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The Mormon church finally acknowledges founder Joseph Smith’s polygamy

This Dec. 8, 1997, file photo shows an 1842 oil painting of Emma Hale Smith by David Rogers, which is on exhibit at the Museum of Church History and Art, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Douglas C. Pizac, File)

Many Mormons have mixed feelings about a recent disclosure from the church, acknowledging for the first time that the religion’s founder Joseph Smith had as many as 40 wives in his lifetime, including teenagers. That is, if they even heard about the disclosure at all.

The New York Times published a piece on Tuesday looking at the aftermath of the somewhat unusual acknowledgement, which was posted to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints Web site in late October. The church has long renounced polygamy. And until now, it has never officially acknowledged Smith’s multiple marriages, only discussing his first marriage to Emma Hale Smith.​

Although at the time, the Associated Press called the news “surprising,” the Times’s follow-up gives some good context for understanding just why that would be. To be sure, as the Times notes, many Mormons will know about the early church’s polygamous history – particularly when it comes to early church leader Brigham Young – but not, at least, the full history of Smith’s marriages.

According to the Times, many Mormons still might not know about the essays at all. “Many Mormons said in interviews that they were not even aware of them,” the Times’s Laurie Goodstein wrote, adding, “They are not visible on the church’s home page; finding them requires a search or a link. Elder [Steven] Snow [the church historian] said he anticipated that the contents would eventually be ‘woven into future curriculum’ for adults and youths.”

That would be a big change from how the church currently teaches Smith’s biography, as Goodstein’s interview with blogger Emily Jensen makes clear. “Joseph Smith was presented to me as a practically perfect prophet, and this is true for a lot of people,” Jensen said. Indeed, what makes the recent acknowledgments so stunning is not necessarily the fact that Smith was polygamous, but instead the details the church acknowledges pertaining to the nature of that polygamy.

Several writers, including Jensen and RNS writer Jana Reiss, compared the Mormon reaction to the acknowledgements as similar to the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, despair, and acceptance.

Some of the more notable acknowledgements in the essay include the detail that Smith “was sealed to a number of women who were already married,” which the church speculates may have been a way to strengthen bonds between early Mormon families. Helen Mar Kimball married Smith before she turned 15 (however, most of his wives were between the ages of 20 and 40 when they married Smith). Some, but not all, of Smith’s marriages were “sealed” only for the afterlife, meaning that they were not physical relationships. It is suggested that Smith’s marriage to Kimball was meant only for eternity.

Smith’s first plural marriage – after he and Hale Smith eloped – might have been as early as the mid 1830s, when the religion was still in its infancy. And, according to the essay, it was possibly inspired by what Smith described as multiple visits from an angel: “During the third and final appearance, the angel came with a drawn sword, threatening Joseph with destruction unless he went forward and obeyed the commandment fully,” the essay states. The church adds that “fragmentary evidence” suggests Smith married Fanny Alger in Ohio sometime in the mid-1830s. It’s not clear whether Hale Smith knew about, or consented to, this first plural marriage. 

The evidence suggests that Hale Smith was not okay with many of these marriages. Speaking of Smith’s “eternity-only” marriages to already married women, the church writes, “These sealings may also be explained by Joseph’s reluctance to enter plural marriage because of the sorrow it would bring to his wife Emma.” The essay adds that Smith’s plural marriages were an “excruciating ordeal” for her. Four of the women, with her apparent consent, lived as part of their household. However, “Emma likely did not know about all of Joseph’s sealings,” the essay says. 

The essay is the latest, and perhaps one of the more consequential, of recent acknowledgements from the church leadership that seem to suggest Mormon leaders want to increase the organization’s perceived transparency. In January, the church published a short essay on the church’s early history of polygamy, and a relatively frank discussion of the church’s ban on African-American men taking the priesthood until 1978 — part of a wider church policy excluding African Americans from several church ceremonies, immortalized in a line from the “Book of Mormon” musical: “In 1978, God changed his mind about black people.”

Earlier in the fall, the church released a four-minute video explaining why Mormons wear special undergarments.

Elder Snow told the Times that the church commissioned several essays on controversial topics in May of 2012, and that they are considering releasing one essay on women and the priesthood. Kate Kelly, the leader of a Mormon group called Ordain Women, was recently excommunicated from the church on charges of apostasy.

Speaking of the need for the essay series, Snow said, “there is so much out there on the Internet that we felt we owed our members a safe place where they could go to get reliable, faith-promoting information that was true about some of these more difficult aspects of our history. We need to be truthful, and we need to understand our history. I believe our history is full of stories of faith and devotion and sacrifice, but these people weren’t perfect.”

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