I have recently finished reading an in-depth analysis of the history of the practice of polygamy by the LDS Church. The analysis by Gregory L. Smith, MD (an astute amateur historian) was posted on the LDS Fair website at the end of November. It has taken me a long time to read it because I have read it in small chunks (the PDF version of the paper is 65 pages long). Some might find it dry, but I found it fascinating. Though Smith is admittedly an amateur, his paper rivals any PhD-generated material I have read on the subject.
Smith is open about the fact that he is writing from an apologetic standpoint. He states that he is attempting to answer the most common criticisms of the church’s involvement with polygamy. While the framework of his deeply researched analysis is historical, Smith analyzes the matter on legal, social, theological, and ethical bases as well. He tries to get the reader inside of the heads of church leaders and members involved in the matter.
Smith is not simply writing to critics, but also to Mormons. He suggests that few Mormons today understand the matter well due to their lack of understanding of the history and the many facets of the social setting of the era. As a lifelong member of the LDS Church, I thought I had a decent grasp of it, but I discovered many holes in my knowledge while reading the paper.
One of the main charges Smith seeks to blunt is the criticism of institutional lying about polygamy by church leaders and members. He painstakingly and methodically walks the user through the various facets of the matter so that the reader can ultimately come to a mental and emotional understanding of why the saints acted as they did. Smith classes most of the false statements as civil disobedience and choosing the least bad of the available options.
Smith works to help the reader understand that members of the church literally believed the practice of polygamy to be a commandment from God. They believed the U.S. government to be acting antithetical to moral laws and that, therefore, it was not only not wrong to lie to the government – it was a moral duty. He parallels this with good Dutch people lying to officials about hiding Jews during WWII. He also works to help the reader understand that the saints saw government oppression as war – legislative at first, to be sure – but later followed by police actions that rival some of the fascist actions against Jews in 1930s and ‘40s Europe. There was a very real threat of military action, which was even debated multiple times in Congress. The implication is that the ninth commandment to not bear false witness is abrogated during a time of war when deception becomes a higher moral duty to achieve a greater good.
For me, the three most interesting sections of Smith’s paper are his discussion of the practice of polygamy after the 1890 Manifesto, the legal fallout from the unparalleled persecution of the saints that all citizens of the U.S. are still dealing with today, and his personal beliefs as to why the church practiced polygamy. I also enjoyed Smith’s treatment of the purpose of the 1890 Manifesto and how it was and is interpreted differently by church leaders and members at that time, the government and the public at that time, and members of the church today.
I highly recommend the reading of Smith’s paper for anyone that is truly interested in developing a better understanding of the LDS Church’s practice of polygamy. Be aware that this is not light reading, but it can be enlightening reading.