Thursday, January 02, 2014

Church article frankly discusses polygamy

Excerpts of Mormons can now discuss the P word — polygamy — at church  by Jana Riess, Flunking Sainthood

Utah Mormons incarcerated around 1885 for the practice of polygamy.
In the last few weeks the LDS Church has issued a series of groundbreaking statements about controversial issues in its own history, including the racist priesthood ban and controversies over Joseph Smith's methods of translating the Book of Mormon.

Among the group of "Gospel Topics" statements is a brief but refreshingly frank discussion of the Church's involvement in polygamy in the nineteenth century.

I'm glad this day has come, and here's why.

[Regarding the Priesthood / Relief Society failure to mention Brigham Young's polygamous marriages] I had to figure out a way to teach historical truth using a manual that seemed to encourage me to ignore important facts about Young's life and beliefs. Not only had he married some 55 times, but he also taught that "celestial marriage"—then defined as plural marriage—was necessary for eternal exaltation. ... denying polygamous history was embarrassingly inadequate—and, one might argue, morally wrong.

According to [former Church Historian, Elder] Jensen, such defections are precisely why the Church has created these "Gospel Topics" statements online.
Here are three things the LDS Church has officially acknowledged with its new statement on polygamy :
  • That polygamy did not fully end in 1890, when the first Manifesto was announced; plural marriages continued to be contracted on a small scale, sometimes by high-ranking Church leaders. Two decades ago Mike Quinn was excommunicated for, among other things, writing that these post-Manifesto plural marriages had occurred, so this new acknowledgment paves the way for open discussion of that era of Mormon history without fear of reprisal.
  • That Saints in the nineteenth century saw plural marriage as a commandment of God at that time. This may seem obvious, but as someone who has heard contemporary Mormons try to explain away polygamy as an entirely social and non-religious phenomenon, I appreciate the clarification.
  • That polygamy was more common than previous Church leaders' statements would lead us to expect. Plural marriage was not, as Gordon B. Hinckley once erroneously stated in an interview on Larry King Live, only practiced by a small percentage of the Mormon people. (President Hinckley said "between two and five percent of our people were involved in it"; for more on how such a mistake could occur, see this post from two years ago.) The Church's new statement is much more accurate and nuanced, tracing how the practice of polygamy changed over the decades:
Probably half of those living in Utah Territory in 1857 experienced life in a polygamous family as a husband, wife, or child at some time during their lives. By 1870, 25 to 30 percent of the population lived in polygamous households, and it appears that the percentage continued to decrease over the next 20 years.
In other words, half of those Mormons who were around at the height of plural marriage during the Mormon Reformation of 1857-58 would have lived in a polygamous family at some point during their lives—a figure that decreased sharply as polygamists faced the harsh legal repercussions in the 1870s and especially the 1880s.

Covering it up [knotty issues] is not the answer.

Pretending that the past has little or no bearing on the present is not the answer.
Hearing about controversial historical topics at church, in a safe setting, where people of faith can discuss them openly . . . that is the answer.