Book Review: The Plural Marriage Revelation, by W. V. Smith

Book Review: Textual Studies of the Doctrine and Covenants – The Plural Marriage Revelation, by William Victor Smith

Textual Studies of the Doctrine and Covenants: The Plural Marriage Revelation

Over the last few decades, several quality books on the history of polygamy have been published. So what makes this one different?  Unlike most polygamy books,“The Plural Marriage Revelation” only touches very lightly on the practice of plural marriage in the lives of individuals, while focusing on the revelation in Doctrine and Covenants section 132 and its development as scripture over the course of the LDS Church’s history.

Joseph Smith sought to develop a special people that could build heaven on earth. Why wait until the next life to experience heaven, when it could be enjoyed in this life? However, various efforts failed. The great spiritual awakening at the Kirtland Temple, with washings, anointings, and great angelic visitations was soon followed by apostasy and expulsion of the faithful Saints from the city.

Similarly, Independence Missouri promised a Zion as bright, bold and beautiful as Enoch’s city. However, contention between the old settlers and Mormons led to Joseph’s imprisonment and the extermination order that caused the church to again flee for safety from its enemies.

In Nauvoo, Joseph would try again to build a new hope for heaven. This time, it would be one focused on sealing family and dynasties together, in order to have them ready for the anticipated Millennial reign of Christ.

As part of this new view of heaven, Joseph transcribed the 1843 revelation for his brother, so that Hyrum could use it to convince Emma to accept plural marriage.  As W. V. Smith notes, “The plural marriage revelation had set in motion a reconceived notion of Zion, with polygamy at its center.”

Instead of following a chronological history of polygamy, as most books on the subject do, this volume breaks down the revelation in D&C 132 into sections, and then discusses each portion in a chronological way: How did each section affect the Church in Nauvoo, in Brigham Young’s Utah, and in the 20th century?

Among the concepts in the chapters discussed: the Ancient Roots of Polygamy, the Permission to Seal, Unconditional Sealings, Polygamy and the Afterlife, the Keys of the Kingdom, the Mechanics of Plurality and Kingdoms of Heaven, and the Law of Sarah.

Smith notes that while the revelation was written down in 1843, it was not made public until 1852, and was not canonized until October 1880, when Orson Pratt’s newly organized set of scriptures were adopted by the membership of the Church. Even though not in the official scriptures until this late date, the revelation was clearly understood as scripture (perhaps one of the most influential of all revealed scripture) by the apostles of the nineteenth century.

Unlike many of Joseph Smith’s other revelations, the Revelation on Plural Marriage never was edited nor prepared for publication. It was written as a private missive, primarily for Emma’s view. What we read is the raw revelation, with no changes to prepare it for Church-wide consumption. One can only wonder what changes Joseph may have made in it, had he been given the chance to publish it himself.

The chapters discuss the evolving views on specific issues regarding plural marriage, priesthood, exaltation, godhood and how such should be implemented. At one point, patriarchs were viewed as having the authority to seal eternal marriages, for example. However, the power of the Patriarch of the Church rose and waned with the growth of the power of the Twelve Apostles. Smith notes that Joseph viewed his brother Hyrum, the Patriarch, as his legitimate successor. With Hyrum’s death, Brigham Young quickly stepped in to convince the Church that the Twelve held the keys of priesthood, and that they could function as a presidency. Later, he would have to convince the Twelve that he could reconstitute the First Presidency.

Modern LDS take our canonized scriptures and the current functions of priesthood for granted. Smith’s book helps us understand how much things evolved as events changed. For example, Smith notes, “The term ‘sealing’ has also gone through a fluctuation, evolution, and refinement of meaning in Mormonism. When the Church made its blockbuster public announcement of polygamy in 1852, it included the first public reference to Joseph Smith’s April 3, 1836, visitation of Elijah in the Kirtland temple…’ officially establishing the proper keys of sealing a decade and a half after the events in D&C 110 occurred.

Even the term, “new and everlasting covenant” evolved from meaning the sacrament of baptism to the concept of sealing and plural marriage. Just what was salvation, and what were the requirements to enter into the Celestial Kingdom? Smith discusses the evolving concept of the word “angel”, how at times it could mean a being that progresses, and other times when it means one who is stopped in eternal progression.

The requirements for entering Celestial glory were also in question. Smith notes that Wilford Woodruff quoted Brigham Young as stating that if a person even spoke out against polygamy, such a person would not enter into the Celestial Kingdom. Yet a year later in 1870, Woodruff noted that Brigham Young said that even an unmarried person could enter into the Celestial Kingdom.

Smith provides an interesting discussion on the concept of Mother in Heaven. The concept that things on earth reflect things in heaven, led to nineteenth century opinions on God having one or more wives, gods having sex to create spirit children, and the importance to expand one’s personal kingdom by having more children than the next god. While Joseph Smith never mentioned a Heavenly Mother, the concept was pressed and unofficially canonized by Eliza R. Snow in her poem, “Oh My Father.”

While Smith discusses the 1890 revelation ending polygamy, he gives as much attention to the second proclamation and the uncomfortable Smoot hearing. Even more discussion is provided for Wilford Woodruff’s 1894 revelation that ended dynastic sealings and promoted being sealed to one’s biological family line.  Suddenly, the concept of polygamy and building one’s own giant dynasty in one’s own kingdom of heaven was of lesser importance than sealing families together for eternity in God’s heaven. This concept of heaven on earth continues in the Church to our day, as we promote heaven in our homes.

The book has helped me to ponder some important, yet uncomfortable questions I’ve tried to evade in the past: how does one separate out the glorious concepts of eternal marriage and godhood, from the concepts of polygamy? What does it mean to be destroyed, in conjunction to rejecting plural marriage? Will we have to deal with this issue in the hereafter, or will it be optional? What is Emma Smith’s final reward/damnation? Will priesthood authority and practice continue evolving?

I’ve read a variety of books on the topic of polygamy. Most have focused on the struggles individuals had in living this difficult requirement, while leadership flaunted it in the face of its enemies.  William V. Smith’s book takes us on a fresh perspective, dealing directly with the revelation and how each section related to major periods of the Church under Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, Wilford Woodruff, joseph F. Smith, and us today.  D&C 132 revelation is laid out raw and helps us understand how we in the 21st century must deal with the enigma of plural marriage today.

Textual Studies of the Doctrine and Covenants – The Plural Marriage Revelation, by William Victor Smith. Greg Kofford Books.

11 thoughts on “Book Review: The Plural Marriage Revelation, by W. V. Smith

  1. I suspect I would find William Victor Smith to be too mired in the old “Emma fought plural marriage” narrative. And I doubt Smith adequately covers the illicit intercourse heresy and Hyrum’s role in that as a patriarch who had been given sealing authority.

    I also think I would be less enthusiastic about the evolution of doctrine perspective which I infer from your review. I agree our understanding of the doctrine can evolve, but from the wonderful 1840s-era writings and hearts (see Ulrich’s book), I don’t think Woodruff’s emphasis on binding family was new. It was restoring a proper emphasis that had gotten skewed by events and policies we don’t adequately understand.

  2. Given this site’s discussions over the past several weeks on revelation, the Givens, and the role of prophets I found this paragraph of the post to be quite interesting.

    “Unlike many of Joseph Smith’s other revelations, the Revelation on Plural Marriage never was edited nor prepared for publication. It was written as a private missive, primarily for Emma’s view. What we read is the raw revelation, with no changes to prepare it for Church-wide consumption. One can only wonder what changes Joseph may have made in it, had he been given the chance to publish it himself.”

    This implies the Doctrine and Covenants is much less of a transcript of what Joseph Smith received from God than I think most members of the Church assume it is. My view is that revelation is received and remembered through the lens of whoever receives it – so even the “raw” revelation is the prophet’s attempt to put into words what was given. Later edits just compound that issue.

    The book itself sounds very interesting to me. Thanks for the review.

  3. John Swenson,
    Many of the revelations in D&C are compilations of several revelations, either concatenated or adapted for the final revelation. I can’t remember which one, but the revelation to Frederick G Williams to be counselor, was actually given to another man, who fell from the faith before it was published, so Joseph just changed the name to Frederick’s. So, he did a lot of editing on the revelations before publishing.

    Today’s revelations go through edits, also. President Oaks recently described the process for the 1995 Proclamation on the Family. The inspiration was given to write a proclamation. Then, the Twelve spent almost a year to draft the revelation, making sure each phrase and sentence was doctrine, and not opinion. Would a first draft been as good as what we received? Probably not. This is why the Proclamation continues as policy and doctrine more than 20 years later, and is still very relevant to the discussions we have on family, gender and sex, today.

    Meg,
    Smith doesn’t discuss much of the controversy. He does note that Emma gave permission for Joseph to marry the Partridge sisters, but she was also nonplussed at Hyrum’s attempt to convert her over to the revelation. He doesn’t mention your theory, and I think Bennett is mentioned only once or twice briefly. But that isn’t the focus of this volume, as I mentioned in my review. It was to discuss the actual revelation and how each portion was dealt with over Church history.

    Woodruff’s 1894 revelation was new to the members living in 1894, who were mostly not present in the Nauvoo period, and had decades of indoctrination by Brigham Young and John Taylor on the eternal necessity of plural marriage and of dynasty. Remember, 2 of the Twelve apostles were excommunicated because they would not abide by the 1890 Manifesto.Their actions helped create the FLDS and other polygamous groups today. You wouldn’t see such an act today by members of the Twelve against a living prophet (see how Elder Uchtdorff humbly returned to the Twelve after being “demoted”). But back then, many apostles viewed themselves as equal to the prophet. For example, Francis Lyman felt his apostleship was on par and equal with Brigham Young’s, when he moved to Texas and set up his own sect of Mormonism.

  4. Hi Rameumpton,

    It’s a bit like producing a book on the US Constitution that never mentions England, the relationship of the American colonies to England, and the fact that war occurred between England and the American colonies.

    People of Joseph’s era would get busy and “fix” the word of God, for example, shifting the wording of the Book of Mormon as received to match the text of the KJV Bible they used (complete with errors in that edition). This is a similarity that lent credence to those jettisoning their faith based on Grant Palmer’s writings.

    People since Joseph’s time have been so eager to cloth Joseph’s work in the trappings of Western tradition that they’ve suppressed instances where there was pure revelation, as in the case of the Book of Abraham or those writings known to have been received via the seerstone rather than by tedious translation in the modern sense. And because the expectation of moderns, formed by this well-intentioned misrepresentation, cannot be met by the historical facts, others lose their faith.

    You state two apostles were excommunicated. That is both true and not true. Of the three youngest apostles who defied the 1890 manifesto, only one was excommunicated (Taylor). Owen Woodruff died of disease the month after the 1904 Manifesto. Cowley was disfellowshipped but never excommunicated.

    The second apostle excommunicated for “polygamy” was Richard Lyman, and that was in the 1940s when police found him in bed with a woman who was not his legal wife, a woman he had been pleased to think of as a plural wife to whom he would be united in eternity. But that wasn’t an intentional plan to set himself up as equal to the prophet, that was just wishful thinking following the desires of the tiny mind some attribute to the part of a body women don’t have.

    The Lymanites in Texas refusing to follow Brigham is something I don’t think is properly understood merely as “I’m equal to you and don’t have to follow your lead.” But that goes back to my comment about this book attempting to cherry-pick which bits of history make it through the tiny straw it’s allowing into the discussion.

  5. Meg,

    Maybe you should wait and read the book before you pass judgment based on someone else’s review. I am familiar with your writings on polygamy, but I would not care to try and compare them with Smith’s book, as I haven’t read it yet.

    As to Woodruff’s 1894 revelation on changes in sealing, it does appear to be a pretty big deal in how our temple liturgy was viewed and practiced. You should take a look at the first two chapters in J Stapley’s new book, “The Power of Godliness,” which deals directly with the evolving practice of sealings over time. Most of the surviving leaders from the Nauvoo period were in on the discussions about that change. Woodruff’s revelation appears to have come from a place that didn’t understand a policy that seemed mostly to be “the way we have always done it,” and ended with “what should we be doing based on our understanding of scripture and doctrine.”

  6. Hi Kevinf,

    I’ve now read through the book, and there is nothing I said in my commentary of Rameumpton’s review that I am inclined to retract, other than my use of subjunctive to suggest that, were Ram’s review accurate, I suspected I might find William Victor Smith too mired in the old narrative.

    William V. Smith is absolutely dripping in the old narrative. Worse, he often regurgitates the old narrative as authoritative fact without even providing footnotes. And when one sees a footnote and hopes that means there will be illuminating detail (as in a woman to whom Lorenzo Snow was sealed but was unwilling to release from the sealing), the note is not informative (giving a reference, yes, but not where one could find it online, and not even giving us the name of the woman in question).

    William V. Smith repeatedly refers to plural marriage as “polygamy,” repeatedly tells us that Emma was not aware that Joseph was practicing “polygamy,” and portrays 19th century practice as entirely focused on men building their eternal kingdom through marrying lots of women.

    There are many valuable tidbits. Ironically, many of the things I most valued about what I read were the historical stories, of which this was chock full. I had inferred from Ram’s review that this book avoided contemporary intrigue, but that was not a correct inference. This book tells us all kinds of contemporary information, but all of it is firmly grounded in the old narrative. Martha Brotherton’s experience is labeled as occurring in 1842 and is put forward as a legitimate example of how “polygamists” recruited plural wives.

    William V. Smith also gives us his speculative revision to D&C 132, eliminating those verses he feels Joseph or later prophets would have removed and adding in the idea that sealing only leads to salvation if one remains faithful. It’s an interesting chapter, but I don’t know what place such a speculative rewriting of the revelation has in a book that purports to be a textual analysis.

  7. Note that for Meg, the term “old narrative” is the theory on plural marriage that virtually all other scholarly books on polygamy are based upon (including Brian C Hales work). Her theory is what she puts forth as the new narrative.
    My review was not trying g to compare those narratives. I find Meg’s narrative plausible. However, I also find the “old” and more accepted by the scholarly community tradition is plausible.
    Regardless of one’s theoretical preference, the volume gives a good review of each section of D&C 132 and its impact on the Church, and how those sections have been both emphasized and/or deemphasized by ensuing generations of Mormons.

  8. Dear Gerald,

    Am I to be forced to forcibly deconstruct all bricks of the old narrative? Good thing I likely have decades before worms begin to eat my flesh (at least worms that won’t be treatable with medicine).

    There is a similar schism in the interpretation of how Nazi Germany handled minorities, specifically the Jewish minority. Many scholars were content to treat holocaust deniers as valid historians, because scholars are polite people. But there are times when historians say things that cannot be true. There is a point when it is no longer acceptable to say, “Well, I find both sides are plausible, so I’ll avoid creating enemies.”

    An example of this was seen in the case of Joseph L. Bishop and the woman he interacted with. The ecclesiastical leader the woman went to was faced with going up against the individual “more accepted by the [ecclesiastical] community…” And so they declined to do anything that would have impacted Bishop’s position and power, though they no doubt said kind and comforting words to the woman they were effectively ignoring.

    I mention the Bishop instance because I find it is a useful example of why it is not always possible to politely say, “Well, everyone is sufficiently right, so I’ll not burn bridges by suggesting they aren’t right.”

    For my part, I’ve e-mailed William V. Smith and provided him a copy of my book, along with select instances of where I found his adoption of the prevailing narrative to be incorrect.

  9. Meg, no one is forcibly making you do anything. I see your Bishop example as apples and oranges, a form of fallacy. Just because the Church handles the Bishop scandal poorly, does not mean the standard narrative on plural marriage is wrong.

    You are definitely free to discuss your concerns with the author or any other scholar. You are also free to write your own review, based on your own biases.

    I am happy with my review, and stand by it.

  10. I am also happy with your review. I think the concerns about the book that I voiced based on your review were entirely validated when I read the book.

    And as I said, I have started corresponding with the author.

    I think the reason my brain came up with the Bishop comparison is that I think that had the proper understanding of the illicit intercourse scandal been the dominant narrative in 1984, then Bishop would have had far more reason to reign himself in, the woman would have had a context for refusing, and the authorities to whom the woman reported would also have had context for questioning a high-ranking authority who had done wrong things.

    The illicit intercourse heresy is not my “bias.” It is documented fact, albeit based on some documents that the LDS Church has not yet put on the internet. However they have put up the letter Joseph wrote to the Relief Society. And it is the utter lack of awareness of such things that causes my concern about Professor Smith’s book. His book is amazing. But it reinforces a demonstrably incorrect and damaging version of the narrative.

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