Joseph Smith/Polygamy/Youthful struggle with unchastity
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Some critics charge that Joseph Smith had youthful struggles with immoral actions. They claim that these are what eventually led him to teach the doctrine of plural marriage.
Note: This wiki section was based partly on a review of G.D. Smith's Nauvoo Polygamy. As such, it focuses on that author's presentation of the data. To read the full review, follow the link. Gregory L. Smith, A review of Nauvoo Polygamy:...but we called it celestial marriage by George D. Smith. FARMS Review, Vol. 20, Issue 2. (Detailed book review)
There is no evidence from Joseph's early writings that he struggled over much with immoral thoughts or behavior. Such an interpretation results on twisting the text, ignoring alternate possibilities, and ignoring Joseph's direct explanation of what he meant by the words which the critics twist. That they can produce nothing better strongly suggests that no evidence exists for their claim.
G. D. Smith clearly follows the Brodie tradition in painting Joseph as motivated by sexual needs. He assures us that “an examination of Smith’s adolescence from his personal writings reveals some patterns and events that might be significant in understanding what precipitated his polygamous inclination” (pp. 15–16). The reader is advised to buckle her seatbelt and put on a Freud hat.
Joseph, we are told, claims that “he confronted some uncertain feelings he later termed ‘sinful’ [a]t a time when boys begin to experience puberty” (p. 17). G. D. Smith argues that this “leav[es] us to suspect that he was referring to the curious thoughts of an intense teenager” (p. 17). G. D. Smith presumes that Joseph’s later “cryptic words” describing how he “fell into transgression and sinned in many things” refer to sex.
As Sigmund Freud demonstrated, any narrative can be sexualized. In this case, the only evidence for a sexual component to Joseph’s sins is G. D. Smith’s presumption and mind reading.
He presumes that the Book of Mormon reflects Joseph’s mind and preoccupations, suggesting that “an elaboration might be found in the Book of Mormon expressions about ‘the will of the flesh and the evil which is therein’ (2 Nephi 2:29)” (p. 17). Or it might not. The Book of Mormon reference to “the will of the flesh” can hardly be restricted to sexual matters. Nephi1 notes that if he errs in what he writes, “even did they err of old; not that I would excuse myself because of other men, but because of the weakness which is in me, according to the flesh, I would excuse myself” (1 Nephi 19:6). Surely this does not imply that Nephi’s mistakes in record keeping stem from sexual sin. “By the law,” we find in the chapter cited by Smith, “no flesh is justified . . . , no flesh . . . can dwell in presence of God, save it be through the merits, and mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah” (2 Nephi 2:4, 8). Clearly, “flesh” refers to unregenerate man, not specifically or merely to sexual sin.
The King James Bible, which inspired Book of Mormon language, likewise describes a Christian’s rebirth as son of Christ as “not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:13). Clearly, the “will of the flesh” does not refer only to sexual desire, but to any carnality of the “natural man,” who is an “enemy to God” (Mosiah 3:19; 16:5). Such usage has a venerable history in Christianity; it is difficult to imagine that G. D. Smith could be unaware of this.
G. D. Smith notes that Joseph admitted to being guilty of “vices and follies” and concludes, after an exegesis from Webster’s American Dictionary, that this phrase implied “sins great and small, which conceivably involved sex but were not limited to it” (pp. 17–18). His treatment of Webster is less than forthright. He quotes Webster’s second definition of vice as “‘every act of intemperance, all falsehood, duplicity, deception, lewdness and the like’ as well as ‘the excessive indulgence of passions and appetites which in themselves are innocent’” (p. 17). The first definition, however, reads simply “a spot or defect; a fault; a blemish.” Smith likewise characterizes folly as “an absurd act which is highly sinful; and conduct contrary to the laws of God or man; sin; scandalous crimes; that which violates moral precepts and dishonours the offender” (pp. 17–18). Yet, again, Smith has ignored an earlier definition in Webster, which describes vice as merely “a weak or absurd act not highly criminal; an act which is inconsistent with the dictates of reason, or with the ordinary rules of prudence. . . . Hence we speak of the follies of youth.”
For Smith’s interpretation to be viable, we must accept that in his personal histories Joseph was admitting serious or gross moral lapses. Yet there are other contemporary definitions for the terms that Joseph used—especially as applied to youth—that connote only relatively minor imperfections. Nonetheless, this dubious argument is the “evidence” that G. D. Smith adduces from Joseph’s personal writings.
It is a pity that G. D. Smith did not go further in analyzing Joseph’s histories. The 1838 account makes the Prophet’s intent transparent:
- I frequently fell into many foolish errors, and displayed the weakness of youth, and the foibles of human nature; which, I am sorry to say, led me into divers temptations, offensive in the sight of God. In making this confession, no one need suppose me guilty of any great or malignant sins. A disposition to commit such was never in my nature. But I was guilty of levity, and sometimes associated with jovial company, etc., not consistent with that character which ought to be maintained by one who was called of God as I had been.
Joseph explicitly blocks the interpretation that G. D. Smith wishes to advance. Why ought we to accept Joseph’s 1832 witness—as warped by G. D. Smith’s interpretive lens—as useful evidence while ignoring an alternative explanation supported by Joseph’s other statements? G. D. Smith all but concedes this point two pages later, when he cites Joseph’s characterization of his “vices and folleys” as including “a light, and too often vain mind, exhibiting a foolish and trifling conversation” (p. 20). If this is so, why attempt to sexualize Joseph’s admitted imperfections? But within a few pages it has become for G. D. Smith an established fact that “another revelation, almost seeming to recall [Joseph] Smith’s teenage concerns about sinful thoughts and behavior, reiterated . . . ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery; and he that commiteth adultery, and repenteth not, shall be cast out’ (D&C 42:24)” (p. 49). But such an analysis depends entirely on what G. D. Smith has failed to do—establish that the teenage Joseph struggled with sexually sinful thoughts and behavior.
G. D. Smith’s other evidence from Joseph’s teen years consists in a brief reference to the Hurlbut-Howe affidavits. Here again Smith simply cites works from the Signature stable of writers, with no gesture to source criticism or acknowledgment of the problematic elements in these later, hostile accounts.
- [note] G. D. Smith cites Joseph’s 1832 account from Dean C. Jessee (editor), The Papers of Joseph Smith: Autobiographical and Historical Writings (Vol. 1 of 2) (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Company, 1989), 1:1–6. ISBN 0875791999
- [note] Noah Webster, An American Dictionary of the English Language (New York: S. Converse, 1828), s.v. "vice."
- [note] Noah Webster, An American Dictionary of the English Language (New York: S. Converse, 1828), s.v. "folly."
- [note] JS-H 1:28 (emphasis added)
- [note] G. D. Smith cites Rodger I. Anderson, Joseph Smith’s New York Reputation Reexamined (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1990); Richard S. Van Wagoner, Sidney Rigdon: A Portrait of Religious Excess (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1994); Dan Vogel, ed., Early Mormon Documents, 5 vols. (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1996–2003); Dan Vogel, Joseph Smith: The Making of a Prophet (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2004); and Eber D. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed (Painesville [Ohio]; Ann Arbor, Michigan: printed and published by the author, 1834). There is no mention of or interaction with such critiques as Hugh W. Nibley, The Myth Makers (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1961); Nibley, Tinkling Cymbals and Sounding Brass; Richard L. Anderson, “The Reliability of the Early History of Lucy and Joseph Smith,” Dialogue 4 (Summer 1969): 15–16; Anderson, “Joseph Smith’s New York Reputation Reappraised,” BYU Studies 10:3 (1970): 283–314; Anderson, “The Mature Joseph Smith and Treasure Searching,” BYU Studies 24 (Fall 1984): 492–94; Anderson, review of Joseph Smith’s New York Reputation Reexamined, by Rodger I. Anderson,” FARMS Review of Books 3/1 (1991): 52–80; and Thomas G. Alexander, review of Early Mormon Documents, Vol. 2, ed. Dan Vogel, Journal of Mormon History 26/2 (Fall 2000): 248–52.