“Oh Say, What Is Truth?”: Evaluating Claims Regarding Nauvoo Polygamy

A Detailed Response to Meg Stout by Brian C. Hales (Click here to see PDF) and a Brief Response by Laura Harris Hales (see below)

A few weeks ago I patronized my favorite car wash after a particularly bad rainstorm. As I approached the entrance, an attendant straddled the pesky conveyor rails and proceeded to guide me to my destination with clear hand movements: straight forward … a little bit to the right … straighten it out again. Rats! My left tire was on top of the conveyor because I had overcompensated with my last adjustment. Realizing I had done the very thing I was trying to avoid, I turned the steering wheel slightly, and the tire slid off its perch and into place.

As I sheepishly rolled down my window to give the attendant my receipt, I hoped my cheeks were not flushed with embarrassment. Graciously alluding to the mishap, the middle-aged man gently offered some words of wisdom: “Don’t panic,” he softly advised, “Just drive forward.” His words have resonated with me as I have not only contemplated how I am going to approach my next encounter with a car wash conveyer but also how I can address more difficult challenges.

Faith and Guidance

In the October general conference, Elder Neil L. Andersen spoke about the blessings that come from choosing faith.  He related a story of one elder who chose to have faith and how miracles ensued in this young man’s life after that choice.

Segueing into a further discussion of faith, Elder Andersen noted that addressing honest questions can build faith. In contrast, “immersing oneself in persistent doubt, fueled by answers from the faithless and the unfaithful, weakens one’s faith.” Describing faith, he noted, that it “never demands an answer to every question but seeks the assurance and courage to move forward sometimes acknowledging, ‘I don’t know everything, but I do know enough to continue on the path of discipleship.’”

Acknowledging that questions concerning Joseph Smith may be troubling, he urged members to show humility and a willingness to live with unanswered questions. “Settle this in your mind,” he urged, “and move forward!”

But he didn’t end his talk there, he provided tools to listeners on how they could settle this issue, suggesting members read the Book of Mormon from cover to cover and seek guidance from the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve. In addition to striving to live a righteous life, these actions could enlarge and protect our faith.

Soundbites Are Not Substance

Elder Andersen shared precious wisdom with the members of the Church during our last general conference. Unfortunately, his carefully crafted talk has been reduced to a five-word soundbite that has travelled the Bloggernacle at breakneck speed: “Give Brother Joseph a break!”

Less than 14% of his talk was devoted to doubt in general and questions about the Prophet Joseph Smith specifically, but I am not aware of a single blog discussing his message of how faith helps us in this life and in the next, which comprised the other 86% of his talk.

If all talks were reduced in length to the smaller percentage, then there would only be need for two sessions of conference instead of six. Perhaps this would appeal to a meme-loving generation, but the opportunity to be taught in depth by inspired leaders would be lost.

Joseph Smith Facilitated the Essentials of the Restoration

In Elder Andersen’s brief discussion of the controversies surrounding Joseph Smith, he urged members to concentrate on all that the Prophet had accomplished during his short life. The Restoration of the gospel, priesthood power, and temple ordinances bless our lives. In giving this guidance, Elder Andersen was not saying we would not have questions, but rather he was urging us to not waste precious time seeking unobtainable answers.

Though not mentioned specifically, Elder Andersen was likely referencing Joseph Smith’s practice of polygamy. The historical record is so sparse that there are simply things that we cannot know for certainty. Dwelling on the unanswerable keeps us from progressing and moving forward.

The Great Bully Pulpit

The Internet has given anyone with a computer a venue to share ideas and opinions. This electronic super-megaphone allows the exchange of information, whether accurate or not, in a surprisingly efficient manner. So if we are to be savvy Internet consumers, how do we determine what is truth and what is falsehood?

Popular blogger J. Max Wilson discusses the need to question what we read or hear from all sources. He emphasizes:

We should be critical consumers of information. … Being a critical consumer of information means we don’t accept everything we hear or read uncritically. … We are cautious; we don’t accept everything we hear just because it’s there. …

We should be applying it [critical evaluation] to information that even supports or seems to support what we believe.[1]

Just because something pops up on our computer screens doesn’t mean that it is accurate information.  Max also cautioned “critical consumers” to “be suspicious of self-appointed teachers,”[2] a category he even put himself into. I would put myself in that category as well.

Exploring the credentials of authors might help determine how much trust to put in their work. Here are some questions one might want to ask:

  1. What is the author’s motivation for writing or speaking on the topic?
  2. What do I know about the author?
  3. What else has the author written?
  4. Is the author respected in his/her field of study?
  5. How much research has gone into this paper?
  6. Has this material gone through an editor or peer review?
  7. Is this material referenced elsewhere?

Joseph Smith’s Practice of Polygamy

In the case of the early practice of polygamy, Church members have access to two essays on the topic compiled by the Church History Department through the commission and purview of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. These essays provide valuable information about the purpose, timing, and manner in which plural marriages came about in the early Church; topics that have been covered in much detail by Meg Stout, a permablogger for the Millennial Star.

The information in these Gospel Topics essays is in some instances in opposition to the theories promoted by Stout. Therefore, it may be useful, as critical consumers, to evaluate how much credence should be given to the theories promoted in the Gospel Topics essays using the questions previously listed.

  1. What is the author’s motivation for writing or speaking on the topic?

Luckily, we don’t have to guess at the answer to this question. During the media frenzy that accompanied the release of the last essay on plural marriage, Elder Snow, the Church Historian, explained the Church’s intent in an interview with the New York Times: “There is so much out there on the Internet that we felt we owed our members a safe place where they could go to get reliable, faith-promoting information that was true about some of these more difficult aspects of our history.”[3]

Polygamy in general and Joseph Smith’s practice of plural marriage specifically are topics that traditionally have been avoided in official Church discourse. It isn’t by chance that the first Gospel Topics essay posted was “Are Mormons Christian?” and the last was “Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo.” The first is noncontroversial and straightforward, the other is controversial and complicated.

One could posit that the Church would want to paint a picture that would be most palatable for its members on a controversial topic. What did they present? Plenty. But for the purpose of this blog, I will only mention two points from the essay “Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo” that contradict the theories of Stout:

Sexuality (paragraphs 12, 17–18). Despite controversy surrounding religious discussions of sexuality, the essay recognizes: “Sealings for time and eternity included commitments and relationships during this life, generally including the possibility of sexual relations. Eternity-only sealings indicated relationships in the next life alone. Evidence indicates that Joseph Smith participated in both types of sealings.” “The procreation of children and perpetuation of families,” the essay explains, “would continue into the eternities.”

Children with Plural Wives (endnote 25). Acknowledging the possibility of children, the essay states: “Despite claims that Joseph Smith fathered children within plural marriage, genetic testing has so far been negative, though it is possible he fathered two or three children with plural wives.” Those not satisfied with the phrase “possibility of sexual relations” in the discussion of sexuality in time-and-eternity sealings can be placated by the admission of the possibility of children, which would require sexual relations.

  1. What do I know about the author?

The Gospel Topics essays were written by committee. A historian in the Church History Department was assigned to oversee this project. I won’t name him here, but he is a trained historian. Submissions from noted scholars who had published on the topics were solicited. Initially the plan was to have a long and a short answer. These scholars each submitted about a forty-page essay on their assigned topics. These essays were pared down to much smaller essays by various scholars. Along the way, the essays were passed under the eyes of at least several Church History Department employees (each with impressive credentials), the First Presidency, and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles before being returned for comments to the original authors.

  1. What else has the author written?

All scholars and Church History Department employees who worked on the Gospel Topics plural marriage pages have published in the field of history. The Brethren’s biographies list their credentials. In addition, there are ecclesiastical credentials that cannot totally be ignored.

  1. Is the author respected in his/her field of study?

The initial authors of the plural marriage pages are respected LDS historians who have published on the topic of plural marriage.

  1. How much research has gone into this paper?

The composing of the essays on plural marriage took over two years, but the research time was much longer and nearly unmeasurable as they incorporated into the essays the most reliable information available from many polygamy researchers.

  1. Has this material gone through an editor or peer review?

These essays passed through several levels of review before final versions were submitted for approval from the Brethren.

  1. Is this material referenced elsewhere?

These Gospel Topics essays have been incorporated into Seminary and Institute curriculum.

Speechless, Dumbfounded, and Amazed

My own polygamy research began about two years ago after I was exposed to information that challenged my assumptions regarding Joseph Smith’s personal practice of polygamy. My questions led to my reading primary documents regarding the issue.

After coming to terms with a new reality, I became interested in studying the lives of the women whom Joseph married. “What,” I asked myself, “would compel a woman to accept Joseph’s offer of marriage?” These were real women, who suffered real trials, and experience real spiritual experiences as they agonized over a doctrine that was just as difficult to understand in the 1840s as it is today.

These women lived in Nauvoo, IL 62354 in pre-Victorian American, not Beverly Hills, CA 90210 in the twenty-first century.

They married Joseph Smith, not Mr. Darcy played by Colin Firth. A cursory reading of Josiah Quincy’s encounter with the Prophet readily distinguishes between the two.

They lived in a town with more tenants than homeowners, which meant that privacy was in short supply. Private rendezvous were no easy matter. Add in a lack of modern conveniences such as shampoo, gentle soap, inside privies, and gas furnaces, and scenes from romance novels may be replaced by more realistic pictures.

And hopefully, readers will realize that after the raping, death, pillaging, and mob violence many of these women witnessed in Missouri, it would take more than a promise to eliminate the risk of a scandal-inducing pregnancy to entice a woman to ignore clearly taught morals and standards of a Church for which they had sacrificed so much.

As I have studied the lives of Joseph Smith’s wives, I have developed compassion for them. When I read Meg Stout’s blog, “Give Brigham a Break!” it pained me to see their moral character sacrificed in order to support a novel version of what occurred in Nauvoo in the 1840s. I don’t consider these women fair game for virtual voyeurism.

But in retrospect, I should have shared my thoughts with Meg privately.

The Millennial Star asked my husband and me to respond to Meg Stout’s blog. Though we usually heed the advice to avoid dueling with a writer who buys ink by the barrel, there were some statements that we felt needed to be addressed.

As readers compare arguments, they may want to ask a few questions to make sure they are being critical consumers such as “Is this theory backed up with primary documentation?” or “Is there any reason to believe that the author of a given document would lie?” and “If so, what would that motivation be?”

“Oh Say, What Is Truth?”

In our hymnal is a song adapted from a poem by John Jaques describing his thoughts on the value of truth. As a young missionary in England, he contemplated Pontius Pilate’s question to Christ as Pilate was called on to judge contradictory evidence. Although alternate realities are sometimes comforting and interesting diversions, it is truth that is “the fairest gem,” an “aim for the noblest desire,” and a thing of priceless value.

Armed with accurate information, we can confidently follow the advice of the kind car wash attendant: “Don’t panic. Just drive forward.” More importantly, good data allows us to more easily heed Elder Andersen’s advice to settle this matter in our minds, move forward, and build faith.

A Response to Meg Stout by Brian C. Hales (PDF)

Supplemental Resources




  • Joseph Smith’s Polygamy: Toward a Better Understanding, Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2015, with Laura Harris Hales.
  • Joseph Smith’s Polygamy: History and Theology, 3 vols., Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2013.

Other Publications:

  • “The Practice of Polygamy” and “Joseph Smith’s Practice of Plural Marriage,” chapters in Anchored in Truth: Faithful Answers to Sincere Questions, ed. Laura Harris Hales, Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2016.
  • “John Taylor’s 1886 Revelation,” in The Persistence of Polygamy, vol. 3, Independence, Missouri: John Whitmer Books, 2015.
  • “A Response to Denver Snuffer’s Essay on Plural Marriage, Adoption, and the Supposed Falling Away of the Church – Part 2: Façade or Reality?” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 16 (2015): 31–61.
  • “A Response to Denver Snuffer’s Essay on Plural Marriage, Adoption, and the Supposed Falling Away of the Church – Part 1: Ignoring Inconvenient Evidence,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 16 (2015): 1–29.
  • “John C. Bennett and Joseph Smith’s Polygamy: Addressing the Question of Reliability, Journal of Mormon History 41, no. 2 (April 2015): 131–81.
  • “Identifying Joseph Smith’s Plural Wives” Journal of Mormon History 40 (Summer 2014): 155–68.
  • “A Response to Grant Palmer’s ‘Sexual Allegations against Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Polygamy in Nauvoo,’” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 12 (2014): 183–236, with Gregory L. Smith.
  • “Big Trouble in River City: American Crucifixion and the Defaming of Joseph Smith,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 11 (2014): 177–207, with Craig Foster.
  • “LDS Joseph vs. RLDS Joseph: The Battle to Control the Public Memory of Joseph Smith,” with Don Bradley, in Newell G. Bringhurst and Craig L. Foster, eds., The Persistence of Polygamy: Joseph Smith and the Origins of Mormon Polygamy, vol. 2, Independence, Missouri: John Whitmer Books, 2013, 99–151.
  • “Joseph Smith’s Plural Wives after the Martyrdom,” Mormon Historical Studies 13, no. 2 (Fall 2012): 255–69.
  • “‘A Continuation of the Seeds’: Joseph Smith and Spirit Birth.” Journal of Mormon History 38, no. 4 (Fall 2012): 105–30.
  • “Joseph Smith’s Personal Polygamy,” Journal of Mormon History 38, no. 2 (Spring 2012): 163–228.
  • “Encouraging Joseph Smith to Practice Plural Marriage: The Accounts of the Angel with a Drawn Sword,” Mormon Historical Studies 11, no. 2 (Fall 2010): 23–39.
  • “Joseph Smith and the Puzzlement of ‘Polyandry,’” in Newell G. Bringhurst and Craig L. Foster, eds., The Persistence of Polygamy: Joseph Smith and the Origins of Mormon Polygamy, Independence, Missouri: John Whitmer Books, 2010, 99–151.
  • “The Latest Word,” Review of “George D. Smith, Nauvoo Polygamy: “… but we called it celestial marriage.” (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2008). Dialogue, Winter 2009, 42 (Winter 2009): 213–35.
  • “Fanny Alger and Joseph Smith’s Pre-Nauvoo Reputation,” Journal of Mormon History, 35 (Fall 2009): 112–90.
  • “Emma Smith, Eliza R. Snow, and the Reported Incident on the Stairs,” Mormon Historical Studies 10, no. 2 (Fall 2009): 63–75.
  • “The Joseph Smith – Sylvia Sessions Plural Sealings: Polyandry or Polygyny,” Mormon Historical Studies vol. 9, no. 1 Spring 2008): 19–28.


[1] J. Max Wilson, “RiseUp Podcast: Building a Testimony of a Sure Foundation — Part 1,” October 29, 2014, http://blog.fairmormon.org/2014/10/29/riseup-podcast-building-a-testimony-on-a-sure-foundation-part-1/; transcription by Laura Harris Hales. My apologies for any misquotations.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Laurie Goodstein, “It’s Official: Mormon Founder Had up to 40 Wives,” The New York Times, November 10, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/11/us/its-official-mormon-founder-had-up-to-40-wives.html.

32 thoughts on ““Oh Say, What Is Truth?”: Evaluating Claims Regarding Nauvoo Polygamy

  1. I appreciate Meg’s efforts. There is one thing that the official Church historians won’t accept, and many others with long LDS pedigrees as well, but it has been noticeably apparent to me as a convert. That is, there a very deeply felt and maybe subconscious motivation to sustain polygamy by insisting on an unhealthy focus on the sex — and to insist that Joseph’s practice was exactly like Brigham’s. It even goes so far as to teach that Heavenly Father came down and physically penetrated Mary so that she would be pregnant with Jesus. Then it insists that Jesus have to have been married himself. All of this is based not on history but on the worldview of those who so assert. This strain infects all of their thought, and they are blind to it — they defend it not because of its truth, but because of their Utah upbringing. Similarly, they insist that Joseph’s United Order was exactly like Brigham’s, but they err there also. Same for other deeply help and rarely spoken folklore. So I cannot fully accept that the history offered by the official Church historians is pure. At least, as I see it, Meg admits her worldview and then looks at the history, and I agree that she posits a plausible story. I think “plausible” is all she is looking for and is all she has claimed.

  2. Laura and Brian, very well written and argued. I hope readers who read Meg’s post on Brigham Young will take the time to read Brian’s rebuttal, which is the PDF at the end of the OP. We are really honored at M* that you have taken the time to write this post.

    As a neutral observer, I think Laura and Brian point out many details that cannot be ignored by anybody who wants look at Meg’s version of the history.

    History from Nauvoo in the 1840s is always going to be filled with massive holes. As people looking back in time, we can only imagine broad strokes of the actual history. My own view of that time is influenced by what I have read from various sources. One of my favorite sources is the fictional book “Saints” by Orson Scott Card, which paints a very favorable view of Joseph Smith, and a faith-promoting story about his polygamist actions, through the eyes of one of his fictional wives. But that story paints Emma in a very negative light so it also has many problems.

    At the end of the day, the most important takeaway to me is: Joseph Smith really was a prophet of God, and he was not a perfect person but he followed the Savior. I have a strong testimony that he brought us the Book of Mormon and many other modern-day scriptures. I believe he created the foundation for the modern-day Church, which is also led by a prophet of God. I am comfortable with the fact that I will not know all of the details regarding Joseph Smith’s life. I don’t need to know all of the details to know he was a prophet and that the Church today is true.

    Thanks again to Brian and Laura for their work.

  3. Hi Brian and Laura. Thanks for your post and your very thorough scholarship. You seem to know the names of the scholars and historians who wrote the polygamy essay on lds.org. Could you please share the names? How did you come to know the names? Why weren’t the names included with the essay? Did Brian or Laura work on the essay? Thanks in advance!

  4. Doug,

    I know the names of the historians who worked on the essays because I have figured it through detective work, socialized with the authors, and in some cases worked with the authors. A few of the authors have chosen to reveal their participation, but in other cases, authors have chosen to remain private about their involvement. I don’t feel comfortable revealing their names, but with a little sleuthing you can probably figure some of them out as they are noted for their expertise. But these scholars wrote a 40 page version, the final versions were a collaborative effort.

    I remember reading somewhere why the names were not included, but I cannot remember the reason. I can think of two reasons, but they are GUESSES. 1. The authors may have to be put in the witness protection program. Cyberbullying is rampant in our culture. 2. The essays are meant to be official statements on the topics. Since the Brethren are not all professionally trained historians, theologians, or scientists, they enlisted the help of faithful Latter-day Saints who are. Take a look, there is now a line at the bottom of each essay (after the footnotes) mentioning that the essays were prepared with the help of scholars.

    Brian was asked to write a long, medium, and short treatment of the issue of polyandry. He also looked at an early draft of the early polygamy essay and offered suggestions. Some suggestions were incorporated, but others were not.


  5. ji,

    If I could wave a magic wand and make early polygamy go away, then I would. Both Meg and I have Utah polygamous roots. It worked for two of my grandmothers, but undoubtedly they would have just as soon had their own husbands.

    Brian and I do not want to protect polygamy or have it persist. We want to set the record straight with accurate data. Joseph lists four reasons for the practice of polygamy in D&C 132. None of them include covering up the sins of women who were seduced by John C. Bennett. Meg’s theory saves Joseph from tarnish by throwing others under the bus.

    The picture painted by Meg involves far more of a concentration on carnal relationships than the one delicately described in the Church essays.

    I suggest Jessie Embrie’s book “Mormon Polygamous Families: Life in the Principle”; every polygamous relationship was different. I recently read a study of Brigham Young’s household written by Jeffrey Johnson, which was fascinating. Brigham’s relationship with his “wives” was unique in each case–some involving physical relations while others did not.

    On more than one occasion, I have been asked if it is possible that Joseph did not sleep with his wives. This is a very tough thing for members including myself to accept, but I cannot discount the many affidavits and testimonies attesting to the fact. What would convince so many fine people to prevaricate about such a thing?

    As for your comment on the birth of Christ, I have never heard that lore.

  6. I think this is a silly fight. I also think it is tragic the fight is occurring at all. The author of this post (and her husband, the author of other posts addressing the larger issues associated with LDS polygamy) are trying to wrap themselves in a cloak of academic respectability by applying “critical thinking” standards to both gospel documents and unknown historical mysteries. There is one point which no one who is on earth today can know for sure without direct divine revelation that the arguments rest on. That is whether sex was central to the experience of Joseph’s marriages? All genetic evidence currently available says “No.” But all cultural folklore says “Yes.” Meg Stout posits a theory which explains the actual evidence available. Is it the “real truth”? No way to know for certain. But it deals with the central conundrum of John Bennett and illicit/secret sex. There is no debate that he taught a different unauthorized version of sex outside of traditional marriage during the Nauvoo period. It is unfortunate that Joseph was taken in by Mr. Bennett, it is possible that if the Prophet had asked God more probing questions regarding this man much of the difficulties experienced in Nauvoo might have been avoided. But instead Joseph and the highest Church officials had to deal with the aftermath of Bennett’s mess. Was their response like what Meg Stout has hypothesized? I don’t know – BUT neither does the author of this post! At least Meg Stout faces the issue head-on. The official Church statements don’t. We see in the recorded statements from Joseph when he was tried for having sex outside of marriage by the Church councils that he had to give very finely crafted (but incredibly misleading) statements. He never denies polygamy as we understand it in hindsight, just adultery. Yet he strives very hard to make it sound like he is denying polygamy (he very carefully switches back and forth between the two terms as the answer unfolds). That statement can be read any of a million ways, but two that are relevant to this debate are that (1) he didn’t have sex so there was no adultery. Or (2) he didn’t consider polygamous sex to be adultery. There is nothing definitive in his statement to say which is his real experience – exactly because he was trying to cover the existence of any polygamy up. There is nothing in the existing records released by the Church that definitively answers the question of whether Joseph ever had sex with another women besides his wife Emma. That’s simply the state of the evidence we have. people just need to deal with it.

    Because of the way polygamy was implemented under the leadership of Brigham Young the Church had to go “all in” on the concept (in spite of the obvious long term impossible numerical contradictions for a society involved in the practice). It became the defining mark of Mormonism (more so even than the Book of Mormon – which of course condemns the practice). As a result any “scholarship” on the issue hits the rock that there is no definitive evidence regarding whether Joseph Smith had sex with anyone besides Emma — and whatever answer a person starts with on that issue determines, before the investigation begins, what answers one ends up with. It is all circular reasoning regardless of how much committee review takes place. What we do know is under Brigham Young’s leadership (and subsequent Presidents’ Leadership) the concept of sexually active polygamy as an acceptable eternal practice was never explicitly repudiated (Section 132 is still part of the cannon, and it very much condones sex as a part of earthly polygamy). However, I find it interesting that the Church bans polygamy for its members even in countries where the practice would be legal. (As an interesting future trivia point, it will be interesting to see how the Church reacts if polygamy becomes legal in the USA as marriage is redefined legally over time) My guess is it will never be reinstated as the current teachings about the purpose of marriage and becoming one are not compatible with polygamy.

    In the end about all I can say is that I’ve received a witness (that is sufficient for me personally) that Joseph Smith was a recognized prophet that God used to begin the process of restoring the Church, Priesthood, and Gospel to Earth (I think that process is still ongoing). I also believe based on similar witness that the recognized priesthood keys to the work remain with the current LDS Church’s leaders. Try as I might I have been unable to receive any further witness regarding issues of polygamy. I’m grateful the Church has recognized there are many historical issues which people might be worried about. The move to open the repositories of information, to publish the Joseph Smith papers, etc. are very welcome. But that information won’t settle this question, the ambiguity will remain.

    In the end I’m also very glad Meg Stout writes and researches about these issues. I find great value in reading her theories and summaries of the period.

  7. If they can’t pay proper homage to Elder Andersen’s Danish heritage by spelling his name right, why should I pay any more attention to what they write?

  8. Laura,

    I first want to say how much I admire the contributions that you and your husband have made to advancing an accurate historical narrative of polygamy. Your research has been invaluable.

    I have read Meg’s complete Faithful Joseph series, and while I don’t agree with her conclusions, I get the sense that you and especially your husband are responding more to a caricature of her thesis than the reality of it.

    For instance, pointing out that John C. Bennett was not quite as prominent in the church as Meg suggests is a useful critique, but it does not respond to the core of her thesis, which is that at least some of the plural marriages and actions of Joseph can be explained as an effort to counteract and oppose Bennett’s distortion of the doctrine of polygamy. It seems to me that while Meg goes too far in her effort to have Joseph’s sealings be non-sexual in nature and therefore struggles to explain why Brigham Young and other leaders clearly had sexual sealings, that you are far too quick to dismiss parts of Meg’s analysis that may enrich an understanding of the factors motivating plural marriage in Nauvoo.

    I guess I feel a bit disappointed by the very glib dismissal of everything Meg is writing as mere fiction, because I do think her series and her writings have been far more valuable than that.

  9. Daniel,

    I am curious about one of your statements: “at least some of the plural marriages and actions of Joseph can be explained as an effort to counteract and oppose Bennett’s distortion of the doctrine of polygamy.” Could you please elaborate on which marriages these would be?


  10. John,

    Brian vehemently contends that sex was not central to Joseph’s practice of polygamy. He has written over two thousand pages laying a foundation for that argument. A shorter treatment on the topic can be found on the website JosephSmithsPolygamy.org.

    Several of Joseph’s plural wives said they had sex with him. Is it really necessary that this be caught on film for us to have “proof” that it occurred?

    One point of this response is that there are many, many unanswerable questions. Elder Andersen has asked us to move forward and not dwell on the issue as it does not inherently build faith. He has asked us to settle this in our mind and move forward.


  11. Laura, thank you for your response. It’s not a comfortable thing to refute with reason something which so many people find viscerally compelling. I wanted you to know that what you and your husband have written is appreciated and valuable.

    There are so many emotions tied up in polygamy and its significance. I, personally, find discussion about Joseph’s sex life irrelevant to the core doctrine. I will agree with one thing that a commenter has said: short of a personal revelation on the subject, there is no way to truly know. Often, our personal hopes, opinions, and attitudes interfere with such a personal revelation. What I appreciate most about your perspective is that you stick to the process of historical study (as much as possible) and leave room for that personal revelation where it comes to emotions and opinions.

    It is because of people like you—whose efforts to follow the actual documentation and be free of personal agenda come out in the tone of your writing—that I was inspired years ago to study this subject AND gain my own testimony. That has helped me weather other spiritually difficult times in my life, and I believe that will be counted in blessings for you, your husband, and people like you.

  12. Thank you, SilverRain. I am so glad that you have been able to use your experience studying this subject to help you weather other spiritually difficult times in your life and that you have been able to settle this issue in your mind.

  13. I’m pretty much with John SH and Daniel O.

    Like M Miles, you do Meg a grave disservice by putting words in her mouth. Meg never stated or even implied that the _purpose_ of the creation or implementation of the doctrine of polygamy was to cover up the Strikers’ mess. She speculates that it was _used_ (after its introduction) in relation to that mess to heal and protect some people involved. “Using” it for something as an afterthought or for a side benefit does not detract or add to the divine mandate which brought it about, as long as the divine requirements were still met.

    I see no contradiction between Meg’s speculations and what the church’s official essays directly address, because the problem or contradiction you are concerned about is not addressed in the essays.

    Aside from silence on the Striker issue, the church’s essays say that _maybe_ Joseph engendered children with women other than Emma. Meg says “Maybe he didn’t”. Those are logically the same thing! Even the essays admit there is no dna proof of offspring other than with Emma.

    To best understand Meg’s “Give Brigham a Break” post, you need to read her entire Faithful Joseph series.
    If you and Brian did read the whole series, then perhaps the misunderstanding is along the lines of English/History majors trying to understand a science/engineering major, a right brain versus left brain thing, as the writing/communication styles are not 100% mutually understandable. Daniel O nailed it, I think. You are responding to a caricature.

    Another point I think you miss, and this was dealt with in her series, not so much in her recent Give Brigham a Break post, is the tremendous apologetic work Meg has done in untangling the confusion over the “spiritual wifery” charge. The Bennett/Striker mess greatly prejudiced outsiders against the church at the time, and has given ammunition to anti-mormons ever since. That and the secret nature of true authorized polygamy created a real whirlwind that confused even the faithful (and still does).

    In my view, Meg _untangles_ all that.

    IMO, one has to understand what the Strikers did, and how they opposed Joseph in order to understand all the accusations against Joseph and the church, and who wanted Joseph dead and why. Of course polygamy was not in response to the Strikers. But Bennet and his gang inserted themselves into the mix… Into the narrative. Therefore, any detailed nitty-gritty unraveling of the story of polygamy in Nauvoo eventually needs to address that.

    And Meg made good points in her series that the Strikers even played a big part in the martydom of Joseph and Hyrum.

    I would not characterize Meg as throwing anyone under the bus. I can see why you may not like some of the _possibilities_ she puts forth. But she does not put them forth as _fact_.

  14. “dueling with a writer who buys ink by the barrel” “permablogger”
    The sarcasm and enmity struggle through in spite of the effort to use a talk by an apostle, a hymn and references to historians that you “figured out through detective work” to give a high tone to your dismissal of Meg’s efforts.
    I noticed that she hasn’t posted a response.
    Sometimes dignity requires simply turning away in sorrow.
    I’m interested in the opposition to the very idea that Meg should continue looking into these areas of concern, particularly since truth exists no matter what is written about it. It cannot be changed by exchanges of opinion and frankly I feel that Brian and Meg both approach very closely the same attitudes toward Joseph. It is the differences that seem to rankle and call forth your dismissive tone.
    Meg indeed has roots in polygamy. Her direct ancestors were intimately involved in the situation in Nauvoo and Meg’s intense interest began when she read “Nightfall at Nauvoo” by Sam Taylor, one of the reasons she struggled with her testimony. Since then she has inhaled everything publicly available concerning that period. I look forward to hearing more from her and others.

  15. Laura and Meg are not that far apart, considering that Laura believes Joseph’s sexual polygamy was infrequent, and Meg also says Joseph “might have” practiced infrequent sexual polygamy, and even said Joseph “may have wanted” to practice sexual polygamy, but didn’t out of deference to Emma.

    The issue for Laura seems to be more about how Brigham Young and Eliza R Snow are implicated in Meg’s theory. Meg’s theory, if it is merely an attempt to postulate a non-sexual, or “infrequently sexual” polygamy, does not need to implicate Brigham or Eliza in any wrongdoing. Those two individuals are superfluous to the central question of Joseph Smith’s sexual practices ( the central question which is the only one most members care about anyway.)

    The concern is that Meg has gone too far in defense of Joseph, and that she need not do so simply to vindicate him. The evidence of his sexual polygamy is already scant enough to infer “reasonable doubt” without concocting the elaborate theory regarding Bennet.

    Perhaps if Meg was simply more modest about the plausibility of some of her more farfetched ideas, she could better protect the validity of her central thesis: Joseph Smith’s infrequent or almost non-existent sexual polygamy.

  16. Pat Chui,

    I am unaware of a negative connotation associated with the term permablogger. It simply means that one blogs regularly on a website.

    Meg and I exchange friendly e-mails, even if we disagree on historical analyses. Meg, herself, joked in a recent blog about the 100,000 words she has written on the topic.

    When we were asked to provide a response to Meg’s blog, we were told that Meg would not respond directly to this blog thread. As a permablogger at Millennial Star, she will have an opportunity to post a blog in response to this post if she should so desire.


  17. I’m glad for your introduction, but the full document does nothing to hide the disdain for Meg’s work. It also leaps from place to place in her narrative, Better would be to talk to Meg about when she shifted away from fiction (where she started and sometimes returns stating that she is doing so) and find where she is now in her research. I realize it took a lot for Brian to deign to write a response, as it’s obvious from this response that he thinks very little of her or her writing, but starting with and sticking to one particular point at a time might be more helpful.

    As for your assessment of the of the essays; they’re very bare treatments of what they cover, having been vetted and pared down from the originals, which we may not ever see. They are not a full treatment of anything, or we would not need books and books of writings about the same thing. We know also that some things simply will not be written, as there isn’t a good explanation of “why” to go with them. If you want to see your historian friends grimace, ask about the “Women and the Priesthood” essay. Treating these essays as definitive sources for truth is like taking a third-hand account as gospel truth.

    Lastly, in your excerpts from the essays, the word “possibility” is just that. It is not a definitive “must have been” or “must have not been”. It’s saying “we can’t say either way”. This seems to contradict the “surety” of the many testimonies of the Temple Lot trial.

    I’m going to apologize for my aggressiveness in this. It just really bothers me when historians resort to “they’re not accredited/cited/popular enough” to discount something. It shows a closed in, we-know-better-so-shut-up mentality, which historians should steadfastly avoid.

  18. Let’s be honest here. There are significant, overwhelming differences between Brian Hales’ thesis and Meg’s ideas. Brian argues that the primary reason for plural marriage was not sex but theology, and under certain circumstances and from the testimony of plural wives, he deduced that some of these relationships were probably sexual. But that the primary rationale for plural marriage came through Joseph’s religious experience/scripture.

    Meg goes further, envisioning a sexless system of plural marriages on Joseph’s part, which was amplified into full marriage relations by various individuals’ reactions to Bennett’s system of spiritual wifery. And in developing this vision she rejects professional historians’ interpretations of documents and (in my opinion) speculates far outside the bounds of what the evidence can support. Meg throws significant individuals close to Joseph Smith under the bus and accuses them of adultery.

    From my experience with historians, Brian and Laura are models of decorum. Meg’s supporters really can’t cry foul, for Brian and Laura were invited by Geoff B. to peer review Meg’s speculative ideas. Granted, these ideas morphed out of a fictional writing attempt by a one untrained in the discipline of history. But if this were a graduate committee for a M.A. in history, a committee of PhD’s would have made what Brian and Laura wrote look like a Sunday brunch. There is a real discipline and procedure to history, and Meg’s science background does not really help that much. In fact, her adopted methodology is inherently creative and speculative, far removed from the scientific method.

    Even Brian, who is a natural historian and has had years of experience in the field, hired a professional historian to collaborate with and complete much of the research for his series on polygamy. Good history is hard work, not posting speculation on a blog.

  19. My own perception is that a lot of Meg’s posts–and response in comment sections–seems to have a thinking-out-loud sort of quality. Her writings strike me as having a lot of great and intriguing ideas, a healthy dose of speculation with varying degrees of plausibility, and some stuff that just doesn’t seem reconcilable even to other of Meg’s own writings. I, for one, would like to see the whole corpus of her writings synthesized and published as one work; and I suspect that the result would turn out to be more of a supplement than a contradiction of Brian’s and Laura’s books.

    The trouble is that as Meg’s ideas come out piecemeal, people latch onto them and conclude–e.g.–that Joseph never had relations with anyone but Emma (a position that, as I understand it, Meg isn’t doggedly attached; but a problem perhaps exacerbated by the series’ title “A Faithful [to Emma, one presumes] Joseph”); as well as a number of less-charitable conclusions about Brigham Young, Eliza Snow, et al.; and some of these people are absolutely unwilling to listen to any contradictory evidence or arguments. I can see why the Haleses would feel a need to speak out on some of that now, even though I personally would have preferred to see them wait to engage with Meg’s arguments until she had published them in a more polished form.

  20. That Laura and Brian seem to feel that they own the topic of Nauvoo polygamy and are warning off an intruder on their domain is evident to me. Has Meg’s viewpoint shifted since she undertook this study? Of course it has, since she has not taken the attitude that nothing will change her mind. Some of her assumptions in the ‘Faithful Joseph’ series are now out of date according to her ongoing research. Meg’s mind is in the world where paradigms shatter as new information surfaces and research changes old understanding. Academics tend to cluster around prestige and conservation of established ideas. Research engineers and scientists are more concerned with advancing their understanding of reality. ‘What if’ is a common phrase in their pursuit.
    There really is no need for conflict. As Elder Oaks recently said in commenting about law and religion in a speech in California about relations between government and religion, “we must learn and practice mutual respect-“. This is particularly true when we share a common belief in truth claims of our Church. Meg and the Hales both support the idea that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God.
    The unfortunate example of the Hoffman hoaxes warns us against rushing off after every shiny new idea about our history, on the other hand a stolid refusal to consider valid evidence or carefully constructed assumptions does not serve the cause of truth.
    I have read a number of commenters who urge this blog to shun Meg. She has used this forum as a sounding board to elicit new information that will help her understanding of the period in Nauvoo that encompassed the coming forth of the endowments and the martyrdom. She has the contacts and is developing the skills and information that will lead to the formal publication of her hypothesis when she feels it has been sufficiently refined and readjusted by all the evidence to which she can gain access. She feels this is a calling and will persist.
    From what Laura says, Meg has agreed not to respond.
    That is an exceedingly noble response in itself.

  21. I was having fun watching TV last night, so only saw this post this afternoon.

    I adore Laura and Brian, and I look forward to reading Brian’s detailed rebuttal.

    [I don’t recall being told to not comment. Perhaps I am being moderated for this post, which is fine.]

  22. I would encourage readers to go back and read Old Man’s comment. He points out correctly that the peer review process is brutal. And, by the way, I think the peer review process *should* be difficult if we are talking about important theories and ideas.

    Meg has told readers that she is considering putting her information together in book form. She has also made it clear she would like to get published in an academic journal. Either of these steps would involve an editing and critiquing process much more drastic than what Laura and Brian Hales are doing in this post.

    It is not easy putting time and effort and emotion into your research and writing only to see it criticized by your peers. If you are not careful you can take it extremely personally. But there are important reasons for the critiques: good editing and questioning makes for a better product. It is my impression that Meg wants a better product.

    The smart way to approach this for Meg would be to look at all of the critiques and see which ones may be valid. She should take the criticism very seriously and make changes as necessary.

    Not everybody is meant to be able to go through this rigorous process. Just to name one example: I am completely uninterested in writing an academic paper. As I have written many times on this blog, I don’t care what other people think of what I write. And, let’s face it: my personality is not suited to writing academic papers. But if you are going to write a book or submit a paper to an academic journal, you *must* care. So, I think Meg would agree that this post by Laura and Brian does her the tremendous favor of helping her sharpen her writing and focus her approach. If she continues to write academic-like posts on this subject she will get a lot more criticism.

  23. I really appreciate the fact the Brian Hales would go to the effort to refute specific propositions put forth by Meg Stout. I’m always turned off by contempt, and I do feel his intro attacked a caricature of her Faithful Joseph series. But he did a great job of doing exactly what I wanted — a documented explanation of why and where he felt Meg went wrong. That was a fair amount of work and it was done very quickly. Maybe he just has a fantastic indexing system in his brain that made it not too hard.

    Many narratives can be constructed to match any given set of historical data, and just because some of them might involve flying saucers or some other undocumented circumstances doesn’t make them impossible, just unlikely. I’m much less sympathetic when the narrative has to discount a fairly substantial amount of contrary historical data.

  24. I’ll also say that I’d love to have the 40-page essays collected in a single place and made available. That’d be great for a layman like me who wants different perspectives, yet doesn’t have the time to wade into them all.

  25. Martin,

    I have just the thing for you. I have edited an anthology of essays by seventeen top LDS scholars on topics of historical and theological significance in the LDS Church. The essays are between ten (Richard Bushman’s) and forty (D. H. Bailey’s) pages. It will be available through Deseret Book by the end of April. The title is still pending.

    Laura Harris Hales

  26. Old Man,
    your synopsis of Meg’s view of Nauvoo polygamy ignores what she wrote in her “Faithful Joseph” series of posts.

    If all you read were her two recent posts, Give Joseph a Break, and Give Brigham a Break, then I can see where you got your mistaken idea of her position on the origin of polygamy. I believe she wrote those two posts assuming the reader was somewhat familiar with her prior work. She does acknowledge the divine mandate to implement polygamy.

    Here’s the first of her series of articles:

    Now that see has seen where her position has been misconstrued, I’m confident that she will be more careful in future posts to cover those particular points in order to avoid further confusion.

  27. The refined midrash summary I sent Brian in 2013 (a second version I sent to him, cleaned up from the initial 9000 word meandering e-mail) is available to view at this link. From this, I think it is clear to see why Brian thought I was just a fiction writer.

    I have updated the file to identify where I am touching on fact (highlighted in yellow). Brian didn’t have anything noting these as factual touchpoints. I made the mistake of presuming that he knew the history well enough to know how much of the plot is anchored in documented fact. But I was hyperfocused in this plot on the aspects that involve my particular ancestors. And Brian has had a much broader focus, which I predominantly don’t address in the midrash.

    There are portions of the 2013 synopsis where I would now admit I was completely wrong (text in red). The main readjustments to my timeline are the detail regarding when Bennett started teaching illicit intercourse and when I propose that a possibly pregnant Eliza Snow could have suffered a miscarriage.

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