This is a guest post by Laura Hales.
Laura Harris Hales is a freelance copy editor and author. She received a bachelor’s degree in International Relations from Brigham Young University and a master’s degree in Professional Writing from New England College. She has worked as both a paralegal and as an adjunct professor of English. After marrying in 2013, she found herself immersed in the study of Church history. With her husband, she is the co-author of Joseph Smith’s Polygamy: Toward a Better Understanding and co-webmaster of JosephSmithsPolygamy.org. She is also the copy editor of Mormon Historical Studies. Laura is married to Brian C. Hales and, combined, they have nine children.
Sometimes taking the road less traveled is a conscious choice, and sometimes it’s a result of a diversion that unexpectedly appears along one’s chosen path. Over the last eighteen months, I’ve found myself making one of those course changes as a result of reading Joseph Smith’s Polygamy: History and Theology, written by my then fiancé, Brian C. Hales.
Soon after the wedding photos were unveiled on Facebook, I finished the 1500-page tome on the early practice of polygamy in the Church. Reading his treatment of the subject was somewhat akin to taking a drink of water from a fire hydrant. Totally drenched with new and somewhat confusing information, I found myself in unexplored territory. Inculcated from birth with an idealized image of the Prophet Joseph Smith, I now questioned whether Joseph’s marrying of thirty-five brides and other men’s wives reflected the behavior of a prophet.
Through further study, I was able to resolve my dissonance and make peace with the past. In the process, I developed a desire to present the research from Brian’s trilogy in a format accessible to the average Latter-day Saint. Less information might actually be more beneficial to those first encountering this material. My husband, though initially hesitant, agreed to the project after our publisher echoed his support of the idea.
So together we took on the daunting task of constructing a basic roadmap for navigating this period of Church history. It would be the first book published on the topic intended for a mainstream LDS audience, written from a faithful perspective. As such, it would lay a theological basis for the unfolding practice of polygamy, but no controversies would be avoided.
For the past year, Brian and I have blogged at JosephSmithsPolygamy.org, and since the Gospel Topics essay on Nauvoo polygamy was released, we have publicly spoken on the topic. The most unanticipated question I have fielded in these forums is why I feel a need to defend polygamy. Perhaps it is because I don’t see my work as a defense of polygamy so much as an effort to help more people better understand the history of polygamy.
Exaggerations and assumptions have dominated texts of previous books written on the topic and also podcasts and blogs frequently accessed on the Internet. The temptation to fill in the gaps in the historical record often results in distortions that stir up emotions and create tantalizing soundbites, but it reality do nothing to enhance understanding, but instead generate fear and confusion.
Editorials analyzing the details through a twenty-first century lens haven’t been particularly helpful either. The early Saints were different from us, so we shouldn’t expect that they would think or behave as we would. Cultural historian Robert Darnton warned that when looking at history we must be prepared for culture shock:
Other people are other. They do not think the way we do. And if we want to understand their way of thinking we should set out with the idea of capturing otherness. . . . We constantly need to be shaken out of a false sense of familiarity with the past.
Too often I see criticisms waged that are based on anachronistic thinking measured against twenty-first century mores. I try to situate those seeking understanding firmly in the nineteenth century.
After studying the lives of the early Saints, I have grown to admire some and mourn with others. What many don’t realize is that when they attack Joseph Smith’s practice of polygamy, they also attack his plural wives and their families. When criticisms are lodged at Joseph for being sealed to teenage girls, they are also directed at the adults who gave their permission for the unions. When critics decry undue influence, they ignore the widespread skepticism of the Nauvoo Saints. I don’t feel a need to defend polygamy, but I do feel the need to defend history, with all its participants.
One of the most difficult and painful topics regarding polygamy has to do with the theological underpinnings as recorded in D&C 132 — a revelation dictated to address Emma Smith’s specific concerns that now provides the general membership of the Church with doctrinal truths as part of our canonized scripture.
While it speaks of blessings of exaltation and the perpetuation of eternal marriages, it also speaks of less popular topics such as plural marriage, adultery, polyandry, the giving of virgins in marriage, and the destruction of those who fail to obey God’s commandments. In order to understand the inclusion of these off-putting subjects, one must study the issues with which Emma was struggling at the time. Understanding Emma’s questions will help more people understand which parts of D&C 132 are applicable to members in general and what parts of the revelation were dictated to specifically answer Emma’s questions.
When I embarked on this writing project, I had far more questions than I had answers. I still have questions, but they are fewer. So why do I write about polygamy? I write so I can learn, teach, dispel anger, assuage concerns, and, hopefully, offer comfort, so we can all move toward a better understanding of Joseph Smith and his practice of polygamy.