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In the fall of 2012, Taylor volunteered to campaign for one of the two U.S. presidential candidates. He was primarily motivated by political ideology, but he also hoped that he might meet someone. He had fought for his country in Iraq and served a mission to Thailand. For a couple of years since his mission, Taylor had been hoping to meet someone he could marry. He had dated, of course, and he would introduce whichever woman he was dating to his family. Time after time, however, he would eventually have to tell well-wishers that, no, he was no longer dating the young woman he had told them about.
In the pre-dawn mist, Taylor surveyed the group of fellow campaigners. They had gathered at the vans to travel to a swing district for the weekend of campaigning. Instead of the group of college students he had expected, the other campaigners were mature individuals or children. Resigned, Taylor set about making friends of those around him.
After dawn, the vans of campaigners stopped for a break. Taylor noticed a woman amidst the older folks and helpful children. She was bundled in her coat against the fall chill, hair pulled back in a knot, glasses framing an attractive face of undetermined age. Taylor turned back to his new-found friends and continued the discussion. He did not want his new friends to feel he was willing to ditch them just for an attractive woman. Besides, the woman might turn out to be married or otherwise uninterested in a college student like himself. However Taylor’s new friends urged him to meet the lady on the other side of the group.
Her name, Taylor learned, was Shazia. And, no, she was not married, nor would she be unwilling to date a college student. As the weekend progressed, Taylor and Shazia began to learn how much they shared in common: music, academics, a love of the outdoors, politics, having a parent from Asia, pioneer heritage, ancestors who were shot at Carthage jail. [i]
In time Taylor introduced Shazia to his family and updated his Facebook status. Eventually an e-mail from Taylor’s grandmother went out, days before Valentine’s Day. The subject read “Taylor’s technically not engaged yet, but the marriage is set…”
Thus began one of the myriad love stories of those who believe in the importance of marriage, of those who believe their unions can last for eternity.
Our modern culture is filled with movies and cards talking about being together forever. And yet there is only one religion with a doctrine that allows for couples and families to be together in eternity.
This is the legacy of Joseph Smith. He taught that we could we enter into eternal covenants with one another. Further, he taught, we can solemnize eternal linkages between our family members reaching through all generations of mortal existence, all countries, all races.
We who love in this life know how much our spouse means to us, how much we care for our children, how much we care for our parents. As we consider the generations who preceded us and the generations yet to come, Mormons see mankind as a great eternal family. It is a grand global family that transcends all boundaries of time and space, a family that will transcend death and hell.
Isaiah prophesied that in the last day, the Lord God would rise up and save His people, as David saved Israel from the Philistines in the Valley of Gibeon. In that last day, Isaiah said, God would do his work, his strange work; and bring to pass his act, his strange act. [ii]
God would give His people line upon line, precept upon precept, giving them consolation, confirming their hope. [iii] In that day Elijah would appear and restore the sealing power, that the fathers might be sealed to their children, and the children to their fathers. [iv] The hour would come when those in their graves would hear the word of God, [v] that Word which is life and light, with power to make all who will believe the children of God. [vi]
This, then, was the purpose of the restoration. It was to save all mankind by binding us together in families. The saving ordinance of baptism would be performed, by proxy if necessary, as a prerequisite to each individual’s entry into the great eternal union.
No other theology envisions this truly universal salvation of mankind. Of modern religions, only in the religion Joseph Smith restored will each child of God become free from the circumstances and limitations of their birth. In the theology believers claim Joseph Smith restored, all are provided the means for salvation and then permitted to choose whether to embrace the salvation of Christ or reject it. [vii]
If the family of mankind is to be bound together for eternity, it had to be possible to bind together those families where a woman had been married to a man who had another wife during his lifetime.
A huge amount of controversy and suffering has been endured over plural marriage. Yet it seems Joseph’s introduction of plural marriage as part of the New and Everlasting Covenant was merely a procedural footnote to the great work of sealing mankind along family lines.
In great stories, the hero’s quest is to right the wrong that looms over the people.
Christ died that all might be saved, that all might be resurrected. Paul told the Corinthians, “Else why are they baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all…” From this exasperated comment, we gain insight into a primitive Christian church that was performing ordinances on behalf of the departed. The primitive Christian Church was extending salvation to more than just those few who were privileged to hear it and embrace it in this life.
Yet this salvation is not just for the children of first wives. Insistence on monogamy as the only valid form of marriage had to be broken, else the great work of binding families together would fail. Women who married widowers would have been cut off. The plural wives of 70% of mankind’s cultures would have forever been cut off. And with these women, vast numbers of children would also be cut off.
A culture willing to kill over polygamy would not have willingly birthed the understanding that a woman and her children could be eternally sealed to a man with another wife. And so restoration of that one small aspect of the work required the sacrifice of “the best blood of the nineteenth century,” as Joseph’s death is described in the Doctrine and Covenants. [viii]
Why the Secrecy?
Of late there have been those disturbed that the LDS Church appeared to hide the past regarding polygamy. Something, surely, was rotten about this, if it had to be so thoroughly buried.
Three factors come into play. First is that plural marriage is not what you want dominating an initial conversation about salvation and the precious gift of Christ’s atonement. Yet when would plural marriage be discussed, if not then? Plural marriage is discussed when one is studying the history of the Church. But most people never get to a stage where they are seriously studying the history of the Church. Thus most people get stuck at a level where they are uncomfortable at the thought of a man being able to have more than one wife, yet do not have the background to understand why God might have restored this “principle.”
Second, there are those who learn of plural marriage and desire to practice it, believing (incorrectly) that if it was good enough for Joseph, it is good enough for them. Surely this fear should be receding over a hundred years after the excommunication of John W. Taylor. But today’s general authorities were born when this was a very real threat. Some have adult memories of Apostle Richard Lyman’s excommunication in 1943. Lyman had slipped from friendship with a woman to an imagined union with her in heaven to an adulterous “polygamous” liaison. Lyman betrayed his wife and thousands who had honored him. Leaders of the modern Church do not want to risk losing anyone else they love to polygamy.
Third, the actual history of Nauvoo polygamy and plural marriage has been shrouded in secrecy. This was originally intended to protect the repentant souls who had been seduced by John C. Bennett and his Strikers. Yet how could the Church tell those things which had been stricken from the record, details that had only ever been known to a select few? Those few took the secrets to their graves over a century ago.
Today, with the internet, the mangled and secretive story has power to wound, where it could previously simply be hidden. And so today it is necessary to assemble the story, as best as we possibly can, so that the most accurate truth can be laid before all, believers and detractors alike.
Knowledge Brings Peace
The initial draft of this book was written as a series of blog posts. I thought there would be many who would challenge my views, bringing forward facts that would fundamentally alter my reconstruction. I looked forward to the challenge. Peer review is a proven method I have long used in my scientific career for arriving at a better final result.
What I could not be sure of was the number of those commenting and e-mailing me directly, telling me that this reconstruction made sense of a history they had relegated to a back shelf. These were often those who had made a decision to hold to the Mormon faith, even though Joseph’s practice of plural marriage had remained a troublesome mystery.
Some have supposed me dogmatic in my views. But I have been open to change in response to data. Those who followed my blog posts in 2014 saw this. I originally did not know the extent of John Bennett’s seduction of Joseph’s people. I did not originally think the Strikers had been directly involved in Joseph’s killing. I did not originally consider my ancestor, Austin Cowles, to be a major conspirator contributing to Joseph’s death. I did not originally acknowledge how much responsibility my ancestor, John W. Taylor, bore for today’s Mormon fundamentalists. I had not originally imagined how many of the women involved in early Nauvoo polygamy might have been seduced by the Strikers. I did not know that Eliza R. Snow may have been raped or that she had modified her 1842 poem about marriage or that she had written describing an intimate relationship [ix] with “that Foul hearted spirit, the traitor, The vile, faithless, rottenhearted wretch…,” presumably John C. Bennett.
This reconstructed history tells of terrible evil. And yet it has brought peace to some. In 2014 an e-mail arrived from someone related to Mary Clift. Mary’s son, Jason, has long been presumed to be one of the first children born into polygamy. The reconstructed history explains how Jason had actually been fathered by Gustavus Hills, [x] that the High Council minutes had not been an elaborate ruse to “protect” the secret of Celestial marriage. The e-mail read:
“I wanted to thank you for sharing your thoughts on the Theodore Turley/Mary Clift marriage… In researching [Mary’s] life to present a biography, I was more than a little confused by the August 1842 Gustavus Hills testimony she gave in relation to the family’s insistence on the January 1842 marriage date. In asking [another family member] about it, he suggested (as a theory, since we do not know for sure) that it was a false testimony in an effort to hide the practice of plural marriage. I’ve recently discovered your theory that you published earlier this year to the contrary. This is much more satisfying to me in picturing both Mary and Theodore…”
As my correspondent concluded, we may never truly know what happened. But we must acknowledge that other theories regarding Nauvoo and polygamy are similarly uncertain.
Ultimately we should select those reconstructions that best fit the totality of the data. The totality of the data suggests Joseph rarely consummated his “marriages” with women other than Emma, possibly out of deference to his beloved Emma. Likewise, his love for even those who would ultimately kill him rendered him perhaps too willing to forgive.
Joseph Smith’s teachings regarding the New and Everlasting Covenant, with its allowance for plural marriage in eternity, is consistent with the Bible and early Christianity, if utterly foreign to most modern Christian creeds. Today’s Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or Mormonism represents the result of embracing that Covenant. It is a religion that envisions all mankind as brothers and sisters, a theology with a mechanism to save all mankind throughout the history of the world. It is a religion fundamentally based on the primacy of the love between spouses and the love between parents and children.
It is a religion that has power to offer salvation to even those who have fallen away: to John Bennett and William Law, to Francis Higbee and Lorin C. Woolley. When the final judgment commences, the hope is that all the ordinances of salvation will have been performed for all mankind, that all individuals will then stand before the judgment bar with an ability to make an informed post-mortal decision regarding Christ and God. At that time, those who choose Christ will have the option of embracing either the duly authorized baptism they enacted in life or the one that was performed by proxy on their behalf.
In that envisioned future judgment, no man or woman will be left behind except by their own, individual choice. No child will have been declared an eternal bastard unworthy of Christ’s salvation. All will be provided the ordinances of salvation as part of the human family, in all its complexities.
This, then, is the legacy of Joseph Smith, Jr. This is the reason it was worth giving his life. It was to restore the knowledge that marriages in eternity could, at times, diverge from the monogamous ideal.
I am grateful to Bruce Nielson for inviting me to blog on this topic at Millennial Star (millennialstar.org). Without that opportunity, I would not have been forced to find the next level of documentation you see here. I am also grateful to Brian C. Hales, who graciously shared the Nauvoo High Council Minutes and the testimonies of the women who reported having been seduced by the Strikers. Brian’s magnificent 1500 page work Joseph Smith’s Polygamy, with the accompanying website, contains a vast amount of information regarding Nauvoo events. It is a must-have resource for all students of Mormon polygamy.
I am also grateful for those researchers who have gone before me and who have shared their writings. Of particular note are Todd H. Compton, Gary Bergera, Richard L. Bushman, Linda Newell, Val Avery, Maureen Ursenbach Beecher, and Joseph Johnstun. Scholarship and probity are always of value, even when interpretations differ.
I must also recognize the sweet individuals who waded through my original manuscripts and provided feedback. Their comments significantly improved the book you are reading now.
Finally, I am grateful to my family, for their support and example. In particular, I am grateful to my husband, Bryan Stout. He has an unwavering love for me and all mankind. He was the one who pointed me to works such as Compton’s In Sacred Loneliness, Annie Clark Tanner’s A Mormon Mother, and Hales’s Joseph Smith’s Polygamy. He is the one who constantly questions me, while sharing his vast insights into Christianity across the millennia. He is the one who brings me food and water when I have been unwilling to move from my computer for hours on end. If I know that men can be good and great, it is because I know Bryan Stout.
God’s Strange Act: A Legacy – Notes
Modern Mormon marriages are like the marriages of any other group, with the hope that the spouses can be together forever. While this hope is routinely voiced in cards and movies, there is no mechanism for this to be accomplished in any of the world’s religions, other than in Mormonism.
Plural marriage is merely an accommodation for the reality that some families do not fit the monogamous ideal. There is no need for every man to be a polygamist in eternity, or for every woman to presume she will have to share her husband. But as we attempt to bind the family of mankind together in all its complexity, a mechanism for dealing with the many realities of actual families was needed. The biblical family model, where each woman and her children are linked to one man, is sufficient to bind the human family together. Mormons trust God to make any required adjustments in heaven.
The secrecy of early plural marriage came about because of the illicit intercourse practiced and taught by Dr. John C. Bennett. At the time, names and details were kept quiet in hopes that the women and men affected would repent. The individuals of that past had no idea the way the information would get mangled in our day. They thought it no harm to take secrets to the grave, unrecorded.
We can continue to persist in the limited and prurient view of our past, or embrace the terrible and glorious truths that created Mormonism as it is – a religion that believes in families, even when they diverge from the ideal.
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[i] John Taylor and Hyrum Smith.
[ii] c.f. Isaiah 28:21.
[iii] c.f. D&C 128:21.
[iv] c.f., Malachi 4:5-6.
[v] c.f., John 5: 28
[vi] c.f., D&C 138, John 1: 1-14.
[vii] This ability for the individual to choose, combined with God’s justice and Christ’s mercy, is expected to result in individuals spending eternity in any of various desirable states, from a state where God is not to a state where all effort goes towards forwarding God’s plan of “bringing to pass the immortality and eternal life of Man.” Thus no one is forced to heaven against their will, nor is anyone consigned to hell due to an accident of birth.
[viii] D&C 135: 6
[ix] Some propose that Eliza was describing someone else or even society in general as the innocence seduced by the “rotten-hearted wretch.”
[x] This assertion is based on Mary’s own affidavit before the Nauvoo High Council in 1842. See The Nauvoo City Council and High Council Minutes, John S. Dinger editor, Signature Books, Salt Lake City, 2011, pp. 424-426.