Friday, April 13, 2012

Joseph Smith's 1st plural wife becomes part of political wrangling

Excerpts of "The Story Behind Lawrence O'Donnell's Apology to Mormons" by Michael Scherer, Time 2012 Swampland
MSNBC host Lawrence O'Donnell apologized Wednesday night for inaccurate comments he made a week earlier about the origins of the Mormon church. "I am truly sorry if I said something inaccurate about Joseph Smith..."

The words in question were spoken on April 3, in the middle of a monologue about Mitt Romney's claim that President Barack Obama was trying to "establish a religion in America known as secularism." O'Donnell brought up the Mormon religion's origins to make the point that Romney, was vulnerable on the same score.... O'Donnell also said the following:

Mormonism was created by a guy in upstate New York in 1830 when he got caught having sex with the maid and explained to his wife that God told him to do it. Forty-eight wives later, Joseph Smith's lifestyle was completely sanctified in the religion he invented to go with it, which Mitt Romney says he believes...

The history of Joseph Smith and the origins of Mormonism are well documented. And there is little doubt that O'Donnell misrepresented them, by repeating a claim that has long been used by Mormon opponents to tar its followers as a sort of cult created to justify the sexual license of its founders.

"O'Donnell has got the causation reversed," says Richard Lyman Bushman, an emeritus professor of history at Columbia University who wrote a recent biography of Smith called Rough Stone Rolling.

Here is what is known to have happened: Smith was first married in 1827, and over the next three years he set about dictating the Book of Mormon, which was published in 1830, when the church was officially founded. Years later there was a scandal concerning a maid who had worked in his home.

The maid in question was a woman named Fanny Algerwhose family had converted to Mormonism in 1830, after the religion was established. She did not know Smith when he lived in New York, but met him after he relocated to Kirtland, Ohio in February of 1831. At some point later—the dates are hard to locate in the historical record—two other things happened. Smith, perhaps as early as 1831, had a revelation that told him God permitted a return to the plural marriages of Abraham. And he began a relationship with Alger. There is no first hand record of this relationship, but second and third hand sources suggest it was either an extramarital affair or a secret marriage. (A fine summary of the historic evidence by Todd Compton can be found here) Either way, Smith's revelation is likely to have preceded his relationship with Alger, says Bushman. "There is a scholarly consensus that the revelation came earlier," he says.

...There is no evidence that she ever spoke of her relationship with Smith. Secondhand sources suggest that Smith denied committing adultery with Alger, but did not deny a relationship.

Smith did go on to have other wives, and a remarkably colorful, and controversial, life. But the historical record does not suggest that Smith founded Mormonism to justify his multiple marriages or affairs, as O'Donnell originally stated.

...In his apology Wednesday, O'Donnell admitted this mistake as well, saying he regretted that his description of Mormonism detracted from his underlying point. "Religious intolerance is wrong," he said Wednesday. "Refusing to vote for a Mormon is wrong."

The irony here is that Romney's own life shows a remarkable fidelity to monogamy, especially in comparison to many of the other men who try to run for president. Present day Mormons, for that matter, mirror evangelical Christians in their public advocacy of marriage as an institution limited to lifetime bonds of heterosexual monogamy. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints officially came out against polygamy in 1890, and in 1904 church leaders threatened excommunication for any members who entered into polygamous relationships. Romney, whose great grandfather had multiple wives before the 1904 ban, has called polygamy "abhorrent" and "awful."
Read the full article here