[This post is the last of a series on Joseph Smith’s Polygamy. To read from the beginning or link to previously published posts, go to A Faithful Joseph.]
In the fall of 2012, Taylor volunteered to campaign for one of the two US presidential candidates. He was primarily motivated by political ideology, but he also hoped that he might meet someone. He’d 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’d dated, of course, and he’d introduce whichever woman he was dating to his family, only to eventually have to tell well-wishers that, no, he was no longer dating this woman or that woman.
In the pre-dawn mist, Taylor surveyed the group of fellow campaigners that had gathered at the vans that would take them to a swing district for the weekend of campaigning. Instead of the group of college students he’d 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 that amidst the older folks and helpful children, there was a woman. 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 their discussion, not wanting to make his new friends feel he was willing to ditch them just for an attractive woman. Particularly if the woman turned out to be much older or married or otherwise uninterested in a person 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 wasn’t in her thirties, nor was she married. As the weekend progressed, in the midst of their village of fellow campaigners, 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. 1
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, with the subject “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 actually 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 could solemnize eternal linkages between our family members reaching through all generations of mortal existence, all countries, all eras.
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, one that transcends all boundaries of time and space.
Isaiah prophesied that in the last day, the Lord God would rise up and save His people, as David had 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. 2
God would give His people line upon line, precept upon precept, giving us consolation, confirming our hope. 3 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. 4 The hour would come when those in their graves would hear the word of God, 5 that Word which is life and light, with power to make all who will believe the children of God. 6
This, then, was the purpose of the restoration, to save all mankind by binding us together in families, with the saving ordinance of baptism performed by proxy as a prerequisite to eternal union.
No other theology, specifically not the theologies of breakaway Mormon groups, envisions this 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. 7
If the family of mankind was to be bound together for eternity, it had to be possible to bind together those families where a man had been married to more than one woman during his lifetime.
Despite the huge amount of controversy and suffering endured over polygamy, I submit that Joseph’s introduction of polygamy as part of the New and Everlasting Covenant was merely a procedural footnote to the great work of sealing mankind together.
In great stories, the hero’s quest is to right the great wrong that looms over the people. Christ died that all might be saved, that all might be resurrected. “Else why are they baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all,” Paul told the Corinthians. From this exasperated comment, we get a picture of a primitive Christian church that was performing ordinances on behalf of the departed, extending salvation to more than just those few who are 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, with the pre-requisite of baptism, 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 almost certainly not have willingly birthed an understanding that a man could be eternally sealed to more than one woman. And so restoration of that one small aspect of the work required the sacrifice of “the best blood of the nineteenth century,” as John Taylor would write of Joseph’s death.
Why the Secrecy?
Of late there have been those disturbed that the 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 polygamy isn’t what you want dominating an initial conversation about salvation and the precious gift of Christ’s atonement. And if not discussed then, when? Currently polygamy is discussed, but typically not until one is studying the history of the Church, and 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 polygamy yet don’t have the background to understand why God might have restored this “principle.”
Second, there are those who learn of polygamy 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, and some have adult memories of Apostle Richard Lyman’s excommunication in 1943, for having intimate relations with a woman Richard had originally merely planned to have sealed to him as a plural wife after his death.
Third, the actual history of Nauvoo polygamy has been clouded by obfuscation, originally intended to protect the repentant souls who had been seduced by John C. Bennett and his Strikers. How could the Church tell those things that had been stricken from the record, details that had only ever been known to a select few who who 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
When preparing to write this series, I thought there would be many who would challenge my views, bringing forward facts that would fundamentally alter the reconstruction I had made. I actually welcomed that, because I do want to base my reconstruction on the best data available.
What I hoped for but wasn’t sure of were the numbers of those commenting and e-mailing me directly, telling me that this reconstruction made sense of a history they’d relegated to a back shelf. These were often those who had made a decision to be faithful based on the witness of the Spirit, even though Joseph’s polygamy had remained a mystery.
Some have supposed me dogmatic in my views. Yet had I encountered solid data during this journey that altered my original premise, I would have changed.
In fact, you have seen this. I originally didn’t know the extent of John Bennett’s seduction of Joseph’s people. I didn’t originally think the Strikers had been directly involved in Joseph’s killing. I didn’t originally consider my ancestor, Austin Cowles, to be a major conspirator contributing to Joseph’s death. I didn’t originally acknowledge how fundamentally responsible my ancestor, John W. Taylor, had been 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 didn’t know that Eliza R. Snow had modified her 1842 poem about marriage or that she had written describing her intimate relationship with “that Foul hearted spirit, the traitor, The vile, faithless, rottenhearted wretch…,” presumably John C. Bennett.
The history I have reconstructed tells of horrific evil. And yet it rings true. Recently I received a letter from someone related to Mary Clift, whose child has long been presumed to be one of the first children born into polygamy, a child I have asserted was fathered by a Striker, one Gustavus Hills. 8
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 don’t 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 first we must acknowledge that all other theories regarding Nauvoo and polygamy are similarly uncertain. Ultimately we should select those reconstructions that best fit the totality of the data. I believe the totality of the data shows Joseph to have been almost certainly faithful to Emma and perhaps too willing to forgive those who would ultimately kill him.
If Joseph Smith was inspired by God, then what we have today in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints represents the result. What we have is a religion that envisions all mankind as brothers and sisters, a theology with a mechanism to save all mankind through all time as well as all space. We have a religion fundamentally based on the primacy of the love between spouses and the love between parents and children.
It is a religion that even has power to offer salvation to even those who have fallen away: to John Bennett and William Law, to Francis Higbee and Lorin C. Wooley. When the final judgement 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 judgement bar with an ability to embrace that baptism that has been performed on their behalf and choose Christ and God.
In that envisioned future judgement, 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, it all its complexities.
This, then, is the legacy of Joseph, and the reason it was worth giving his life 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 here at Millennial Star. Without this opportunity, I would not have been forced to find the next level of documentation you have seen 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 on Joseph’s polygamy contains a vast amount of information regarding Nauvoo events, which I thoroughly enjoyed.
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, and Maureen Ursenbach Beecher. While I may not always agree with their interpretations, I am grateful for their scholarship and probity.
Finally, I am grateful to my family, for their support and example. In particular, I am grateful to my husband, Bryan Stout, for his unwavering love for me and all mankind, and for his suggestions throughout the years, pointing me to works such as Compton’s In Sacred Loneliness and Hales’ Joseph Smith’s Polygamy. If I know that men can be good and great, it is because I know Bryan Stout.
- John Taylor and Hyrum Smith. ↩
- c.f. Isaiah 28:21. ↩
- c.f. D&C 128:21. ↩
- c.f., Malachi 4:5-6. ↩
- c.f., John 5: 28 ↩
- c.f., D&C 138, John 1: 1-14. ↩
- 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 desired 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. ↩
- This assertion is based on Mary’s own affidavit before the Nauvoo High Council in 1842. ↩