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Do Mormons Care About Joseph Smith's 40 Wives?

This year the LDS church released a series of essays that quietly acknowledged some of the more sordid bits of Mormon history, including the religion's founder's polygamy.

by Rick Paulas
Dec 29 2014, 11:36am

The Salt Lake Temple. Photo via Wikimedia Commons user Entheta

Throughout 2014, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—a.k.a. the Mormons—has quietly posted a dozen essays under a series called Gospel Topics that publicly acknowledges some of the more sordid bits of the church's history.

Founder Joseph Smith's 40 wives? Yeah, that happened. And yes, one of them was 14—or, as they creepily put it, "sealed to Joseph several months before her 15th birthday." And yup, the church has a history of not allowing black folks into the priesthood, because they were thought to be "less than fully valiant in the premortal battle against Lucifer." The LDS church also admitted that there are some conflicting accounts of what exactly went down during Joseph Smith's First Vision, when he received his instructions from God.

Mormons rarely talk about these controversies—the church had never officially admitted that Smith had 40 wives—which makes these essays a pretty big deal. But while they've been covered by various media outlets, the church hasn't done anything to spread the word about them, letting them sit in an obscure corner of the LDS website. When I reached out to the church to discuss the Gospel Topics, I was just referred to an uninformative press release.

Since the LDS church wouldn't discuss the significance of the Gospel Papers with me, I talked with some former members of the church. Dr. Ryan Cragun, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Tampa and a former Mormon, told me, "Historians and scholars have known about a lot of this stuff for the past 40 to 60 years. Who it's new to is members. Most [Mormons] don't know this stuff."

Some Mormons in ill-fitting suits. Photo via Wikimedia Commons user MTPICHON

"Growing up Mormon, you're surrounded by this idea that you're not supposed to go to outside sources," said Rachel Velamur, a former Mormon who blogs at A Post-Mormon Life. "There's a mentality that anything you hear about the church that's unsavory is just Satan's way of leading you astray."

Of course, information was a lot easier to filter out before the internet brought the world to everyone's fingertips. Going to the library, locating books about the history of Mormonism, and reading those books takes a whole lot more effort than simply typing " Joseph Smith 40 wives" into Google. That relatively new ease of access is most likely why the church posed these essays in the first place—if Mormons are going to read about this sort of thing, it's better that they get their information from official sources.

"We know the LDS church is losing lots of members," said Cragun. "One [estimate] suggests that there's about 50,000 members resigning every year."

The Salt Lake Tribune reported back in 2008 that "as many as 80 percent of the single Mormon women between 18 and 30 are no longer active in the LDS Church," a statistic that suggests the church is losing the next generation of its faith. Possibly in response, it recently lowered the age limit of when Mormons can go on missions from 19 to 18 for men and from 21 to 19 for women. If you're of a skeptical nature, you might think that the idea here is to ship out young Mormons before radical ideas from outside influences have a chance to lodge into their impressionable minds.

The reasons for this exodus from the LDS church are anecdotal, but fairly obvious. Some young people don't agree with the church's anti-homosexual stance. Some are realizing that the church is not particularly progressive when it comes to the equality of men and women. But there's also the fact that members were finding out that the church's true history differed from the "official" version.

"There are stories cropping up [in the ex-Mormon community] of people who are in their 30s and 40s who spent their entire lives sacrificing so much to be Mormon, and then finding these things out, and just having their beliefs breaking," said Velamur.

The Gospel Topics essays can be seen as a way for the church to avoid that by airing some of its dirty laundry and attempting controlling the narrative around sensitive topics like polygamy and race.

Photo via Wikimedia user Ricardo630

"The essays are very biased," said Cragun. "By having them out there, they can basically try to corrupt the conversation."

"A lot of [the essays] talk about having the faith to believe even when we don't understand or don't agree," said Velamur. "I think for a lot of the members, that will be the mindset. 'I just need to believe even though I don't understand or agree with it.'"

Many Mormons have been wrestling the church's past polygamous practices for a long time.

"In my research of Joseph Smith's marital practices, I noticed that he first was marrying married women, and then he shifted to marrying singles who were often much younger," said Stephen Fleming, a Mormon with a PhD in religious studies at UC Santa Barbara, who blogs at The Juvenile Instructor. "I argue in my dissertation that Smith originally sought to practice shared marriages where men and women could have multiple spouses, but when his inner circle balked at this, he switched to only men being able to marry multiple spouses. I argue that the original pattern was part of kind of utopianism that goes back to Plato's Republic. These utopian ideologies don't bother me even if they aren't practical."

Fleming also doesn't believe many Mormons are receiving new information with these essays. "I doubt many Mormons first learned Joseph Smith was a polygamist from the essay. They probably learned a lot of new details, but not many would have learned for the first time that he had multiple wives." He sees the release of the Gospel Topics as a positive step for the LDS church. "Dealing with the information more directly will be better than not."

But for some, the arguments over whether Smith was morally correct in taking 40 wives isn't the point. The fact is, the church has been sitting on information that members probably should have known about.

"[Mormonism] is a very scary thing to leave," said Velamur, who left when she was 16 because she felt it was "wrong to have a mindset where you think everyone needs to believe what you believe." While she was struggling with possibly leaving the church, she wasn't aware that Joseph Smith practiced polygamy, or the history of the church's racism.

"I wish I would have known back then," she said. "It would have helped that really scared 16-year-old kid to be a little more confident in what she was doing."

Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon Church. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Looking forward, is there anything left in the archives yet to be released? Will there be any more Gospel Topics next year?

"The Book of Mormon lacks historicity," said Cragun. "When you start to study it from an archeological and anthropological perspective, it's riddled with flaws. It's clearly supposed to take place in Central America, and it claims there were horses there 2,000 years ago. But there were no horses. There were ancestors of horses about 12,000 years [ago], but they all went extinct. The new horses came with the Europeans."

That's just one example. While Cragun admits "Mormon apologists" have already tried to nip these inaccuracies in the bud by claiming it's not entirely known where the events described in the Book of Mormon take place—and, "if we don't know where it took place, you can't prove it didn't happen." Cragun thinks an essay on these kinds of issues would have way more extreme ramifications than Joseph Smith's many wives.

"That would be huge," said Cragun. "That would be religion-changing."

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