In the wake of media attention regarding the Church essays on polygamy, one of the refrains you will hear from some members of the Church is, “why didn’t the Church teach me this stuff?”
I do not want to diminish the emotional toll that further disclosures on polygamy may be having on some members, but I would like to posit that if you are claiming you never were taught about polygamy you are a bit naïve. For several reasons.
The first is that the Church clearly has taught about polygamy in many formats: in Sunday School, in seminary, in official Church histories. In fact, if you go to lds.org and do a search for the word “polygamy” you will get literally hundreds of hits, including links to Church manuals that discuss the issue.
The Church has repeatedly encouraged you to read the scriptures (I know, I know, if you want to keep something secret, put it in the scriptures because nobody ever reads them). You may have noticed that there is a rather long section of the Doctrine & Covenants, D&C 132. That section includes this provocative excerpt:
61 And again, as pertaining to the law of the priesthood—if any man espouse a virgin, and desire to espouse another, and the first give her consent, and if he espouse the second, and they are virgins, and have vowed to no other man, then is he justified; he cannot commit adultery for they are given unto him; for he cannot commit adultery with that that belongeth unto him and to no one else.
62 And if he have ten virgins given unto him by this law, he cannot commit adultery, for they belong to him, and they are given unto him; therefore is he justified.
So, if you have read the scriptures and were even a little bit curious, this particular section may have jumped out at you. Yes, the Church taught you things.
Now, you may ask, “well, OK, they taught about polygamy but never gave all of the lurid details.”
And yes this is true the Church did not teach ALL of the lurid details. My question would be: when in the history of the world has anybody ever been taught ALL of the lurid details about anything?
Let’s think this through logically. We belong to a church that meets for three hours on Sunday. About 1 hour and 45 minutes of that time are devoted to instruction for priesthood and Sunday School. Teenagers go to four years of seminary most mornings during the school year. So, people are spending a lot of time in church, but they are not spending enough time to study ALL of the lurid details.
The reason is of course that there is a lot to learn, but not just about polygamy. There are other controversial aspects of the history of the Church, including the whole blacks and the priesthood issue, the Danites, the Mountain Meadows Massacre and — the big kahuna — the Church’s stance on same-sex attraction. (I mention these issues because these are what critics of the Church constantly harp on).
It would seem logical that we would like our members to be educated on the scriptures and on a few of the factual aspects of Church history and perhaps even hear a few positive, faith-promoting stories. And critics need to consider that many people (probably the vast majority) do not come to Church to learn worldly stuff but instead to be spiritually uplifted. Gospel Doctrine class is about a half-hour after you dispense with prayers, introducing guests and a basic introduction. The same with priesthood. So, if you actually count instruction time, you get about an hour most Sundays, but of course there is stake conference two times a year and General Conference two times a year and occasional emergencies that will involve the cancellation of Church. So, really there are about 45 or so Sundays a year to carry out instruction for an hour each Sunday.
Given that the purpose of the Church is to help build up the Kingdom of God in these latter days, how exactly are we supposed to fit everything in in those 45 hours of instruction every year? Because of course the same people who want us to spend hours and hours studying polygamy (the lurid details!) also want us to spend all of our time concentrating on how the Church was wrong on the priesthood issue, and the Danites, and the Mountain Meadows Massacre and of course how incredibly wrong the Church is on the whole same-sex thing. If these people had their way, we would study nothing at all but lurid details. Which of course is the point.
It seems to me when you step back and consider the issue dispassionately, the Church has been handling instruction pretty darned well. And the good news for Gospel Doctrine teachers like myself is that the recent Church essays on these topics have made it much easier to refer people to the official Church position on these controversial subjects. So a good system has gotten even better.
Given the role of the Church, and indeed the history of Jehovah’s prophets in every dispensation of time, it is not at all surprising or alarming to me that the Church has recent history that is difficult to understand. This is where faith comes in. If there is something about Church history you do not understand, you are being challenged to find a faithful way to respond. Many people try to find out more information (this is what I did), but others just file away the difficult information until another time and concentrate on the joy of the Gospel. I know it is hard to believe, but some people prefer to concentrate on the eternal joy of knowing that families can be linked together forever than, say, how many wives Joseph Smith had.
I should mention that I am a convert to the Church. I studied as much of the “lurid details” as I could before joining, and I got answers that satisfied my concerns. At the end of the day, the fact that I was married in the temple and that my life has a purpose inside the Church is about a million times more important to me than the ramblings of Fawn Brodie and (lately) John Dehlin.
The Church did teach you stuff about even controversial topics. Perhaps you were distracted or didn’t pay attention or were not curious enough to explore on your own. You are ultimately responsible for your own learning, and you are responsible for how you respond to new information. That is what that whole “free agency” thing is all about.