuse of scripture. I came away from it so disgusted at what must have been their willful collusion to obfuscate. Being trained at law, both of them must have known that the rhetorical devices they used did anything but reveal the truth. Sadly, the uninformed and unthinking members around me seemed to be completely taken in.

  3. Well reasoned Konden. Let me simply add a related idea. There are other ways of controlling the narrative. I have first hand experience with Church leaders assigning local leaders and the academic VP’s office at BYU to intimidate and threaten church members from doing any religious research and publications regardless of their content. It is a silent Mormon inquisition needed to preserve the unfaith.

  4. I miss the Joseph Smith as superhero myth of my youth the church p.r. guys perpetuated or created for us. He could do just about everything: run with 200 lbs plates while fending off criminals; out-wrestle and out preach the common folk; and was called of god. It’s just too bad that myth never existed.

  5. Pingback: Leaders Have Lied about Church History, but It’s Not Their Fault | Worlds Without End

  6. “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”

    Everything about this statement feels right, but it raises an interesting question about our own time: Does this apply to those of us who have known of Joseph’s behavior for decades but have sat quietly in SS and PR/RS as JS is paraded as a paragon of virtue? Truth is, I love this Church and the vast majority of what it represents. I particularly love my fellow ward members and know that they look on me as someone who has intensely studied all aspects of the gospel. I’ve seen pain in their eyes when I’ve even aluded to negative events or behaviors from the past. Am I doing them a disservice by speaking up or by shutting up? Or, as Emma says, am I now a participator in the sin (and heaven truly knows that I’ve got more than enough of my own without carrying that burden!)

    I appreciate that the Church is making attempts at transparency with the essays at They are apologetic in tone but attempt to lay out the controversies in some manner. Some are particularly impressive – to me – like the Blacks and the Priesthood. Others, like the Polygamy one, are less straight-forward. But they’re there – something I could not have imagined even a few years ago. Now, at least, I can send someone to read them who may have questions.

  7. “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 essay on the topic.”

    Yeah because, it wasn’t like the critics were trying to dishonestly control the narrative before.

  8. “Against the backdrop of the Church’s excommunication of six historians”

    Oh, all the September 6 were historians?

    That’s news to me.

  9. It is disturbing not merely that this or that leader now or in the past might ignore or misstate this or that troubling historical event — but that this recourse to deception is a *doctrine*, a justification for such action lying ready-at-hand in the GA toolkit. Interestingly, the doctrine also allows a practitioner to publicly deny there is such a doctrine.

    However, several recent developments — the publication of Massacre at Mountain Meadows, the ongoing Joseph Smith Papers Project, the essays at — suggest the doctrine finally may be in decline. As the Church moves toward transparency, there is progressively less to be deceptive about.

  10. Here is how Mormon “Apostles” tried to control the polygamy narrative in 1854:

    After Joseph’s initial work on his history in 1838-39, Willard Richards (who was appointed Church Historian in 1842) did a substantial amount of work before Joseph died and had added over 600 pages to volumes A-1 and B-1 of what would become Joseph’s Manuscript History. After Joseph died Richards began compiling what were later called “Draft Notes” for the history instead of directly writing into the Manuscript Volumes. Thomas Bullock would later take Richards’ notes and draft them into the final version of the Manuscript History. By the end of 1845, because of deteriorating health, Richards began dictating Joseph’s history to Bullock who compiled it as the rough draft, and later into the final version.

    By the beginning of 1846 they had reached the date of 28 February, 1843. The project was then suspended as the Church moved west to the Utah Territory. Richards again picked up the Draft History in 1853, but due to ill health he only wrote a couple of lines. He died in early 1854.

    In April of 1854 George Albert Smith was sustained as the new Church Historian. Two years later, Smith wrote to Wilford Woodruff,

    On the 10th April 1854, I commenced to perform the duties of Historian by taking up the History of Joseph Smith where Dr. Willard Richards had left it when driven from Nauvoo on the 4th day of February 1846. . . .

    Thomas Bullock acted with me as chief clerk, being a clerk in the History office previously to, and at the time of Prest. Smith’s death, and has continued in it ever since. His pen wrote the principal part of the rough manuscript from my dictation, and his acquaintance with all the papers was of great assistance to me—

    Jonathan Grimshaw sorted and filed the papers, and carefully amalgamated the principal part of the discourses of President Smith and others from the various reports mentioned above, and put them into shape to be filled up by me. He also assisted in writing the manuscript of the History from my dictation, compiled indices, and performed other duties incident to the office—

    Leo Hawkins assisted to file papers, copied correspondence, and wrote the final copy of the History in Books C2 and D2 after revision; besides attending to office business generally—

    Robert L. Campbell copied the rough manuscript of the History into books D1 and E1 which were revised by the Presidency and Council. . . .

    The plan of compiling the history of Joseph Smith from the Journals kept by his Clerks . . . was commenced by himself, extracting items of necessary information in regard to general and particular movements from the Times and Seasons, Millennial Star, Wasp, Neighbor and other publications, extracts from city councils, Municipal Courts, and Mayor’s dockets and Legion Records, which were all kept under his direction; also the movements of the church as found in Conference Minutes, High Council records, and the records of the several quorums, together with letters and copies preserved on file; also noted remarkable occurrences throughout the world, and compiled them under date of transaction, according to the above plan which he [Joseph Smith] while in prison just previous to his murder requested Elder Willard Richards to continue.

    “The History has been compiled to the day of his [JS’s] death and the principal part of it has been revised by the Council of the First Presidency almost without any alteration. A few vacancies remain to be filled up from the statements of persons who are now absent. (George A. Smith to Wilford Woodruff, 21 Apr. 1856, Historical Record Book, 218-219)

    Even though Smith claims that Joseph’s History was “revised by the Council of the First Presidency almost without any alteration,” there were significant alterations made to some of Joseph’s diary entries. One of them had to do with polygamy.

    Because Joseph had been so careful in Nauvoo not to admit to the practice of polygamy, there were no instances of him endorsing the doctrine, except for the 1843 “revelation” which was not made public until after his death, and was therefore touted by some as a concoction of Brigham Young.

    Unfortunately for the Church in Utah, there were many statements by Joseph where he condemned the practice. One such instance was a diary entry from October 5, 1843:

    Thursday, October 5[th] Morning rode out with Esqu[ire] Butterfield to farm &c. P.M. rode on prairie to shew some brethren some land. Eve[ning] at home. Walked up and down St[reet] with Scribe and gave instructions to try those who were preaching, teaching, or practicing the doctrine of plurality of wives on this Law. Joseph forbids it and the practice thereof. No man shall have but one wife. [rest of page blank] {page 116} (Scott H. Faulring, An American Prophet’s Record, p.417).

    In the Draft History (1 March 1843 to 31 December 1843) under the date of October 5, 1843 it reads,

    Thursday 5th. This morning I rode out with Esquire Butterfield to the farm &c. In the afternoon rode to the Prarie to show some brethren some land. Evening at home, and walked up and down the street with my scribe. Gave instructions to try those persons who were preaching, teaching, or practicing the doctrine of plurality of wives, on this

    [the following altered words written in smaller text:]

    (or according to the law I hold the keys of this power in the last days, for there is never but one on Earth at a time on whom the power and its keys are conferred – and I have constantly said

    [end of smaller text and blank line]

    Joseph forbids it, and the practice thereof. No man shall have but one wife

    [the following altered words written in smaller text:]

    unless the Lord directs otherwise.

    On the left hand side of the page is written, to be revised (History draft; handwriting of Thomas Bullock, John L. Smith, Jonathan Grimshaw, Robert L. Campbell, Leo Hawkins, Richard Bentley, and Wilford Woodruff; CHL., 72). Photo here:

    Richard S. Van Wagoner wrote:

    When incorporating Joseph Smith’s journal into the History of the Church,

    Apostle George A. Smith, a cousin, altered this passage to reflect later Mormon thinking:

    “Gave instructions to try those persons who were preaching, teaching, or practicing the doctrine of plurality of wives; for, according to the law, I hold the keys of this power in the last days; for there is never but one on earth at a time on whom the power and its keys are conferred; and I have constantly said no man shall have but one wife at a time, unless the Lord directs otherwise” (HC 6:46).(Richard S. Van Wagoner, Mormon Polygamy, p.63, note 1).

    If Mormon Apostles felt justified in altering passages from Smith’s Journals, (willful deception) would they feel justified in crafting affidavits (with the help of some of Joseph’s spiritual wives) that supported a narrative that they wanted to present to the world about Emma Smith’s involvement in her husband’s practice of polygamy?

    I believe they did. There is good evidence that Emma Smith certainly did not give four women to Joseph willingly and place their hands in his. Though she knew about her husband’s involvement with the practice, she never willingly condoned it. The affidavits that support this invented narrative have all kinds of problems. The story told by Emily Partridge, Lucy Walker, George Albert Smith, Lovina Smith and her brother Joseph F. Smith have all kinds of problems.

    Of course in a “he said, she said”, the Mormon “Apostles” are always right, right? There is no history of them lying or practicing deception, right?

    Mormon Enigma is an awesome book. I think they got it wrong about Emma’s involvement with the marriages, but that is about all I have a problem with. I’ll be publishing on this next year.