What is the best explanation for polygamy from a non-Mormon view? Dr. Larry Foster from Georgia Tech gives his best explanation for the practice.
Larry: So it wasn’t like God suddenly said, “You should start polygamy.” Joseph Smith asks God, according to the revelation that was written, recorded in 1843 that is now section 132 of the Utah Mormon Doctrine and Covenants, he asks, “Why did you allow the Hebrew patriarchs like Abraham, Solomon, and David and all these other people to have plural wives?” Then God tells him, “It’s time to reintroduce the system in a different form in preparation for the millennium.” That’s reading a few extra things into it.
Then similarly, the argument that he was just mentally disturbed, there’s some definite possibilities there, but you have to ask, is there an assumption that anybody who would think that they wanted to introduce polygamy would automatically have to be mentally disturbed? Then you’d have to say, “Well, all those people in the Bible were mentally disturbed.” I don’t think that that would hold up.
But I do think that there are some definite psychological peculiarities about Joseph Smith that I’ve argued–several different interpretations that might work to try to help explain how unusual psychology and narcissistic and possibly bipolar manic depressive tendencies might have contributed in sort of encouraging him to move toward polygamy, and maybe sincerely believe it was God’s will, but mainly, might have been his own desires that were sort of feeding back into, “It’s coming from God,” sort of thing.
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!
As we conclude our discussion of black Mormon pioneer Jane Manning James, we will talk about this question: what role does race play in LDS Theology? Many black church members have been told they will be white in the resurrection. Is our theology an example of white supremacy? Dr. Quincy Newell will answer these questions.
Quincy: [Jane] was well respected in the community, in part because of her relationship to Joseph Smith. She was one of the last people alive, who had known him in person, and so she was sought out for her memories of the Prophet. And Joseph F. Smith spoke at her funeral. She was she was celebrated and lauded as an upstanding member of the community, well-respected and to be missed. But, at the same time, one account of the funeral said that Joseph F. Smith talked about how she would receive all of her wishes in heaven, and that she would have a white and glorified body. And that’s not an exact quote, but he did say she would be white.
And, there’s a really interesting aspect to imagining that scene. If you think about Joseph F. Smith standing in front of a congregation that includes a lot of black faces, and talking about how Jane, this respected black woman in the community is going to be white in heaven, that’s all kinds of problematic.
GT: And I know a lot of people are going to have a hard time with that. Because they’re like, “Well, that’s not racist.”
Quincy: No, but that’s racist.
GT: Oh, I know it is. I know I’m going to get comments on that. But anyway, even as late as 1978, I remember President Kimball, who we all laud for this wonderful [revelation], talked about Indians who would become a white and delightsome people. And I know he said that with the best of intentions. And it’s hard, I think, especially for really Orthodox people to say that’s a racist statement. But it’s a racist statement. And so it’s hard because I know a lot of black people, Indians, whatever nationality, have had to deal with this. I hate to call it white supremacy.
Quincy: It’s white supremacy.
GT: But that’s what it is.
Quincy: Yeah, it is.
GT: And so what can we say to people to get them to understand that that really is racist theology?
Quincy: Not being an LDS theologian, that is a challenging question for me to answer. So I think there are Mormon theologians who are far more able to address this question than I. But I guess I would start with the idea that the Bible says we are all made in God’s image. I was raised as a Protestant. And so, I think of God as beyond gender, beyond race, not having either one of those characteristics. I know for Mormons, that’s different. But I think that you have to start with the question of, why is the default image of God, an old white guy? Right?
Check out our conversation….
Don’t miss out other conversations with Dr. Quincy Newell!