Hans Mattsson and Joseph Smith’s polygamy

The online LDS response to the NYT article describing Hans Mattsson’s struggle with doubt about the Mormon faith that he had once believed in has been interesting to watch. Most responses have been generous and sympathetic, realizing that some serious soul-searching within the community is in order, while others have been more reactionary.

One aspect of this discussion I have found particularly interesting has been the conversations that have ensued over Mattsson’s confusion and concern over Joseph Smith’s polygamy. Some immediately queried, “How could Mattsson have not known about polygamy?” Is his case simply a product of his relative ignorance about Church history and doctrine, which would have made him more vulnerable to difficult new information? Others focused more on how they have personally dealt with the uncomfortable historical data, with attitudes ranging from, “I found out about Joseph Smith’s many wives a long time ago, so now these kinds of issues don’t bother me anymore” to “Polygamy is something that I struggle with and don’t have a good explanation for.”

Still others advocate for increased inoculation efforts, with the assumption being that the more transparent the Church is about Joseph Smith’s polygamy and the more we educate people early on in safer settings, the less likely they are to be broadsided with information that could lead to a severe faith crisis.

I myself am not against inoculation. In fact, I think a full-throttled institutionalized effort to be open about such issues is the only way to go. Yet I also believe that we need to go in with both eyes open, recognizing that while transparency and sensitively appropriate discussion at the right times will significantly reduce the numbers of those who feel a strong sense of betrayal by their leaders for not being more forthcoming, in the long term increased knowledge of Joseph Smith’s relationship to polygamy is also surely to have inevitable repercussions on the way we think about his prophethood and may eventually lead to substantial evolution in LDS theology. We may come to think of Joseph Smith less as a prophet with ontologically unique revelatory access to the divine will and more as a radical religious visionary whose “revelations” were a product of his own distinctive interpretive sensibilities as they interacted with the particular cultural context in which he lived.

  • Clark Goble

    While it’s possible some might come to see Joseph as merely a religious “visionary” (i.e. creative) I suspect that will be a very minority view. You’ll either get people who simply think him wrong or you’ll get people who (primarily via religious experience) will simply say, OK and move on. Those the former group may still attend church and “practice” despite disbelief. And those in the latter group may still have some doubts and be unable to reconcile things in a coherent view. But I’m just really skeptical this would lead to much practical evolution in LDS theology. If only because most LDS thinkers knew about this stuff long ago and it doesn’t appear to have shifted them much theologically.

  • WI_Member

    I suspect it was not the fact that Joseph was involved in polygamy, but learning the heart-breaking details, that spurred the current situation with Hans Mattson and the Swedish Saints. If you were to believe the church manuals, you’d think Emma and Joseph had a fairy tale romance. This from the Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith manual… “It is the duty of a husband to love, cherish, and nourish his wife, and cleave unto her and none else.” And this, “The Prophet Joseph told Emma that he was ‘a true and faithful friend to [her] and the children forever.”

    I have a hard time comprehending why fidelity was required of Emma and
    the other wives, but not of Joseph. It’s hard to become one with your
    spouse (that is the goal of eternal marriage, is it not?) when he’s off
    becoming one with the servant girls, the Relief Society counselors, your
    closest friends…

    How am I supposed to believe in a loving God who allows/requires his prophet to break his wife’s heart?

  • kiwi57

    Informed Latter-day Saints have always known that Joseph taught and practiced plural marriage. They have also known that Emma was, at best, ambivalent about it. How is this suddenly supposed to “lead to substantial evolution in LDS theology?”

    And if something is only *likely* to have “inevitable repercussions,” just how inevitable are those repercussions? If they are truly “inevitable,” wouldn’t the likelihood be a certainty?

  • RT

    When I spoke of “substantial evolution in LDS theology” I was referring to a development that would occur over the long term, not something that would happen overnight. That said, I think some kind of evolution toward a more humanistic understanding of Joseph Smith is bound to occur (don’t read too much into my use of the word “likely”, I was meaning something rhetorically more likely “surely”).

    Why do I think that is so? Because while it is true that informed Latter-day Saints have known about JS’s polygamy for some time 1) that group has been relatively small; increased transparency is likely to result in the expansion of those who are “informed”; 2) this has mainly been the purview of historians and similarly interested; there has not been sufficient time for this historical information to have much of an impact on our theology at a more general level; 3) our understanding of JS’s participation in plural marriage and the availability of the documentation has increased significantly, in some ways exponentially, in recent years.

  • RT

    I agree, this is a very tough issue. Contextualizing Joseph Smith’s introduction of biblical polygamy can help one to understand it better, but it can also force one to reevaluate his/her theological presuppositions.

  • RT

    Sounds to me Clark like you’re not really saying what you’re trying to say. You first seem to say that some people will think polygamy wasn’t a revealed doctrine while others will basically accept it on the basis of their faith in the church, but then you complexify matters greatly by suggesting that people in the former group may still actually attend church while those in the latter will still have doubts and “be unable to reconcile things in a coherent view.” I couldn’t agree more with your assessment.

    My basic points are that 1) increased transparency + increased knowledge of JS’s relationship to polygamy will result in a much more broader pool of those who understand it well; 2) increased understanding of the details of JS’s polygamy is more likely to result in a complication of traditional faith claims concerning his unique revelatory status than to simply support and reinforce them. 3) Given 1 and 2 it appears inevitable that with enough time a more humanistic theology of JS’s revelatory discourse will develop.

  • JohnH2

    How can anyone not know about JS and polygamy? It is in D&C 132, including references to some perhaps less well known incidents in such verses as 51.

    The verse I find interesting in all of that is verse 60. The revelation was in 1843, what sacrifice was required of Joseph after that point? The only thing I can think of is the martyrdom, and it says that it is for his transgressions in reference to doing something that the Lord had not commanded in regards to polygamy.

    The only evolution that I can see coming out of this is hopefully a cessation of prophet-latry and in particular Joseph Smith-latry. Placing the prophets and Joseph Smith in particular in less of a worshipful position would be a good thing, as they are not perfect nor are they supposed to have been perfect as clearly Moses and Peter weren’t. Prophets do not have what can be termed unique access to the divine will, everyone is supposed to have access to that as Moses, Joel, and Peter say. What they do have is authority to reveal to everyone.

    Problems with the practice of polygamy are highly cultural. If the polyamory movement takes off and becomes an accepted part of western culture will people still have issues with Joseph Smith practising polygamy?

  • JohnH2

    I don’t understand point 2, why would the fact that JS practised polygamy (as already stated in D&C 132) do anything to JS having revelations? Does Abraham having practised polygamy do anything to Abraham’s position as father of the faithful? What of the other prophets in the bible that were polygamous? Or of Jacob giving an acceptable exception to the command to monogamy?

    Since these things have always been in the D&C it seems that more knowledge of what is in the D&C will help remove the condemnation which the church is under for treating lightly what we have received. If that is the case then we can expect the fulfilment of the promise in D&C 132:66 that more will be revealed in the future on the subject.

  • Heather Harper

    What about Abraham then? Would sacrificing the son that Sarah bore when she was 90 not have broken her heart too?

    God loves us but broken hearts don’t mean the same thing to Him as they do to us, I think. We are to bring to Him a “broken heart and a contrite spirit,” remember. I don’t think we can say for sure “that’s too hard; God wouldn’t truly require it.” Heck, I’d rather be Emma asked to share her husband any day rather than the LDS woman in Missouri whose six-month child was ripped out of her arms and it’s brains dashed out against a tree right in front of her eyes.

  • DavidH

    I don’t think Joseph’s practicing polygyny is any more earth shaking to anyone than Brigham’s (and many others’) having practiced it. What may require a rethinking of LDS teaching and understanding are Joseph’s polyandry, his taking wives in many cases without the knowledge or consent of Emma, not being truthful by preaching one thing in public and the opposite in private, taking an additional wife before the sealing power was restored or section 132 revealed (there may have been a revelation for Fanny Alger, but we know nothing about it), using questionable ways to persuade women to become his additional wives, and for many people, the youth of one or more is a real issue. Those are aspects of the practice that are not spelled out in section 132. Do the principles of section 132 not apply to Joseph because he was the prophet? Was he wrong or did he sin by diverging from them? Was he exempted from the principles of honesty?

  • RT

    “why would the fact that JS practised polygamy (as already stated in D&C 132) do anything to JS having revelations?”

    Because JS’s introduction and practice of polygamy seems so much more easily explained as a well-intentioned and religiously creative response to the existence of polygamy in the Bible (interpreted through a scripturally literalist and presentist lens) than an actual verbal revelation from deity.

    This on the basis that,

    –I have difficulty in seeing any great moral good that arose from the introduction and practice of polgamy, which raises the question of why God would reveal something that did not serve a moral good.

    –JS’s justification for polygamy rests on the assumption that polygamy in the Bible was something God commanded or allowed, but this is a faulty assumption. Not only is this nowhere suggested in the text, but it fails to understand that polygamy was simply a marriage practice relatively common to the patriarchal cultures of the Middle East that the biblical authors took for granted. In their stories about Israelite origins, they portrayed patriarchal figures as polygamous because this fit their understanding of them and because they had to explain how so many people had come from so few ancestors.

    –The history surrounding JS’s introduction and practice of polygamy is riddled with distressing instances of manipulation through positions of power and deception of spouses and public alike.

    –polygamy implies and actualizes a patriarchal valuation of women. I don’t see this as an institution that women would participate in if other options were available and they were allowed to freely exercise their agency.

    “Does Abraham having practised polygamy do anything to Abraham’s position as father of the faithful? What of the other prophets in the bible that were polygamous? Or of Jacob giving an acceptable exception to the command to monogamy?”

    Like I mentioned above, it is important to realize that these individuals are first and foremost literary figures in the Bible and as such their actions and speech reflect the ideological and literary concerns of the biblical authors. Because polygamy was widely acceptable in the world in which the authors lived, they could portray the patriarchs as polygamous for literary purposes.

    But it is poor reasoning to assume that just because polygamy was acceptable in the ancient Middle East and happens to appear in the Bible (where legislation attempts to regulate the practice to ensure a modicum of fairness) that we should also practice polygamy today (or in JS’s day).

  • JohnH2

    You appear to have forgotten Hosea.

  • RT

    The example from Hosea only underscores the unique circumstances in which it occurred. In any case, there are all sorts of problems with using this text as evidence for what God, that is our God of today, thinks about polygamy. One being that the text seems to be a creative scribal composition that was later added and woven in to a collection of oracles from the prophet Hosea. That is to say, God is more of a character in the story that helps move the conflict to its resolution than an ontological being whose actual words were recorded by the original prophet.

  • JohnH2

    Ezekiel 23, Jeremiah 3, and Jeremiah 31:31-32 (of which Hosea is also an example) suggest that God is polygamous.

    ‘that is our God of today” – So God changes? or who is God changes?

  • RT

    “Ezekiel 23, Jeremiah 3, and Jeremiah 31:31-32 (of which Hosea is also an example) suggest that God is polygamous.”

    I see nothing of the sort in those passages. But even if you were correct that ancient Israelites did believe that El or Yahweh had multiple sexual partners, who is to say that their belief was accurate? that it reflects some ontological reality? that it’s something we should believe in too? An Ugaritic myth depicts El walking along the seashore and then making love with two mortal women. Does this portrayal of God also tell us something about his nature?

    “So God changes?”

    Yes concepts of deity have evolved dramatically over the millennia and across cultures. The God of historic ancient Israel, the God of the Old Testament, and the concepts of God prevalent in modern America are all very different from one another.

  • RT

    I agree with that list. Those are indeed very troubling aspects to JS’s practice of polygamy. But beyond that, there are other reasons to think that his introduction of biblical polygamy itself was less than fully inspired.

    As I already mentioned below, JS’s introduction and practice of polygamy seems so much more easily explained as a well-intentioned and religiously creative response to the existence of polygamy in the Bible (interpreted through a scripturally literalist and presentist lens) than an actual verbal revelation from deity.

    because,

    –I have difficulty in seeing any great moral good that arose from the introduction and practice of polgamy, which raises the question of why God would reveal something that did not serve a moral good.

    –JS’s justification for polygamy rests on the assumption that polygamy in the Bible was something God commanded or allowed, but this is a faulty assumption. Not only is this nowhere suggested in the text, but it fails to understand that polygamy was simply a marriage practice relatively common to the patriarchal cultures of the Middle East that the biblical authors took for granted. In their stories about Israelite origins, they portrayed patriarchal figures as polygamous because this fit their understanding of them and because they had to explain how so many people had come from so few ancestors.

    –The history surrounding JS’s introduction and practice of polygamy is riddled with distressing instances of manipulation through positions of power and deception of spouses and public alike.

    –polygamy implies and actualizes a patriarchal valuation of women. I don’t see this as an institution that women would participate in if other options were available and they were allowed to freely exercise their agency.

  • JohnH2

    RT,

    Now I think you are being silly. God is a being not a concept, as such it doesn’t matter what anyone conceptually thinks of God, polygamy, or whether or not God is polygamous. It no more matters that you find polygamy to be icky then that the Greeks found bodies to be icky, if God is polygamous then He is polygamous, if God has a body then He has a body, our ick factor or “not seeing any great moral good” can not change the facts one way or the other.

    Since all of the Biblical cases are also primarily about God’s relationship with Israel and Judah then I am not entirely sure that God is polygamous, He very well could be. What those do show is that God is quite okay with putting Himself in story (at least) as polygamous suggesting in similar manner with everything else that has been revealed or is found in written records that God doesn’t find polygamy to be immoral in all cases contrary to your cultural understanding.

    In fact that Joseph Smith restored polygamy and the idea of an embodied God similar to what was believed anciently and contrary to the prevalent conception of deity would seem to suggest evidence that Joseph Smith really did have said visions rather then them being “a product of his own distinctive interpretive sensibilities as they
    interacted with the particular cultural context in which he lived”.

  • RT

    If the God you imagine in your head to exist is, as you say, “a being and not a concept”, then don’t you think the same thing could be said about each member of the Greek pantheon, or the various gods worshiped throughout the ancient world, El, Asherah, Ishtar, Isis, Astarte, Shahar, Shalem, Mot, Shatiqat?

    “as such it doesn’t matter what anyone conceptually thinks of God, polygamy, or whether or not God is polygamous.”

    But that’s just my point, you are relying on what others (Israelites) have thought about God and polygamy when you resort to the Bible for information on the subject, in the same way JS did.

    “In fact that Joseph Smith restored polygamy and the idea of an embodied God similar to what was believed anciently and contrary to the prevalent conception of deity would seem to suggest evidence that Joseph Smith really did have said visions”

    Your logic is overwhelming me, John

  • JohnH2

    It doesn’t matter what I imagine in my head to exist, it matters what actually exists and my or your imagining it one way or the other doesn’t change what actually exists. There is a God, and He exists in a particular way.

    And you likewise are relying on others ideas about polygamy in your critique of it and in your idea that God didn’t like it.

    Joseph Smith went against the conception of God that was had at his day and against the social norms of marriage had in his day. He wasn’t making up something that was popular or culturally attractive (as noted by the reception of the idea of polygamy), but instead was going against both the cultural and theological grain, contrary to your claims.

  • kiwi57

    So you said “likely” because you meant “surely.” Got it.
    The notion that greater knowledge of the facts will “surely” or “inevitably” lead people to agree with you is no doubt a comforting one, but I don’t believe that history supports it. Those who were closest to Joseph during the Nauvoo period were also most convinced of the literal truth of his prophetic claims.

  • kiwi57

    Clark, I read RT’s “visionary” (and scare quotes around “revelations”) as a euphemism for “a fake who made it all up.” Perhaps he thinks that sugar-coating his views will enable him to slip them past unwary Latter-day Saints.
    I hope he’s wrong.

  • RT

    My goodness! You are a generous reader, aren’t you? That kind of nitpicking says a lot more about you than the word “likely” does about my post.

    So are you saying that you don’t see any reason to believe that Joseph Smith’s own assumptions about the Bible may have played a role in his revelation on polygamy?

  • Douglas Hunter

    “JS’s justification for polygamy rests on the assumption that polygamy in the Bible was something God commanded or allowed, but this is a faulty assumption. Not only is this nowhere suggested in the text, but it fails to understand that polygamy was simply a marriage practice relatively common to the patriarchal cultures of the Middle East that the biblical authors took for granted. In their stories about Israelite origins, they portrayed patriarchal figures as polygamous because this fit their understanding of them and because they had to explain how so many people had come from so few ancestors.”

    Thank you for mentioning this all important point. It gets over looked in pretty much all discussions of polgamy, and I think it should get a lot more attention.

  • Douglas Hunter

    “Are we going to let the distractions of polygamy, racism, and worldly cares like sexuality cause us to walk away from Christ? Where will we go?”

    If one just looks at these things as categories, as ideas with no historical basis or affects on human lives, then maybe, maybe they can be dismissed as distraction. But when we know the painful legacy of these things and that the harm they do is very real and lasts a very long time, when we see how God’s justice is mocked by people claiming to speak for God, insisting that God has sactioned their bigotry and so on; at that point we are not talking about distractions, or walking away from Christ.

  • kiwi57

    Well, of course not. Since I don’t start from the a priori assumption that Joseph was making it all up, it follows that I don’t see a need to explain away his prophetic claims.
    Since Joseph did a whole lot more than most people (including you and I) to demonstrate his bona fides, he really is entitled to a presumption of good faith regarding his claims. I’m not arguing that anyone should be compelled to simply accept those claims, but they need to provide reasonably strong arguments as to why their mere opinions outweigh his direct personal testimony. For while it is certainly true that many people have passionately believed in all sorts of weird things — to the extent of being willing to die for them — I have yet to hear of a case of a normally intelligent person being that passionately devoted to something he did not believe in, so as to be willing to die for it.

    Like something he’d just made up through some kind of well-intentioned religious creativity, for instance.

  • RT

    “Since I don’t start from the a priori assumption that Joseph was making it all up, it follows that I don’t see a need to explain away his prophetic claims.”

    You got me there, kiwi57 (are you Bill?). Just figurd me out. How could I not see that I was letting my irrational a priori assumption that JS was a complete fraud get in the way of careful, impartial analysis? Thanks for setting me straight.

    Or, maybe you didn’t understand what I was trying to say in the OP. I can already see a number of problems with the above comment that suggest you didn’t read me very closely.

    –”Joseph was making it all up”

    I never said that!

    –”a need to explain away his prophetic claims”

    I don’t feel such a need and don’t think that’s what I’m doing at all.

    –”passionately devoted to something he did not believe in”

    Who said JS didn’t believe in what he was doing?

  • Jamie Wood

    “I have yet to hear of a case of a normally intelligent person being that passionately devoted to something he did not believe in, so as to be willing to die for it.”

    This is a misleading statement. He was jailed in Carthage for ordering the destruction of the Expositor which exposed his secret practices. To say that he went to jail and was murdered in defense of his beliefs is a subtle logical shift that has been perpetuated for quite some time.

  • Clark Goble

    My point is that ultimately it’s going to be a small group who treats it as fiction that’s useful. They’ll either leave or maintain a testimony. From the statistics I see I just don’t see it in aggregate as changing much, presumably because individuals always have testimony challenging events and frankly controversial history is lower down on the scale for most people.

  • RT

    My argument is not about whether people will leave the church, it’s about the construction of theology, both at an institutional and individual level.

  • warorpeace

    Can you see the moral good of Abraham’s sacrifice? Isaac was manipulated, it was a violation of a commandment, and like polygamy, is difficult to understand.

  • JohnH2

    The mob wasn’t after him for destroying the Expositor. He wasn’t jailed for his beliefs, but he was killed for them.

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