Gary James Bergera writes on Joseph's polygamy denials and sexual relationships in polyandrous marriages.

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Gary James Bergera

Gary James Bergera, "Vox Joseph Vox Dei: Regarding Some of the Moral and Ethical Aspects of Joseph Smith's Practice of Plural Marriage," The John Whitmer Historical Association Journal 31, no. 1 (Spring/Summer 2011): 31-43

The John Whitmer Historical Association Journal
Gary James Bergera
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Vox Joseph Vox Dei: Regarding Some of the Moral and Ethical Aspects of Joseph Smith's

Practice of Plural Marriage

Gary James Bergera

I do not, nor never have, pretended to be any other than a man "subject to passion," and liable, without the assisting grace of the Savior, to deviate from that perfect path in which all men are commanded to walk!

-Joseph Smith, 18341

That which is wrong under one circumstance, may be and often is, right under another.

-Joseph Smith, 18422

IN HAZARDING A DISCUSSION Of some of the moral and ethical aspects of Joseph Smith’s practice of plural marriage in Nauvoo, Illinois, I believe that a few preliminaries may be helpful. First, I hope to encourage a cautious, balanced discussion of the Mormon prophet’s thought and behavior, especially of his character and personality. At the same time, I believe that shying away from difficult questions or from offering some tentative conclusions robs any discussion of the potential benefits of critical analysis. While the present stage for such a treatment is the subject of Smith’s attempts to introduce and practice his controversial doctrine of plural marriage—or, as he preferred to call it, celestial marriage—some of the observations that follow may relate to the larger drama of Smith’s multifaceted life. Such a consideration of how Smith navigated the moral and ethical aspects of the nontraditional marriage practice he inaugurated may tell us something about his handling of the weighty prophetic mantle he believed he was commanded to bear.

. . .

Given the criminal element of Smith’s practice, it should come as no surprise that when confronted publicly with charges that he endorsed the taking of plural wives, Smith repeatedly denied it. His denials most often took the form of deliberate obfuscation, if not outright lying. While he no doubt shared the nineteenth-century definition of lying as “a falsehood uttered for the purpose of deception,” he felt fully justified in lying if he believed the circumstances required it. For example, in mid-1843 he backed out of a preaching engagement by “carry[ing] the idea that he had had a message from Springfield [Illinois] & had important business to attend to in that place.” Smith’s excuse, as he knew, was false. Also in mid-1843, following an especially heated argument with his wife Emma over plural marriage, Smith decided to tell Emma that he would “relinquish” all of his plural wives, while privately resolving, as he confided to his personal secretary, that “he should not relinquish anything.” The next year, Smith commented: “What a thing it is for a man to be accused of committing adultery, and having seven wives, when I can only find one.” The same month of his violent death, June 1844, he insisted publicly that his teachings on plural marriage merely showed “the order in ancient days, having nothing to do with the present times.” By this time, Smith had taken an estimated thirty-five or more plural wives and had convinced at least thirty- two men to join him in the celestial marriage covenant by marrying a total of at least fifty-three plural wives.

In employing denials, Smith would come to espouse an eccentric definition of lying that turned more or less pragmatically not on deception, but on loyalty. On January 3, 1844, and in specific reference to plural marriage, he told members of the Nauvoo City Council: “The man who promises to keep a secret and does not keep it he is a liar, and not to be trusted.” In fact, Smith believed he was authorized to attack the credibility of any who violated his trust, especially if he believed they threatened his or his people’s safety; it did not matter to him if his criticisms were factually true or not. “When a man becomes a traitor to his friend or country who is innocent, [and becomes] treacherous to innocent blood[,] [I] do consider it right to cut off his influence so that he could not injure the innocent.” Such reasoning speaks directly to Smith’s moral and ethical worldview as it developed in response to what he believed was a divine command to restore the lost practice of a plurality of wives.

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Some researchers have asserted that Smith never planned to engage in sexual activity with any of his “polyandrous wives,” at least while they remained legally bound to their husbands.” Those holding such a view must convincingly explain, as historian George D. Smith has pointed out,” how the Mormon prophet hoped to accomplish the reproductive purpose of plural marriage without engaging in sexual activity with his polyandrous wives.” From a strictly pragmatic point of view, such marriages to already married women would have functioned to deflect attention away from Joseph Smith in the event of a pregnancy. “Your father had mostly intercourse with married women,” a woman who rejected Smith’s plural marriage proposals told Smith’s eldest son, “and as to single ones, ... [a doctor] was always on hand, when anything happened.” “I could explain some things in regard to my living with [my civil husband] after becoming the Wife of another,” one of Smith’s married plural wives said, hinting, as I read her, at a means of shielding Smith from public condemnation, “which would throw light, on what now seems mysterious—and you would be perfectly satisfied with me.”” In fact, even after turning mostly away from “polyandrous” plural marriages in about mid-1842, Smith continued for a time to employ such a tactic with some of his previously unmarried wives. He even performed the civil ceremony for one of his plural wives nine months after his own marriage to her; her new “husband” referred explicitly to the ceremony as “a pretended marriage.”

Faced with the prevailing moral and legal objections to plural marriage, Joseph Smith found himself compelled to adopt a variety of strategies in restoring what he seems to have genuinely believed was God’s commandment. His unwavering belief in his roles as God’s prophet and lawgiver gave rise to and fueled the kind of evolving moral and ethical worldview that permitted and, he believed, authorized him, and his followers, to attack, among other nineteenth-century superstitions, monogamous marriage. In its place, Smith envisioned a patriarchal society in which friendship and sexual love, fully sanctioned by revelation and God’s priesthood authority, ordered all existence. The practical challenges of, and complex strategies for, restoring the celestial order of marriage were as much a function of Smith’s developing moral and ethical worldview as they were a means to define and construct it. For those inclined to such an interpretation, it is not satisfying enough, in my opinion, to explain Smith as a moral relativist and an ethical pragmatist (however much he may have seemed to behave as such). Smith’s seemingly transcendent encounter with what he believed was God’s revelation left him grappling with the confining strictures of conventional morality, sometimes responding in ways that seem to be at cross-purposes with the “higher” moral sensibilities usually ascribed to God’s holy prophets. Thus, we today are left to wonder to what extent those who adhere to a belief in Smith’s calling would be as willing and, more interestingly, as able to transgress their own moral and ethical conventions for a glimpse of the celestial kingdom they believe Smith revealed.

GARY JAMES BERGERA is the managing director of the Smith-Pettit Foundation, Salt Lake City, Utah. He appreciates the criticisms and suggestions of the Journal’s four anonymous reviewers. All errors and missteps of any kind are his own.

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