Mormon Enigma (ex ante)

I was at an reception/lecture last night where Jan Shipps talked. Mingling afterwards, she and I had a chance to talk, and got on the topic of Joseph and Nauvoo polygamy.

Jan says her closest Mormon friend was Valeen Avery, co-author of the Emma Smith biography ‘Mormon Enigma.’ Jan described how Val was so upset by the chapters about Joseph and Nauvoo polygamy that she could only write a short bit. Then she’d go throw up. She’d lie down and get her composure back, then go back to write the next bit.

I’ve not yet read Mormon Enigma, but I suspect I have a different view of Nauvoo and polygamy. I absolutely believe the facts. But I’d say Mormon Enigma infers and implies different information from the facts than I do.

I believe the original revelation about polygamy probably was probably based on Emma’s request in the early 1830s, shortly after her father had bid her farewell forever and while she was sick and pregnant with her second child. Joseph was ‘translating’ the Bible, and Emma’s uncle and father had almost certainly warned her about the aberrent sexual practices of other new religions in the area (Cochranites, Noyes’ Oneida Community, etc.).

We do know that in February of 1831 Joseph reached about Genesis 18 (right in the part that has to do with Abraham and polygamy). Suddenly he halted his Old Testament translation and started translating the New Testament. He has a detailed amount to add/shift/delete until John 6, which he got to in February 1832. John 6 is parallel to the verses in 1 Peter that prompted Joseph F. Smith’s 1918 deathbed revelation on the missionary work amongst the dead.

Fanny Alger happened shortly after that. There is no particular reason to claim Emma was unaware of Fanny’s marriage to Joseph. Fanny had no children while in the Smith home as Joseph’s wife. That is odd. Fanny had no problem bearing children later, and Joseph had no problem begetting children.

Coincidentally, Emma’s children died when either Joseph or Emma could be interpreted to be in opposition to God. I’m not saying God killed their babies as punishment, but I can imagine Emma and Joseph might have noticed a correlation and inferred a causal relationship.

One might say Emma’s anger at finding Joseph and Fanny together in the barn in the late spring of 1835 is evidence that she as unaware of the marriage. But (and why do you assume you know what they were doing in that barn, anyway. Mind in the gutter…). Where was I? Fanny was at that point younger than Emma had been when she married Joseph. What if Emma had requested that Fanny and Joseph wait until some future date to consummate their marriage? Her rage could have been at finding them together, talking as husband and wife, rather than necessarily in the midst of acting on the fact of their union.

After Fanny left, there is no documented (versus inferred) action by Joseph to approach any other women about polygamy until 1840/41.

And what happens in late 1840? Joseph’s father dies. The family gathered around Joseph, Sr., and received their patriarchal blessings. The last blessing bestowed was on the head of Joseph, Jr. In that blessing Joseph Sr. tells Joseph he will live to fulfill all that has been ordained. Joseph begins to cry, saying, “Will I?” Joseph’s father dies, sealing his blessing/command with his death.

Joseph never explained which angel appeared over him with drawn sword, threatening him that he would be cut off. I like to imagine that it was his father, who knew they would be cut off from one another and the latter-day work of binding all mankind together aborted if Joseph didn’t move forward to restore the sealing power.

Why polygamy? Apologists have given various unsatisfactory answers. But from my perspective looking back, I perceive a possible reason the God of Leviticus and Abraham would have for a brief ‘experiment’ with polygamy in the 19th century.

I think we have to go back to Queen Margaret of Scotland, who ended levirate marriage amongst the Christian people of Scotland and Britain. Her effect on subsequent marriage laws is one of the five reasons she was canonized a Catholic Saint. The Pope had declared affinity (legal ‘relatedness’) as well as consanguinity as impediments to marriage just a decade prior to Margaret’s marriage to King Malcolm McDuncan III. The Pope was probably trying to break up the tight germanic clans. Queen Margaret argued that Scottish law should be changed to end the common custom of an heir marrying a widow (think the law set forth in Leviticus, think the story of Ruth and Boaz, think the story of the Queen of the Lamanites and her three husbands). Margaret’s reasons are not laid out by her biographer, but the murder of her grandfather and father over succession issues probably played a role. I suspect she was also trying to eliminate a motive that threatened her husband’s life (the concession she wrested from the Scottish Fathers was explicitly forbidding marriage of a step-son to his father’s widow – Queen Margaret’s step-son was a mature man who remained un-married until after Margaret’s death, decades later). There exists a story of King Malcolm McDuncan III confronting an assassin and winning the loyalty of the would-be traitor.

Within only a few centuries, it had become so taboo for a man to marry his relative’s wife that King Henry VIII had to get special permission from Rome to marry his brother’s widow, Catherine. Few in our modern world are actually aware of levirate marriage or how prevalent polygamy was prior to 1100.

What would have happened had Joseph restored the temple ordinances and sealing power across eternity in monogamous America without a nod to polygamy? Most stuff would have been just fine. Families where there was only ever one wife would have no conflict. But what about families where there was a second (or third or fourth) wife? To whom would these women and their children be sealed?

This is the reason I can reasonably impute to a God who might command Joseph Smith to institute temporary practice of polygamy in conjunction with the power to bind families together eternally.

Two more quick notes.

1) There was a rampant sexual deviant on the loose in the months when Emma was preaching against “polygamy.” It was John C. Bennett. You can’t make sense of Nauvoo without understanding the chaos that John Bennett left in his wake. Bennett himself didn’t understand how close his lies hit until a 1843 meeting with George Hinckle, after which we know Bennett came to Nauvoo and paid Joseph a grunch of back rent. I would love to know what they said to one another.

2) Despite concerted research, there is no evidence that any of the children born of Joseph’s plural wives ever bore children genetically related to him. His plumbing still worked – Emma was pregnant when Joseph was killed. And many of his plural wives went on to bear numerous children – often as many as primitive conditions allowed (e.g., one every 2 years). So their plumbing worked. Two sets of working plumbing, no children. Birth control was quite iffy at that time, and abortion on the scale required to eliminate all possible children (but not children of other husbands) isn’t credible, particularly not once Bennett departs the scene. Seems the only reasonable explanation is very little or no sex.

I know the authors of this book presumed (as many do) that Eliza was pregnant by Joseph. But what if the true father were Bennett or one of his acolytes? The dates fit, barely. I think the oft-reported tale of the stairs and Emma and broom, etc., only fits one place and date – the Red Brick Store on March 17, 1843. By the way, that would explain the unemotional way Eliza writes about the day she got sealed to Joseph. It also explains her purple poem “The Bride’s Avowal.” We don’t know the date it was written, other than before August 13, 1842, when it was published in the paper. By the way, publication of that poem coincides with Eliza getting thrown out of the place where she boarded, so I suspect I’m not the only one who finds it suggestive and provocative.

Emma might have been telling the truth when she alleged in her dying testimony that Joseph never had another wife, at least in terms of consummated relationships.

So – these are my thoughts before reading Mormon Enigma (a lapse in my ‘education’ that shocked Jan Shipps). Having read Nightfall at Nauvoo, Nauvoo Polygamy, Sacred Loneliness, besides genealogy and numerous other scholarly treatments of polygamy and the Smiths, I doubt I will find much that surprises me when I read it later this month. But we shall see when I report back.

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3 Responses to “Mormon Enigma (ex ante)”

  1. megstout Says:

    I’ve gotten e-mails from folks who couldn’t figure out how to post a reply. It can be done, but I’ll go try to modify my settings so it isn’t quite so hard…

  2. Pat Chiu Says:

    I think you have some real insight into the purpose of the commandment. It certainly also acted as a winnowing.

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