Institional Secrecy.

One thing which had often surprised me is when people would express that learning of Joseph Smith's multiple wives caused them to doubt the Church.

I couldn't, until very recently, understand why this would be an issue. Didn't we all know all along the Lds Church practiced polygamy and it was initiated by Joseph Smith?

Not until recently did I realize that no, most people believe it began with Brigham Young.

Learning this confused me, because I had known Joseph Smith was a polygamist as long as I could remember. Since it wasn't until I was 18 or 19 that I became aware of any of the uncomfortable historical issues, I assumed it was something I had been taught in Church and so everyone else would have been also.
I know my mother wasn't aware of Joseph Smith's wives until I mentioned it to her, so it was unlikely I would have learned it from home.
Then I remembered a book I had read when I was about 13 or 14. It was a work of historical fiction whose lead character was one of Joseph Smith's wives. From this historically accurate book I not only learned of his initiating polygamy and taking numerous wives but I even learned of Joseph's having married a 14 year old girl. Because I learned of this early in my life, it became part of my fundamental understanding of the Church.

One issue that seems to come up often in regards to the weird issues Lds history is how should the institution deal with this? Should it be more open so people don't feel betrayed when they learn a different history than what was taught in Church, or should it maintain it's secretive approach in concern that if these issues were more widely known it would cause an even greater loss of members. From this perspective the Church leaders are seen as being in a bind. If they want to maintain their organization, they have little choice but to sweep certain elements under the rug.

Aside from the issue that deliberately withholding relevant information is dishonest and a religious organization which expects honesty out of it's members should be held to those same high standards, my personal experience shows me that openness would be also be practical to the Church.

Since I knew from early on Joseph was a polygamist, it was never caused me any concern. It was never something I had to reconcile or work through as many people do. Only after leaving the Church do I look back on it and see how unusual it is. But that applies to almost all of Mormon teachings.

In many ways, people seem less disturbed by actually learning weird historical facts as they are by their feelings that the Church had deceived them. Their sense of hurt and betrayal is what affects them most.

However, why should I care if the Church is more open about its history? I don't believe in the Church, why should I care whether or not they retain members?

I guess I just remember how painful it was for me to learn of these things and how my friends and family looked down upon me for learning and discussing facts that while accurate, were not in harmony with the Church's official position. I also sometimes felt as I were doing something wrong, simply by learning particular facts. I know many other people have had similar experiences. Many people are even punished by the Church for disclosing this information. So, while it may not really care about the Church's ability to maintain it's members, I do care about it fostering a more healthy environment for it's members. And if doing so wouldn't compromise their retention efforts, then it is a win win situation.


ricky said...

I also knew of Joseph Smith's polygamy early on but don't remember where I learned it. What surprised me was the number of wives, the ages of some, and the circumstances under which some of the marriages took place.

But I will vote for you running for more openness in the church.

Seth R. said...

The problem with Mormon history is that it takes place in a context of general societal ignorance about history.

History is something of a hobby for me and one thing I've found is that history is almost always messy and ugly just as often as it is inspiring. That's true of everyone. Even the greatest heroes in world history had some skeletons in the closet - in fact, they usually did.

How many people know that FDR - our president during World War II, was racist enough to be unelectable today, for instance? How many people know that Abraham Lincoln actually did consider black people inferior, and that most abolitionists of the time were actually violently opposed to mixed-race marriages?

How many Americans know what monogamy in the 1800s was like before they rush off to criticize 1800s polygamy?

Americans suck at history. They have little historical memory and live almost wholly in the present - under their own contemporary prejudices and assumptions.

In short - they have no broader context for placing isolated historical incidents like the Battle of Gettysburg, or the Mountain Meadows Massacre. They approach it wholly from a 21st century paradigm. When they judge the Mountain Meadows Massacre, for instance, they judge it the same way they would if the LDS Stake President in Cedar City had ordered the slaughter of a high school field trip on the way to band-camp last week. No one bothers to try and figure out why the Mormons were paranoid and scared enough to do something like that. No one bothers to place it in a broader context of frontier violence of that era.

Same thing with Joseph Smith's marriages. No one wants to contextualize them in the broader marital culture in the US at the time. No one takes a hard look at what teenage girls were really like back then (generally, they were more mature, capable, and tough than most 30 year old American women today).

But here's the problem:

Americans are historical ignoramuses. They rarely go in for any US history beyond the purely superficial level (often highly propagandized, whitewashed, and abbreviated in high school textbooks).

Yet when confronted with Mormon history, they are suddenly trying to go in-depth about the Mormon historical incidents. But they do this without any context within which to place the events.

And of course, the result is that it all looks quite horrid.

In short, Mormon history finds itself as the sole representative of its time period for people ignorant of anything else that happened in that era.

What is even more unfortunate is that this particular era of US history was pretty ugly in general.

Did you know that about the time Joseph Smith was translating the Book of Mormon, it was common occurrence for physicians in New Orleans to duel each other to the death over professional medical disputes? One pair of quarreling physicians even dueled each other in the presence of the patient on his sick bed.

This is only one example, but the early to mid 1800s weren't exactly a pleasant and civilized episode in our history.

And somehow, Mormons have become the historical whipping boy for the entire era. Because we have become the visible representatives of a time the rest of America is trying its best to forget.

Seth R. said...

Sorry, didn't grab the "subscribe" email button.

Chris Almond said...

I would like to thank you for your thoughtful comment.
You make an interesting point which I agree with to a degree and also disagree with.
I do agree that context is important to understanding history and one should not judge an individual from the past based on modern standards. I agree that many Americans and people in general have a poor historical memory.

However, I think that most of what people find disturbing from Lds Church history is not made more palatable with an understanding of

From my experience, the aspects of Lds history which are most challenging for members are religions in nature and primarily challenging because it contradicts official publications and one's concept of how religion should be.

You give the example of doctors dueling around the time of Joseph Smith. While this might help people understand some actions of Church members and leaders around that time, it doesn't help much for people who are concerned about issues such as the witnesses of the Book of Mormon revealing they did not actually, physically see the Golden Plates or the temple ceremony being based on the Freemasons ritual.
Historical context doesn't make the issues with the Book of Abraham any less difficult.
Historical Context doesn't make the Kinderhook Plates any less difficult.
Historical context doesn't make the problems with the book of Mormon any more palatable.

In fact, in many instances, knowing the historical context of certain aspects of Church history often makes those aspects more damning.

The Church and Church members often teach that Moral truth is eternal and unchanging. Yet, studying Mormon history and the surrounding US history shows much of Mormon morality is based on cultural context.
While one might help explain Brigham Young's having taught it is the law of God that a black person never marry a white person as being a a product of his time that also illustrates that he was not inspired and just influenced by his time and culture.

If God was truly inspiring men like Brigham young, wouldn't it be far more valuable to reveal important ethics such as racial equality rather than knowledge of the afterlife?

Consider the Baha'i Faith. It arose around the same time time as Mormism, in a culture far more oppressive. (the middle east). Yet, from the get-go, it taught racial and gender equality. This is what we should expect of prophets. To rise above their time and culture and teach a morality which people may not come to on their own for quite a long time, not to be catching up with the zeitgeist decades later.
While certain aspects of Mormon history are understandable within a certain historical context many of the big issues are not. And while one might feel sympathy for certain motivations, when it comes to evidence of the Lds Church being a divine institution, historical context provides evidence of that is man made, a product of it's time.

Chris Almond said...

I do think people should be more educated about how messy and uncomfortable history is. I have no romantic notions of it at all. I believe that as a society we are leaps and bounds more moral than even one hundred years ago when people could be imprisoned or drug by a horse for not supporting the war.

But if anyone is to blame for this false impression many have of the past, shouldn't the Church be as well? They are the one's claiming the world is worse now than it has ever been. They are the one's propagating a glossy view of their own history.

Seth R. said...

"Historical context doesn't make the issues with the Book of Abraham any less difficult.
Historical Context doesn't make the Kinderhook Plates any less difficult.
Historical context doesn't make the problems with the book of Mormon any more palatable."

I think I disagree with this. The problem is that people only get a portion of the historical context, and then THINK they have the whole thing. But they only have a portion - and usually (it seems on the Internet) only a negative portion.

I've read up on the Kinderhook Plates, for instance. And I consider it to be pretty much a non-issue once you know the whole story and where the quotes were coming from and what the context was.

It's only when you encounter a bunch of decontextualized Joseph Smith quotes (or alleged Joseph Smith quotes) that you get such a "problematic" picture.

Chris Almond said...

I hope it didn't sound as if I were saying 'context' doesn't matter in those instances, because I do believe it does and i imagine this is what you are referring to.
I suppose I should have been more clear by what I meant by historical context not mattering.
While understanding the specific context around those events might help some people be more comfortable with them, I do not believe the broad historical context is particularly relevant even if the specific context might be. What say ye?
While I'd like to think I'm fairly familiar with the context around the Kinderhook plates, I'm curious why you feel it to be a non-issue. Perhaps you are aware of something I am not?

Seth R. said...

Well, I think I was being too broad with the word context. I was using it to refer both to the broader societal "context" as well as the topical "context" unique to the Kinderhook plates for example.

As for whether to delve into the Kinderhook thing... I'm not sure we want to hijack the thread with the tangent. It may be I know something you don't. Or it may be that you know something I don't.