The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, also known colloquially as the Mormon church, has unveiled in a collection of online essays (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints website), a breathtaking first-time acknowledgement of previously shadowed information that the church’s founder and prophet, Joseph Smith, had as many as 40 wives. The bolt out of the blue for some in these essays is that many of these wives were already married, some to Smith’s followers. One was as young as 14 years old. Most of Smith’s wives were age 20 to 40, the essays reports. However, he married 14-year-old Helen Mar Kimball, the daughter of close friends, several months before her 15th birthday.
These expositions on polygamy signal a new determination by the Mormon church, intentionally self-shrouded in cultic mystery, to respond to problematic historical and theological issues. Such concerns among the faithful have produced deep discomfort leading some to become disillusioned and even ultimately abandoning the faith.
The church has been no stranger to controversy. Until 1978 the church banned African-American men from being given the keys to the priesthood. Women cannot be priests and are expected to be subservient to their husbands, and gay men and lesbians are essentially personae non grata.
Members of the church are sharing on blogs and other social media that their response to the church’s exposé of Joseph Smith and his 40 wives resembles the five stages of grief as the revelation casts a shadow on previous claims. One deeply affected member lamented that this is not the church she grew up with, that this is not the rendering of the Joseph Smith that she loved.
Many Mormons, principally those with polygamous ancestors, acknowledged they were aware that Joseph Smith’s successor, Brigham Young, did practice polygamy when he guided the flock to Salt Lake City in their diaspora. But many say that until now they did not know the full truth about Smith.
The essays posted recently on the Mormon church’s website mark the first time the Utah-based church has officially recognized and accepted the facts of Smith’s plural marriage practice. The essay regarding plural marriage on the website reports, that in the early days of the Mormon movement in Ohio and Illinois, polygamy was commanded by God, revealed to Smith, and accepted by him and his followers only very reluctantly.
Only after Joseph Smith received his revelation from God did his followers begin practicing polygamy, the reportage reveals. Three years after he married his first wife, Emma, Smith took his first plural wife in 1830 in Ohio, the essay states. He and his first plural wife separated, but he renewed the practice a decade later in Illinois.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints Newsroom states unambiguously: polygamous groups and individuals in and around Utah often cause confusion for casual observers and for visiting news media. The polygamists and polygamist organizations in parts of the western United States and Canada have no affiliation with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, even though the term “Mormon,” which is widely understood to be a nickname for Latter-Day Saints, is sometimes applied to them incorrectly.
Members of the official Mormon church do not practice today the once-regarded sacred observance of Joseph Smith. Fallen away groups, who call themselves fundamentalist Mormons still do participate in the shadowy practice, including the very secretive sect of the now infamous and imprisoned Warren Jeffs on the Utah-Arizona border, where 40 wives or more may be de rigueur.
By Gary Janis
The Associated Press