Title: Joseph Smith’s Polygamy, Vol. 1: History
Author: Brian C. Hales with Don Bradley
Publisher: Greg Kofford Books
Genre: Religious Studies
Brian Hales may have a tough audience for his new 3-volume set entitled Joseph Smith’s Polygamy.
According to a Pew survey released in 2012, 86% of Mormons believe that polygamy is morally wrong. It is unclear how many among this group believe that it was a mistake for Joseph Smith to introduce this principle in the first place, but it would seem an increasing number of Latter-day Saints do, and several with this mindset have already emerged in online discussions of Hales’ treatment of polygamy.
In a recent interview on the “A Thoughtful Faith” podcast, Sarah Collett asked Hales: “Do you feel that there is room for an LDS person to believe in a restoration prophet, Joseph Smith, being called of God, translating the Book of Mormon, establishing a Church, who also was a flawed man who maybe made mistakes with polygamy?” Another Latter-day Saint commenting on a recent Mormon stories thread said: “I would love to hear Dr. Hales’ thoughts regarding how he would reconcile the possibility that polygamy wasn’t actually commanded by God and [yet] Joseph [was] still . . . an inspired prophet.”
Echoing views long heard in the RLDS/Community of Christ tradition, increasing numbers of modern Latter-day Saints believe that while Joseph Smith was a prophet, he was an imperfect man who may have erred in some points of doctrine. Such individuals may have difficulty with the idea that God commanded Joseph Smith to practice plural marriage, and certainly would never want to personally engage in such a life, even if it were available to them. Even before reading his books, they are uncomfortable with Hales’ suggestion that polygamy is a theological necessity in Mormonism, and that the practice will exist in the highest degree of celestial glory.
While his discussion of Joseph Smith’s practice of polygamy may be hard for many ordinary members of the Church, what Hales has to say about that practice is similarly problematic among many LDS historians. The dust jacket of Joseph Smith’s Polygamy contains endorsements which qualify their praise by stating “His answers may not satisfy everyone…” (Richard Bushman), “While I disagree with some of Hales’ conclusions…” (Todd Compton), and “Hales’ fellow scholars of Joseph Smith’s polygamy may not always find persuasive the ways in which he interprets and contextualizes his evidence” (Lawrence Foster). Hales begins with what he considers a rather standard apologetic stance: Joseph Smith was commanded by God to practice and teach celestial plural marriage, and that he engaged in the same in a way modern Mormons could agree was both moral and ethical. It is fascinating that so many are already poised to disagree.
After a careful reading of volume 1, I suggest that the jacket remarks by Bushman, Compton, and Foster are insightful, accurate and understated. Hales doesn’t always analyze his data in useful ways; he argues positions which presentation of evidence in later chapters appears to contradict; he qualifies arguments in ways which seem driven more by agenda than demanded by the evidence. I’ll go into more detail on this in later posts.
Yet, despite the various difficulties Hales has with analysis and handling of evidence, this set is nevertheless a “must-have.” It is a significant milestone as one of the first rigorous historical treatments of Joseph Smith’s polygamy from an apologetic standpoint. It is clearly the single greatest guide to available resources on the practice of polygamy in Joseph Smith’s Nauvoo. And, it will without any doubt shape the arguments regarding the centrality of plural marriage in early Mormon theology, as well as arguments on precisely what that plural marriage means historically and theologically for Latter-day Saints.
Make no mistake about it: this is apologetics. Hales is committed to making Joseph Smith look as clean as a whistle. To do this, he is obliged to paint some witnesses as unreliable, extravagant, and anti-Mormon; yet, somewhat inconsistently, he is willing to accept statements from these or like characters when they support his claims. Hales’ polemical concerns drive him to defend a number of difficult positions such as:
- Joseph learned of the correctness of plural marriage by 1831 (85).
- Joseph was never accused of polygamy prior to 1841 (144-146, and over and over throughout the book).
- A marriage ceremony (as differentiated from a sealing ordinance) took place between Joseph and Fanny Alger in 1835 (198, 109 note 7).
- Authority to perform such a plural marriage existed before the sealing keys were restored in April 1836 (119-120).
- Joseph did not have sexual relations with his two 14-year-old wives, his polyandrous wives who were experiencing conjugal relations with their legal husbands, or any woman to whom he was not married (285).
- Some of Joseph’s marriages were for “eternity only” (421-441).
- John C. Bennett’s licentiousness was completely unconnected with Joseph Smith’s polygamy (ch. 20).
And that’s only in the first volume. But never before has so much information and evidence been gathered together in the same place. Hales and Don Bradley, his research assistant, have made a remarkable effort to include every pertinent source they can find. Overall, Hales’ writing style is engaging and thorough; he uses just enough of each quotation to include the context, yet not so much as to be boring or pedantic. Footnotes are placed at the bottom of each page; I confess that I find this a much more suitable practice for historical writing than endnotes. They are easily accessible and readable.
One of the biggest contributions Hales has made to this topic is that he has framed the way future Latter-day Saints are likely to think about and discuss Mormon polygamy – specifically Joseph Smith’s Nauvoo-era polygamy. His distinction between sealings for time only, sealings for eternity only, and sealings for time and eternity may prove to be a “game-changer.” In future writing and conversation on the subject of Joseph Smith’s polygamy, the issues that Hales has set forth will demand first attention. There is little doubt that Brian has done a substantial work in laying out the major topics and giving the pertinent documentation. From this base, others will be able to make their own interpretations.
At the very least, Brian Hales has helped to make the issue of celestial plural marriage in the LDS Church difficult to ignore; it will continue to be discussed and debated for many years. My reading of Hales’ volume 1 reminded me of a statement by Community of Christ historian Roger Launius, concerning the doctrine of baptism for the dead in that faith’s tradition. One might profitably compare it to how we treat the doctrine of plural marriage in the LDS church:
“The April 1886 [RLDS] General Conference passed a resolution especially singling out baptism for the dead as one of those commandments . . .that would not be practiced until reinstated by divine revelation (Rules 1980, Resolution 308). . .in time the Reorganization gradually drifted away from the doctrine. At the present, I suspect that while the doctrine still has some support, the overwhelming majority of Reorganized Church members no longer accept, even theoretically, baptism for the dead. Until recently, although the church has continually suggested that baptisms for the dead be carried out only by divine direction in a temple built for the purpose, with no prospect for the building of such an edifice in the immediate future, the doctrine was shunted into a limbo between belief and practice. To ignore, as Alma R. Blair has appropriately remarked, was ultimately to reject.” (Roger D. Launius, “An Ambivalent Rejection: Baptism for the Dead and the Reorganized Church Experience,” Dialogue, Vol. 23 No. 2 [Summer 1990]).
Many modern Latter-day Saints are inclined to lay aside even the theoretical belief in this early Mormon teaching, preferring the notion that Joseph Smith mistakenly introduced this idea to provide theological justification for behaviors connected with his high libido. By contrast, Brian Hales invites us to reconsider the meaning of Joseph Smith’s polygamy. He challenges Latter-day Saints to think more deeply about this aspect of their history and theology. Whether or not you are inclined to agree with his conclusions, I encourage you to purchase these volumes and enter this discussion. Read the evidence and Brian’s analysis, and decide for yourself what theory best accounts for this fantastic presentation of the facts.