Mormon News, October 20–24

The LDS Church posted new in-depth historical essays on Wednesday–with a brief introduction—on the thorny issues surrounding Mormon polygamy. The essays are part of the church’s Gospel Topics internet page. Most people know Latter-day Saints practiced polygamy, celestialbut the details can be confusing, even (or perhaps especially) for church members. The three essays are framed through a believer’s lens and discuss and frankly acknowledge the more controversial aspects of the issue including Joseph Smith’s marriages to girls as young as fourteen, his marriages to women who were already married (polyandry), the fact that he only disclosed a few of these relationships to his first wife, and the practice of post-Manifesto polygamy secretly sanctioned by Mormon leaders while publicly denying it. The essays consider three chronological periods: the beginning of Mormon polygamy in Ohio in the 1830s, polygamy and family life in Utah, and the government anti-polygamy campaign of the 1880s.

It is difficult to know how the essays will be received among rank-and-file Latter-day Saints (those who read the Gospel Topics pages tend to be individuals who have a strong interest in Mormon studies), but a few online commentators have stated that their family members or friends were unaware that Joseph Smith had practiced polygamy at all. The church’s acknowledgement has attracted media coverage, and the Salt Lake Tribune‘s headline reads, “New Mormon Essay: Joseph Smith Married Teens, Other Men’s Wives.”

Although some online commentators took issue with what they perceived to be an apologetic slant to the essays, others acknowledged the momentousness of the information appearing on the church’s website and the utility of having basic historical information so widely available for such topics. As Julie Smith at the Times & Seasons blog noted, “Some [historians] sacrificed their careers, if not their very membership in the Church, in order to publish things very similar to what is hosted on the Church’s own website today.”

Indeed, there are still glaring omissions in the documentation portion of the essays, showing reluctance on the part of the essayist to cite Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought and Sunstone magazine, where some of the first research into these subject areas first appeared. The essay on post-Manifesto polygamy fails to cite D. Michael Quinn’s groundbreaking article in Dialogue, widely considered the most influential work to document the practice. Quinn was excommunicated in 1993, alongside other historians and scholars. The essay on polygamy in Nauvoo fails to cite George D. Smith’s book, Nauvoo Polygamy, the first to documented how many Mormons entered polygamy before the Utah period.

Through its Newsroom website, the LDS Church also released a video of Mormon temple garments and other ceremonial clothing, including temple robes, sashes, and aprons. The video is unapologetic and simply asks people to respect LDS practices in this area. The video shows vestments from other faiths, including prayer shawls and robes, and then tackles what has been popularly labeled “magic underwear.” The narrative tries to demystify the garments in the wake of their depiction on the television show Big Love and through the hidden-camera footage that has been uploaded to YouTube.

News update by John Hatch, acquisitions editor