"LET NO ONE...SET ON MY SERVANT JOSEPH:"
RELIGIOUS HISTORIANS MISSING THE LESSONS OF RELIGIOUS HISTORY
Danel W. Bachman
Saturday, May 22,1999
Sometime around 139 A.D. a fellow named Marcion moved to Rome from
Asia Minor where his father was allegedly an orthodox bishop. Marcion was apparently
excommunicated from the church for heresy by his father. Little is known of him in
Rome except for two literary projects. One was a book he wrote and another was one
he tried to take apart. The effect of the latter lasted several centuries.
Indeed, one could say that his legacy continues to the threshold of the third
millennium since his day. Marcion didnt like the Judaizing tendencies he saw
in the New Testament Gospels and many of the writings of Paul. Because of these he
thought the canon as then available to him obscured the Good News. He regarded
himself as commissioned to proclaim the truth in its uncontaminated purity. Canon
expert Bruce Metzger tells us that "With thorough-going heedlessness of the
consequences, Marcion undertook to expunge everything from the text of Luke and the
epistles which echoed or otherwise implied a point of contact with the Old
Testament."1 Tertullian said
"Marcion expressly and openly used the knife, not the pen, since he made such an
excision of the Scriptures as suited his own subject-matter."2
The apostle John anticipating this likelihood was concerned about the fate of his
book of Revelation. He warned "if any man shall take away from the words
of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and
out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book." (Rev.
22:19) Questioning prophets and the inspiration of scripture which comes from their
pens is an age-old pastime. It goes on in Christianity today. And it goes on
Observations On The Thesis
A recent example is Todd Comptons In Sacred
Loneliness: The Plural Wives Of Joseph Smith, published by Signature Books.
While I acknowledge and applaud the enormous effort that is exhibited in this
extensive collective biography, my concerns are with its thesis as it relates to the
origin of the Mormon doctrine of plural marriage. Objectively, the tone of the book
is mild, even friendly. Nevertheless, several significant passages voice the view
that plural marriage was merely a mistaken social and religious experiment. While
there is a general air of fairness about the book, nevertheless, Joseph Smiths
status as an inspired prophet is challenged once again. In this respect In
Sacred Loneliness has added little new to the historiography or understanding of
Joseph Smiths doctrine. Indeed, it has taken a step back into the 19th
century and joined hands with Eber D. Howe, John C. Bennett, Joseph Jackson, William Hall
and a host of other detractors who deny Josephs inspiration.
Late in the volume we find one of the clearest statements of Mr.
Comptons view of plural marriage. He said it "was a social system that
simply did not work." Why? Because it produced horrific trials in the
subsequent lives of Josephs widows. And Joseph, without adequate vision of the
future, merely provided the theological rationale for the practice, but was not there to
experience its practical consequences. If he would have been, the implication is, he
would have realized it was a mistake and jettisoned it. In the chapter on Eliza
Maria Partridge Mr. Compton writes:
It is one of the great ironies of Mormon history that Smith, who set
the polygamous movement in motion, never experienced it in practical terms. He was
content to marry the teenaged women who lived in his home and then let them depart when
Emma objected. And he was content to let his polyandrous wives live with their first
husbands, so he never bore the responsibility of providing for them, financially or
emotionally, on a day-to-day basis. (p. 455.)
Compton continues his conclusions and perceptions of the failure of
It is striking that Elizas daughters endured similar
phenomena, which shows that the problems with plural marriage were systemic, not merely
the result of a few extraordinarily insensitive men. ...
Looking at polygamy from our late-twentieth-century monogamous and
feminist perspectives, one wonders why Latter-day Saint leaders did not see more clearly
the problematic nature of such relationships and retreat from them.
A little farther on he writes,
It is useless to judge nineteenth-century Mormons by late
twentieth-century standards. Both men and women were given an impossible task and
failed at it. (pp. 455-456.)
Thus, it is not surprising that three different times in the book
Mr. Compton refers to plural marriage as an "experiment."3
Reconstructing Joseph Smiths Doctrines
One of the more troubling issues is Mr. Comptons analysis and
reconstruction of Josephs doctrine of marriage. It is based on the
naturalistic premise that many of the ideas he attributes to Joseph were adopted and
adapted from the various theologies that swept the Burned-over District at the time.4 His recreation of Josephs
thinking is riddled with difficulties and spawns more problems than it solves because the
analysis of statements by others about Josephs doctrine of plural marriage is
neither thorough or sophisticated.
In addition to the philosophy undergirding In Sacred
Loneliness, I isolate two problems. First, Comptons theological
edifice is derived from secondhand statements attributed to Joseph Smith by associates who
are in some cases secondary and tertiary figures in Church history. Others come from
disaffected Mormons, non-Mormons and even anti-Mormons. These statements are
scavenged from the five decades following the martyrdom; some are very late memoirs.
Our author fails to evaluate their evidentiary value as a thorough historian
should. Therefore, when these oral traditions are used to recreate Josephs
doctrine, our understanding of plural marriage is not greatly enhanced. It is
interesting that very recently Carrie Miles used virtually the same sources to arrive at
an almost diametrically opposite view of their meaning.5
Second, there is considerable evidence that Mr. Compton has over- or misinterpreted
many of his sources. The combination of these problems yields an extremely suspect
outline of Joseph Smiths marital teachings.
Mr. Comptons view of these issues is more simple and less
demanding of the scholar. "Whatever the uncertainties in documenting this
aspect of Latter-day Saint practice," he writes, "there is a clearly discernible
outline of ideology in the historical record that explains the development and rationale
for the practice of Smiths polyandry." (p. 22) The following is his brief
statement of that theology.
`Gentile (i.e., non-Mormon) marriages were `illegal, of
no eternal value or even earthly validity; marriages authorized by the Mormon priesthood
and prophets took precedence. Sometimes these sacred marriages were felt to fulfill
pre-mortal linkings and so justified a sacred marriage superimposed over a secular one.
Mormonisms intensely hierarchal nature allowed a man with the highest earthly
authoritya Joseph Smith or Brigham Youngto request the wives of men holding
lesser Mormon priesthood, or no priesthood. The authority of the prophet would allow
him to promise higher exaltation to those involved in the triangle, both the wife and the
first husband." [pp. 22-23.]
While the above statement may at first seem innocuous enough, the
Devil, as they say, is in the details. By passing over the uncertainties, and
relying on and mishandling variegated sources, Mr. Comptons conclusions, built upon
such a sandy foundation, produce a caricature of both the doctrine and the practice.
As Joseph Smith himself once observed: "If we start right, it is easy to go
right all the time; but if we start wrong, we may go wrong, and it [will] be a hard matter
to get right."6
Time permits only one example, but I have provided others elsewhere.7 Mr. Comptons first point is
that "Smith regarded marriages performed without Mormon priesthood authority as
invalid (see D&C 132:7), just as he regarded baptisms performed without Mormon
priesthood authority as invalid. Thus all couples in Nauvoo who accepted Mormonism
were suddenly unmarried, granted Josephs absolutists, exclusivist claims to divine
authority." (p. 17)
Joseph Smith understood and taught that marriage is a religious
ordinance which must be performed by the proper priesthood authority in order to be
recognized and eternal in heaven. The knowledge that civil marriages were not valid
in the eyes of God in an eternal sense did not mean that Joseph considered every civil
marriage meaningless, or a sin, or illegal in some religious sense. It is true that
in an instance which I wrote about in 1975, Lydia Bailey, who left an abusive husband was
permitted to remarry in Kirtland without divorcing her first husband. And in Nauvoo
one can find two or three cases where people who accepted Mormonism and immigrated to
Church headquarters without their spouses were later permitted to remarry without securing
a divorce from the partner who remained behind.
However, the conclusion that, "Thus all couples in Nauvoo who
accepted Mormonism were suddenly unmarried..." goes far beyond what Joseph taught and
practiced. There is no evidence, to my knowledge, of a wholesale rejection of civil
marriage on the part of Joseph either theologically or practically. Lyndon
Cooks compilation, Nauvoo Deaths And Marriages, 1839-1845, lists
just over 400 civil marriages in Nauvoo for those years.8
Moreover, the practice of remarriage without divorce was implemented on a case by
case basis. The overwhelming majority of the civil marriages of faithful saints were
left intact. Mr. Compton has created a false impression of the views and practices
of Joseph Smith about civil marriages.
In Sacred Loneliness has contributed little that is
new by way of thesis. Rather it is a restatement of a time-worn interpretation that
has proved popular among critics and anti-Mormons for 150 years. It is unfortunate
that this otherwise admirable volume of biographies of important women is flawed by such a
weak ideological foundation. It is unfortunate because books of this flavor appeal
to dissidents and critics and contribute to their cause. It shouldnt be
surprising to learn that the book is being received among the anti-Mormon world with
rejoicing and it is being promoted and sold by Jerald and Sandra Tanner.
Speaking specifically in the context of the revelation on plural
marriage, like he did with John, the Lord warned this dispensation through the Prophet
"Let no one, therefore, set on my servant Joseph; for I will justify him...saith the
Lord your God." (D&C 132:60) I conclude with an expression of concern that
a book which questions the inspiration and truth of Section 132 and by extension the
prophetic calling of Joseph Smith is written by an LDS historian and published by a well
heeled and visible harbor for authors with naturalistic and critical outlooks.
Dismay is added to concern when a book with this kind of a thesis is awarded and
thereby singled out as an example by other LDS historians. It would seem to me that In
Sacred Loneliness, which would decanonize Section 132 and challenge the prophetic
call of Joseph Smith, is evidence that even religious historians frequently miss the
lessons of religious history.
1. Bruce M. Metzger, The
Canon Of The New Testament, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), p. 93. This is
the Clarendon paperback edition of Metzgers work which was originally published in
1987. In a footnote Metzger refers the reader to "a convenient list of the more
significant of Marcions omissions and alterations in Luke and the Pauline
Epistles" to Ernest Evans, Tertullian Adversus Marcionem, ii
(Oxford, 1972), pp. 643-646.
2. Tertullian, On Prescription
Against Heretics, Chapt. 38, in Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, eds., The
Ante-Nicene Fathers, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1980)
3. See pages, 2, 61, 632.
4. In Sacred Loneliness,
5. Carrie A. Miles, "Polygamy And
The Economics Of Salvation," Sunstone, 21/3 (August 1998): 34-45.
6. Joseph Smith, Teachings
of the Prophet Joseph Smith (TPJS), p. 343.
7. Danel W. Bachman,
"Prologue To The Study Of Joseph Smiths Marital Theology," in Daniel C.
Peterson, FARMS Review Of Books, 10/2 (Provo: FARMS, 1998): 121-136.
8. Orem Utah: Grandin Book,
1994, pp. 89-114.