Joseph Smith said his name would be known for good and evil. Boy was he right. Dr. Larry Foster thinks the truth is somewhere in the middle and dismisses both strong critics and strong apologists who don’t recognize the complexities of Joseph.
Larry: It seems clear to me after more than 40 years of studying Joseph Smith, among a number of other things, that one has to separate behavior of a prophet from the teachings of the Prophet. Brigham Young himself said, he didn’t care if Joseph Smith did all sorts of terrible things, but he was still a prophet of God. That’s what was important to him. That was in the Journal of Discourses, by the way, I’m not quoting him [directly], but I’m just giving the general gist of it.
Prophets often are a little bit excessive in various ways, including sexually. But I’d say it should not necessarily be viewed as discrediting their larger teachings. Let’s take a case that is not religious. Isaac Newton was a really weird character, really, really weird character. He was also absolutely brilliant. He developed all sorts of ideas about celestial mechanics and how the world works. He was a man who is unparalleled genius. But that doesn’t have anything to do with the validity or lack of validity of his [ideas about] celestial mechanics. I think that we would be well not to assume that one possible defect of a prophetic leader, if that’s what it was, a defect, necessarily discounts the positive accomplishments that they’ve made. Right now, we’ve just had a devastating blockbuster set of revelations on Martin Luther King Jr.’s, much wider than we had expected sexual life, and it’s really painful for many of us, who highly regarded him, but he still was a great man. He did some very important things, even if he had feet of clay in one area. I think [that if] Latter-day Saints are serious about understanding Joseph Smith, [they] need to be aware that there is this problem with his behavior toward the end of his life. Some of it is organized, and some of it can be explained. But it’s very hard, ultimately. In Section 132, he reports something to the effect that God forgives him for any sins he might have committed or might commit in the future. That’s a pretty broad thing.
What do you think about Joseph Smith? Check out our conversation….
Don’t miss our other episodes with Dr. Larry Foster.
A non-Mormon man wondered if he might be able to participate in polygamy. Helen Mar Kimball wrote a scathing response to this man while offering a strong defense of polygamy. Dr. Larry Foster discusses this interesting defense of polygamy.
Larry: There was a very interesting defense of polygamy by one of Joseph Smith’s plural wives, Helen Marr Kimball, who then became married to Whitney– Helen Mar Kimball Whitney, later, but I forget which Whitney she was married to, but she was briefly a plural wife of Joseph Smith. She wrote a defense of why we practice plural marriage. She starts with a very interesting story about a man who had written her. He described a very complicated situation in which he was unable to have sex with his wife. He loved her. He was taking care of her, but it was impossible to have sex with his wife, and he wondered if he were to become a Mormon, if it’d be acceptable for him to have another wife. She wrote back to him, chastising him and saying, “This is terrible. You’re awful.” I guess he was living in this type of relationship and he wanted to see if it could be regularized as a Mormon. And she said, “This is terrible, your great sin,” and so forth. But if it had been under the authority of the Mormon Church, it would have been okay. This is very interesting to me. She was a very thoughtful writer. She appreciated the problem that he was in, but she really gave him an earful about how he really needed to repent.
GT: It wasn’t under proper authority.
Larry: It wasn’t under proper authority, and I don’t think she ever got to the question of what would happen if he joined and tried to do it?
Larry: Brian Hales, he’s done great work by giving us a 3-volume, 1600-page collection with accurate transcripts of virtually all the stuff that relates to polygamy, pro, anti, but he interprets it wrong, ahistorically. I think his major goal is to actually argue that none of these women that were sealed to Joseph Smith, who were married to other men actually had sex with him in this life, that they were only sealed for eternity and did not have sex with him in this life. I think this has been almost definitively disproven by Michael Quinn. Michael Quinn is one of the most knowledgeable and most reliable, I think, historians of all aspects of Mormonism, especially 19th century Mormonism. He’s done a lot on the 20th century as well.
GT: Let me jump in there, because, and I’ll be a Brian Hales defender for just a moment, because I do know that he’s done at least two DNA studies with Dr. Ugo Perego.
Larry: Right, but this is about possible children by some of these women.
GT: But I know that Sylvia Sessions Lyon was one case, and he’s since changed his opinion since he wrote those books, but he was arguing with Sylvia Sessions that she was married to Brother Lyon, I can’t remember his first name–it was consecutive marriages.
Larry: It doesn’t hold up. If you look at the detail, and that’s what Michael Quinn has done, but here’s the thing about that particular case. In that particular case, she’s told her daughter.
GT: Josephine Lyon.
Larry: Josephine Lyon, just before she died, she said, “I wanted you to know this, I have kept this from you all these years, but you’re really Joseph Smith’s progeny.”
Larry: Well, then we did the DNA testing and it showed that she wasn’t.
GT: Right, she was a daughter of Brother Lyon.
Larry: Listen to this. What does the fact that she told her daughter that she was Joseph Smith’s progeny mean? She then knew that she had had sex with Joseph Smith, even if that particular example of the sex didn’t produce progeny from him. It was exceedingly controversial to have children in Nauvoo from 1841 to 1844 as a polygamist. It was illegal. It would have been totally disapproved up by most Mormons who were taught to have to be strictly monogamous and thought that was heinously sinful to have more than one marital partner, or relationship of any sort, outside of marriage. So, any children that would have been born, would have been covered up. I know we have some examples of how that happened.
Mormons, Shakers, and the Oneida Community all were founded in the 19th century and had unusual marriage practices. Of course, Mormons adopted polygamy, but Shakers were celibate and the Oneida community banned marriage but allowed sexual relations among the entire group. Dr. Larry Foster has studied so three groups and we will get to know the Shakers and Oneida community and learn more about them.
Larry : The Shakers were much more widespread than people realize. They were the most successful, fully communal group from that period in American history. They continued to exist, almost up to the present. There still are, I think, one or two or three people. It’s just a handful now. But they depended, of course, on converts. So, they lasted for over 200 years, which is darn good time for—it’s just like a monastic order, except the problem with the Shakers is they didn’t have any church to give them monks or nuns to become celibate. So, when they couldn’t get as many converts, after about 1830 or 1840, they gradually began to decline. But there were over 1,000 Shakers in the United States as late as 1900. They’ve continued to have some really, really bright people in the group down to the very end, really out at the very end, I think now, unless something very unusual happens.
The Oneida community, of course, only lasted for about 32 years with its system at Oneida, altogether less than that if you count the sexual system was ended before the community was disbanded. But that’s a long time to have people living a complicated arrangement in which you have multiple partners and you break up exclusive relationships and you have communal childcare, and you have much more equality for women, participation of women in all sorts of areas, in leadership roles and other sorts of things. After the community at Oneida officially ended in January 1st of 1881, they reorganized as a joint stock Corporation and eventually began to produce the silverware that they became famous with under one of John Humphrey Noyes’ sons Pierpont Noyes, who was head of the Oneida company for about 50 years, into the 1950s. They were the most effective of both silverware and flatware producing company in the United States at that point. Then later, the company got taken over by outsiders, and they followed modern business practices, which was to sort of try to rip off the public and then get higher, fantastically higher salaries for the executives, even when they were destroying the company. So, it’s now gone bankrupt twice, and it’s totally unconnected with the Oneida community, although, it is still being produced, I guess, by Chinese. They are doing production of the silverware, the flatware.
We will also learn more about the Oneida Community’s unusual and effective practice of birth control.
GT: So the Oneida community was small. We were trying to talk about whether they influenced Joseph Smith.
Larry: They did not influence Joseph Smith, but when the Mormons were being attacked in the 1850s, the Oneida Community was attacked in the early 1850s. But Oneida was smaller, only 300 people all together at the max and about equal men and women. For over for 21 years, they tried to avoid having any children. In effect, they had a system of birth control. This is really weird. I know, people don’t believe it could work. But it did. A system that was technically called Coitus reservatus, that is a man and a woman would engage in sex, but the man would never ejaculate either during or after intercourse. This was the way, the only method that they used for birth control. It was extraordinarily effective under the conditions at Oneida, which were anything but totally free. They estimated that there were only 31 births during this 21-year period from 1848 until 1869, when they started a systematic effort to have children. Only 12 of them were supposedly accidental, according to the community’s records. That’s an astounding record that I don’t think you’ve could even beat on the pill, probably, with that number of people. So, it was effectively introduced and now there’s certain groups that talk about this as a better way to have sex. I don’t think it’s caught on because basically, the man simply had to learn not to get too excited in intercourse and ejaculate. According to the Kinsey report in the 1950’s, or 40’s, I forget, he had a three-page [explanation] on this practice, which he said, men could reach orgasm under without ejaculating. So, the whole thing is really weird stuff. But I mean, they experimented with a lot of different sexual practices that even people who think they’re sophisticated probably have no idea about that.
Check out our conversation….
Don’t miss our other conversations with Dr. Foster!