One of the thorniest issues in the LDS Church is justifying the past practice of polygamy. In fact, there are 3 Gospel Topics essays devoted to the topic. Dr. Newell Bringhurst and Dr. Matt Harris will critique these essays and tell us the strengths and weaknesses of the essays.
Newell: Gary Bergera wrote the first of the three [polygamy] essays, which deals with Joseph Smith and the origins of polygamy and critiques the way in which the Topics essay on Joseph Smith and polygamy dealt with that issue, and it’s a very balanced essay, I must say. I think all three of our essays, including George Smith’s, as well as my own and Gary’s, we’ve tried to carefully point out the strengths of the essays, the respective essays, as well as the shortcomings.
Gary gives credit to the essay for its frankness, and pointing out Joseph Smith’s controversial nature of marrying younger women, of the polyandry, that is, Joseph Smith marrying women who are already married to other men, as well as concealing the practice from Emma Smith, in the early stages. So, he gives [credit]– but the thing that he really hits hardest on is the selective use of documents in writing the Gospel Topics essays, that the author or authors of the Gospel Topics essays, downplay sources, that are not only unfavorable, but more contemporary to the practice of polygamy during the lifetime of Joseph Smith. One of the real problems with documenting Joseph Smith in the practice of polygamy, is the lack of contemporary documentation for the time that Joseph Smith lived, when polygamy was being practiced. So, the great reliance is on secondary sources and the few primary sources that are available concurrent with the time of Joseph Smith, tend to be critical because throughout his ministry, Joseph Smith continually denied that polygamy was being practiced, saying “No, it’s not being practiced.”
So, that was the real trick is how to handle the documentation. He gets into the issue of memory and selective use of documentation and so on. The thing he really hits the hardest on is two issues: number one, Gary is very critical of the fact that the essay continually emphasized Joseph Smith as a reluctant polygamist, as this guy, that was– there was the angel, holding a sword over his head, commanding him to practice polygamy, and that this guy was really, he just really was repulsed by the idea that– and he [Gary] says that just doesn’t ring quite true. He says there was a deliberately playing down of Joseph Smith, the sexuality, the idea that polygamy was a means of multiplying and replenishing the chosen seed and so on. The other thing he’s critical of, is the downplaying of the theological underpinnings, based on the use of D&C 132. He’s also critical of the fact that some of the most important books are not even cited in the Gospel Topics essay, particularly Lawrence Foster’s Religion and Sexuality, George Smith’s book, Nauvoo Polygamy: But We Called It Plural Marriage or polygamy.
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