The church recently released a series of essays about the prophet Joseph Smith, and his practice of polygamy during the early days of the church. Big news, apparently. I mean, who knew?!?
Turns out, a lot of people did. If the internet is to be believed, most of them were Mormons, and most of them were, and are, faithful. The big questions then became how did they know, when did they know, what exactly did they know, and what did they do about it. And the answers were infuriating.
"You're upset because you didn't know 'Ol Joe had multiple wives? Teenagers, some of them? Other mens' wives, men he'd sent on missions? If only you'd paid attention in church! This is not new information, and it wasn't hidden from those who cared enough to look for it. Dumbasses."
Okay, nobody called anybody a dumbass. Not that I saw, anyway. But the insinuation was that the fault lie with those who were ignorant of the history. Victim blaming.
"I knew, and it didn't change a thing for me. Joseph was a prophet of God, and was commanded by God to take other wives, much like prophets of old. Doesn't change a thing. Why you so upset? Why you gotta leave? Why you gotta be a hater? Wah! Wah! Wah! Big babies! Go! Don't let the door hit you in the ass on the way out!"
Way, way back in the mid 1980's, I knew. I don't believe my story is unique, but it is worth telling. If only to shut up those naysayers who knew, and were not bothered. Because I was bothered. A lot.
The first edition of "Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith", was published in 1985. I found it on my very believing mother's bookshelf, and was intrigued by the title, so I read it. It was an eye-opener for me, a lifelong Mormon girl, raised in Utah. I don't recall ever hearing in church that Joseph Smith was a polygamist. Or if I had, I hadn't paid much attention. It wasn't spoken of over the pulpit in glowing terms, unlike the account of the first vision as told in the Pearl of Great Price. It certainly was not common knowledge among my peers. I don't recall any mention of it in seminary or institute, though I was a graduate of both. Maybe it was a lesson topic one day, and I was out sick. Or I was goofing off on the back row, a reality on any given day. Both scenarios are possible.
Nevertheless, though I grew up in the church, schooled in the beauty of the gospel restored through the efforts of Joseph Smith, I was not aware of Joseph's history with polygamy. I believed, as did most of the Mormons I knew, that polygamy started with Brigham Young, and was an altruistic-attempt-to-care-for-the-poor-widows-and-orphaned-children-who-had-lost-their-husbands-and-fathers-in-the-terrible-struggle-to-cross-the-plains-in-pursuit-of-religious-freedom. That was our story, and we stuck to it.
The real story of polygamy I learned while reading the above-mentioned book about Emma Smith. It provided details about their marriage, and his marriages, that I had never heard. And it was disconcerting, to say the least. I was bothered by the idea that Joseph married other women without his wife's knowledge, and, once she was made aware, against her wishes. I was bothered by the fact that Joseph married a girl who was only 14, among other teenagers. I was bothered by the fact that Joseph married other men's wives, many of whom were alone on the frontier because he had sent their husbands on missions to spread the gospel word. I was bothered that Joseph Smith claimed God had commanded him to do all of this, at the risk of his own life should he refuse. And I was bothered by the fact that this was new to me, a lifelong member.
This new information sat in my brain for awhile, over a year, and festered. In July of 1987, I took a cross-country trip, with a younger brother along for company, and we made a stop in Nauvoo, Illinois. This was in the days before it had been restored to its former glory. We wandered up and down the streets, looking at the many, many homes that had been left behind by the saints, and stood for a while on the temple mount, contemplating the exodus of our Mormon ancestors. I didn't entirely trust the narrative fed us by the missionary couples, the story of a people who had been driven off by an angry mob because of their faith in God. The story of Joseph's polygamy was too fresh in my mind, and I couldn't help but wonder how much that had to do with the saints hasty departure from their beloved city.
Then we visited Carthage jail, the site of the martydom of Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum. I sat in silence in the upper room, listening to the story of Joseph Smith, the hero, and the mob that had gathered on that fateful day to carry out their evil deed. And I couldn't quiet my feelings of unease, thinking about the acts of Joseph Smith, the polygamist. Joseph Smith, the deceitful and, in my view, unfaithful spouse to Emma. Joseph Smith, the arrogant self-proclaimed prophet of the new dispensation, who had God's ear, and spoke God's word. I was very uncomfortable with these feelings, having been raised to revere Joseph Smith. "Praise to the Man" was an oft-sung anthem to our martyred prophet. And yet, there I sat, with a troubled heart. The story no longer resonated as one of faithful saints driven off by hate and fear. It had been tainted by truth, and I was in turmoil.
My journal entry, recorded the next day, reads, in part, ".... he was such a complex person, and one with whom I have a hard time identifying. I have a testimony of the truthfulness of the restored gospel, but my conviction that he was inspired in all of his actions is a bit weak. I guess I don't understand him well enough -- but I also think that the people of that time period bear some studying as well, since that could shed some light on Joseph Smith himself. He would most likely have gone about things much differently in this century, been similar to the apostles and prophets we have now. I don't have any trouble respecting them. Not that such is the case with Joseph -- I just don't understand him. I can empathize with Emma --."
If I recall correctly, this did not reflect my feelings entirely accurately, but I was reluctant to record for my posterity any doubt that Joseph was a prophet. I couldn't commit in writing my disquiet with the story as I now knew it. But reading between the lines, I was disturbed by the actions of Joseph Smith, and I couldn't make them fit what I believed to be true of prophets and apostles. I could no longer see him as a man of God. In my mind, he was a fallen prophet.
That fall, I lived in Boston, working as a traveling nurse. I took an institute class in Cambridge, on the Doctrine and Covenants, which included much of early church history. I listened carefully, but no mention was made of Joseph's polygamy. And I wasn't brave enough to bring it up myself. So, I shelved it. Again.
Until the next summer, when I read a fictionalized account of the church's early days, written by Orson Scott Card. Titled "Saints", it told the story of a woman whose life was based on that of Eliza Snow, who had married both Joseph Smith and, after his death, Brigham Young. The story included many of the same details I'd read in "Mormon Enigma", and stirred up all those feelings of disquiet about Joseph Smith and polygamy. I remember spending many nights lying on my couch staring off into space, trying to fit what I had learned into what I already knew. Trying to make it make sense. And failing. I wondered if the church was even true, and the thought terrified me.
I had been struggling with other issues that year, among them the excommunication of someone I loved dearly, who had been having an affair. I couldn't reconcile his excommunication with what I viewed as Joseph's unfaithfulness. The one was revered as a prophet; the other kicked out of the club. And their actions were eerily similar. My head spun in confusion.
In August of that summer, on one particularly emotional night, I told God that I couldn't do it anymore. I was done. I didn't want to participate in a religion that revered a man such as Joseph Smith. I didn't want to be a Mormon anymore. And I gave God an ultimatum. I told him that he had one chance to keep me in the fold. I was going to call on an old friend, a general authority by the name of Jacob de Jager. I knew from an article in the newspaper that my friend was on assignment in Asia, and wouldn't be available to take my call. But I told God that if I could get in to see my friend, talk to him a bit, benefit from his wise counsel, I'd stay. It was an ultimatum that I knew God would fail. Only, God came through.
When Elder de Jager's secretary came on the line, I asked if I could speak to him, knowing he was out of the country. She said, in a cheerful voice, "Sure! He's sitting in his office. I'll connect you."
And so it came to pass that I found myself sitting in the office of a general authority the next day, pouring out my heart to him, confessing my grave sin of doubt. Telling him of my confusion and exhaustion at trying so hard to make it all work. As I recall, I did not reveal my misgivings about the prophet Joseph. I knew enough at the time to guess how that would be received. In retrospect, I very much wish I had brought it up. Maybe he would have had some useful advice on how to make peace with the past. Maybe he would have brushed it off as inconsequential. I'll never know, because of my fear.
What he did tell me was that I shouldn't give up, that good things were on the horizon, and that I should stay the course. I trusted him, and, as God had made Elder de Jager available when I most needed him, by extension I trusted God. I left our meeting with renewed faith in the church.
After speaking with Elder de Jager, I made good on my vow to stay in the church, and I began faithfully attending my Sunday meetings. I read scriptures daily, and prayed both morning and night, and re-committed myself to living the gospel as best I could. And I shelved, deeply, any doubts I had about Joseph Smith. I put my feelings aside, and became the best Mormon I knew how to be.
In November of that year, I met the man who would become my husband. After my final disaffection from the church, he confessed that had I not been an active, believing Mormon at the time we met, he would not have married me. And, to be honest, I married him, in part, because he was also an active, believing Mormon. We were both looking for someone with whom to raise a family, and neither of us would have considered a person out of the faith. And I am so very, very glad that we have had a life together. I have no regrets there. He was, and is, the right guy for me, and I feel fortunate to have spent the last 25 and a half years with him. He's the guy, my guy, and I guess I have the church to thank for that. I can't explain it, from my perspective now, and I don't try to. It is what it is. And what it is is good.
Fast forward 21 years, from the summer of '88 to the fall of 2009. As I have detailed elsewhere, I finally had to acknowledge to myself that I did not believe in the church. In the intervening years, I had successfully kept my feelings about Joseph Smith buried. Any time I was called upon to testify of his prophetic calling, I did so, as a good Mormon should, but always with a twinge of lingering doubt. Doubt that I pushed back forcefully, refusing to even acknowledge that it existed. What finally tipped me over into apostasy wasn't Joseph Smith's polygamy, however, but my own deep and abiding feelings that something was wrong. The church didn't make sense to me, the gospel itself confused me, and I couldn't accept so very many things I had been led to believe about God. And accepting my unbelief was incredibly liberating. Finally, I could allow my mind to wander into those dark corners, and take stuff down off the shelves for examination, and not fear where it might lead. And I didn't have to ignore my doubts about 'Ol Joe. He wasn't a prophet, and the church he 'restored' wasn't True with a capital T.
The only trouble was that I had no one with whom to discuss my burgeoning disbelief in the church. I hadn't yet brought it out into the open with my husband, and I had no friends who were former believers turned apostate. And even if I did, I wouldn't have dared talk to them. Conversing with known apostates was verboten. So, for about 3 months, I simmered silently. I was no longer talking to God, not in the way I had always done. I wasn't even sure He was there, and formal prayers felt foreign on my tongue. I have always been a verbal processer, never one to suffer in silence, so this period of my life was very lonely. And confusing.
And then I realized that there was one person I could talk to. One person to whom I could unburden my soul. My husband's Uncle Denny.
Uncle Denny was married to my father-in-law's sister, and had been excommunicated in the 1980's, for heresy. My husband's family were mostly very active, believing Mormons, and Uncle Denny's story was whispered about, but never acknowledged in the open. I knew bits and pieces of the story, but had never spoken with him personally about his own journey. I knew him to be a friendly, kind man, and I suspected that he would be open to discussing my concerns and questions. The only problem was, how could I go about meeting with him? I had seen him at my mother-in-law's funeral in December, but the topic of my unbelief in Mormonism hardly seemed appropriate at that particular venue. And I didn't feel comfortable picking up the phone and calling him. "Hey, yo, Uncle Den! How's about that excommunication? Crazy stuff, huh?!? Wanna talk about it?" That just didn't feel right, for so many reasons.
Then, in January of 2010, Uncle Denny was injured in an accident at his airplane hangar. No, I do not for a minute believe that God, or the universe, or whoever is in charge, caused his accident just to orchestrate a meeting with me. I don't have a good explanation for what followed, but it was certainly serendipitous. For me, anyway. Didn't work out so well for Uncle Denny, although he did survive his injuries. (Incidentally, he passed away the next fall, of a previously diagnosed cancer.)
I knew that Uncle Denny was an inpatient in the hospital where I was working as a nurse, and I had visited with him and his family, who were very close, and who were staying nearby to be with him as he recovered. I had been at a staff meeting at the hospital one evening, and decided, before I went home, that I would visit with him and his family, whom I suspected would be at his bedside. Only when I went to his room, I found him alone, lying in the dark, resting quietly. He was awake, and pleasantly surprised to see me. He invited me in for a visit, and what transpired that evening, in the darkness of his hospital room, was a pivotal point in my transformation from believer to unbeliever.
After exchanging pleasantries, I blurted out to him my doubt, and confusion. It was the first time I had uttered the words out loud, and it felt weird, and disconcerting. "Uncle Denny, I don't know if the church is true." He didn't express shock, or even surprise. Maybe it was due to his pain, but he seemed very calm, and sure of his words. And though I can't recall specifics of the conversation, I do remember that he asked me what had started me on my journey, and what I had read. He never once suggested that I should leave the church, and in fact didn't even confirm that the church was not true. He simply asked questions, and made suggestions.
What I remember most clearly is his quiet affection for me, and his gentle assurance that I was not flawed. I do remember feeling loved, and I trusted him. And in that conversation, I learned to trust myself, and my feelings. I realized that I could let go of God, and hang on to my humanity. I learned that morality, and love, and compassion do not come exclusively from a belief in God, nor from religion, but from within our own hearts. That conversation has become a precious memory of Uncle Denny, and when I doubt myself, or my doubts, I remember Uncle Denny's quiet assurance. And I know I'm okay.
As a result of that conversation, I picked up a book I had previously tried to read, but had found to be dry and boring. Richard Bushman's historical treatise of Joseph Smith, "Rough Stone Rolling", proved to be a fascinating history lesson. One that ultimately confirmed to me those feelings from years ago, and I knew then, as much as I'd ever known anything, that Joseph Smith was not a prophet of God. And I knew that my eternal salvation, or eternal destiny, did not rest in my allegiance to his church. And I felt peace.
These two conversations, two decades apart, stand out in my mind as pivotal points in my life's journey. Each resulted in a different trajectory, neither ending in regret. And I have no explanation for either event.
Some would see God behind these fortuitous life events, but I cannot bring myself to believe in such a Divine Being. I cannot believe that He would care so much about the outcome of my life, and so little about the extermination of the Jews during the Holocaust, to use a commonly known historical atrocity. Unfortunately, there are many from which to choose. No, I don't see God's hand evident in these stories.
So, what, or who, gets the credit for my amazing journey? No idea. And yes, it is amazing. I got to marry a beautiful soul with whom I built a beautiful life, and then I got to leave behind all the superstitions of my youth that were stealing my joy. And in the process keep that beautiful life with that beautiful man. Amazing.
And 'Ol Joe? What of him? He was simply a man, a deeply flawed, though charismatic and brilliant, man, one who started a movement that changed the world. His story is fascinating, with all of its sordid details, and I'm not sorry I got to know him. And I'm not sorry to leave him behind. Nor the church he founded. It is now part of my history, but not part of my present. Or my future.
That belongs to me.