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