Laurie Miner writes an interesting article in the LA Review of Books about Mitt Romney and the historical flexibility of Mormonism. Like Mitt, the Mormon church has reversed itself on a number of major positions — an odd thing for a church that claims to have a direct line to an eternally unchanging God.
Like candidate Romney, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints possesses a remarkable adaptability that keeps it alive and thriving. In a pinch, its talent for survival will trump its doctrine. At its founding, the church stipulated that marriage equaled monogamy, then there was polygamy, then a whole lot of polygamy, then the church was back to monogamy. For a very long time people of color were let nowhere near the church’s holy offices; suddenly, in 1978, they were welcome. The church has reversed itself on other doctrines as well, such as Adam being God (which he was under the leadership of Brigham Young), and the idea of “blood atonement” — in which a sinner’s crime is so unpardonable that his only recourse for salvation is to give up his life (i.e. be killed, another of Young’s ideas). To understand the church’s malleability and general ethos, let us take a brief tour of its roots, its founding.
The story of Joseph Smith in its particulars has no relation to that of Romney. What they share is an ability to shape-shift without anguish, a refusal or inability to see those shifts as hypocrisy, and what looks like a full belief in whatever they are saying, until it comes time to say something else. Also, they both ran for President.
And this I did not realize: originally, the Mormon church was committed to monogamy. Polygamy only came later, then, out of political necessity, they went back to monogamy:
The Book of Mormon reflects Smith’s view of matrimony at the time of his own first marriage. “Hearken to the word of the Lord,” says one of Nephi’s good brothers, “For there shall not any man among you have save it be one wife; and concubines he shall none.” Smith himself left no room for ambiguity on the subject when, in February 1831, he wrote a revelation that said: “Thou shall love thy wife with all thy heart, and shalt cleave unto her and none else.”…One of the first people with whom Smith shared his vision of a new patriarchal order (which promised every worthy man 10 virgins) was Parley Pratt, great-great grandfather to our own Willard Mitt Romney. In a way, polygamy would bring about the end of both men: Pratt was murdered in 1857 by Hector McLean, the original husband of Pratt’s 12th spiritual wife Eleanor McLean.
For a while the practice was kept secret from non-members and wives (including Emma), as well as from the bulk of the Mormon community, which in Kirtland numbered about 15,000. By the early 1840s, other Church leaders were also practicing polygamy, in an off-the-record, private-club kind of way. The new way was adopted by most of the Quorum of the Twelve, an apostle-like set of advisors to the prophet. But polygamy did not sit well with at least one of the 12, Oliver Cowdery.
Cowdery had been one of Smith’s closest allies; he was one of the three scribes who wrote the Book of Mormon while Smith dictated from the golden plates. Lately, though, Cowdery had felt pushed out by Sidney Rigdon as the prophet’s consigliere, and, the idea of plural marriage repulsed him. He wrote to his brother about Smith’s “dirty, nasty, filthy affair with Fanny Alger.” (Crowdery was ex-communicated in 1838 but returned to the fold after Smith’s death.)
In the meantime, Smith secretly married at least 20 women before he shared the revelation of a “new and everlasting covenant” in1843. In that message, Lord God again gave specific instructions, down to the names of the people involved. “And let mine handmaid, Emma Smith, receive all those that have been given unto my servant Joseph, and who are virtuous and pure before me,” said God. And God added the threat that now more frequently came with Smith’s revelations: “But if she will not abide this commandment she shall be destroyed, saith the Lord; for I am the Lord thy God, and will destroy her if she abide not in my law.”
There’s a lot more. Fascinating article.