Friday, May 9, 2008

Dialogue on Polygamy

It's quite an interesting synchronicity that both of the articles on Mormon polygamy which appear in this quarter's Dialogue journal were prepared in advance of the events which took place among the FLDS in Texas. Thus, they do not specifically address the event, but they do join and contribute to an important dialogue about polygamy and Mormonism.

Ken Driggs is a lawyer who did a graduate degree in legal history at the University of Wisconsin Law School. His thesis discussed the legal rights of the FLDS at Short Creek in 1953. A portion of this thesis appeared in the Utah Historical Quarterly as "Who Shall Raise the Children? Vera Black and the Rights of Polygamous Utah Parents." Earlier this week a blog post appeared telling the tragic story of Vera Black's son Wilford. The boy was placed in custody at the age of 6, suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome, stopped communicating with others, and was unable to live a normal life thereafter.

Ken's article, "A New Future Requires A New Past," discusses the recrafting of Mormon history by the mainstream Church, deemphasizing teachings such as polygamy, the "One Mighty and Strong," Mother in Heaven, Jesus' possible earthly marriage, and the United Order. I have discussed some of these subjects in my own blogging. I share with Ken a feeling of disorientation as the Church jettisons many of these beliefs but I recognize that modern-day Mormonism is easier for mainstream Christians to embrace as they enter the Church. Though Ken presents his views from a faithful perspective, he concludes his piece with a hearty, "And don't tell me the Church is never changing."

A second article, "Polygamy, Mormonism, and Me," was written by Carmon Hardy, an LDS historian who has written extensively on the topic of post-Manifest polygamy. His recent book, Doing the Works of Abraham: Mormon Polygamy, Its Origin, Practice and Demise came out in 2007 as part of the Kingdom in the West project spearheaded by Will Bagley. This piece was a bit more disappointing to me than the first. It is billed as part of a series "Avenues to Faith," which "looks at how historians, creative writers, administrators, educators and scriptural scholars have dealt with some of the classic problems in Mormon history." Thus I was expecting and hoping for some reasoned musings on how to fit our polygamous origins into a faithful Mormon paradigm. Instead, page after page of this article presented the classic story of an intellectual's exit from Mormonism. Though Carmon protests (too much!) that polygamy in itself did not threaten his religious convictions, the story is all too typical: LDS member encounters dissonance--loses faith when his prayers and questions are not answered--has a bad experience at Church archives--is interviewed by Church leaders (in his case by his BYU employers) and asked to explain his research--is asked not to pursue his research--leaves BYU and later the Church.

So Carmon provides little in the way of integration of polygamy as practiced in the early Church into present-day LDS thought. But he does, in the latter half of his essay, identify some of the problems we face. Many LDS members are not aware of the strong arguments for plurality which were presented to early members and the world at large. Men and women were told they would be stronger, healthier, and begin to live as long as the ancients through practices associated with plural marriage. They were told their exaltation depended upon the practice. Eugenic superiority, social gifts, and greater happiness were promised, and women were told they could thereby escape the curse of Eve. After the Manifesto, 20 years of equivocation by Church authorities is documented by Carmon Hardy's investigations. His research uncovered at least 200 and possibly up to 300 post-Manifest marriages between 1890 and 1910. These marriages can be shown to be approved by the upper eschelon of Church leadership and contracted among the most faithful of Church members. But once the Church began to move away from the practice of polygamy, the emphatic way that this was done is quite amazing. Unfortunately this included mistruth in public discourse--what Hardy terms "lying for the Lord."

The only glimpse the reader is given into Carmon Hardy's personal evaluation of this information is buried in a footnote: "though my dominant historical interest remains with those many-wived, patriarchal stalwarts of the old Church, I have found today's polygamist dissenters not only welcoming but as gentle and sincere a people on the whole as their nineteenth-century predecessors."

Once again, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought has provided timely material of interest to all within the Latter-day umbrella. The journal was mailed early this week and should be arriving in mailboxes even as you read this review. I was pleased this quarter to see the online version posted along with the mailing, making my online subscription convenient and accessible. Enjoy a peek at this issue by clicking the link on my sidebar.


Zillah said...

Perhaps the simplification/mainstreaming of many doctrines/presentations/practices makes the Church more palatable to mainstream Christians and converts, but I do find it interesting that many of my acquaintances, myself included, get to their 20s and find themselves looking for more meat and more complexity in our beliefs. The emphasis seems to have shifted to delineating how we are Christians and how to dress properly, and I think that the doctrinal aspect of the Church is poorer as a result of these changes.

Zillah said...

I don't know if my comment has much to do with your post, now that I glance back at it. Oh well. Maybe it does.

Bored in Vernal said...

I guess that's why I read Dialogue and Sunstone. I know we need the emphasis on the basics, but the complexity is what makes things interesting, and at least for me, motivating.

RWW said...

If I remember correctly, Brigham Young said that many of the doctrines he taught, now considered incorrect by the leadership, were vital to the salvation of the Saints. Sadly, there may be more at stake here than motivation.

Bored in Vernal said...

RWW, That's an interesting comment--in fact, Ken Driggs said in his article that as the Church continues to "lose" important doctrines, some members will find themselves drawn to fundamentalism.

John White said...

"Eugenic superiority" sounds pretty creepy.

Also, it's unclear to me how one decides which traditions or doctrines it was OK or not OK to back away from. How about blacks in the priesthood. What that wrong to change?

M said...

While I don't have the answers, I think it's interesting to distinguish between doctrines that have changed (polygamy/priesthood for all worthy men), doctrines we just don't talk about much anymore (the resurrection name calling, exaltation meaning we become like God) versus doctrines completely abandoned.

I remember watching GBH in an interview once where he was asked specifically about the man-becomes-god doctrine. GBH talked around it and could have been understood as denying it. I was shocked. But as I read some other articles from him, I don't think it was so much changing or denying doctrine as refusing to place before others things they were not ready to hear. I know in church classes it is always a challenge to balance more complex doctrines with the basic principles as your audience includes the novice up to the advanced student. Of late, I have felt more and more emphasis on the core doctrines of the church (faith in Jesus, being kind, etc.) than some of these teachings that while good and important, do we really have to understand them for exaltation? We know so little about some of these topics and many conversations result in much, much speculation.

That said, I pondered for years over polygamy as I understand it to be an eternal concept (for instance, why do we believe in polygyny and not polyandry) as many men now living will have more than one wife in the after life (my father and grandfather are both sealed to two women). I understood the doctrine as something that a) not every one is asked to practice so while marriage may be essential for exaltation polygamy isn't and that b) we are simply not practicing it now but that could change in this life and certainly in the next.

Wow - I hope all of that makes sense and adds to the conversation!

RWW said...

Also, it's unclear to me how one decides which traditions or doctrines it was OK or not OK to back away from.

Reason works wonders. When Wilford Woodruff said "The Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as President of this Church to lead you astray," the fact that his statement (at least as it is commonly understood) is a logical impossibility automatically disqualifies it. So the leadership has been wrong in backing away from the idea of their own fallibility.

When reason fails, there's the Spirit. But it's generally on a need-to-know basis.