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….
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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….
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I’m excited to have a non-Mormon polygamy expert on the show.
Larry: I’m Dr. Larry Foster. I’m a professor at Georgia Tech. I’m sort of an oddball at Georgia Tech because I’m probably the only professor who teaches courses in religion regularly. People also wonder why a non-Mormon like myself would have spent at least four decades–more than that really, studying the Latter-day Saints without converting, why not convert? Or non-Mormons saying, “You must know all the dirt? Why aren’t you an anti-Mormon?” So, I’ve actually written a couple of scholarly articles explaining that. I’ll try to explain some of that to you today, if you would like.
GT: That was my first question was, why would a non-Mormon be so interested in Mormonism?
Larry: Yeah, well, it’s sort of a backdoor route. I went to a very liberal, experimental college–Antioch College in southern Ohio in the late 1960s, which was a very turbulent period, as I think most of you remember: the Vietnam War protests, civil rights protests, other sorts of things going on. I thought I was fairly liberal when I went to Antioch, but I decided that I was the last living conservative on earth when I was at Antioch.
But when I was getting ready to do my undergraduate thesis in history, I decided to try and see if there were any other periods in history, when there had been similar sorts of tensions and confusions. I’d seen lots of people experimenting with alternative communal arrangements and read about them and visited different places. My hobby is to just visit new and alternative religious groups and see what they’re like, and so forth. I wondered if there was any other period when things were as turbulent and how they had handled them. I discovered there was a period that was very similar to the 1960s, surprisingly. It was before the American Civil War, in the 1830’s and 1840’s and especially in New York State. New York State was sort of the California of that period of almost anything you could find in present-day-California, you could find in New York State in the 1830’s and 40’s. It was a hotbed of all sorts of religious and political and social experimentation. I decided to look at two groups in that area that was sometimes called the Burned Over District because of so much revivalistic fervor burning over the area repeatedly. So I took two groups that I thought were polar opposites:
The Shakers who were a celibate, Protestant semi-monastic group that basically prohibited sexual intercourse among its members and lived in separate communities apart from the rest of the society, and the Oneida community in Central New York State, which developed a system of complex marriage, in which they argued that all adult members of the community were heterosexually married to each other and could exchange sexual partners within a very complex system of controls that they actually had to make sure that they didn’t–nobody got too excited about any one person formed exclusive relations. Here’s two complete opposites. Shakers are celibate. The Oneida community says, “Go to it for everybody.”
GT: Polyamorous, would that be the way to describe it?
Larry: No, I wouldn’t call it that. It’s much more controlled than polyamorous.
We talk more about all three groups. It was really interesting to see him compare the 1830s to the 1960s! Check out our conversation…
We’ll be talking about polygamy all month! You may want to bone up on our previous conversations with Brian Hales!