Emma Smith often vacillated between accepting and rejecting polygamy. In our next conversation with Dr. Bill Smith we will talk about how she vacillated between these two extremes.
Bill: Like I said, she was up and down about it. At some point apparently in May 1843 she had accepted the idea at least in a limited way. Then later she becomes very negative about it. During this period when the revelation is given in July 12, 1843, she has become very, very negative about the idea.
We don’t know everything that happened with her, what she heard. She was in Relief Society, and you know how in small towns, Nauvoo was a relatively small town we would think of it so today. In that day it was a fairly large place, so you knew practically everybody and people talked about what they saw, who was doing what. So, the kind of knowledgebase that Emma had, we don’t know for sure but she probably had her finger on what was going on in the female population and the male population of Nauvoo.
According to the Bible, King David and Solomon had hundreds of wives and concubines, yet the Book of Mormons condemns this practice. How does this square with the polygamy revelation in Doctrine & Covenants 132? Dr. Bill Smith will answer questions about Biblical polygamy in just a moment.
Bill: Let me preface this by revealing to you something about how I think about scripture. My personal point of view is really colored by what I’ve read or studied or worked through in terms of scholarship of the Bible. I tend to trade on that in how I think about Mormon scripture. The main point is this: I think it’s a mistake to try to really seek for a continuity of narrative between how people did this 3,000 years ago, or how people thought about this 1,000 years ago or 2,000 years ago, or what the New Testament says about this or that.
I think that Joseph Smith saw a continuity. He makes the Old Testament elites, he turns them all into Christians, which I think is utterly interesting, remarkable and strange. There is a kind of hermeneutic that is kind of a conservative Protestant one that sort of fits in I think to how we, at least in the 20th century in the LDS Tradition have thought about scripture as being one continuous revelation. It’s all really got to be reconciled as one thing. I think that’s a mistake and not really justifiable historically.
We will also discuss how biblically literate Mormons are.
Bill: One general authority wrote to the First Presidency about his experiences with missionaries, after he had toured some missions on the east coast and said, “We have got great missionaries with testimonies, but they just don’t know anything about religion. It makes it very hard for them to interface with people who do, or who have experience in their own religions. They need to know how to deal with such people, or at least have a knowledgebase from which to go.” I think that’s kind of a controversial statement, but it is interesting that he thought we didn’t, or the missionaries didn’t have that.
GT: Yes, to me that’s not very surprising, although I would say I guess in defense of Mormons, I do think that we have a better understanding of the Bible than a lot of Protestants do.
Bill: I think that’s absolutely true, especially post-missionary people. You know you have to deal in the Bible because most of our missionaries go to Christian peoples, people who know about the New Testament, and at least through their churches or their ministers or preachers that they have heard. They know passages of the New Testament. They may have even been schooled in how to deal with Mormons. All of that is biblical.
What do think? Are LDS better or worse than Protestants or Catholics with regards to biblical literacy? Who needs more improvement?
Section 132 of the Doctrine & Covenants was given to Joseph Smith when he inquired about questions about polygamy in the Bible. Dr. Bill Smith has recently written a book that’s been out for a few weeks now on Section 132 of the Doctrine & Covenants. I’m excited to be one of the first to receive a copy and also one of the first to interview Dr. Bill Smith about his book. It’s a great book, Textual Studies of the Doctrine & Covenants: The Plural Marriage Revelation. I encourage you to go out and buy it. In the next few series of interviews, I’ll give you a little taste of the book. I asked him if the origins of polygamy were as early as 1831?
Bill: It may indeed have pieces or parts that come earlier than 1843, but as far as I argue in the book, it’s really a structure that is an 1843 structure. It’s an 1843 document, certainly by scribal accounts, it’s 1843. As far as theologically, culturally, it seems like it is an 1843 document. I don’t see too much in there beyond what has typically been said about the opening preamble of the revelation being an answer to a question about Abraham’s polygamy. I think that could be a connection to Joseph Smith’s translation to the Bible, but I don’t see that as necessary.
Bill: Going back to what I said about it being an 1843 revelation, it is clearly in its genesis a letter to Emma Smith. The entirety is a justification to Emma about to why Joseph is, and ought to be allowed to practice plural marriage and recruit other people to do so. She was up and down in terms of whether she approved of the practice, or whether she didn’t. She had a terrible mental trial as most women probably did at least to one degree or another, at least when they were introduced to the idea.
I think the whole thing is really structured as a letter to Emma Smith. Its component parts, I think you can deal with that like Denver did, a theological document, saying this is legitimate. This isn’t. But I think it is a unified whole in terms of its purpose. My opinion, and I think this is justified. I try to argue this in the book. I don’t think it was ever intended to be public.