I have been asked about Joseph's practice of plural marriage many times in my life, and most people who asked wanted the answer to be simple and concise. I have not been able to give them that kind of answer, as I believe it was complicated, evolving and impossible to stereotype or describe in simple terms. The following is my attempt to summarize my view as succinctly as possible - acknowledging that it only scratches the surface of how I view this issue:
1) Joseph instituted and practiced "plural marriage". The LDS Church states that openly in its manuals, and the evidence is over-whelming.
Joseph didn't institute or practice polygamy as it was lived under
Brigham Young and as it is understood by almost everyone today when that word
is used, and that also is indisputable. He didn't live with multiple
women, splitting his time with them. He didn't have traditional
marriages with them, in which children were born and supported. There
are allegations that he might have fathered as many as three children
with women other than Emma, but there is no proof of that - and some of
the previous allegations have been dismissed. It's an open question
still, but so is just about any other unprovable allegation, so I don't
see it as a productive discussion, personally. He was sealed to already
married women. He allowed women to be sealed to multiple men. At the
last stages of his life, he seemed to be focused exclusively on dynastic
and communal sealings, rather than the earliest moves into polygamy.
Joseph experimented with multiple forms of marriage / sealing
arrangements. That also is indisputable. Emma denied everything until
the day she died, but Joseph absolutely wasn't constrained by the social
morals of his time with regard to marriage arrangements. Personally, I
believe he saw the next life very differently than his followers and
others and was trying to approximate his view in this life - and I also
believe he was a highly physical, charismatic man who liked and was
attracted to women.
4) Joseph was sealed to a very few young
teenagers (only three under the age of 17), and they receive the focus of most discussions, but he also
was sealed to far more older women who were not "temptations" in a
physical way (with three being over 50). His "marriages" defy typical patterns, and I believe they
reflect his evolving view of marriage and, even more importantly,
sealing much more than anything else.
5) There is no evidence
that there was a sexual component with any particular type of woman to
whom he was sealed - but there is evidence that such a component
was more prevalent in the earlier sealings than in the later ones. I
also see that as a manifestation of his evolving views.
believe Brigham Young didn't share Joseph's personality or "vision" of
the next life in ways that are specific to plural marriage and community
sealing, so he instituted the model he understood - the traditional
structure of classic polygamy.
7) I loathe coercion of just
about any variety, and that feeling is most intense when sex is part of
it. I don't like the angel-with-a-sword accounts, whether Joseph
believed them or not (and I'm not convinced at all that he made them up, since I can
believe he believed them without believing they came from God). I
don't believe all "visions" are good or of God, and I believe the issues
surrounding all of this might be one major reason he was told that his
name would be had for good and evil.
8) I love Joseph and
admire him greatly, but I don't believe he was infallible - and I
believe when he made mistakes, they tended to mirror his great
9) I believe people can love multiple spouses
deeply and equally, and that simple fact alone keeps me from dismissing
or rejecting the concept of some kind of plural marriage arrangements in
this life and the next - for those people who would choose such arrangements. I also know enough of history to know of
situations where catastrophe decimated male populations and gave rise to
polygamy - and, while that is NOT the case in our modern Mormon
history, those situations also keep me from condemning plural marriage
arrangements in totality.
That's my short version.
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