The title might sound strange, but that is what some members of the LDS Church are asking to find. Stories are told about lifelong members not hearing until adult age that Joseph Smith, or even Brigham Young, had practiced polygamy. These are not converts that can be expected to not know the basics of Mormon history. How can this happen? Its really hard to imagine, considering how intertwined Mormonism is with polygamy in popular secular thought. Eventually, sooner than later, a Mormon gets asked how many wives they or their husbands or father has. It becomes an exasperating eye roll question rather than shock. Most of the time. Apparently not all the time and for everyone.
My own experience, I believe, is a typical example of the slow learning about polygamy. Like so many Mormons, the subject just wasn’t brought up in church. Primary was too early where even discussions about reproduction would be inappropriate. The two subjects kind of go together. Most of the time the first inkling of both comes from school peers. At the age of around 10, that was the context of my exposure to the idea within Mormon teachings and history. My non-Mormon friend asked an offhand question if Mormons practice polygamy. I was taken by surprise, and assured him that there were all kinds of rumors floating around about Mormonism. I assume even by that remembered point of my life that I must have heard something before then to say it was one of many falsehoods.
A few years later I find out that Mormonism did indeed teach and practice polygamy, but not from a hostile source. By my mid-teen years I had developed a fascination with Joseph Smith and so grabbed the closest biography I could find. No, it wasn’t Fawn Brody’s famous scholar approved expose. The book Joseph Smith: An American Prophet by John Henry Evans was a rough sketch of his life and contained a small notice of Joseph Smith’s polygamy. The 1933 book stated, “ Polygamy or, as the Mormons prefer to call it, ‘plural marriage,’ was first introduced among the Saints in Nauvoo, in 1841 — although the Prophet had had the idea in mind ever since 1831.” (1966 ed., pg. 271). Again, the confirmation of this didn’t come from a source outside Mormon faith, but A Comprehensive History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by B.H. Roberts who was himself a practitioner. He devoted an entire chapter in the second volume of his multi-volume history.
Both books might have talked about polygamy, the latter more than the former, but for completely different reasons. B.H. Roberts treatment aimed to argue that Joseph Smith introduced the practice for the intended audience of the now Community of Christ deniers. John Henry Evans reasoning sought to show that polygamy came from religious convictions. Regardless of why the two talked about it, the point is that Deseret Book published these books openly. Arguably it might be considered white washed treatments, but by no means was it hidden.
More recent publications also indicate a reluctant, but by no means missing, discussion of polygamy sanctioned by Mormon leadership. In the 1970s there was an explosion of Mormon history studies. Authorities of the LDS Church and Deseret Book sought to produce a one volume church history in the hopes of replacing Joseph Fielding Smith’s Essentials in Church History with more up to date scholarship. Although The Story of the Latter-day Saints never becoming the standard hoped for, and released with some controversy, Deseret Book still published it for a general readership. Oxford and Macmillan Publishing Company a little more than a decade later gathered scholarly entries for Encyclopedia of Mormonism made up almost entirely of BYU faculty. Both of them contained a fair amount of information about the introduction of polygamy, if lacking detailed histories.
Of course, the question is if all this should be brought up in Sunday School in a church setting. The implication is that polygamy is mentioned nowhere in material intended for the general membership; only for curious readers of history. This perception is upheld by no mention of plural marriage in the Joseph Smith and only one in the Brigham Young Teaching of the Presidents lesson manuals. A person can be forgiven for assuming this indicates no LDS Church devotional material addresses the history and doctrine of polygamy. They would be mostly-right, but not completely. Rare and far between, some church based material does bring up the subject. A short manual called Truth Restored written by Gordon B. Hinkley for use in church settings reads, “The history of the Mormon Church is so inextricably interwoven with the doctrine of polygamy that no history of the Church can be complete without some discussion of the practice.” (1979 ed., pg 136, also found at lds.org by searching the manual name). Late into the manual and quickly dispatched, polygamy is presented to add context to the whole and subsequent chapters. Members were surely offered the chance to read the chapter over the years, but the majority probably skipped them. Not surprisingly, it comes from an LDS Church history book written for Sunday School by none other than a future prophet. Perhaps some day a revised version can be written like the Gospel Principles manual was recently.
By no means is the Truth Restored manual the only church setting book to be found that talks about polygamy. Perhaps it might only be recently that section 132, the main polygamy scripture, has been expanded by the Church to at least bring up the polygamy topic, but its at least mentioned. The Seminary manual for Doctrine and Covenants and Church History hints that polygamy was revealed by at least 1831 for those who are paying attention. This is followed by:
In Doctrine and Covenants 132:1–2, we read that the Prophet Joseph Smith asked the Lord why Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and others in the Old Testament had many wives. This question led to the revelation recorded in Doctrine and Covenants 132, which includes instructions about the practice of plural marriage. The Bible and theBook of Mormon teach that God’s standard for marriage is for one man to be married to one woman, unless He declares otherwise (see2 Samuel 12:7–8; Jacob 2:27, 30).Doctrine and Covenants 132 contains the revelation that established the practice of plural marriage among Church members from the early 1840s until the 1890s, when the Lord revealed that the Saints should no longer enter into plural marriage.
Later on in the same section the manual continues:
This week you will study Doctrine and Covenants 132:34–66 with your teacher. Those verses address the doctrine of plural marriage. With your teacher, you will discuss the Lord’s standard for marriage today—that “marriage between a man and a woman is ordained of God” (“The Family: A Proclamation to the World,”Ensign or Liahona, Nov. 2010, 129). You will also discuss the Lord’s command at certain times that some of His people live the law of plural marriage (see Jacob 2:27, 30). You will learn about the Lord’s command to live the law of plural marriage in the latter days, as part of the “restitution of all things” (Acts 3:21), and about His later command to cease that practice (see Official Declaration 1).
This same careful approach is repeated in the updated Doctrine and Covenants Institute manual. Side by side, if so interested in checking, they are comparable. Another institute book that doesn’t shy away from the polygamy subject is Church History in the Fullness of Times in chapters 21 and 33 predominantly. In each case the 1831 date is included as part of the discussion directly or otherwise. Those most familiar with the historical controversies might understand the importance of mentioning this in relation to church produced material.
Why bring up all these examples of Church produced and Deseret Book published material? Because, to repeat and sum up, the only way not to be introduced to polygamy as a member is to not pay any attention. It is also to say that there is a time and place to teach and learn about polygamy, but when and how is not simply to state that it must. Discussions of Joseph Smith’s, Brigham Young’s, John Taylor’s, and Wilford Woodruff’s history of polygamy can easily sidetrack the devotional purpose of the Priesthood/Relief Society manuals. More can be done than the sparing and almost non-existing discussions in the three hour blocks of church. Before inclusion, however, some questions need asked and answered. Why bring it up? Under what context? Who is best qualified: Sunday School teachers, Priesthood leaders, parents and family members? What manuals should include mention of polygamy and what should they say? At the end of the day, most of those who want to talk about the subject in church do so more out of puerile curiosity and “shock value” than enlightenment. Often they already know a lot of the details. Asking the harder questions of suitability for a church going audience can get ignored. The above review of personal experience and publications is a starting point.