Showing posts with label polygamy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label polygamy. Show all posts

Monday, March 11, 2013

Re-reading Under The Banner of Heaven

          I have stated multiple times that I was in my mid-twenties when I found out that Joseph Smith had married multiple women, including teenagers and women who already had husbands. Although this is technically true, I find that my story of enlightenment about Mormon history is considerably more complex than I had realized. It is true that I did not learn these facts in church. While re-reading Jon Krakauer’s book Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith
, I discovered that these facts were hidden in plain sight, if only I had taken the time to look. 
          The first time I read “Under The Banner of Heaven”, I was in college and only a few years out of Mormonism. I remember reading the gory details of this book – the tangled messes of polygamous families, the horrible downslide of the Lafferty brothers, and the devastating murders of Brenda Lafferty and her infant daughter – and dismissing them as having nothing to do with the mainstream Mormon church that I grew up in. My primary reflex was to dismiss anything to do with polygamy as being not-really-Mormon. My secondary reflex was to dismiss any account of Mormon history written by a non-Mormon. These reflexes were there in spite of the fact that by that time I was an atheist who had made the conscious decision to leave the Mormon Church.
          On page 5, Jon Krakaeur states

“The religious literature handed out by the earnest young missionaries in Temple Square makes no mention of the fact that Joseph Smith – still the religion’s focal personage – married at least thirty-three women and probably as many as forty-eight. Nor does it mention that the youngest of these wives was just fourteen years old when Joseph explained to her that God had commanded that she marry him or face eternal damnation.”

          I did read this book when I was younger and yet the details about Mormon history, including Joseph Smith’s polygamous past and some of the more violent aspects of the early teachings, went straight over my head. There were a lot of details that I missed the first time around – the full import of the early teachings about polygamy, the more unsavory aspects of the early leaders, the connection between the early teachings about polygamy and modern Mormon fundamentalists, and the brutality of the blood atonement taught by Brigham Young. The first time reading this book, I ignored the history because it didn't agree with the lessons I grew up with. I also think that I ignored the history because I needed to protect myself. It is not an easy task to examine the short-comings of the religion you grew up with.
          The truth is, reading this book was an uncomfortable experience. There was a lot that was familiar, even within the story of the Lafferty boys. I was raised with a pretty literal interpretation of Mormonism; my father is the type of person who takes the words of the leaders at face value. The visions and revelations of the fundamentalists described in this book are eerily similar to the visions and revelations described by the early leaders. Within this book are the stories of people that took the words of the early Mormon leaders in a very literal sense and twisted them into a violent conclusion.
          I too was raised to take the words of the leaders at face value; to recognize that commonality, no matter how different I may be, is a profoundly uncomfortable feeling.
          Nowadays, the Mormon leaders are very careful about what history they do and do not teach. The majority of Mormons, including the ones I grew up with, are just people that are trying to live a good life according to the standards expected of them. The majority of them will live decent, upstanding lives. No one talks about polygamy anymore and the more radical teachings of the early leaders are being buried under a carefully constructed amnesia. But the words of the leaders are, according to the Mormon teachings, the words of God himself. This is the lesson I learned. This is also the lesson that the Lafferty boys learned.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Book Review: The 19th Wife

         The "19th Wife", by David Ebershoff, is a novel that alternates between the narrative of Ann Eliza Young, the 19th wife of Brigham Young, and Jordan Scott, a “lost boy” that was born to a 19th wife in a modern-day polygamous community. 
          Ann Eliza Young was famous for divorcing Brigham Young and then going on to crusade against polygamy. During her crusade, she wrote an autobiography of her life, titled "Wife No 19". In re-writing Ann Eliza Young’s story as a work of fiction, Ebershoff goes one step further by providing the narratives of others, including her family members and Brigham Young. Some of the narratives didn’t come across as authentic – they felt too clean, too self-aware for the rough-hewn pioneer characters they portrayed. Nevertheless, by including these alternative voices, the author created a more nuanced portrayal of 19th-century polygamy.
          The other part of the novel is comprised of the story of Jordan Scott, a lost boy who was kicked out of his polygamous community at the age of fourteen. After fleeing Utah, he returns home when his mother is arrested for his father’s murder. Believing his mother to be innocent, Jordan sets out to uncover the truth. The story that unfolds is a complex narrative of modern-day polygamy, with ties to the original Mormon faith that fostered the practice. The story alternated between the two time periods with relative ease; this was a book that I started reading and couldn’t put down.
          The author did an excellent job at untangling some of the complex emotions that happen when one man is married to multiple women, as well as portraying the religious significance of polygamy in early Mormon history. Overall, this was a very engaging work of historical fiction.

This book has been out a while – I picked up my copy at a used book-store. For history buffs, Ann Eliza Young’s book "Wife No. 19" is also available as an e-bookon Amazon for a reasonable price.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Who Owns The Term Mormon?

          Polygamy is a touchy subject for many Mormons. Mention the word polygamy to a faithful Mormon and you will observe an almost universal knee-jerk reaction – an explanation that Mormons do not practice polygamy and that polygamist groups covered in mainstream media are not Mormon. To counter the image of polygamy, Mormon authorities made an unsuccessful attempt to trademark the term “Mormon”, as an attempt to prevent fundamentalist Mormon groups from using the term. Members are also instructed to refer to themselves as members of the Church Of Jesus Christ Of Latter-Day Saints, LDS for short, as a way of combating the stigma of polygamy associated with the term Mormon, although in an ironic twist, the latest attempt to improve the image of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has been an expensive ad campaign titled “I’m A Mormon”.
          What I find interesting about this reaction is the fact that polygamy was an integral part of early Mormonism. Joseph Smith – the founder of the Mormon Church and considered to be a modern-day Prophet, Seer, and Revelator – married an estimated 33 women. His successor, Brigham Young, had an estimated 55 wives. The third leader of the Mormon Church, John Taylor, had seven wives. In 1882, when the U.S. government began cracking down on polygamy in Utah, there was a lot of confusion within the church. John Taylor – leader of the church at the time - wrote a document in 1886 that fundamentalists argue affirms the permanency of plural marriage. In 1890 the Mormon president Wilford Woodruff issued a Manifesto disavowing the practice of polygamy. Polygamy was still practiced in secret, with some Mormons choosing to move to either Canada or Mexico to continue the practice of plural marriage. Eventually, after much controversy, the President Joseph Fielding Smith issued the Second Manifesto in 1904, which once again disavowed the practice.
          Fundamentalist Mormons still believe in and practice polygamy. The difference between fundamentalist Mormons and mainstream Mormons is that fundamentalists do not believe the 1890 Manifesto was a divine revelation. Instead, they point to the 1886 revelation by John Taylor that re-iterates the permanence of God’s commandments, one of which they argue is the practice of polygamy. In a nutshell, the only difference between mainstream Mormon and fundamentalist Mormons is the fact that fundamentalist Mormons believe in a literal interpretation of the past Mormon leaders, rather than following the leaders that came after John Taylor. When Martin Luther split off from the Roman Catholic Church, he did not lose the right to call himself a follower of the Bible and Jesus Christ; neither should fundamentalist Mormons lose the right to call themselves followers of Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon.
          Furthermore, LDS members do believe polygamy exists in Heaven – they just don’t believe in practicing polygamy on Earth, where the laws of the land prohibit the practice. Growing up, I was taught that if a man was widowed, he could be sealed in an eternal marriage to another wife. When he went to Heaven, he would be reunited with all of his wives. Mormons believe that only married people can gain access to the highest level of Heaven. We were assured that if we didn’t receive the opportunity to be married in this life, then we would have the opportunity to get married in the next life. There was, however, no assurance that the celestial marriage would be monogamous.
          This begs the question – what defines the term Mormon? Are the members of the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints the only people who can lay claim to the term Mormon? Or does this term extend to all the sects that follow the teachings of the early leaders and the Book of Mormon?
          Even those who still practice polygamy?

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Learning Not Very Useful Truths

“There is a temptation for the writer or the teacher of Church history to want to tell everything, whether it is worthy or faith promoting or not.  Some things that are true are not very useful.”1  

Boyd K Packer, President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles

          As a faithful Mormon girl, I was warned to never read literature concerning the Mormon church that had not been approved by the Church.  The leaders taught us that Satan was looking to lead faithful Mormons astray.  To maintain the faith, I needed to stay in the warm, cozy confines of Church-sanctioned truth.  And I believed the warnings.  Straying outside the confines of Church literature never even occurred to me.  I didn’t leave the Church because I read “anti”-Mormon literature.  I left because the attitudes within the Church didn’t feel right and I had a hunch that there was a wider world waiting for me outside the confines of a rigid belief system.  
          I only learned about the dirty secrets of Mormon history after leaving.  I was in my mid-twenties when I learned about Joseph Smith’s 33 wives, a truth that directly contradicted the myth of Joseph and Emma’s love story.2  I am still learning about the many permutations of the First Vision, which is a “not-very-useful truth” that casts an unforgiving light on the true origins of Mormonism.3  As a person who was trained in genetics, I am painfully aware of the fact that there is no proof that the civilizations described in the Book of Mormon ever existed.4  The list of “not-very-useful truths” about the Mormon Church is a mile long.  And the majority of these facts are unbeknownst to my family.  To mention these truths to my family would expose me to anger and the accusation of being “anti”-Mormon.  True or not, even the slightest hint of criticism would be an affront to my family and their religion.  
          When I learned these truths, I felt betrayed by the church I had grown up in.  Learning the truth strengthened my conviction that I had made the right choice in leaving.  But I learned these truths only after leaving; why then should these issues matter so much to me?  
          The reason I care so much about the “not-very-useful” truths is because the actions of Mormon authorities --- to bury the past in secrecy --- infantilizes members.  I was raised to place blind faith in authorities; now I know these authorities to be dishonest.  The tendency to place blind trust in authorities is a trait that has lingered even past my break with the Church.  As people, we deserve the right to question the actions of authorities.  We deserve the right to question if authorities are acting in our best interest.  However, the Mormon church forbids dissension of any sort; criticism of church authorities is a very serious matter and can lead to excommunication.

Monday, May 21, 2012

A Mormon Mother's View On Gay Marriage

          My mother is a very quiet woman but also very true to her religious convictions.  She is always there in the background, doing what is expected of her.  My mother also possesses a very unusual blend of convictions; she is both a Mormon and a Democrat.  Once, she even hinted to possessing pro-choice leanings; she believes people should be given the freedom to make their own choices.  She dislikes Romney and always agreed with me when I grumbled about the authorities being a bunch of old white men that were out of touch with reality.  
          Now that I have left the Church, religion is a topic we rarely discuss; my mother clings to the belief that I left because church members offended me.  I don’t want to break her heart any more than I already have, so I try to keep quiet about the real reasons I left.  
          Last winter, during a trip home, my mother and I engaged in a rare conversation about the Mormon church.  Specifically, I mentioned the Church’s support of Proposition 8 and how hurt I was by their involvement in the matter.  My mother didn’t know what I was talking about, so I explained that Prop 8 was an initiative to ban gay marriage, which at the time had been legal in California.  The Mormon church had invested a lot of money and time into getting Prop 8 passed, to the heartbreak of many.  After I explained about Prop 8, my mother was quiet for a moment.
          And then, very gently, I decided to push just a little bit further.  I mentioned how upset I was when I discovered Joseph Smith had 33 wives.  I was in my mid-twenties when I found this out, in spite of a lifetime of learning about Joseph Smith.  I asked my mother if she had heard about Joseph’s other wives.  My mother admitted she had heard a little bit about the matter.  
          “But they were just spiritual wives.” my mother said.  “They weren’t real wives.”
          “Actually, no.”  I said.  “The evidence strongly supports the idea that they were actual wives.  And the thing is, about a third of his wives already had living husbands.”
          My mother was quiet for a moment, then smiled and looked at me.  “Well.” she said.  “I guess Joseph Smith’s unconventional marriages means that one day the Mormon Church will just have to support gay marriage.”