I realize that the internet is full of stories about Mormons that have doubts or lose their faith, and by sharing my thoughts, I don’t pretend to have any novel insights into the problems with Mormonism’s truth claims. The web is saturated with such material already. Some of them set out to provide an exhaustive list of resources and issues that challenge the historical and doctrinal claims of the LDS church. All I want to provide here are the most damaging issues to my testimony and the exhaustive research that went into resolving them. Growing up Mormon outside of Utah, I had to grow a pretty thick skin to criticism against the church; much of it could be waved away with an appeal to faith, and I have done just that for many, many years. But the issues I present here I cannot casually dismiss. They leave the territory of “unanswered questions” and enter the realm of “overwhelming evidence to the contrary.”
I have not necessarily come upon this information recently, although my study of these materials has certainly accelerated in recent years as the information has become easier to find. I don’t intend to provide an auto-biography here, but suffice it to say that I was “born in the covenant,” served a full-time mission, served in several priesthood leadership callings, use phrases like “suffice it to say” and was a staunch supporter of the Church, despite having accumulated several of these doubts over the course of over a decade.
There was no single “aha” moment for me, no moment where my “shelf” broke (to borrow from a popular analogy), except that the accumulating issues increasingly pushed me towards a place where I always felt incredibly uneasy about my faith. It’s not that I ever felt the need to empirically prove my religious beliefs, but I am a person that at least needs to be able to defend what I believe in a coherent and plausible way, and that became progressively more difficult the more I learned. This caused me a not insignificant amount of mental stress. One day, I simply decided that I was finished with the Herculean task of trying to reconcile these issues in a faithful yet logically consistent way; that I was ready to acknowledge I had real doubts and that I would stop trying to defend what I couldn’t. Surpisingly, just the act of acknowledging these doubts and shedding myself of the responsibility to reconcile the irreconcilable alleviated most of my stress. To this point, this struggle has been almost entirely internal. With the exception of one LDS friend (who later admitted to similar doubts), up to this time, I had not discussed any of my doubts or tried to reconcile my beliefs with anyone else. In fact, as of this post, I am still an active member that holds a calling and very few people are aware of my doubts. Most people who know me would be shocked to learn that I wrote this.
With that introduction, here are the issues for which I can find no satisfactory answer.
The Book of Abraham
My Past with the Book of Abraham
Without a doubt, the single largest obstacle to my faith in Mormonism is the Book of Abraham. This is also one of my oldest doubts. I first learned about the issues with the Book of Abraham as a new missionary in the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah in 2002. It started when an Elder in my district received a package from his well-meaning older brother which contained a thick packet of information regarding the Book of Abraham. Included with this packet was a letter from his brother explaining that he didn’t want his little brother to first encounter this information from an antagonistic source and be led to believe the church was hiding this information from him. He wasn’t sure what to do with it, so he and a few of the other Elders in my district brought it to me and asked me what it meant (they considered me the “smart one” in the district). I read a few pages and told them what I had gotten out of it so far: the facsimiles in the Book of Abraham don’t match Joseph’s translation, and the scrolls they were taken from are Egyptian funerary texts. The Elder whose brother had sent the packet exclaimed, quite loudly and with a hint of anger, “then what’s it doing in our scriptures?!” I feebly offered the extent of the apologetics I had gleaned so far, something to the effect that there was an ancient tradition of Abraham sojourning in Egypt, but it was obvious that the news had disturbed everyone. The revelation was more damaging than the accompanying apologetic offering could mitigate.
A few people out there are probably hoping that this incident led to wide-spread apostasy in the district, but truthfully, it was forgotten quickly and never brought up again, and I shelved the issue easily for the rest of my mission; there was no easy way to research the claims anyway. Of course, two years later when I returned home, I remembered what I had seen and I looked up the information on Wikipedia. What I learned from there on out has weighed on me ever since.
A Brief History of the Book of Abraham
You can find a more complete history of the Book of Abraham here, but basically it all started when Joseph Smith encountered a travelling salesman, bought some Egyptian mummies containing papyri from him, and set out to translate the scrolls. Joseph Smith said of these papyri:
With W.W. Phelps and Oliver Cowdery as scribes, I commenced the translation of some of the characters or hieroglyphics, and much to our joy found that one of the rolls contained the writings of Abraham, another the writings of Joseph of Egypt, etc. — a more full account of which will appear in its place, as I proceed to examine or unfold them.1
Joseph Smith published his translation serially in the church-run newspaper “Times and Seasons” in 1842.2 In 1880 it was canonized in LDS scripture as part of the “Pearl of Great Price,” which is how most Mormons are familiar with it. The Book of Abraham is written in the first person in Abraham’s voice. It’s important because it reveals unique LDS doctrines that aren’t found anywhere else in LDS scripture, specifically with regards to premortal existence. It also expands the language of the Abrahamic covenant to include the rights to the Priesthood. Additionally, it contains some interesting cosmology and gave us the word “Kolob” which is one of those words that works as a sort of shibboleth and inside joke for Mormons.
At the time, the ability to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphics was still developing, thanks to scholars who were studying the Rosetta Stone. It would not have been easy, maybe even impossible, to procure an academic translation of the scrolls.
After Joseph’s death, the scrolls got passed around until they were lost from history and assumed destroyed (read the Wikipedia article if you’re interested in the specifics), but were rediscovered in 1966 in the Metropolitan Museum in New York City. By 1966, of course, Egyptology had come a long way, and Egyptologists all over the country had the expertise to decipher their meaning.
I’ll just put it bluntly: Joseph’s translation of the scrolls couldn’t possibly be less correct. The scrolls date from the 1st century AD (some 2000 years after Abraham’s time) and contain pretty standard Egyptian funerary texts (the Books of Breathing and the Book of the Dead) and were prepared for a deceased man named Hor. BYU Egyptologists agree with this conclusion3, and the LDS Church has even admitted as much in the “Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham” essay published on the official church website in 2014. Curious what the scrolls really say? Here’s an example from a translated portion of the scrolls:
“Osiris shall be conveyed into the Great Pool of Khons — and likewise Osiris Hôr, justified, born to Tikhebyt, justified — after his arms have been placed on his heart and the Breathing Permit (which [Isis] made and has writing on its inside and outside) has been wrapped in royal linen and placed under his left arm near his heart; the rest of his mummy-bandages should be wrapped over it. The man for whom this book has been copied will breathe forever and ever as the bas of the gods do.”
“Here begins the Breathing Permit, which Isis made for her brother Osiris in order to revive his ba, to revive his corpse, and to make his entire body young again, so that he might appear gloriously in heaven in the disk of the moon, and that his corpse might shine in Orion in the belly of Nut — and in order that the same might happen to Osiris Hôr…Keep it secret! Do not let anyone read it. It is useful for a man in the Necropolis, to help him live again and it has worked successfully millions of times.”4
It goes on like this. Obviously, this doesn’t sound anything like the writings of Abraham. When I first read about the discrepancy in the translations, I had two initial reactions. First, a sort of panic as I watched my prophet’s credibility take a hit. Second, the realization that it actually makes a lot more sense for the scrolls in some random mummy from the 1st century AD to contain mundane sounding Egyptian funerary texts rather than the lost writings of Abraham.
The problem isn’t limited to the physical scrolls either. The Book of Abraham is published with 3 facsimiles which were copied from the scrolls, and are included with Joseph Smith’s translations next to them. Mormons will be familiar with these facsimiles. If they’re like me, they spent a lot of time poring over them as a curious child. Presented here are three graphics I’ve borrowed which demonstrate the wide divergence between Joseph’s translation and the actual translation:
There’s all kinds of stuff going on here. Joseph mislabeled pretty much everything. He named Egyptian Gods that don’t exist. You don’t even need to be an Egyptologist to notice some of the mistakes. Go back and look at figure 4 in facsimile 3. What gender would you say this figure is? The Egyptians weren’t terrible artists; you should be able to discern this yourself. Joseph describes this person as “Prince of Pharaoh, King of Egypt, as written above the hand.”
“Well I’m sure there’s an explanation”
I hope you believe me when I tell you I’ve searched pretty hard for a faithful explanation for this problem. When the church started publishing their essays on difficult gospel topics, I eagerly awaited one on the Book of Abraham, because I genuinely did not know what they could say. Then it finally came. After reading it, I was glad that they at least acknowledged the issue, but noted that they still came up short of actually offering an explanation. Sometime thereafter, I realized reading apologetic interpretations was doing more harm for my testimony than good. I told a friend once (who had texted me a link to an apologetic essay on the topic), “These articles make it worse for me, it’s just a reminder that our best explanations really suck.”
So what are the most common explanations? I’ll list them here, along with the problems they present:
“Only some of the scrolls were recovered. The scrolls that contain the books of Abraham and Joseph are still lost.”
The church’s essay on the Book of Abraham makes this claim.
It is likely futile to assess Joseph’s ability to translate papyri when we now have only a fraction of the papyri he had in his possession. Eyewitnesses spoke of “a long roll” or multiple “rolls” of papyrus. Since only fragments survive, it is likely that much of the papyri accessible to Joseph when he translated the book of Abraham is not among these fragments. The loss of a significant portion of the papyri means the relationship of the papyri to the published text cannot be settled conclusively by reference to the papyri.5
I actually held on to this explanation for a long time. It still bothered me that the one chance we had to vindicate Joseph Smith, it turns out we just so happened to only recover the wrong scrolls, but not the Book of Abraham scrolls, but it at least left the door of plausibility open. But eventually I learned this explanation doesn’t really hold water anyway. Facsimile 1, which Joseph Smith claimed depicts Abraham being sacrificed, can be found at the beginning of one of the extant scrolls. The text of the Book of Abraham specifically says that this facsimile is at the beginning of the scroll on which it was written:
And it came to pass that the priests laid violence upon me, that they might slay me also, as they did those virgins upon this altar; and that you may have a knowledge of this altar, I will refer you to the representation at the commencement of this record. Abraham 1:12, emphasis added
We still have the majority of this scroll, and it has been examined. None of the translation is correct. A little bit of the scroll is missing from the end, but not nearly enough to account for the Book of Abraham6, and besides, it wouldn’t make much sense for the Book of Abraham to be appended to a copy of the Book of Breathings written 2,000 years later, would it? Some people will claim that the insertion of the phrase “I will refer you to the representation at the commencement of this record” was an editorial remark added by Joseph’s scribes, and not actually part of the Book of Abraham. Even if this is true, it still indicates Joseph was translating from the scroll in our possession.
That’s not even the only reason we know Joseph worked from this scroll. If you look at the manuscript of Joseph Smith’s translation of the Book of Abraham, you’ll notice that Joseph put hieroglyphs corresponding to his translation on the margins. Those hieroglyphs match the Book of Breathings scroll:
I’ve heard a couple people argue that this was not an artifact of the translation, but rather an attempt to “reverse engineer” Egyptian from the translation. Of course, even if that’s true, it just goes to show that Joseph or at least his scribes believed the Book of Abraham was a translation of this particular scroll, which isn’t really helping their case much. If you’re like me, you will also start to notice how many inconsistencies you’re having to explain away, rather than consider the more obvious interpretation of these facts. If you want to get into the nitty gritty details, there’s a great YouTube video on the subject. But ultimately, the scrolls don’t even matter.
Why don’t they matter? Because of the facsimiles. Even if we’d never found the original scrolls, we’d still know that the Book of Abraham is wrong, and that is because the facsimiles published in the Book of Abraham have Egyptian hieroglyphs on them along with Joseph’s (incorrect) translations. In fact, Egyptologists have pointed out errors in the facsimiles as far back as 1856, correctly predicting details about the original drawings that wouldn’t be confirmed until their rediscovery over a century later.7 Go look at facsimiles 2 and 3 again. There’s hieroglyphs on both of them. There’s no wiggle room to claim that some “lost scroll” contains the translation that Joseph provided for these particular hieroglyphs. They have been published like this, along with Joseph Smith’s corresponding translation, in the Pearl of Great Price, for over a century. So what difference does it make quibbling over whether or not there’s some missing scroll that has the writings of Abraham on it? It doesn’t, because in the case of the facsimiles, Joseph very clearly provided us with the source document he was trying to translate, and was even very specific about which figures he was translating. There’s simply no way out of it.
“The papyri weren’t really the source document for Joseph Smith. They served as a catalyst for him to receive the Book of Abraham by revelation.”
This position is presented in the church’s essay on the Book of Abraham:
Alternatively, Joseph’s study of the papyri may have led to a revelation about key events and teachings in the life of Abraham, much as he had earlier received a revelation about the life of Moses while studying the Bible. This view assumes a broader definition of the words translator and translation. According to this view, Joseph’s translation was not a literal rendering of the papyri as a conventional translation would be. Rather, the physical artifacts provided an occasion for meditation, reflection, and revelation. They catalyzed a process whereby God gave to Joseph Smith a revelation about the life of Abraham, even if that revelation did not directly correlate to the characters on the papyri.8
Before I start dissecting this explanation, I just want to say something about it. As I’ve mentioned before, for more than a decade I’ve been desperately looking for a satisfactory answer to the problem of the Book of Abraham. During that entire time, before I even formalized the issues with this interpretation, it always seemed like such a huge stretch to me that I had a hard time ever taking it seriously. I always felt like I would never be able to repeat it to an honest investigator or even a curious non-member with a straight face. It forced me to reflect on the question: “just how bad does it have to get before I stop defending this?” I suspect many people who hear it feel the same way.
But my discomfort with this explanation aside, there’s a few problems I have with it. First, it means we have to assume Joseph Smith was wrong about how he received the Book of Abraham, since he clearly believed he was translating the papyri. Earlier I quoted him as saying he was translating the actual hieroglyphics. He also wrote:
“The remainder of this month, I was continually engaged in translating an alphabet to the Book of Abraham, and arranging a grammar of the Egyptian language as practiced by the ancients.”9
He also mentioned his work on the Egyptian alphabet in his personal diary.10, so there can be no doubt that this accurately describes how Joseph presented the translation. Joseph clearly believed he was translating the hieroglyphics and attempted to reconstruct an Egyptian alphabet in the process. The argument that the scrolls were a catalyst infers that Joseph Smith was mistaken about the method of his own translation.
The other issue with this explanation is, once again, the facsimiles. It’s one thing to say that Joseph Smith thought he was reading the scrolls but was actually receiving, by revelation, a completely different document. But the idea that the papyri were merely a “catalyst” doesn’t explain the interpretations of the facsimiles. Joseph’s translations are specific to figures on those drawings and to actual Egyptian hieroglyphs. If the papyri were just a catalyst and not actually the source document, what was Joseph revealing? His interpretations of the facsimiles make no sense outside of the context of the papyri. You can’t escape the fact that Joseph said that specific “characters” translated to “King Pharaoh’s” name when they actually were a label for “Isis the great, the god’s mother.” If the document is just a catalyst, what was Joseph translating there?
As Joseph’s writings show, he was clearly attempting to translate these scrolls and figures. Despite his attempts to create an alphabet and grammar (said grammar has been found and debunked by the way), it’s also clear that he was invoking his powers of revelation in the process, making this a serious blow not just to his ability to translate, but to his credibility as a revelator. If you look at the facsimiles once again, you’ll notice that next to some figures and characters, he wrote things like, “Ought not to be revealed at the present time” and “Will be given in the own due time of the Lord,” which pretty heavily implies that the rest of the description is given by revelation.
There are actually several other issues with the Book of Abraham which I’m not even going to get into here. The previous points I made are damning enough. But if you want to research some of the other problems on your own, here’s a list of a few more:
- The facsimiles are based on damaged papyri, and Joseph Smith (or someone tasked by Joseph Smith) attempted to reconstruct the missing parts. The reconstruction is incorrect, and changes the meaning of the vignette.
- There are several anachronisms in the Book of Abraham. What that means is there are things mentioned in the Book of Abraham that wouldn’t have existed during Abraham’s time, such as Chaldea, Egyptus and Pharaoh.
- The Egyptian gods mentioned in the Book of Abraham, such as Elkenah, Libnah, Mahmackrah and Korash never existed. These are not the names of actual Egyptian gods.
Why can’t you take it on faith?
At some point, when discussing these issues, someone is bound to throw up their hands and ask why I can’t just take it all on faith. I find that kind of response flippant, but beyond that, I believe the sentiment is contradicted in the story of Joseph Smith and the lost 116-page manuscript. Every Mormon knows this story: Joseph had dictated 116 pages of material to his scribe, Martin Harris. Martin’s wife was skeptical of Joseph, and Martin wanted to show her the manuscript to ease her doubts. Joseph ignored God’s warnings to the contrary and gave Martin the pages, which were subsequently lost or stolen. This was, by all accounts, a major setback in the production of the Book of Mormon. A revelation recorded by Joseph Smith, included in the Doctrine and Covenants as section 10, explains why Joseph Smith was not allowed to retranslate the portion of the Book of Mormon corresponding to those 116 pages:
“And, behold, Satan hath put it into their hearts to alter the words which you have caused to be written, or which you have translated, which have gone out of your hands. And behold, I say unto you, that because they have altered the words, they read contrary from that which you translated and caused to be written… And then, behold, they say and think in their hearts—We will see if God has given him power to translate; if so, he will also give him power again; And if God giveth him power again, or if he translates again, or, in other words, if he bringeth forth the same words, behold, we have the same with us, and we have altered them; Therefore they will not agree, and we will say that he has lied in his words, and that he has no gift, and that he has no power.”
In other words, if Joseph had retranslated the 116 pages, and they didn’t match up exactly to the original (because the original had been sabotaged), then it would impugn the credibility of the Book of Mormon, and God wouldn’t allow that to happen. In fact, we learn from the Book of Mormon that God anticipated this problem over 2000 years in advance, and asked the ancient prophet Nephi to record the same information his father had already recorded (presumably what was in the 116 lost pages), but this time in his own words. This presents a precedent that makes it difficult to ignore modern challenges to the authenticity of the scriptures. Having two manuscripts of the Book of Lehi that are a little different wouldn’t be nearly as damning as the evidence arguing against the authenticity of the Book of Abraham. In fact, I can’t imagine any changes that could be made to a handwritten manuscript in the 19th century that wouldn’t either be obvious tampering or which couldn’t be explained away in the same manner that all other internal scriptural inconsistencies are routinely dismissed. It makes no sense that God would prepare a 2,000-year old contingency plan to counter a comparatively weak attack against the Book of Mormon, but would leave us stranded without any decent answers to the much more severe problems the Book of Abraham presents.
The Book of Abraham proves to be a major blow to Joseph’s claims as a prophetic translator. This inescapable fact has haunted me for years. Having had this hanging over my head since 2002, nobody can say I haven’t been patient in waiting for an answer. There is simply no plausible faith-promoting explanation.
My past with Polygamy
I grew up in the church, and consequently, grew up with the traditional LDS narrative about polygamy. I understood that it was practiced briefly by the pioneers when they arrived in Utah, and that its main purpose was to provide support for all the women who’d been widowed on the journey west or due to persecution. I’d heard that Joseph Smith had received the revelation allowing polygamy, but died before he got the chance to practice it himself. I knew the story about Emma Smith tearing up the revelation when she read it, and Joseph subsequently rewriting it from memory, a feat he was capable of performing on account of having despondently read it over and over again. I knew that Brigham Young quote where he said he “desired the grave” when he first heard the doctrine. I was generally not bothered by polygamy growing up. I mean, sure, it sounded like a terrible arrangement, and I was glad I’d never have to participate in it, but I figured the concept of marriage is so culturally specific that – hey – why should I expect God’s law of marriage to conform to 20th century American mores anyway? It was generally not a concern.
In the Missionary Training Center, one of the Elders in my district received a gift from his mom: a book about Emma Smith! Despite not being a part of the approved missionary library, she evidently thought it would be a nice faith-promoting book for her son. I started reading the back cover and realized it was published by a member of Community of Christ (aka the Reorganized Church), and its central thesis was that polygamy was wholly an invention of Brigham Young’s. I pointed this out to the rest of the district and we all had a good laugh about it, but I didn’t give it much thought, although that’s the first time I’d learned that the Community of Christ disagreed that plural marriage was doctrinal (they now acknowledge that Joseph did in fact practice it, though they still don’t consider it doctrinal).
At one point on my mission, we were out “knocking” and came across the house of a Christian minister. We gave him the standard introductory approach, but he had that unmistakable look of revulsion that Christian ministers often wore when they heard our spiel. He interrupted our message to ask us: “isn’t it true that Joseph Smith had many women?” I confidently answered that that was not true, that it was a lie, and my companion backed me up. In my head, I assumed he was probably thinking of Brigham Young, although I didn’t offer that information. I didn’t realize at the time that Joseph was also a polygamist.
Sometime after my mission, I can’t remember exactly when, I was at a Chinese restaurant with my parents when the topic of polygamy came up. They mentioned Joseph Smith practicing polygamy, and I tried to correct them, but they corrected me right back and explained that Joseph Smith also had polygamous wives. This took me by surprise. This is a fairly common reaction by many Mormons, I’ve since learned: we were all aware of Brigham’s polygamy, but not Joseph’s. And learning that Joseph practiced as well is kind of jarring, though I can’t quite put my finger on why that is. Maybe because the trek hadn’t started yet, so the “widows” explanation doesn’t apply? Maybe we hold Joseph up as being more pure? I’m not sure. The conversation didn’t end there though. There was a quick argument between my parents about Joseph Smith marrying already-married women. My dad tried to rationalize that they were only sealed together not “really” married, and my mom countered, and I remember this part very clearly, “yeah, but they were someone else’s wife.” At that point I was starting to feel uncomfortable since that’s an awfully large bomb to drop on someone over orange chicken and chow mein.
The thing with Polygamy is you can rationalize it fairly easily if you think of marriage as a constantly shifting social construct and – and this is the important part – you don’t know the details of how it went down. I only learned many of the details over the past couple of years, in fact. Reading the details of how polygamy was practiced is partly what pushed me over the edge. The Book of Abraham was bad enough, but now I had to confront the character and integrity of the early church leaders.
I’m going to share some of the details that led me to doubt the authenticity of polygamy as a revealed doctrine, and that led me to instead view polygamy as an insidious practice. I’ve been very careful to make sure the information I’m presenting here is information that comes from the best historical sources. I’ve added footnotes that source nearly every surprising historical claim made in this section, sometimes with links directly to the original documents when possible. If I’m quoting sources that are considered questionable or controversial among professional historians, I’ll mention it. I say this in case someone thinks I’m merely parroting anti-Mormon polemics. I’m not. This stuff really happened and I ask readers to keep that in mind.
Most discussions of Joseph Smith’s polygamy begin with Fanny Alger. Some historians will tell you that she was Joseph Smith’s first plural wife, while others will claim Joseph had an illicit affair with her. The historical sources conflict on this, but I’m giving Joseph the benefit of the doubt, if you can call it that, that she was an actual wife. Either way though, the story is troubling for several reasons.
Fanny lived with Joseph and Emma in their home in Kirtland, Ohio around 1833-1834, probably as a hired girl or live-in maid, and was reportedly close to Emma. If we are giving Joseph the benefit of the doubt that his relationship to Fanny was a marriage, then we must rely on the account of Mosiah Hancock, the only person who gave a description of an actual ceremony. He was not a firsthand witness, but would have been reporting what he heard from his father Levi, who was close to the situation. Both Mosiah and Levi were loyal to the church, so they’re as friendly of witnesses as you can hope for. Levi was an uncle to Fanny and, according to Mosiah, was involved in the arrangement of Joseph and Fanny’s marriage. He tells us that Levi wanted to marry Clarissa Reed, but sought Joseph’s approval first. In this telling of events, Joseph proposed a “bargain”: “Brother Levi I want to make a bargain with you – If you will get Fanny Alger for me for a wife you may have Clarissa Reed. I love Fanny.”11 Levi talks to Fanny’s family and arranges the marriage, and they all get on board with the decision. At the time of the marriage, Joseph would have been 27 and Fanny would have been 16.
Emma, by the way, is unaware of any of this. In fact, this is a theme that is common in Joseph’s polygamy. The marriages were usually done in secret and behind her back. Emma wasn’t aware of the vast majority of them.12 It’s hard to rationalize this behavior. In fact, Section 132 of the Doctrine and Covenants, the only canonized revelation in the Doctrine and Covenants that condones polygamy, says a polygamist must obtain consent from his first wife to take another:
“If any man espouse a virgin, and desire to espouse another, and the first give her consent, and if he espouse the second, and they are virgins, and have vowed to no other man, then is he justified.”D&C 132:61
Granted the revelation later threatens Emma with “destruction” if she doesn’t comply, which is an issue in and of itself, but at the very least Joseph is supposed to seek approval from his wife first (and seek virgins, not married women, but we’ll come back to that later). That doesn’t seem to be the pattern Joseph followed. He consistently married women behind her back. If Fanny is Joseph’s first plural wife, he never even gave Emma the chance to agree to it, so you can’t use the excuse that Joseph’s hand was forced by Emma’s unwillingness to obey the revelation. If Fanny wasn’t Joseph’s first wife, then she was an affair, and his next documented marriage (which doesn’t happen until 1841) was done behind Emma’s back anyway. Either way, any reasonable person would have to describe this behavior as unfaithful to Emma.
Emma eventually discovers the relationship and all hell breaks loose. Exactly how she discovers the relationship varies by storyteller, though certain details are consistent. Ann Eliza Webb Young said that Emma
“had turned Fanny out of the house in the night…By degrees it became whispered about that Joseph’s love for his adopted daughter was by no means a paternal affection, and his wife, discovering the fact, at once took measures to place the girl beyond his reach. Angered at finding the two persons whom most she loved playing such a treacherous part towards her, she by no means spared her reproaches, and, finally, the storm became so furious, that Joseph was obliged to send, at midnight, for Oliver Cowdery, his scribe, to come and endeavor to settle matters between them.”14
Ann, an ex-wife of Brigham Young, was deeply critical of polygamy and wasn’t an eye-witness, so you can take her statement with a grain of salt. However, her parents were the ones that took Fanny in after she left the Smith’s home, so it’s likely that she is recounting what she heard from her parents. Also, even if it’s fair to be skeptical of Ann Eliza’s account, we can corroborate what she said with a firsthand statement from her father, who, as I mentioned, took Fanny in after Emma kicked her out. He described his version of how Emma found out about the relationship: “Emma was furious, and drove the girl, who was unable to conceal the consequences of her celestial relation with the prophet, out of her house.”15 Considering his closeness to the situation, his explanation might be the most reliable we have, although there is no record of Fanny giving birth at that time. Other sources report differing versions of the story. William McLellin, an excommunicated former Apostle, wrote to Joseph’s son Joseph Smith III in 1872, claiming that Emma had privately confirmed to him that “one night she missed Joseph and Fanny Alger. She went to the barn and saw him and Fanny in the barn together alone. She looked through a crack and saw the transaction!!”16 McLellin, right before he says that, describes the same scene of fetching Oliver Cowdery (plus Dr. Williams and Sidney Rigdon) in the middle of the night to calm Emma.17 Given McLellin’s rocky relationship with Emma, his claim should be taken with a grain of salt too, although it shares similarities with a story shared by the friendly witness Benjamin Johnson. Benjamin was very close to Joseph; he brokered the (secret) polygamous marriage of his sister to Joseph, and later served as his private secretary. He wrote in a letter that “there was Some trouble with Oliver Cowdery. and whisper Said it was Relating to a girl then living in his [Smith’s] Family And I was afterwords told by Warren Parish that he himself & Oliver Cowdery did know that Joseph had Fanny Alger as a wife for They ware Spied upon & found together.”18
As is often the case, the historical record has some ambiguities and we have to weigh everyone’s biases and agendas, but the salient details seem to be corroborated by both friendly and antagonistic sources. The things that we can safely determine tell a troubling story, even if we don’t know whether it was pregnancy or a tryst in the barn that gave Joseph away. The story seems to go something like this: Joseph begins a relationship with Fanny behind Emma’s back, at some point they are discovered, there is a confrontation with Emma, Oliver Cowdery has to intervene, and finally Fanny is kicked out of the house.
After Fanny was kicked out, Joseph took a trip to Michigan. In his absence, an “Article on Marriage” was presented to the church which denied any involvement in polygamy. According to historian Todd Compton (a faithful, practicing Mormon), “clearly the statement represented an effort to counteract scandal and perhaps to defuse rumors of Fanny Alger’s marriage, possible pregnancy, and expulsion.”19 The statement was included in the 1835 version of the Doctrine and Covenants and includes this denial: “Inasmuch as this church of Christ has been reproached with the crime of fornication, and polygamy: we declare that we believe, that one man should have one wife; and one woman, but one husband, except in case of death, when either is at liberty to marry again.”20
Fanny moved away and married someone else her own age, had children and from that point on pretty much disappears from the history of the church. After Joseph’s death, she was asked about her relationship to Joseph, but she refused to answer. But the story doesn’t end there.
Although Oliver Cowdery mediated between Joseph and Emma, the experience clearly bothered him. Oliver and Joseph had a falling out, largely over the experience with Fanny. If the relationship was a marriage, Oliver certainly didn’t see it that way. In a letter to his brother, he described Joseph and Fanny’s relationship as a “dirty, nasty, filthy affair.”21 In a meeting in November, 1837, their estrangement came to a head. Joseph didn’t deny having a relationship with Fanny, he only denied that he had admitted to adultery. Cowdery conceded that Joseph had never termed it adulterous. The following April, Oliver was summoned to an excommunication trial (Joseph never faced any such trial for his relationship with Fanny). Oliver was found guilty of, among other things, falsely accusing Joseph of adultery. Oliver, the second elder of the church and witness to the golden plates, was excommunicated.22 Similar to his testimony of the golden plates, he never recanted his claim that Joseph had had an affair, and in fact affirmed it. I was told in seminary that Oliver was excommunicated. I was never taught why.
This story is very troubling. Even if we grant that it was a marriage and not an affair, we still have a lot of unseemly details to work around, many of which I’ve already noted: the secrecy, the deceit, using women as bargaining chips, the unfaithfulness to Emma, the deviation from his own revelation on plural marriage (which he didn’t even write until several years later), the cover-up, and the use of church authority to silence Oliver for speaking out. Another issue worth considering is the authority under which the marriage was even performed. Joseph’s later polygamous marriages in Nauvoo were performed under the doctrine of “sealing.” During that time, Joseph taught that marriages performed without the proper Priesthood authority (granted by the sealing keys) were invalid in the eyes of God.23 This presents a conundrum in the case of Fanny since, according to Joseph Smith, the sealing keys weren’t restored until 1836. So under what authority were Joseph and Fanny married? They couldn’t have been civilly married, since it was illegal, and it couldn’t have been a sealing, because the sealing keys weren’t restored yet. At best, they were married in a secret ceremony of dubious authority.
One of the more disturbing aspects of Joseph’s polygamy was his habit of marrying other men’s wives, which I mentioned earlier. The practice of a woman being married to more than one man is often termed “polyandry.” I can’t think of any way such a network of marriages fits into the gospel as I learned it at church. Since it’s understandably one of the most shocking things Joseph did, there are a few justifications floating around for it.
Let’s start with how common polyandry was, since some people try to paint it as an odd anomaly. On the contrary, of the estimated 33 plural wives Joseph married, 11 of them were already married to another man at the time of the sealing. That’s a third of his polygamous marriages. In fact, Joseph seemed to prefer married women at first. Of the first 12 women he married, nine were polyandrous.24
Another myth is that Joseph’s unions with his polyandrous wives were non-sexual “eternity only” sealings. Perhaps, the theory goes, these women couldn’t be sealed to their existing non-member husbands, yet still yearned for the blessings of the sealing ordinance after this life. Another variation of this theme is that Joseph didn’t understand the doctrine very well when it was first revealed, and these sealings were an attempt to dynastically seal a family to Joseph, but no one really saw it as a real marriage in a practical sense. The historical evidence strongly argues against both justifications, though. Only three of the eleven polyandrous wives had non-member husbands. Many of them were married to prominent church leaders.25 One was even married to an apostle, which I’ll cover later. Several of Joseph’s polyandrous wives specified that they were married to Joseph for time and eternity.26 Additionally, there is evidence of sexuality in the polyandrous relationships. One of Joseph’s polyandrous wives, Sylvia Sessions, told her daughter Josephine that she was the daughter of Joseph Smith. Historians consider the claim credible.27 The fact that she named her daughter “Josephine” also lends credence to her claim, in my opinion.
One such example of a polyandrous wife is Zina Huntington. When she was 18, her family moved in with Joseph Smith after enduring months of fever in their own home. This was in the early years in Nauvoo, which was built on a swamp, so sickness was common. While there, she met a 23-year-old man named Henry Jacobs, a staunch Mormon who had served a mission and been ordained a seventy. Henry was a talented violinist. Zina came from a very musical family that performed together in a “family orchestra.” Zina liked to sing, and was a member of the Kirtland Temple choir. Henry and Zina began to spend a lot of time together. They fell in love.28
When Zina was 19 and she and Henry were courting, Joseph Smith taught her the doctrine of plural marriage and proposed to her. This was evidently a major trial for her, and not something she took lightly. In her autobiography, when she described this experience, she described her prayer on the subject: “O dear Heaven, grant me wisdom! Help me to know the way, O Lord, my god, let thy will be done and with thine arm around about to guide, shield and direct.”29 Joseph pressed her for an answer on at least three occasions. Zina, considering her love for Henry, her respect for Emma and her monogamous values, put him off.30
Ultimately, Zina chose love. She and Henry were married civilly on March 7, 1841 surrounded by friends and family. They began married life together and Zina was soon pregnant with their first child. However, that didn’t deter Joseph. The following October, when Zina was 7 months along, Joseph sent Zina’s brother to propose for him again. Zina recalled:
“He sent word to me by my brother, saying, ‘Tell Zina, I put it off and put it off till an angel with a drawn sword stood by me and told me if I did not establish that principle upon the earth I would lose my position and my life.'”31
Faced with the dilemma of Joseph’s life and prophetic calling being placed in her hands, she finally relented and married Joseph later that month. Zina regarded her act as a sacrifice: “I made a greater sacrifise than to give my life for I never anticipated a gain to be looked upon as an honorable woman by those I dearly loved.” We don’t know if Henry was aware of the marriage at that time, but he got clued in at some point. He said he accepted the marriage because “whatever the Prophet did was right, without making the wisdom of God’s authorities bend to the reasoning of any man.”32 Henry and Zina continued to live together as husband and wife, though Henry was frequently sent away on missions, often by Joseph personally. One of his mission companions remembered Henry bragging about his wife and children, and what a “true, virtuous lovely woman she was. He almost worshiped her.”33
After Joseph’s death, the remaining members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles married many of his “widows” in the temple. Zina was sealed to Brigham for time, but continued to live with Henry.34 The doctrinal implications of this are disturbing. The historical record indicates that Brigham married Joseph’s widows “for time” in order to raise up posterity for Joseph, reminiscent of Old Testament Levirate marriages. Brigham considered the children he bore to Joseph’s wives as being sealed to Joseph, not him, since Joseph was sealed to these women for eternity whereas Brigham was only sealed for time. Following this logic, one is forced to consider the circumstances of Henry and Zina’s children. Since Zina and Henry weren’t sealed for eternity, Henry’s children would be sealed to Joseph for eternity, not Henry.35
Brigham, like Joseph, sent Henry on several missions. In fact, during the westward migration, while Zina and Henry were halfway across Iowa with a newborn baby born on the trail, Brigham suddenly sent an extremely ill Henry away on a mission to England.36 While away on his mission, Henry wrote several love letters to his wife. “I dream of you often, and desire to see you very much,” he wrote in one letter. Another says, “Zina I have not forgotten you my Love is as ever the same and much more abundantly And hope that it will continue to grow stronger and stronger to all Eternity worlds without End…I remane as ever your affectionate Husband in truth.”37 By the time Zina arrived in Winter Quarters, she was living openly as Brigham’s wife. Henry wasn’t informed38, but continued to write her, telling her in a Valentine’s Day letter that “whether in Life, or in death, whether in time or Eternity, Zina my mind never will Change from Worlds without End, no never the same affection is there and never can be moved” while also adding “Bless Brother Brigham and all purtains unto him forever tell him for me I have no feelings against him nor never had.”39 Henry didn’t find out that Zina was living as Brigham’s wife, effectively divorcing him from Zina, until he completed his mission and arrived in New York. There he visited with Zina’s sister-in-law, who read out loud a letter from Zina saying as much. He traveled to Winter Quarters with W. W. Phelps, who helpfully found him a new wife along the way.40
Zina lived in Utah as one of Brigham’s wives. Henry and his new wife moved to California. But Henry never really seemed to “get over” Zina. In 1852, five years after their official separation, he wrote her again:
“O how happy I should be if I only could see you and the little Children bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh I mean all I would like to see the little babe; I Zina wish you to propsere I wish you new what I have to bar my feelings ar indiscribeable I am unhappy ther is now no peace for poor me my pleasure is you my Comfort has vanished the glory of day has flead like the fog before a pleasant morning my youthful days are yet in my mind yes never to be bloted out I have had meny a good Dream about you and the little ones I have imagin myself at home with you and the Little Boys upon my kneese a singing and playing with them what a comfort what a Joy to think upon those days that are gone by O Heaven Bless me eve poor me shall I shall I ever see them again
I think of you often very often Zina ar you happy do you enjoy your life as pleasant as you did with me when I was at home with you and the Children when we could say our prayers together and speak together in toungs and Bless each other in the name of the Lord O I think of those happy days that ar past when I sleep the sleep of death then I will not for get you and my little lambs I love my affections I love my Children.”41
Henry’s new wife eventually left him. I’m sure there were many reasons, but I believe a major one was that Henry was clearly still in love with Zina. It’s hard to say how Zina felt about Henry by then since she didn’t write about it, but it’s clear from her statement to a reporter that she didn’t love her polygamous husbands the way she once loved Henry, for a polygamous wife, in her view, “must regard her husband with indifference… for love we regard as a false sentiment; a feeling which should have no existence in polygamy.”42
It should come as no surprise that if Joseph made a habit of proposing to married women, not all of them would agree to it. One such person was likely Sarah Pratt, the wife of Orson Pratt. Most Mormons will recognize the name Orson Pratt. He was one of the original Apostles in the church and the brother of Parley P. Pratt. After being called to the twelve, he was sent on a mission to Great Britain. Unfortunately, he received about the worst homecoming a missionary could expect.
Polygamy had become “a thing” in Nauvoo while he was gone. But to make matters worse, there were two accusations he had to confront when he arrived home. According to his wife, Sarah, Joseph Smith had proposed marriage to her in Orson’s absence. Joseph denied the charge, claiming instead that Sarah had had an illicit affair with John C. Bennett. Poor Orson was stuck between two terrible options: either his prophet or his wife had betrayed him and lied to him. Distraught, Orson left a note for his wife saying “My sorrows are greater than I can bear!” and disappeared. Nobody could find him for a day. Joseph organized a search party, and eventually they found him five miles down the river sitting dazed on a log.43
Orson ultimately sided with his wife against Joseph. Joseph told him that if “he did believe his wife and follow her suggestions, he would go to hell.”44 Orson didn’t budge, and so he was excommunicated. Just two months later, though, Orson and Sarah were both re-baptized, although we don’t have any information on how they made peace with Joseph. We do know that after their re-baptism, Joseph told Orson that Sarah had lied to him and that he should divorce her. Orson stayed with Sarah regardless, and eventually became a polygamist himself. Sarah ended up leaving Orson when he, at 57 years old, married a sixteen-year-old girl who was younger than his daughter Celestia.45 Sarah went on to become a very outspoken critic of polygamy.
The truth of the episode is hard to determine from an objective standpoint. Depending on allegiances, the stories told by the people involved seemed to change, and on all sides you’ll find allegations and affidavits supporting each side and even allegations that some of those affidavits were forced. On the one hand, proposing to a close friend’s wife while he was away was certainly in Joseph’s repertoire, as was lying about it after, and the story strikes an unnervingly familiar chord. It’s also worth mentioning that Joseph also accused Martha Brotherton and Nancy Rigdon of sexual misconduct after they publicly accused him of practicing plural marriage, so there’s the possibility of a pattern there. On the other hand, John C. Bennett was quite the untrustworthy character himself and was excommunicated for practicing his own unauthorized version of “spiritual wifery.” Either way, it’s clear that the Pratt’s relationship was a casualty of polygamy.
Orson Hyde, like Orson Pratt, was an original member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles who was called on a mission at an inopportune time. Orson’s mission to Jerusalem is well-remembered in LDS history; a giant portrait of him atop the Mount of Olives dedicating Palestine for the gathering of Judah hung in the hallways of the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah while I was there. Meanwhile, his wife was at home, sick, with two small children. Joseph Smith saw her plight and penned a revelation which instructed him that Marinda “should have a better place prepared for her than that in which she now lives” but ends with the instruction “let my handmaid Nancy Marinda Hyde hearken to the counsel of my servant Joseph in all things whatsoever he shall teach unto her.”46
One of those “counsels” Joseph taught her was evidently plural marriage. Joseph and Marinda were sealed for eternity in Orson’s absence.47 Sources conflict on whether or not Orson ever discovered the marriage and when. However, we do know that Orson and Sarah were later sealed for eternity, the only known case where one of Joseph’s polygynous wives was sealed to her original husband for eternity as well as Joseph. Orson went on to become a polygamist himself. As he kept taking younger wives, he and Marinda drifted apart. She divorced him in 1870, their marriage one more casualty of polygamy.
Another disturbing aspect of Joseph’s polygamy was the methods he used to acquire wives. Many of his wives were quite young. Using historian Todd Compton’s list, 1/3 of Joseph’s plural wives were between 14-20 years old. Some of Joseph’s methods for convincing these girls to marry him are eyebrow-raising, to put it mildly. Were it anyone other than Joseph, I suspect nobody would wince at describing these methods as coercion. I already mentioned that Joseph described an angel with a drawn sword threatening his destruction, which was the tactic used to gain Zina Huntington’s hand in marriage. Here I’ll explore a few others.
Helen Mar Kimball
The youngest of Joseph’s wives was Helen Mar Kimball, only 14 at the time they were wed. The LDS church admits to this marriage in one of their online Gospel Topics essays48, although her age is stated euphemistically as “several months before her 15th birthday” and buried in an essay that’s not listed in the Gospel Topics table of contents like the other essays49. Helen was an avid writer, and her marriage to Joseph is attested to in multiple recollections and diary entries. She described her father presenting her with Joseph’s proposal:
“Without any preliminaries, [my father] asked me if I would believe him if he told me that it was right for married men to take other wives, can be better imagined than told. But suffice it to say the first impulse was anger, for I thought he had only said it to test my virtue, as I had heard that tales of this kind had been published by such characters as the Higbees, Foster and Bennett, but which I supposed were without any foundation. My sensibilities were painfully touched. I felt such a sense of personal injury and displeasure for to mention such a thing to me I thought altogether unworthy of my father, and as quick as he spoke, I replied to him, short and emphatically, “No, I wouldn’t!” I had always been taught to believe it a heinous crime, improper and unnatural, and I indignantly resented it.
This was the first time that I ever openly manifested anger towards him, but I was somewhat surprised at his countenance, as he seemed rather pleased than otherwise. Then he commenced talking seriously, and reasoned and explained the principle, and why it was again to be established upon the earth, etc., but did not tell me then that anyone had yet practiced it, but left me to reflect upon it for the next twenty-four hours, during which time I was filled with various and conflicting ideas. I was skeptical–one minute believed, then doubted. I thought of the love and tenderness that he felt for his only daughter, and I knew that he would not cast her off, and this was the only convincing proof that I had of its being right. I knew that he loved me too well to teach me anything that was not strictly pure, virtuous and exalting in its tendencies; and no one else could have influenced me at that time or brought me to accept of a doctrine so utterly repugnant and so contrary to all of our former ideas and traditions.”50
Joseph met her the next day to discuss the marriage. Helen was convinced when Joseph offered her a promise in exchange for the marriage, which Helen described, along with her and her mother’s reaction:
“[Joseph] said to me, “If you will take this step, it will ensure your eternal salvation and exaltation & that of your father’s household & all of your kindred. This promise was so great that I willingly gave myself to purchase so glorious a reward. None but God & his angels could see my mother’s bleeding heart—when Joseph asked her if she was willing, she replied “If Helen is willing I have nothing more to say.” She had witnessed the sufferings of others, who were older & who better understood the step they were taking, & to see her child, who had scarcely seen her fifteenth summer, following in the same thorny path, in her mind she saw the misery which was as sure to come as the sun was to rise and set; but it was all hidden from me.”51
There are several things wrong with this. Joseph used his position of authority to convince a 14-year-old girl to marry him with the promise of exaltation for her and her family. Does that align with the doctrine of exaltation as you understand it? Do you believe a 14-year-old girl can guarantee exaltation for herself and her family by marrying a prophet? You can also detect in this quote the pain it caused her mother. In the final phrase, Helen recognizes her own naiveté to the pain it would end up causing her. Bear in mind, Helen never apostatized. These are the recollections of a woman who was still faithful.
It’s not immediately clear how much of a “marriage” Helen really had with Joseph, and understandably, a lot of people are curious whether or not the relationship was sexual. We don’t know. We do know that there is so far no evidence for Joseph participating in “eternity only” non-sexual sealings. Anytime a plural wife of Joseph was willing to testify on the subject, they have either refused to answer or answered that the relationship was in fact sexual.52 We also know from Helen’s writings that she felt trapped by the marriage, and resented the loss of a normal teenage social life. She said that at this time, “I thought that I would be perfectly happy if the plural wife system could be relinquished. I felt unwilling to sacrifice my earthly happiness for the promise of future reward. I thought I could content myself with a lesser glory.”53 She wrote a poem about the ordeal, which she included in her autobiographical letter to her children, immediately after describing her young marriage to Joseph. If you’re interested, you can read it here; she describes herself as a “fetter’d bird with wild and longing heart.” She also recalled resentment for not being allowed to attend a dance that her brother was allowed to attend.54
After Joseph’s death, Helen got her social life back. When she was 16 she met Horace Whitney and they started dating. However, the consequences of her marriage to Joseph weren’t erased. Though, in Helen’s own words, she and Horace vowed “to cling to each other through time and, if permitted, throughout all eternity,”55 it was ultimately not permitted. Helen, being sealed to Joseph for eternity, could only be sealed to Horace for time. Their children would be Joseph’s in the eternities. They were sealed for time, and Horace stood proxy for the deceased Joseph while Helen was re-sealed to him for eternity (a recurring pattern is that Joseph’s sealings were repeated by proxy after his death). As compensation, Horace was sealed the following day to a deceased woman. Once again, a family was not bound together for eternity by the sealing ordinance, but rather separated by it.56
Emily Partridge was the daughter of Edward Partridge, a name Mormons will recognize as the first Bishop of the church whose name is peppered throughout the Doctrine and Covenants. Mormons might also remember stories about persecutions that Edward suffered. Emily, as a young girl, witnessed her father being tarred and feathered. Their life as Latter-Day Saints was plagued with difficulties, and after settling in Nauvoo, Edward got sick and died. Later, Emily and her sister Eliza moved into Joseph and Emma’s house and worked as maids and nannies.
In 1842, Joseph approached Emily, now 18, about plural marriage. She described this in court during the Temple Lot Case, as a witness for the church, meaning her loyalty was still to the church. According to her testimony, Joseph told her he had a secret to tell her, and offered to write her a letter explaining it, on the condition that she burn it after reading it.57 She prayed about it, but was uncomfortable with the idea, and asked that the issue be dropped. Elsewhere she wrote (regarding this conversation) that she “shut [Joseph] up so quick” that he didn’t bring up the subject again for several months.58
Emily was next approached by Elizabeth Durfee. Elizabeth Durfee was one of Joseph’s older plural wives, though Emily didn’t know this at the time. Elizabeth invited Emily and Eliza over to her home one day, and wondered aloud if there was any truth to the rumors of “spiritual wives.” Emily wrote in her autobiography, “I thought I could tell her something that would make her open her eyes if I chose, but I did not choose to. I kept my own council and said nothing.”59 Later, Emily learned that Elizabeth was “a friend to plurality and knew all about it.” Elizabeth was testing the waters so to speak. Elizabeth seems to have been used by Joseph to groom some of the younger women for plural marriage.
On Emily’s 19th birthday, Joseph broached the topic again:
“He taught me this principle of plural marriage that is called polygamy now, but we called it celestial marriage, and he told me that this principle had been revealed to him but it was not generally known; and he went on and said that the Lord had given me to him, and he wanted to know if I would consent to a marriage, and I consented.”60
The way Joseph frames it, Emily has already been “given” to him by the Lord. Elizabeth Durfee was then used again as an intermediary to prepare her for her marriage to Joseph:
“Mrs. Durfee came to me one day and said that Joseph would like an opportunity to talk with me. I asked her if she knew what he wanted. She said she thought he wanted me for a wife. I was thoroughly prepared for almost anything. I was to meet him in the evening at Mr. Kimball’s. I had been helping with the wash all day and I was so afraid somebody would mistrust where I was going that I dared not change my wash dress. So I threw a large cloak over me and said I was going to run over to see Mother, which I did, but did not stay long, and then started out as if going back, but went to the place appointed instead. When I got there, nobody was at home but William and Helen Kimball. I don’t know what they thought to see me there at that hour. I did not wait long before Dorothea Kimball and Joseph came in. Brother Heber told his children that they better go in to one of the neighbors, as there would be a council that evening at their house. Then he said to me, “Vilate is not at home, and you had better call another time.” So I started out with William and Helen, and bid them goodbye.
I started for home as fast as I could go so as to get beyond being called back, for I still dreaded the interview. However, soon I heard Brother Kimball call, “Emily, Emily,” rather low but loud enough for me to hear. I thought at first that I would not go back, and took no notice of his calling. But he kept calling and was about to overtake me, so I stopped and went back with him. I cannot tell you all Joseph said, but he said the Lord had commanded to enter into plural marriage and had given me to him and although I had gotten badly frightened, he knew I would yet have him. So he waited till the Lord told him. My mind was now prepared and would receive the principles. I do not think if I had not gone through the ordeal I did that I would ever have gone off that night to meet him. But that was the only way it could be done then. Well, I was married then and there. Joseph went home his way and I went my way alone. A strange of way of getting married wasn’t it. Brother Kimball married us on the 4th of March, 1843.”61
One can only imagine the pressure she was under to comply, right down to being physically chased down. You may be tempted to infer from the last few sentences that the relationship was purely ceremonial, as they went home separately. However, in her court examination, she answered that she had had “carnal intercourse” with Joseph, and shared a bed with him.62
Shortly, her sister Eliza also married Joseph. However, according to Emily, “neither of us knew about the other at the time, everything was so secret.” So the girls were unknowingly sister wives to Joseph Smith63, though they soon discovered it.
Things got even more complicated for the two sisters. Though Emma had been opposed to plural marriage for a while, Joseph was able to convince her to let him take two new wives, on the condition that she get to choose the wives. To his surprise, Emma chose the Partridge sisters, perhaps since they were already living under the same roof and caring for their children. Rather than fess up, Joseph put on a mock wedding for Emma. In Emily’s words, “To save the family trouble Brother Joseph thought it best to have another ceremony performed. Accordingly on the 11th of May, 1843, we were sealed to JS a second time, in Emma’s presence, she giving her free and full consent thereto.”64
According to Emily, Emma quickly regretted the decision, and she describes Emma having long discussions with Joseph, constantly keeping an eye on the girls and ultimately wanting them out of the house, all reactions one can imagine any wife having in those circumstances. There was a harsh confrontation, and Emma had Joseph remove the girls from the house. Joseph, claiming his “hands are tied,” complied. Emily described her reaction at the time as “indignant toward Joseph for submitting to Emma.” Historian Todd Compton described the cast-out Emily as a “latter-day Hagar,” referencing the second wife of Abraham who was banished by Sarah. After Joseph’s death, she would marry Brigham (like most of Joseph’s plural wives). The next time she met Emma, she noted that she was treated cordially.
Besides the heavy-handed pressure applied to Emily and Eliza, there’s a disturbing amount of deceit going on: Joseph asking her to burn a letter and not talk to her family; Elizabeth Durfee testing the waters with Emily under the pretext that she’s heard “rumors”; Joseph concealing the marriage of the sisters from their families and from each other; keeping it a secret from Emma, and then putting on a mock wedding rather than telling her the truth; in fact, secrecy and deceit is a recurring problem with polygamy, as we are about to see.
We have already covered much of the deceit involved in Polygamy, such as:
- Joseph’s secret relationship with Fanny Alger. Joseph hid it from his wife, got caught, and used church authority punitively against Oliver Cowdery for speaking out about it.
- The ordeal with the Partridge Sisters. Joseph used an older wife to groom them under false pretenses, swore them to secrecy (even from each other and their parents) and performed a false ceremony in order to avoid telling Emma that he had already married them behind her back.
- The denial published in the Doctrine and Covenants.
There are a few other historically attested situations that are worth looking at which demonstrate a clear pattern of dishonesty associated with the practice.
In addition to denying polygamy in Doctrine and Covenants (back in the Fanny Alger days), Joseph repeated his denial in an address in Nauvoo, which was recorded in his History of the Church. This happened in late May of 1844, about a month before his death. At this point he had already married all 33 of his known polygamous wives (using Compton’s list):
“I had not been married scarcely five minutes, and made a proclamation of the Gospel, before it was reported that I had seven wives. I mean to live and proclaim the truth as long as I can…A man asked me whether the commandment was given that a man may have seven wives; and now the new prophet has charged me with adultery. I never had any fuss with these men until that Female Relief Society brought out the paper against adulterers and adulteresses…I am innocent of all these charges, and you can bear witness of my innocence, for you know me yourselves…What a thing it is for a man to be accused of committing adultery, and having seven wives, when I can only find one. I am the same man, and as innocent as I was fourteen years ago; and I can prove them all perjurers.”65
Earlier in October 1843, in his journal, Joseph’s scribe recorded a public denial by Joseph, that he “gave instructions to try those who were preaching, teaching, or practicing the doctrine of plurality of wives …. Joseph forbids it and the practice thereof. No man shall have but one wife.”66 This wasn’t an idle threat either; Joseph published a notice in the “Times and Seasons” that someone had been excommunicated for preaching polygamy:
“As we have lately been credibly informed, that an Elder of the Church of Jesus Christ, of Latter-day Saints, by the name of Hiram Brown, has been preaching Polygamy, and other false and corrupt doctrines, in the county of Lapeer, state of Michigan.
This is to notify him and the Church in general, that he has been cut off from the church, for his iniquity.”67
Back in August of 1842, Joseph had a similar issue when John C. Bennett apostatized. Bennett, as mentioned earlier, was no boy scout himself, and had been caught trying to seduce women using the doctrine of “spiritual wifery.” When Bennett left the church, he started publishing accusations against Joseph Smith anywhere he could. Chief among his accusations were the existence of the Danites and that the doctrine of spiritual wifery originated from Joseph. Although Bennett was definitely an exaggerator, it’s quite clear now that by August of 1842 Joseph was involved in teaching and practicing polygamy (and the existence of the Danites is confirmed as well, though that’s a separate issue for a separate time), and the term “spiritual wifery” was one of many synonyms for plural marriage that Joseph and other church leaders used to describe it (it didn’t have the negative connotation then that it does now). In order to combat these charges, Joseph published a two-page broadside68 with affidavits testifying against Bennett’s character and defending his own, including denials that he ever taught polygamy. He then sent 380 Elders on missions to distribute this document across the United States.69 Many of the people quoted in that document were well aware of polygamy at the time (for example, Brigham had already entered a polygamous marriage). Others quoted in the document were likely being honest, in the sense that they were still in the dark with regards to polygamy. William Law, Joseph’s 1st counselor who would go on to publish the Nauvoo Expositor and expose Joseph’s polygamy, is quoted in that document defending Joseph against the charges and condemning Bennett. Law wouldn’t learn about plural marriage for two more years.
The next month, in the October issue of Times and Seasons, Joseph printed this denial:
“We the undersigned members of the church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and residents of the city of Nauvoo, persons of families do hereby certify and declare that we know of no other rule or system of marriage than the one published from the Book of Doctrine and Covenants, and we give this certificate to show that Dr. J. C. Bennett’s “secret wife system” is a creature of his own make as we know of no such society in this place nor never did.”70
Note that the “system of marriage” published in the Doctrine and Covenants would have been referencing the Article on Marriage professing monogamy. Section 132, which is the revelation on polygamy, was not placed in the Doctrine and Covenants until 1852.71 The denial in Times and Seasons is signed by several people who were already involved in polygamy at the time, including John Taylor72, Wilford Woodruff73 and Newel K. Whitney.
Additionally, the Relief Society published a denial of the claims. John C. Bennett described the Relief Society as a “seraglio” that produced Joseph’s wives. The Relief Society denied any knowledge of a system of marriage other than the monogamous one described in the Doctrine and Covenants, and published it in the October Times and Seasons74. Amongst those who signed the Relief Society statement were Eliza Snow and Sarah Cleveland. Both were already secretly married to Joseph75,76, though Emma may have been unaware at this point in time.
Sarah Ann Whitney
Sarah’s plural marriage to Joseph reveals more of Joseph’s deceit. She was the daughter of Newel K. Whitney, an early LDS bishop whose name most Mormons will recognize. Sarah was selected by Emma as her second counselor in the Relief Society at its inception. For a time, the Whitney’s even lived on the Smith’s property. Joseph approached her parents about the marriage; they initially resisted, but consented after praying about it. Her mother, Elizabeth, recalled that Joseph had been charged by “the angel… that the most profound secrecy must be maintained,”77 suggesting that Joseph told them something similar to what he told Zina Huntington regarding an angel that had threatened him with destruction. Helen Mar Kimball, a friend of Sarah’s (who, if you recall, married Joseph when she was 14, and then married Sarah’s brother Horace after Joseph’s death), recalled the secrecy as well.78 Sarah signed an affidavit that puts her marriage to Joseph at July 27, 1842, when she was 17 years old.79 Her father Newel performed the ceremony, using the words from a revelation produced by Joseph Smith specifically for the occasion, which included promises of immortality and eternal life to the entire family in exchange for the marriage.80
But as I mentioned, there was a lot of deceit going on. To begin with, according to Helen Mar, Joseph was afraid Sarah’s brother Horace (eventual husband of Helen Mar) would disapprove of the marriage, so he sent him East on a mission before the marriage ceremony would occur81.
He also took pains to prevent Emma from finding out. A letter dated August 18th of 1842 from Joseph to Newel, Elizabeth and Sarah, gives them instructions on how to meet him without tipping off Emma, and instructing them to burn the letter after reading it (luckily for us, they didn’t follow the last instruction). At the time, Joseph was hiding from the law at a friend’s house. The letter reads as follows:
“Dear, and Beloved, Brother and Sister, Whitney, and &c.—
I take this oppertunity to communi[c]ate, some of my feelings, privetely at this time, which I want you three Eternaly to keep in your own bosams; for my feelings are so strong for you since what has pased lately between us, that the time of my abscence from you seems so long, and dreary, that it seems, as if I could not live long in this way: and three would come and see me in this my lonely retreat, it would afford me great relief, of mind, if those with whom I am alied, do love me; now is the time to afford me succour, in the days of exile, for you know I foretold you of these things. I am now at Carlos Graingers, Just back of Brother Hyrams farm, it is only one mile from town, the nights are very pleasant indeed, all three of you come come and See me in the fore part of the night, let Brother Whitney come a little a head, and nock at the south East corner of the house at window; it is next to the cornfield, I have a room inti=rely by myself, the whole matter can be attended to with most perfect safty, I it is the will of God that you should comfort now in this time of affliction, or not at[ta]l now is the time or never, but I hav[e] no kneed of saying any such thing, to you, for I know the goodness of your hearts, and that you will do the will of the Lord, when it is made known to you; the only thing to be careful of; is to find out when Emma comes then you cannot be safe, but when she is not here, there is the most perfect safty: only be careful to escape observation, as much as possible, I know it is a heroick undertakeing; but so much the greater frendship, and the more Joy, when I see you I tell you all my plans, I cannot write them on paper, burn this letter as soon as you read it; keep all locked up in your breasts, my life depends upon it. one thing I want to see you for is git the fulness of my blessings sealed upon our heads, &c. you wi will pardon me for my earnest=ness on when you consider how lonesome I must be, your good feelings know how to every allowance for me, I close my letter, I think Emma wont come tonight if she dont dont fail to come to night. I subscribe myself your most obedient, affectionate, companion, and friend.
Joseph was evidently very worried about his marriage to Sarah getting out – so much so, that beyond the cloak and dagger involved in concealing the marriage from Emma and Horace, he arranged a fake marriage for Sarah just to throw off suspicion. The man Sarah was “fake married” to was named Joseph Kingsbury. Joseph Kingsbury described this himself:
on the 29th of April 1843 I according to President Joseph Smith Couscil & others agreed to Stand by Sarah Ann Whitny as supposed to be her husband & had a pretended marriage for the purpose of Bringing about the purposes of God in these last days as Spoken by the mouth of the Prophets Isiah Jeremiah Ezekiel and also Joseph Smith, & Sarah Ann Should Recd a Great Glory Honor, & eternal lives and I Also Should Recd a Great Glory, Honor & eternal lives to the full desire of my heart in having my Companion Caroline in the first Resurection to claim her & no one have power to take her from me & we both shall be Crowned & enthroned together in the Celestial Kingdom of God Enjoying Each other’s Society in all of the fulness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ83
Here we see that Joseph Kingsbury was promised to be reunited with his wife in the Celestial Kingdom in exchange for a pretend marriage with Sarah. Joseph performed the civil marriage between them84and Joseph Kingsbury lived in the Whitney home.85 After Joseph Smith’s death, Sarah was sealed to Heber C. Kimball (most of Joseph’s plural wives married either Brigham or Heber). Joseph Kingsbury was sealed to his deceased wife, but never to Sarah.
Suppression of Dissent
So far I’ve provided examples of Joseph being dishonest about the practice of polygamy and proactively quelling any rumors about it. His determination to conceal the practice extended much further than denials, though; he often sought to punish those who spoke out about the practice, as I mentioned in the case of Oliver Cowdery. But nowhere is it more evident than in the case of William Law and the Nauvoo Expositor.
William and his wife Jane were baptized in 1836 in Canada and moved to Nauvoo in 1839. He was initially very impressed with Joseph and the Mormon community and, being a sharp guy, he quickly caught Joseph’s attention. In 1841, Joseph called him as the First Counselor in the First Presidency. However, William became disillusioned with Joseph shortly after Hyrum privately shared the revelation on plural marriage with him (the same revelation that would become Section 132 of the Doctrine and Covenants). In an interview with the Salt Lake Tribune, an elderly William Law reflected on this experience:
“I took it home, and read it and showed it to my wife. She and I were just turned upside down by it; we did not know what to do. I said to my wife, that I would take it over to Joseph and ask him about it. I did not believe that he would acknowledge it, and I said so to my wife. But she was not of my opinion. She felt perfectly sure that he would father it. When I came to Joseph and showed him the paper, he said: ‘Yes, that is a genuine revelation.’ I said to the prophet: ‘But in the Book of Doctrine and Covenants there is a revelation just the contrary of this.’ ‘Oh,’ said Joseph, ‘that was given when the church was in its infancy, then it was all right to feed the people on milk, but now it is necessary to give them strong meat’ We talked a long time about it, finally our discussion became very hot and we gave it up. From that time on the breach between us became more open and more decided every day, after having been prepared for a long time. But the revelation gave the finishing touch to my doubts and showed me clearly that he was a rascal.”86
His contemporary diary is consistent with his later recollection. In 1844 he wrote that the revelation on polygamy “paralizes the nerves, chills the currents of the heart, and drives the brain almost to madness.”87
It wasn’t the revelation alone that drove a wedge between William and Joseph, though. Shortly after seeing the revelation, according to William’s diary, Joseph proposed to William’s wife Jane. His May 13, 1844 entry states: “He [Joseph] had lately endeavored to seduce my wife, and had found her a virtuous woman.”88
William fought Joseph on the subject vigorously, and told him the doctrine of plural marriage was “of the devil.” Joseph refused to rescind the doctrine, and their relationship quickly deteriorated.
On January 8, 1844 William Law was unceremoniously dropped from the First Presidency. By April, he had been excommunicated. He pointed out that was not given the opportunity to defend himself, which was against Church protocol.
William did not take things lying down. Believing Joseph to be a fallen prophet, he and other dissenters formed a reform church. Law presided but specified he was only a president, not a prophet. In order to expose Joseph, they brought charges of adultery against Joseph in an Illinois court for cohabiting with Maria Lawrence. Joseph denied the charges.
William Law was undeterred, and in May of 1844, he and his fellow dissenters bought a printing press. On June 7, they published a thousand copies of the first and only issue of the Nauvoo Expositor. If you’d like to read it, there’s a copy you can examine here; to summarize, its purpose was to expose Joseph Smith. Featured are allegations of polygamy.
The following day, Joseph described the paper as a “nuisance, a greater nuisance than a dead carcass.” By virtue of his office as Mayor, he ordered the destruction of the press. If you’re at all familiar with the story of Joseph Smith’s death, you’re aware that this altercation led to Joseph’s incarceration and ultimately his death.
Growing up, I was vaguely aware of the Nauvoo Expositor (it’s difficult to tell the story of Joseph’s death without mentioning it) but I was always told it was destroyed for publishing lies about the Prophet. It was quite a shock to learn that the allegations in the newspaper, in retrospect, were largely accurate.
Common defenses of Polygamy
Joseph’s polygamy, once you dig into the details, is deeply troubling, and I can’t say I’ve seen many people attempt to defend it at this level of detail (although such people do exist). Many members assume that the information is simply wrong; I hope I’ve provided enough documentation here to demonstrate that it isn’t. The most visible apologists trying to defend Joseph’s polygamy have generally conceded all the main points: that Joseph married already-wed women, that Joseph’s polygamy was often sexual, that he lied about it to his wife and to the public, and that he married some very young women. But I’ll present my reaction to some common rationalizations here.
Joseph only had sex with some of his wives
Defenders of Joseph’s polygamy have largely had to accept that Joseph was sexually involved with many of his wives, including some of his polyandrous wives, which doesn’t leave them a lot of room for apologetics. Most recently, a prominent apologist asserted that you can’t prove that he was sexually involved with his polyandrous (i.e., already wed) wives at the same time that they were sexually involved with their original husbands. There’s no historical evidence presented to support this; rather the historical record is ambiguous enough and the rationalization narrow enough that it’s technically plausible, if unlikely. I referenced Josephine Lyons earlier, whose mother Sylvia was a polyandrous wife of Joseph and claimed that Josephine was actually Joseph’s daughter. Sylvia went on to have other children with her first husband later, so essentially what they’re arguing is that only Joseph got to have sex with her in the window between their plural marriage and his death, whereas her legal husband was only allowed to have sex with her before and after that window. Let me reiterate that no piece of historical evidence or testimony ever asserts such an arrangement, it’s simply a theory that makes some people feel better about it. In my opinion, such explanations don’t go nearly far enough to resolve the multitudinous issues presented by Joseph’s practice of polygamy, and I challenge anyone to try and reconcile that particular theoretical marital arrangement with any common sense understanding of LDS doctrines on marriage.
Joseph was confused about the sealing ordinance and his marriages were dynastic
I have heard a few well-meaning people present the idea that Joseph Smith got the commandment to live plural marriage, but not the details, and as he tried to work it out for himself, he made some mistakes. Frequently, this is meant to explain Joseph’s polyandry as a noble but misguided attempt at linking his family to other families “dynastically.” The Church’s essay on Nauvoo Polygamy on Lds.org presents this idea:
“Although the Lord commanded the adoption—and later the cessation—of plural marriage in the latter days, He did not give exact instructions on how to obey the commandment. Significant social and cultural changes often include misunderstandings and difficulties… Joseph Smith’s sealings to women already married may have been an early version of linking one family to another.”
To me, marrying someone else’s wife is a little too large of a mistake to chalk up to a simple “misunderstanding.” Additionally, I have a hard time reconciling the idea that the Lord deemed it so important that Joseph marry certain young women that he sent an angel with a drawn sword to enforce it, but then remained silent while Joseph mistakenly married other men’s wives and sealed their families to himself for eternity. It just does not leave a lot of wiggle room for a misunderstanding. The essay also implies that these were eternity-only sealings and that Joseph would not have been sexually involved with them. I’ve already shown this is not true in the case of Sylvia Sessions. While it’s true that Joseph taught that families could be dynastically linked through polygamous marriages, it seems pretty clear that he did consider most if not all of them “marriages” in the full sense of the word. Even if he weren’t sexually involved with the women he married, there’s still the issue that he was essentially claiming the wife and any offspring she had through her first husband as his own in the hereafter. As someone who grew up being taught that the purpose of the sealing ordinance is to bind families together in the eternities, it’s shocking how often Joseph used it to split them up. No matter how you spin it, marrying someone else’s spouse just seems wrong.
Joseph as an Imperfect Man
A lot of people have struggled with these questions, and understandably, many people are anxious to find a middle ground. I’ve met quite a few people who believe that Joseph was a prophet, but was completely out to lunch on the whole polygamy thing. They admit that the things he did were indefensible, but wonder out loud if he can still be a prophet in spite of his imperfections, sometimes invoking the example of Noah since he got drunk once. Elder Neil Anderson hinted at this in General Conference when he advised us to “give brother Joseph a break.”
Of course, I have good reason to doubt Joseph’s ability to reveal other things as well (see my section on the Book of Abraham and the Book of Mormon), but regardless, I have a hard time accepting this view of a prophet. Setting aside the fact that it’s totally foreign to the concept of a prophet that the church teaches, if we’re going to judge Joseph as a prophet of Jesus Christ, it’s worth observing the one litmus test Jesus gave his followers for evaluating true prophets from deceivers: “By their fruits ye shall know them.” If we’re willing to concede that Joseph erred in revealing the doctrine of plural marriage – a doctrine that would define Mormonism for several generations – then we cannot confidently hold Joseph up to that standard. After all, “a good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit.”
Closing thoughts on Polygamy
As I said before, polygamy is much easier to defend if you haven’t seriously looked at the details. I’ve actually only scratched the surface here. I haven’t even touched on how polygamy was practiced by other church leaders such as Brigham Young. But at this point, it just really seems impossible for me to defend polygamy or regard it as anything other than a terrible chapter in our history. It hurt a lot of people. It was degrading to many of the women involved and robbed them of the chance to have loving relationships. It broke up families. And I believe it made men worse for having participated. Most members are familiar with the quote of Brigham’s where he “desired the grave” over living the law of plural marriage. Yet later in life he made this statement:
“But the first wife will say, ‘It is hard, for I have lived with my husband twenty years, or thirty, and have raised a family of children for him, and it is a great trial to me for him to have more women;’ then I say it is time that you gave him up to other women who will bear children…there is no cessation to the everlasting whining of many of the women in this Territory.”89
He also went on to boast, “I could find more girls who would choose me for a husband than can carry any of the young men.”90 This doesn’t look like a positive progression to me.
The sealing power was always presented to me as a way to bind families together. But historically, the sealing power was synonymous with polygamy, and I’m not sure I want any part of an ordinance that was used to tear wives away from their husbands and steal men’s families in the hereafter. I don’t have a testimony that God sent an angel with a drawn sword to force Joseph to marry someone else’s wife, and I don’t have a testimony that a 14-year-old girl can earn exaltation for her family by marrying the prophet. Do you?
The Book of Mormon
My earliest memories of a latter-day prophet are from the tenure of President Ezra Taft Benson, who promoted a renewed emphasis on the Book of Mormon. He encouraged families to study it daily and to “flood the earth” with it. Its role as a testament for or against the church’s claims has long been emphasized. Anyone who grew up in the church is familiar with the “keystone” analogy which we teach in Sunday School and draw on the chalkboard: the Book of Mormon is the keystone of our religion, and it is physical evidence testifying to Joseph’s divine calling. Take away the keystone, and the bridge falls apart.
As a missionary in Mexico, I taught my investigators that they were the descendants of the people described in the Book of Mormon, and that they were members of the House of Israel. Most of these claims are familiar to all Mormons.
The origin of the Native Americans
One of the oldest and most central claims of the Book of Mormon is that it describes the origins of the Native Americans. According to the Book of Mormon, Lehi’s family sailed from the Middle East to the American continent. It also describes two other migrations, one much more ancient (the Jaredites) and one contemporaneous with Lehi (the Hebrew Mulekites).
Anyone who is interested in Book of Mormon scholarship is aware of the challenges that modern science presents to these claims. DNA evidence is pretty conclusive in showing that Native Americans have predominantly Asian, not Middle-Eastern, ancestry. Both archaeological and genetic evidence supports the notion that humans migrated from Asia through the Bering Land Bridge at the end of the last ice age about 13,000 years ago.91 Linguistic evidence also points to an Asian origin: some native North American languages and Siberian languages are related.92 Although this has been known to scientists for the better part of a century, the church has largely ignored such challenges up until recently. Now the science has reached a point of such universal consensus that believing Book of Mormon scholars have had to construct a new narrative to describe the Book of Mormon.
This new narrative is often called the “Limited Geography Theory,” and in a nutshell, it posits that the majority of the American continent was populated the way scientists attest, but that the Book of Mormon describes a small population constrained to a small geographic location, and that all Nephite and Lamanite DNA and culture was subsumed by the much larger Native American population to the point where no traces of the Lamanites and Nephites are left. The Church has quietly adopted this apologetic explanation in a couple ways. First, it changed the language in the introduction to the Book of Mormon which formerly described the Lamanites as “the principal ancestors of the American Indians” to read “among the ancestors of the American Indians.”93 Second, it espoused this model in an lds.org Gospel Topics essay meant to address the issue. In so doing, the Church has acknowledged that DNA evidence supports an Asian ancestry for the Native Americans.
In order for the Church to acknowledge the scientific consensus of an Asian ancestry for Native Americans, such a model becomes necessary. My problem with this model is that it disregards the claims of both the Book of Mormon itself and several revelations by Presidents of the Church.
The Book of Mormon does not support this theory
Supporters of the Limited Geography Model often claim that a “close reading” of the Book of Mormon supports a small geography. This is only true in the sense that the Book of Mormon doesn’t seem to appreciate the vastness of the American continent and the time required to travel across it. The language is pretty clear, though, that the Nephites and Lamanites are alone in the Americas and that they are the ancestors of our modern day Native Americans.
The Book of Mormon speaks very highly of America as a “promised land.” Lehi is promised he will be led to this land in exchange for his obedience to the commandments. He also states that the Lord has intentionally kept other nations from finding this land in order to preserve it for the righteous:
“Wherefore, I, Lehi, prophesy according to the workings of the Spirit which is in me, that there shall none come into this land save they shall be brought by the hand of the Lord… And behold, it is wisdom that this land should be kept as yet from the knowledge of other nations; for behold, many nations would overrun the land, that there would be no place for an inheritance. Wherefore, I, Lehi, have obtained a promise, that inasmuch as those whom the Lord God shall bring out of the land of Jerusalem shall keep his commandments, they shall prosper upon the face of this land; and they shall be kept from all other nations, that they may possess this land unto themselves. And if it so be that they shall keep his commandments they shall be blessed upon the face of this land, and there shall be none to molest them, nor to take away the land of their inheritance; and they shall dwell safely forever.” 2 Nephi 1:6,8-9, emphasis added
This directly contradicts the idea that there were other inhabitants in America at the same time as the Nephites and Lamanites. This verse specifically says that the Nephites and Lamanites are alone in the promised land and that God intended it to be that way, since if any other nations knew about it, they’d “overrun” the land. And if America isn’t the promised land spoken of here, then what is? Some undiscovered parcel of Guatemala? Unfortunately, that rationalization is also contradicted by the Book of Mormon. Nephi prophesies in detail about the future of the “promised land.”
“And I looked and beheld a man among the Gentiles, who was separated from the seed of my brethren by the many waters; and I beheld the Spirit of God, that it came down and wrought upon the man; and he went forth upon the many waters, even unto the seed of my brethren, who were in the promised land. And it came to pass that I beheld the Spirit of God, that it wrought upon other Gentiles; and they went forth out of captivity, upon the many waters. And it came to pass that I beheld many multitudes of the Gentiles upon the land of promise; and I beheld the wrath of God, that it was upon the seed of my brethren; and they were scattered before the Gentiles and were smitten. And I beheld the Spirit of the Lord, that it was upon the Gentiles, and they did prosper and obtain the land for their inheritance; and I beheld that they were white, and exceedingly fair and beautiful, like unto my people before they were slain. And it came to pass that I, Nephi, beheld that the Gentiles who had gone forth out of captivity did humble themselves before the Lord; and the power of the Lord was with them. And I beheld that their mother Gentiles were gathered together upon the waters, and upon the land also, to battle against them. And I beheld that the power of God was with them, and also that the wrath of God was upon all those that were gathered together against them to battle. And I, Nephi, beheld that the Gentiles that had gone out of captivity were delivered by the power of God out of the hands of all other nations.”1 Nephi 13:12-19, emphasis added
This prophecy is very obviously a reference to Columbus, the conquest of the Americas by Europeans, and the US War of Independence. The LDS Book of Mormon Institute Student Manual supports this interpretation. In this passage, the Lamanites (the seed of Nephi’s brethren) are identified as the people that Columbus made contact with, the Native American victims of European conquest, and the Native Americans of the United States. The promised land is identified as North and Central America at the very least (where Columbus landed and the site of the US War of Independence), if not the entire continent (since Europeans conquered much of South America as well). For now, I’m not even going to touch on the very disturbing claim that God sanctioned the European’s violence against Native Americans as a punishment for the wickedness of their ancestors. A few verses later, in case the identification of the promised land wasn’t clear enough, the point is driven home even further:
“Nevertheless, thou beholdest that the Gentiles who have gone forth out of captivity, and have been lifted up by the power of God above all other nations, upon the face of the land which is choice above all other lands, which is the land that the Lord God hath covenanted with thy father that his seed should have for the land of their inheritance; wherefore, thou seest that the Lord God will not suffer that the Gentiles will utterly destroy the mixture of thy seed, which are among thy brethren.” 1 Nephi 13:30, emphasis added
I don’t know how much clearer the Book of Mormon could be about the location of the promised land and the identity of the Lamanites without outright naming it with modern monikers. The Limited Geography model endorsed by the church directly contradicts the Book of Mormon, which means that the challenges of DNA and archaeological evidence are still very relevant.
Latter-Day Revelations Don’t Support this Theory
It goes without saying that the classic interpretation of the Book of Mormon as an epic that spans the American continent was assumed by Latter-Day prophets, and one might reasonably say that they were operating under the assumptions of their day. That can’t explain, however, the numerous modern revelations produced which identify this interpretation as the correct one.
To begin with, Joseph Smith often sent his Elders on missions to the Lamanites – in revelations written in God’s voice. For example, Oliver Cowdery is called to preach the Book of Mormon to the Lamanites. This revelation is canonized in D&C 28:8: “And now, behold, I say unto you that you shall go unto the Lamanites and preach my gospel unto them; and inasmuch as they receive thy teachings thou shalt cause my church to be established among them.” David and Peter Whitmer were similarly called to “build up [the] church among the Lamanites” in D&C 30:5-6. Again, the revelation is given in the voice of God. Later Parley P. Pratt and Ziba Petersen were called to join them “into the wilderness among the Lamanites.” This revelation, also written in God’s voice, is canonized in D&C 32:2-3. If the Lamanites were a small group whose culture and gene pool disappeared in lieu of a much larger Native American culture, it would have been impossible for these men to obey the commandment in these revelations. They interpreted the revelation the way it was obviously written to be understood, and they preached to the Native Americans of the United States. Parley P. Pratt’s journal records them preaching to the Native Americans in Buffalo, New York.94
Joseph also claimed that the angel Moroni explicitly identified the Native Americans as Lamanites:
When I was about 17 years old I saw another vision of angels in the night season after I had retired to bed I had not been asleep, … all at once the room was illuminated above the brightness of the sun an angel appeared before me … he said unto me I am a messenger sent from God, be faithful and keep his commandments in all things, he told me of a sacred record which was written on plates of gold, I saw in the vision the place where they were deposited, he said the Indians were the literal descendants of Abraham.95
There are other revelations which tie the Lamanites to the Native Americans. For example, during the famous march of Zion’s Camp, the company came across an Indian burial mound on June 3, 1834. Multiple journals corroborate what transpired: some bones were unearthed, and Joseph declared they belonged to a “white Lamanite” named “Zelph” who was an officer that died in the last struggle of the Lamanites96,97,98,99,100. One journal entry states that Zelph “was known from the Atlantic to the Rocky Mountains.” The entries also say that Zelph fought “under the Prophet Onandagus” in one version or “with the people of Onendagus” in another. Onandaga is the name of a county in New York state and also an Iroquois tribe. This event places the Lamanites again in the United States and suggests that the Lamanites were spread across the nation. The journal entries indicate Joseph received this knowledge in a vision.
Joseph wasn’t the only modern prophet to produce such revelations. Brigham Young chose the site of the Manti temple, saying: “Here is the spot where the Prophet Moroni stood and dedicated this piece of land for a Temple site, and that is the reason why the location is made here, and we can’t move it from this spot.” That places Nephites and Lamanites spanning from Utah to Illinois to New York.101
So you see, it’s not just rash assumptions being made by latter-day prophets that the Book of Mormon describes events that took place on the American continent (rather than some tiny undiscovered Central American location). It’s confirmed in actual revelations.
This Theory Undermines the Mission of the Book of Mormon
The Book of Mormon makes clear that one of its missions is to bring the Lamanites to a knowledge of their status as a tribe of Israel. On the Title Page of the Book of Mormon, which Joseph Smith indicated was written by Moroni, we read:
Written to the Lamanites, who are a remnant of the house of Israel…Which is to show unto the remnant of the house of Israel what great things the Lord hath done for their fathers; and that they may know the covenants of the Lord, that they are not cast off forever.
Nephi also prophesied that the Book of Mormon would be instrumental in restoring the gospel to the Lamanites:
“And now, I would prophesy somewhat more concerning the Jews and the Gentiles. For after the book of which I have spoken shall come forth, and be written unto the Gentiles, and sealed up again unto the Lord, there shall be many which shall believe the words which are written; and they shall carry them forth unto the remnant of our seed. And then shall the remnant of our seed know concerning us, how that we came out from Jerusalem, and that they are descendants of the Jews. And the gospel of Jesus Christ shall be declared among them; wherefore, they shall be restored unto the knowledge of their fathers, and also to the knowledge of Jesus Christ, which was had among their fathers.” 2 Nephi 30:3-5
The restoration of the Lamanites is also prophesied by Joseph Smith, saying in D&C 49:24: “Jacob shall flourish in the wilderness, and the Lamanites shall blossom as the rose.” In Moroni’s closing thoughts, he addresses the future Lamanites, saying, “I write unto my brethren, the Lamanites; and I would that they should know that more than four hundred and twenty years have passed away since the sign was given of the coming of Christ. And I seal up these records, after I have spoken a few words by way of exhortation unto you.” (Moroni 10:1-2)
This presents a problem for the “nuanced” Limited Geography theory. If the Lamanites were so completely subsumed by a larger Native American population such that their entire culture, language and genetic markers have completely vanished, they are functionally extinct. Who, then, was the Book of Mormon written for? Who will blossom as a rose? Who will be restored to the covenants and knowledge of their fathers? DNA analysis can identify migrations that occurred over 10,000 years ago in populations much smaller than those described in The Book of Mormon, which number in the millions. If they left no genetic markers behind, then they aren’t the ancestors of modern Native Americans, and The Book of Mormon is written for a people that don’t exist anymore.
Bible Quotations in the Book of Mormon
As all readers of the Book of Mormon know, the Book of Mormon quotes from the Bible extensively. In some cases, the Book of Mormon prophets are copying verses from the Old Testament; for example, Nephi copies several chapters from Isaiah. In 3 Nephi, Jesus repeats some of his New Testament sermons to the Nephites, which is also recorded. In other cases, Book of Mormon prophets record lengthy New Testament passages (which they wouldn’t have access to), presumably by revelation, such as Moroni quoting Paul’s treatise on Charity in Moroni 7. In addition, several biblical phrases and concepts are peppered throughout the Book of Mormon more subtly. The fact that Nephites recorded biblical text actually provides us with an opportunity to test the authenticity of the Book of Mormon. If we are getting a revealed translation of biblical texts from 600 BC, we have an idea of what we would expect to see, and which modern interpolations and translation errors should be omitted. However, the Book of Mormon’s use of bible quotations is very problematic, and suggest a modern rather than an ancient source.
One of the major talking points in the LDS church has always been that the Bible is imperfect because it has been corrupted and mistranslated so many times. Therefore, we would expect the biblical quotes in the Book of Mormon to correct these errors. After all, the source is older (Nephi would be quoting from the brass plates, which he acquired around 600 BC), and the translation method inspired. But contrary to such expectations, the Book of Mormon actually preserves translation errors from the King James bible, the same bible that Joseph Smith’s family owned.
And shall make him of quick understanding in the fear of the Lord…2 Nephi 21:3
And shall make him of quick understanding in the fear of the Lord…Isaiah 11:3 (KJV)
The phrase “make him of quick understanding” is a mistranslation of a Hebrew verb. In modern translations, it reads “His delight will be in the fear of the LORD.”
…and afterwards did more grievously afflict by the way of the Red Sea beyond Jordan in Galilee of the nations.2 Nephi 19:1
…and afterward did more grievously afflict her by the way of the sea, beyond Jordan, in Galilee of the nations.Isaiah 9:1 (KJV)
Here the Book of Mormon incorrectly leaves the phrase “did more grievously afflict” which is a mistranslation that completely reverses the meaning of the verse. The verb here is better translated as “honor,” as you can see in newer translations of this passage: “…but in the future he will honor Galilee of the nations, by the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan.” The Book of Mormon makes a couple other changes to this verse, including adding “Red” so that it says “Red Sea.” This doesn’t make much sense since the Red Sea is over 250 miles away from Galilee and Jordan. It seems much more likely that the “sea” in question is the Sea of Galilee, which is in Galilee and which connects to the river Jordan. So the Book of Mormon misses an opportunity here to fix a translation error, instead mistakenly inserting another one.
And upon all the ships of the sea, and upon all the ships of Tarshish, and upon all pleasant pictures.2 Nephi 12:16
And upon all the ships of Tarshish, and upon all pleasant pictures.Isaiah 2:16 (KJV)
The problem here is with the word “pictures.” It should be translated as “ships” or “vessels.” Modern translations translate it that way: “for every trading ship and every stately vessel.” Here, once again, the Book of Mormon makes a change in the wrong place, by adding the phrase “upon all the ships of the sea.” A footnote in the Book of Mormon uses this addition as evidence of the authenticity of the passage as having an ancient source: “The Greek (Septuagint) has ‘ships of the sea.’ The Hebrew has ‘ships of Tarshish.’ The Book of Mormon has both, showing that the brass plates had lost neither phrase.” The problem with that explanation is that this extra phrase actually disrupts the meter. This part of Isaiah is written poetically as a list of couplets. By introducing another phrase here, the meter is broken. Even the Maxwell Institute, an arm of BYU, argues that this phrase is just the same line translated differently in the Greek and Hebrew texts.102 So once again, the Book of Mormon fails to correct one error while introducing another.
Perhaps even more puzzling is that Joseph’s “inspired translation” of the Bible corrects some biblical passages in ways that diverge from the Book of Mormon quotations. For example, when Christ preaches his Sermon on the Mount to the Nephites, he quotes it nearly verbatim from the book of Matthew. But later, Joseph Smith corrected the scripture in Matthew as part of his “Inspired Translation:”
Verily, verily, I say unto you, Judge not, that ye be not judged. 3 Nephi 14:1
Judge not, that ye be not judged. Matthew 7:1 (KJV)
…Judge not unrighteously, that ye be not judged; but judge righteous judgment. Matthew 7:1, JST
Here’s another example, also from the Sermon on the Mount:
Therefore I say unto you, take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment? 3 Nephi 13:25
Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment? Matthew 6:25 (KJV)
And, again, I say unto you, Go ye into the world, and care not for the world; for the world will hate you, and will persecute you, and will turn you out of their synagogues. Nevertheless, ye shall go forth from house to house, teaching the people; and I will go before you. And your heavenly Father will provide for you, whatsoever things ye need for food, what ye shall eat; and for raiment, what ye shall wear or put on. Matthew 6:25-27 (JST), meant to replace verse 25
Whenever I’ve searched for answers on issues relating to the Joseph Smith Translation, the only response I can ever find is deflection by saying that the JST wasn’t truly a “translation” (even though Joseph described it that way) and that these changes represent commentary by Joseph Smith. But the commentary here changes the meaning of the scripture. If the Book of Mormon, whose translation was inspired, agrees with the original wording, why would Joseph Smith add commentary that changes the meaning? It doesn’t make a lot of sense.
All readers of the Book of Mormon are aware of the lengthy Isaiah quotations in 2 Nephi. The difficulty of getting past 2 Nephi is a recurring joke among Mormons. Nephi quoted these sections because he “delighted in the words of Isaiah.” Nephi tells us that the words of the prophets down to Jeremiah are written on the Brass Plates, which Nephi’s family obtained in Jerusalem before it was destroyed. This makes a certain amount of sense, since Jeremiah is identified as a contemporary of Lehi in the first chapter of the Book of Mormon. Since Jeremiah’s ministry coincided with the destruction of Jerusalem, it would make a certain amount of sense to assert that Nephi had all of the scriptures in the Old Testament up to Jeremiah, including Isaiah.
Unfortunately, Old Testament chronology isn’t as clear cut as that. While Nephi freely quotes from Isaiah, the text of Isaiah itself demands that much of it was written after the destruction of Jerusalem. Specifically, everything after Chapter 39 was written after the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem in 597 BC. In these latter chapters, the author addresses himself to the Jews in exile, prophesying about a time when Jerusalem will be rebuilt. In Isaiah 44 and 45, he addresses Cyrus by name, urging him to rebuild Jerusalem and build a temple. Cyrus was a Persian King whose reign began in 559 BC, and he’s the monarch who conquered Babylon and ended the Babylonian captivity of the Jews. When Lehi and Nephi left Jerusalem, Cyrus hadn’t even been born yet.
This is a problem for the Book of Mormon, since Nephi quotes several passages of Isaiah from this time period. Specifically, chapters 48-51 of Isaiah are quoted by Nephi in 1 Nephi 20-21 and 2 Nephi 7-8. Nephi was copying sections of the Book of Isaiah that hadn’t been written yet. You might be tempted to suggest that Nephi received these chapters later, by revelation. Of course, if that method of obtaining the scriptures were at Nephi’s disposal, then the entire story surrounding the brass plates, including the justification for Nephi killing Laban in the street, kind of goes out the window. Nephi even specifically says that he read Isaiah from the brass plates in 1 Nephi 19:22-23, so I find it quite a stretch to argue that Nephi got some of the words of Isaiah, from the future, by revelation. Such a revelation would also imply that revelation is received word for word, which makes the Book of Mormon even more difficult to justify in many cases, but that’s a digression I won’t follow through on at the moment.
Ask any missionary to identify the climax of the Book of Mormon, and they’ll answer that it comes in 3 Nephi, when Christ visits America. Much of what Christ says in 3 Nephi is verbatim what is written in the King James bible. The Seminary and Institute manuals indicate that Jesus was teaching the Nephites the same message he taught his followers in the Old World, so the repetition makes sense. While there’s a certain logic to that, there are a couple conspicuous issues with it.
I say unto thee, thou shalt by no means come out thence until thou hast paid the uttermost senine. And while ye are in prison can ye pay even one senine? Verily, verily, I say unto you, Nay.3 Nephi 12:26
I didn’t quote the New Testament verse side by side, but perhaps you noticed the difference anyway. In Matthew, it uses the term “farthing” (or “penny” in modern translations) instead of “senine.” Makes sense, right? We know from Alma 11 that a senine was a Nephite monetary unit. So we can conclude here that Jesus is tailoring the sermon to a Nephite audience. The problem is that there are less obvious Old World references in the sermon that are not corrected in the Book of Mormon. For example, in verse 41: “And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain.” This is an allusion to a Roman practice in which the government could compel you to travel with and furnish an officer.103 Jesus is telling his followers that rather than fight back against this unjust treatment at the hands of the Romans, they ought to go peaceably and even go an extra mile. Our modern usage of the phrase “go the extra mile” derives from the scripture in Matthew, and we understand the metaphorical meaning of that phrase only because of this scripture’s place in the history of the English language. But the metaphor would have no meaning to the Nephites. “Go the extra mile” was not a saying yet, and they wouldn’t be familiar with the law being referenced. It would have made no more sense to them than a farthing or a penny would.
Closing thoughts on issues with the Book of Mormon
There are, of course, other challenges to the historicity of the Book of Mormon that I haven’t addressed. For example, the lack of archaeological evidence supporting the Book of Mormon narrative, despite the fact that it describes enormous civilizations with advanced technology that fought battles with huge death tolls; the many anachronisms present in the text, such as horses, swine, elephants, cattle, goats, barley, wheat, chariots, steel and iron swords, all items that the Book of Mormon places on the American continent, but which we know with a high degree of certainty didn’t exist in America during that time frame; the presence of 19th century theological ideas that aren’t even particularly LDS; the fact that the concepts presented by the Book of Mormon, such as an Israelite heritage for the American Indians, were popular in Joseph’s day and were discussed in literature available to him and published nearby. These subjects open up a whole can of worms I’m not going to get into here, but I include them in case you’re curious in following up on those topics on your own.
There are many people who are aware of these issues, though, and choose to read the Book of Mormon non-literally, but still accept it as scripture (“inspired fiction”). While I’m sure this works for many people, it’s an idea that’s really hard for me to get behind. If the Book of Mormon isn’t a literal history, then who appeared to Joseph Smith and led him to the plates? If Moroni didn’t exist, what does that say about Joseph Smith’s account of how he obtained the Book of Mormon? The credibility of the Book of Mormon is tied too closely to its historicity for that kind of theory to make sense to me. If the Book of Mormon is fictional, then Joseph Smith’s own story of its origins is not truthful. For the same reason, I don’t find very compelling as an answer the oft-repeated deflection I find in the church’s literature that the purpose of the Book of Mormon is spiritual, not historical. Whether or not the Book of Mormon is a spiritual book, its historicity matters. Its meaning and its validity are tied too closely to it being an actual record of ancient people in America. And once again, I have to wonder why God would take such extraordinary pains to prevent our faith from being challenged over competing manuscripts of the lost 116 pages, but would leave us with these much more vexing problems without recourse for answering them.
Race and the Priesthood
If there’s one topic that has plagued the modern church more than any other, it might be the priesthood ban. Being relatively recent, its existence is not exactly a secret to anyone, inside or outside of Mormonism, and I’m sure pretty much all active LDS are at least aware of it. For me personally, growing up in the church, the priesthood ban was something that made me uncomfortable, but I was willing to take on faith for the time being. That being said, there was nothing more frightening to me growing up than the hypothetical scenario of a black person asking me to explain the priesthood ban to his face. And yet, I still didn’t fully appreciate the implications of this policy.
A brief history of the ban
In the earliest days of the church, there actually was no racial ban. In fact, in Nauvoo, a black man named Elijah Abel was ordained an Elder and called to be a seventy.104 I might even describe some of Joseph’s views on race as pretty progressive for his day.
The ban seems to have started under the leadership of Brigham Young. Brigham claimed the doctrine originated with Joseph, but all we know for sure is that as President of the Church, he made the following announcement: “any man having one drop of the seed of [Cain] … in him cannot hold the priesthood and if no other Prophet ever spake it before I will say it now in the name of Jesus Christ I know it is true and others know it.”105 From then until 1978, no black men were allowed to be ordained to the priesthood, and hence it’s often referred to as the “priesthood ban.” In 1978, a new revelation was announced which removed all racial restrictions to receiving the priesthood.
I feel like the term “priesthood ban” is a little misleading, though. It wasn’t just a ban on ordination to the priesthood; it was also a ban on receiving several saving ordinances. Black people could not be endowed in the temple, and black families could not be sealed together in the temple.
Jane Elizabeth Manning
One sobering example of how the ban impacted peoples’ lives is told through the story of Jane Elizabeth Manning. Jane, a free black girl, was converted and baptized along with some of her family when she was 14 years old in Connecticut. From there, she walked the entire distance of over 800 miles to Nauvoo. She walked until her shoes wore out, and then she made the rest of her journey barefoot, at times crossing through frost and rivers in this condition. When she arrived in Nauvoo, Emma took her in and gave her room and board in the Smith mansion in exchange for doing housework. Jane grew quite close to Emma, and according to Jane, Emma even offered to adopt her, but she declined.
Jane went on to marry another black Mormon and have eight children with him. They emigrated to Utah, where she ultimately outlived her husband. A lifelong saint, she wanted her family to be sealed together in the temple, and she even personally donated to construction funds for a temple she couldn’t use. Unable to get permission to enter the temple and be sealed to her husband, Jane tried another approach to obtain temple blessings.
Remembering that Emma had offered to adopt her, she asked the First Presidency if she could be sealed to the Smiths as their adopted daughter, probably hoping that invoking the wishes of the prophet and his wife would override any policy. By now Jane had already petitioned the First Presidency a few times for a sealing ordinance. Instead, the First Presidency, under the direction of President Wilford Woodruff, decided she could be sealed to Joseph and Emma, but not as an adopted daughter. Instead, she would be sealed to them in the eternities as their servant. Yes, you read that correctly. The temple was used to seal a black woman to Joseph Smith as his eternal servant.
Since Jane was still not allowed to enter the sealing rooms of the temple, the ordinance was done by proxy: Joseph F. Smith stood in for Joseph Smith, and Bathsheba Smith stood in for Jane. Jane was understandably not satisfied, and petitioned again to be sealed as an adopted daughter. She was turned down.106
Since the ban was instituted, several rationalizations have been provided to explain it. To begin with, it was a common idea in the 19th century that black people were the cursed lineage of Cain (for killing Abel) which was perpetuated through Noah’s son Ham, whom they believed married a black woman, and whose seed was also cursed by Noah for a separate transgression. These theories are actually alluded to in LDS scripture:
And Enoch also beheld the residue of the people which were the sons of Adam; and they were a mixture of all the seed of Adam save it was the seed of Cain, for the seed of Cain were black, and had not place among them.Moses 7:22
Now, Pharaoh being of that lineage by which he could not have the right of Priesthood, notwithstanding the Pharaohs would fain claim it from Noah, through Ham, therefore my father was led away by their idolatryAbraham 1:27
Brigham Young himself taught this doctrine, as recorded in Journal of Discourses (a volume once considered part of the standard works):
“Cain slew his brother. Cain might have been killed, and that would have put a termination to that line of human beings. This was not to be, and the Lord put a mark upon him, which is the flat nose and black skin. Trace mankind down to after the flood, and then another curse is pronounced upon the same race – that they should be the “servant of servants;” and they will be, until that curse is removed…That curse will remain upon them, and they never can hold the Priesthood or share in it until all the other descendants of Adam have received the promises and enjoyed the blessings of the Priesthood and the keys thereof.”107
An infamous idea that developed later taught that black people were spirits born into this cursed lineage as punishment for their lack of valiance in the pre-existence.
“These spirits were not considered bad enough to be cast down to hell, and never have bodies; neither were they considered worthy of an honourable body on this earth…Now, it would seem cruel to force pure celestial spirits into the world through the lineage of Canaan that had been cursed. This would be ill appropriate, putting the precious and vile together. But those spirits in heaven that rather lent an influence to the devil, thinking he had a little the best right to govern, but did not take a very active part any way were required to come into the world and take bodies in the accursed lineage of Canaan; and hence the negro or African race.” -Orson Hyde108
“There is a reason why one man is born black and with other disadvantages, while another is born white with great advantages. The reason is that we once had an estate before we came here, and were obedient, more or less, to the laws that were given us there. Those who were faithful in all things there received greater blessings here, and those who were not faithful received less.” -Joseph Fielding Smith109
When the ban was lifted in 1978, it wasn’t made clear whether or not the church still stood behind the ban or the explanations behind it as doctrinal.
So was the ban really doctrine?
A common way Latter-Day Saints deal with these kinds of issues is to try to separate policy and culture from doctrine. Anyone who grew up in the church has probably heard some variation of this before. The reason why this idea is important to Latter-Day Saints may be confusing to outsiders, but it comes down to the idea of the church’s doctrine being infallible. After all, isn’t the whole reason we’re the “true church” because we have the whole revealed truth, while other churches just have some of it? “Doctrine,” to the Latter-Day Saint, is truth revealed by God. Since God is inerrant and unchanging, then “doctrine,” by definition, is also inerrant and unchanging. This isn’t how the outside world would probably use the term, but it’s what we mean when we say something is or isn’t “doctrine.” Doctrine can’t change, and doctrine can’t be wrong.
But this makes it difficult to categorize LDS beliefs into doctrinal and non-doctrinal buckets since the historical record clearly shows our beliefs have changed. So how do we determine what is or what isn’t really doctrine? One popular method is that anything submitted to the church and approved by common consent (basically the LDS version of canonization) is doctrine. This would basically boil down to the standard works. Since the priesthood ban was never submitted as a revelation, some argue, then we can’t really claim it was doctrinal. It was just a policy!
Since the lifting of the ban, the church never publicly took a side, until the essay on Race and the Priesthood was published on lds.org. The essay stops just short of saying the ban was not doctrinal and was just a policy based on racial prejudices of the time, but it does everything it can to lead you to that conclusion yourself. It includes multiple paragraphs describing the racial attitudes in the larger cultural context of the time, a detail which would have no point being included in the essay unless you were meant to infer that Brigham Young and his successors were influenced by these cultural beliefs. The essay also emphatically rejects the “rationalizations” I described earlier:
“Today, the Church disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse, or that it reflects unrighteous actions in a premortal life; that mixed-race marriages are a sin; or that blacks or people of any other race or ethnicity are inferior in any way to anyone else. Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form.”
While I applauded this repudiation when I first read it, it also left me with lingering questions. If the doctrine was misguided to begin with, why did the prophets and apostles screw it up for over 100 years? What does it say about the ability of the prophet to be guided by revelation, if they were errantly and unjustly denying a marginalized group saving ordinances for over a century? How does this jive with this statement by Wilford Woodruff (canonized in the Doctrine and Covenants Official Declaration 1)?
“The Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as President of this Church to lead you astray. It is not in the programme. It is not in the mind of God. If I were to attempt that, the Lord would remove me out of my place, and so He will any other man who attempts to lead the children of men astray from the oracles of God and from their duty.”
Is unjustly preventing black families from being sealed and receiving saving ordinances not leading astray? Is teaching that they were less valiant in the pre-existence not teaching false doctrine? It gets further complicated when we come back to the question of “doctrine.” After the essay came out, many faithful supporters of the church have claimed that the prophets are fallible and simply made a mistake here, and that the ban wasn’t really doctrinal. But could Latter-Day Saints at the time reasonably have judged that the ban wasn’t doctrine?
In 1947, the First Presidency, in a letter chastising Dr. Lowry Nelson for arguing against the doctrinal basis of the ban, wrote: “From the days of the Prophet Joseph Smith even until now, it has been the doctrine of the Church, never questioned by Church leaders, that the Negroes are not entitled to the full blessings of the Gospel.”110
In 1949, the First Presidency published an Official Statement: “The attitude of the Church with reference to Negroes remains as it has always stood. It is not a matter of the declaration of a policy but of direct commandment from the Lord, on which is founded the doctrine of the Church from the days of its organization, to the effect that Negroes may become members of the Church but that they are not entitled to the priesthood at the present time.” 111
It’s difficult to argue that the ban wasn’t the doctrine of the church when the First Presidency emphatically declared that it was. If we subscribe to the theory that the ban was merely a “policy”, we then have to interpret these statements as an example of a prophet of God, in an official capacity, preaching a false doctrine while insisting it’s a commandment of God. We then place our own prophets and apostles on the wrong side of Jesus’ condemnation, when he quotes Isaiah, saying, “in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.”Matthew 15:9
If the prophets were wrong about the ban being doctrinal, that’s a pretty large blemish on their credibility. If they can be so woefully misguided, what’s the purpose in having a prophet at all? What reason do I have to defer to them if their track-record on such weighty matters is so poor? And how am I supposed to believe that God permitted His servants to deny His children saving ordinances, unimpeded, for 100 years, but found it so crucial that Joseph Smith married the newlywed Zina Huntington that he sent an angel with a flaming sword to ensure it?
My intent in writing this post is not to create a comprehensive list of “evidences” against the church. There are, in fact, many more inconsistencies and issues I’ve encountered over the years which I haven’t touched on here. My point in authoring this is to demonstrate that I have really, truly tried. I didn’t just copy/paste from some anti-Mormon website. I’m not looking for an excuse to sin. This represents a real crisis of faith for me because I’ve reached a point where the evidence is overwhelming. This isn’t a case of a few stubborn items I “don’t understand” that I need to “take on faith.” We’re pretty far past that. We’re dealing with serious challenges to fundamental, core pieces of our religion. For example, by any reasonable standard of proof, the Book of Abraham has been disproven. Only through really tortured logic can you attempt to justify this stuff, and it frankly feels unethical to do so anymore. I’m past defending the indefensible with flimsy reasoning and branding it a “nuanced” approach to Mormonism.
Anyone who has been through such a faith crisis can tell you that it takes an enormous emotional toll on you. It’s extremely distressing to discover such inconvenient truths about the church you built your life around. But by the same token, simply admitting that I take issue with these doctrines is freeing in a way. For the first time in my life, I feel at liberty to explore everything humanity has to offer on the subjects of life, spirituality, history and truth, and I can evaluate every idea on its own merits without being constrained to a specific worldview that I feel obligated to espouse out of a sense of fear or loyalty. I am no longer obligated to interpret the universe and the world through the lens of Mormonism. I don’t have “the answers” delivered to me on a platter like I did growing up, but that’s fine, because ultimately, this leads to genuine discovery. I’m content not having all the answers if it means I’m allowed to ask real questions.
3. [Rhodes, Michael D (2005), The Hor Book of Breathings: A Translation and Commentary, Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University, ISBN 0-934893-63-2.]↩
4. [Baer, Klaus (Autumn 1968), “The Breathing Permit of Hor: A Translation of the Apparent Source of the Book of Abraham”, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought Volume 03, Number 3, Autumn 1968, pp 119-120]↩
6. [Smith, Christopher. “That Which Is Lost: Assessing the State of Preservation of the Joseph Smith Papyri.” The John Whitmer Historical Association Journal, Spring/Summer2011, Volume 31, Number 1. Pg. 80]↩
7. [Deveria, Thomas. quoted from “The Rocky Mountain Saints: A Full and Complete History of the Mormons, from the First Vision of Joseph Smith to the Last Courtship of Brigham Young…and the Development of the Great Mineral Wealth of the Territory of Utah” By Thomas B. H. Stenhouse. Pg. 519]↩
11. [Levi Ward Hancock, “Autobiography with Additions in 1896 by Mosiah Hancock,” 63, MS 570, LDS Church History Library.] See Todd Compton’s “In Sacred Loneliness” for notes on how the Fanny Alger references have been edited out of many published versions of this text. Per Compton, you can find the complete text in The Mosiah Hancock Journal (Salt Lake City: Pioneer Press) and The Levi Hancock Journal. Quote borrowed here from Compton’s text, pg. 32↩
12. It’s difficult to provide a single source for this, since it’s an observation that historians have made based on many sources, and we’ll come back to some of those sources later, but historian Richard Bushman, in Rough Stone Rolling (page 473) said: “[Emma] was unaware of this marriage, and perhaps most of the others… [her] earlier opposition meant the 1842 marriages entangled Joseph in subterfuge and deception.” ↩
14. [Young, Ann Eliza Webb. “Wife Number 19: Or The Story of a Life in Bondage, Being a Complete Exposé of Mormonism, And Revealing the Sorrows, Sacrifices and Sufferings of Women in Polygamy” pg. 66]↩
15. [Wyl, Wilhelm. “Mormon portraits: or the Truth About the Mormon Leaders, 1830-1866” pg. 57] Wilhelm Wyl was a pen name for a journalist named Wilhelm Ritter von Wymetal. He published this book plus several articles in the Salt Lake Tribune in the 1870’s and 1880’s. Although what he published was antagonistic to the church, he seemed to have a knack for getting interviews with former Mormon insiders. Especially notable is a lengthy interview with William Law (who was notoriously reluctant to grant interviews) which will be referenced later.↩
16. [Letter from William McLellin to Joseph Smith III, July 1872, RLDS archives. Text quoted from Compton, “In Sacred Loneliness.”]↩
17. [Letter from William McLellin to Joseph Smith III, July 1872, RLDS archives. Text quoted from Compton, “In Sacred Loneliness.”] When describing the scene with Oliver Cowdery, Dr Williams and Sidney Rigdon present, McLellin actually uses the name “Miss Hill,” not Fanny (though he immediately follows with the story of Emma finding Joseph with Fanny, and he uses Fanny’s name there). Several historians, such as Todd Compton, Linda King Newell and Valeen Tippetts Avery, believe that McLellin is garbling the story and this is actually supposed to be Fanny. The reasoning is that the story matches the other stories of Oliver and others being called in the middle of the night to calm Emma, as well as the fact that there’s no other known reference in any documents to a “Miss Hill.”
18. [Letter from Benjamin F. Johnson to George F. Gibbs, text quoted from Compton who quoted from Dean R. Zimmerman, “I knew the Prophets: An Analysis of the Letter of Benjamin F. Johnson to George F. Gibbs, Reporting Doctrinal Views of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young.” Original letter can be found in the LDS church archives.]↩
19. [Todd Compton, “In Sacred Loneliness.” pg. 36]↩
21. Letter from Oliver Cowdery to his brother Warren, January 21, 1838, Cowdery Letter Book. Text taken from Bushman’s “Rough Stone Rolling.” You can see a scan of the letter in this collection (it’s the first letter)(alt link). The original letterbook is held in the Huntington Library in San Marino, California. ↩
22. [Bushman, Richard. “Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling,” pg. 324]↩
23. [See Compton, pg. 17 and his endnotes on pg 639. Several witnesses recall Joseph teaching this idea, including John D. Lee in Mormonism Unveiled pg. 146, Jedediah Grant in Journal of Discourses Vol. 2 pg. 13, Lucy A. Young (in a letter to Joseph Smith III, RLDS archives) and Orson Pratt (see Wilford Woodruff’s journal, Aug 15, 1846)]↩
24. [Compton, pg. 15]↩
25 [Compton, pg. 16]↩
26. [Ligthner, Mary. “Remarks” at Brigham Young University, Apr. 14, 105, p. 5] Mary was a polyandrous wife of Joseph Smith. See also page 14 from Compton’s “In Sacred Loneliness.”↩
27. [Compton, pg. 183]↩
28. [Compton, pp. 73-78]↩
29. [Martha Sonntag Bradley and Mary Brown Firmage Woodward. “Plurality, Patriarchy, and the Priestess: Zina D. H. Young’s Nauvoo Marriages.” Journal of Mormon History. Vol. 20, No. 1 (Spring 1994), pp. 84-118.] The historians examined the autobiography of Zina, which was in possession of the Huntington family, but the document has since been lost. Text taken from Compton, pp 83-84↩
30. [Martha Sonntag Bradley and Mary Brown Firmage Woodward. “Four Zinas: A Story of Mothers and Daughters on the Mormon Frontier,” pg. 93]↩
31. [Zina Young, in “Joseph, the Prophet His Life and Mission as Viewed by Intimate Acquaintances,” Salt Lake Herald Church and Farm Supplement. Jan. 12, 1895. Quoted from Compton, pg 659]↩
32. [Bradley/Woodward, pg. 95]↩
34. [Compton, pp. 83-86]↩
35. [Compton, pg. 83]↩
36. [Young, Brigham. “Manuscript History of Brigham Young, 1846-47” Elden J. Watson, et. pg 175. See also Compton, pg. 88]↩
37. [Zina Card Brown collection, box 2, fd1. June 25 & Aug 19. Quoted from Compton, pp. 88-89]↩
38. [Compton, pg. 90]↩
39. [Zina Card Brown collection, box 2, fd1. June 25 & Aug 19. Quoted from Compton, pg. 91]↩
40. [Compton, pg. 92]↩
41. [Letter from Henry to Zina, September 2, 1852. Text taken from Compton, pp. 99-100]↩
42. [“Utah Unveiled,” The World, NY. Nov. 17 1869. Text taken from Compton, pg. 108]↩
43. [Bushman, pg. 466]↩
47. [Joseph Smith’s diary, recorded July 14, 1843. This portion of Joseph’s diary is not yet available digitally, but a link will be added when it becomes available.]↩
51. [Letter from Helen Mar Whitney to her children, March 30, 1881. Located in the Archives Division, Church Historical Department, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah.]↩
52. [Compton, pp. 14, 500]↩
53. [Whitney, Helen Mar. “Plural Marriage as Taught by the Prophet Joseph.” Quoted from Compton, pg. 748]↩
56. [Compton, pg. 486]↩
58. [Emily Young, “Incidents in the Life of a Mormon Girl.” Quoted from Compton, pg. 406]↩
60. [Emily Young, “Incidents in the Life of a Mormon Girl.” Quoted from Compton, pg. 407]↩
63. [Emily Young, “Incidents in the Life of a Mormon Girl.” Quoted from Compton, pg. 732]↩
64. [Emily Young, “Incidents in the Life of a Mormon Girl.” Quoted from Compton, pg. 732]↩
66. [Diary of Joseph Smith, October 5 1843 (Diary not yet on JosephSmithPapers.org)]↩
72. [John Taylor’s June 27, 1854, Account of the Martyrdom, transcribed from George D. Watt’s Pitman shorthand, pg 43. Here, Taylor describes learning the doctrine of “spiritual wifery” from Joseph for the first time, along with Wilford Woodruff and other members of the twelve, just after arriving home from their mission in England in 1841.]↩
75. [Letter from Eliza Snow to Joseph F. Smith, Church Archives. Eliza write, “At the time the sisters of the Relief society signed our article I was married to the Prophet.” Quoted from Compton, pg 714. Eliza’s marriage to Joseph is one of the most well known and well documented, and Eliza also testified in an affidavit to her marriage to Joseph.]↩
76. [“Historical Record,” LDS Church Historian Andrew Jenson. He lists Sarah Cleveland as a wife of Joseph. According to Eliza’s affidavit, Sarah was present at her marriage ceremony to Joseph in June of 1842.]↩
80. Unpublished Revelations of the Prophets and Presidents of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Part 59 (pg 95). The original manuscript is in the Church History Library. In this revelation, dated July of 1842, Joseph instructs Newel on how to officiate the marriage ceremony between his daughter and Joseph. This marriage is well documented in other histories and affidavits by the Whitney family and others. The history of this marriage is also confirmed in a 1978 Ensign article.↩
82. [Letter from Joseph to the Whitneys, Page 1 and Page 2. Images taken from http://user.xmission.com/~research/family/strange.htm on 11/13/2015. Text taken from Compton, pp 349-350. Letter is in Joseph’s handwriting.]↩
84. [The Genealogical Society (Salt Lake City, Utah) Microfilm No. 418,110; “Civil Marriages Performed, Nauvoo, Hancock County, Illinois, 1842-1843.”]↩
86. [“THE MORMONS IN NAUVOO. Three Letters from William Law on Mormonism.”, Salt Lake Tribune. July 3, 1887]You can actually see scans of the archives for the Salt lake Tribune online, but curiously, the 1887 July 3-4 editions are missing.↩
87. [William Law’s Diary, January 1, 1844. Quoted from Bushman, pg. 528]↩
91. It would be difficult to provide a single source for such a vast topic of scientific inquiry. For a broad understanding of the scientific research into the settlement of the Americas, try this Wikipedia Article. For an academic analysis on DNA research and its implications on the Book of Mormon’s claims, see this essay by Thomas Murphy. For a short, easier to read summary of Native American origins, you might try this article. But as I mention later in this paragraph, the church has already conceded that DNA evidence links the Native Americans to Asia.↩
93. [Carrie A. Moore, “Debate renewed with change in Book of Mormon introduction.” Deseret News. Nov. 8 2007.] If you have a copy of the Book of Mormon published before 2006, you can compare it with the version on Lds.org now↩
102. [“Journal of Book of Mormon Studies”, Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. Vol. 14, No. 2, 2005. “Upon All the Ships of the Sea, and Upon All the Ships of Tarshish” by Dana M. Pike and David Rolph Seely. Retrieved 1/25/2016]↩
106. Original sources for Jane’s story include minutes from the Weekly Council Meetings of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles, Wilford Woodruff’s journal and the Salt Lake Temple Adoption Record Book. Information here taken from “The Mormon Church and Blacks: A Documentary History” edited by Newell G Bringhurst and Mathew L. Harris, pp 52-55↩
108. [“Speech of Elder Orson Hyde delivered before the High Priests quorum in Nauvoo, April 27th, 1845 upon the course and conduct of Mr. Sidney Rigdon, and upon the merits of his claims to the presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints ” pg. 30]↩