Criticism of Mormonism/Books/Nauvoo Polygamy/Presentism

Nauvoo Polygamy: Presentism


A work by author: George D. Smith

Presentism, at its worst, encourages a kind of moral complacency and self-congratulation. Interpreting the past in terms of present concerns usually leads us to find ourselves morally superior. . . . Our forbears constantly fail to measure up to our present-day standards.
—Lynn Hunt, “Against Presentism,” Perspectives 40/5 (May 2002) off-site

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“Presentism” is an analytical fallacy in which past behavior is evaluated by modern standards or mores. We take our twenty-first century way of think and assume that individuals living in the nineteenth century should have viewed the world the same way that we do today. This section lists some example of presentism as found in Nauvoo Polygamy.

Divorce in the nineteenth century

On the flyleaf and on page 345, we see a claim that Bishop Edwin Woolley married a plural wife without having her first divorce her legal husband. On page 333 we see that Parley P. Pratt's "last wife, Eleanor McComb McLean…was sealed to him without divorcing her legal husband, who fatally shot Parley near Van Buren, Arkansas…." The author does not note that practices regarding marriage and divorce differed substantially from the 20th or 21st century. The author also tells us nothing about McComb's tyrannical and abusive husband, making him appear the wronged party.

The age of wives

Main article: Age of wives

The book repeatedly emphasizes the ages of Joseph's younger wives. The point is made that Joseph was age 36, versus Sarah Ann Whitney at age 17. (p. ix) On page 53 we find reference to Joseph's friend "whose seventeen-year-old daughter he had just married." Page 198 states that Joseph experienced a "conflict of interests between building a church community and [Joseph's] continuing affection for young women."

The marriage of cousins in the 19th century

The author notes on page 205 that Rhoda Richards "was her husband Brigham's cousin" and that this fact "was apparently secondary to the grander scheme of interlocking the hierarchy in marriage." Later, on page 325, it is mentioned yet again that after Joseph's death, Rhoda Richards was sealed to "her cousin Brigham Young." Here the author again relies on presentism to provide a hostile interpretive lens. It was not unusual for first cousins to marry. Nineteen of the present-day states permit unrestricted marriage between first cousins, and most countries have no restrictions at all on marriage between cousins. In its exploitation of the presentist fallacy, the author’s remark is utterly irrelevant in its historical context.


The leadership structure of the 19th century Church versus that of today

Page 69 points out the John C. Bennett was "Assistant President of the Church." Modern readers should be cautious in projecting the role of the current First Presidency on Joseph's day. In the modern Church, the First Presidency is almost always composed of two apostles who have extensive experience in ecclesiastical affairs called to serve with the President. In Joseph's day, this was not the case. Most of Joseph's counselors in the First Presidency were to betray his trust, including Jesse Gause, Frederick G. Williams, Sidney Rigdon, William Law and John C. Bennett. While some of these counselors received keys, Bennett did not. None were apostles prior to their call.

Freedom of the press

On page 408 we see that Joseph arrested after the destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor for violating "freedom of the press." The author addresses Dallin H. Oaks' response to this claim by stating that "Dallin H. Oaks asserted that the 'abatement of newspapers publishing scandalous or provocative material' was not considered a violation of freedom of the press at the time….drawing no distinction between the destruction of a newspaper without a trial and a libel charge being tried in the courts." The author's "reply" to Dallin Oaks is a non sequitur. Oaks (and Firmage and Mangrum) demonstrate at length that both Illinois and U.S. law had ample precedent in case law and practice for the abatement of the Expositor.