It’s been almost eight years since I left the church. I’ve processed a lot of emotions in those years, cycling in and out of grief, anger, sadness, and even, as unbelievable as it may seem, elation. That’s life, I guess.
Through it all, my husband has maintained his rock solid belief that this church is true. More specifically, that the gospel at its core is true, and that the church is the imperfect chosen vehicle to carry that gospel to all the earth. He believes that he has been “given to know”, and there is nothing, according to him, that can shake his testimony.
I’ve come to accept this about him, mostly, and have never attempted to sway his opinion. He knows that I know more than he does about the founding days of the church, and the prophet of the restoration. We’ve had many conversations about old Joe, and I’ve resigned myself to the fact that my husband will never see him as anything but a divinely chosen prophet, seer, and revelator. He isn’t interested in hearing the more salacious details of Joe’s polygamous ways in Nauvoo, and we’ve managed to make peace over the issue.
Most days, I’m okay with this. It is what it is.
Every now and then, though, I find myself circling back around to anger.
One evening last week, after a busy weekend at work, I was perusing the interwebz looking for a podcast to occupy my time. I have enjoyed Lindsay Hansen Park’s “Year of Polygamy” series, but I haven’t listened to all 100+ episodes. I know enough of the history that I am able to keep up without the necessity of listening to each and every episode in order. I find the history she covers fascinating, and most of the time, I am able to absorb the details without getting enmeshed in the emotions.
Last Sunday night, I selected a 2-parter on Emma Smith, Joe’s publicly acknowledged wife. I know this stuff; I read “Mormon Enigma” when it was first published back in the 1980s. I’ve read Todd Compton’s “In Sacred Loneliness”, more than once. I’ve read Bushman’s tome, “Rough Stone Rolling”, and Richard S. Van Wagoner’s “Mormon Polygamy: A History”. I don’t think there is anything I haven’t read or heard on the subject. I had probably already listened to this particular podcast. I know this stuff.
However, for some reason, listening again triggered something in me, and I felt the anger flare up, and a burning, irrational (or not) hatred of all things polygamous and Mormon.
I looked across the room at my oblivious husband, blissfully unaware that his spouse was in that moment attempting to destroy him with her eyes.
He wasn’t ever in any real danger. I know I can’t destroy people with my eyes. Yet.
But, oh my god. If he could have read my mind, he would probably have run. Or at least ducked.
How can a person hold two completely opposing beliefs in their brain and maintain sanity?
How can my husband believe Joseph Smith to be a divinely appointed prophet of the restoration, worthy of reverent worship, while also knowing that he was a lying, cheating, husband to Emma?
The story that triggered this emotion detailed the marriage of Joseph to the Partridge sisters, Emily and Eliza. They were young women who had been living in the Smith’s home for a couple of years as helpers to Emma. Unbeknownst to Emma, they had agreed to become celestial, plural wives to Joseph early in 1943. They were living with Emma, presumably helping care for her children and assisting with the housework, and sleeping with her husband. Under her watchful, though oblivious, eye.
By all accounts, Emily and Eliza believed celestial marriage to be a commandment from God, and they had agreed to join Joseph in holy matrimony as his wives in name and deed. At the time of the first marriage ceremony, Emma was unaware of the arrangement.
Within a couple of months of the secret marriage, Joseph had managed to convince Emma that celestial marriage was a divine principle, and she agreed to get on board, with the condition that she choose Joseph’s future wives. She chose the Partridge sisters, unaware that they had already been joined to her husband as his spiritual wives.
This second marriage was performed with Emma as a witness.
Emma, beloved wife of Joseph, stood by and watched as he took the two young sisters as brides, for time and eternity. I cannot imagine the heartache she must have felt in that moment.
Rumors had been swirling around Nauvoo for some time about Joe’s spiritual wifery. Emma countered the rumors whenever and wherever she could, insisting that her husband was not involved in such debauchery as plural marriage. Coming to understand the full extent of his involvement, as the author of the principle and an eager participant, must have rent her heart in two. And to be a witness herself? She has earned for herself an exalted place in the eternities. If such a place exists.
As I contemplated this story, and my husband’s unwavering testimony of Joseph Smith the prophet, I felt a distinct sense of cognitive dissonance on his behalf. And rage. And sorrow. I can’t believe he didn’t feel the force of my glare across the room and wither under its heat. But he didn’t. He was engrossed in the Sunday afternoon NASCAR race with our son, and remained unmindful of my distress.
I mulled this over for the next few days, and considered how the conversation might have gone had I confronted him in the heat of the moment. Not well, I imagine. Much like other conversations we’ve had about old Joe. “This isn’t just church history, it’s family history (he is a direct descendent of Hyrum Smith), and there isn’t anything you can tell me that I don’t already know.” Yeah, we’ve been down this particular road before, without resolution. And I really can leave it alone, letting him believe what he believes. He affords me the same respect, and our truce has been, for the most part, peaceful.
But I really don’t get it. I don’t.
A few days later, I ran into an old friend from my church-going days. She has remained a faithful friend, unafraid to be infected by my apostasy, and I feel comfortable having almost any conversation with her. Our meeting seemed providential, and I took advantage of the opportunity to question a true believer about Joe’s divine calling as prophet, and his penchant for plural marriage.
My friend is so awesome. She truly is. She listened thoughtfully as I explained my dilemma, and considered her response carefully. I could tell she took my question seriously, but didn’t take it as an opportunity to bear her testimony. I appreciate this more than she can know.
My friend responded first by telling me that while she is aware of the complicated history of the church, and Joseph Smith, she has chosen to err on the side of believing in his prophetic calling because she sees the fruits of her belief as overwhelmingly positive. (I am paraphrasing, as I didn’t record our conversation, and I don’t have a photographic memory! My apologies if I got anything wrong.)
She then referenced the founding fathers of our nation. She is a history buff, and knows the salacious details of their very flawed stories, but finds much to revere and respect in the fruits of their actions, so she is able to look past their character flaws and appreciate their accomplishments. She does the same with Joseph Smith. She sees the good that comes to her life by believing in the church, and living the principles of the gospel, and is able to put the rest aside. It isn’t so much that she sees the issues as inconsequential, but that her testimony of Joseph Smith and the church he founded is a net positive for herself and her family.
I respect the position she has chosen to take, and I admire her ability to see the good while acknowledging the negative aspects of church history. I don’t understand it, but I respect it. And I’m very grateful that she would freely share her feelings with me without being threatened by my questions. She is an exemplary Mormon, and I love her, in spite of her religious leanings…. (insert smiley face emoticon….:)
Still, I don’t get it. I look over at my husband, choosing to believe in Joseph Smith the prophet, in spite of Joseph Smith the polygamist (and cheating liar), and I don’t get it.
Which I guess explains why I’m out, and he stays in. He doesn’t need it to make sense. He doesn’t require his prophet to be without flaws. And I don’t either, necessarily. I just don’t consider marrying multiple women without his wife’s consent to be a character flaw. It’s a flaming red flag, and all the evidence I need that Joseph Smith was not a prophet. In my humble opinion, his deeds were not godly, and could not possibly be sanctioned by any supreme being worthy of worship.
In conclusion, DH and I will have to continue to agree to disagree. But, for the record, he’s wrong, and I’m right.
Just don’t try to tell him that. He won’t get it.