Thursday, June 28, 2012

Jacob and Section 132

Through Joseph Smith we have two scriptural sources dealing with plural wives. Jacob 2, in the Book of Mormon condemns the practice as "an abomination," but leaves it open to be practiced if the Lord commands. The reason the Lord would command is to "raise up seed unto [Him]."

Section 132, beginning at verse 29, discusses why earlier prophets took more than one wife. It "permits" taking more than one wife under two conditions. But Section 132 should be read in light of what Jacob taught regarding the limitations and purpose of having more than one wife.

Before carefully examining the scriptures, a bit of history is necessary. Joseph first learned about the subject during the translation of Jacob sometime in 1829. Oliver was with him when the answer was first received. Therefore, at least two people knew about the subject as early as 1829.

As the earlier post on William Clayton's Journal shows, Joseph did not put the revelation into writing until July 1843. Between 1829 and 1843, any explanation by Joseph (or Oliver) would have been verbal, private, and not necessarily understood properly, recorded correctly, or practiced openly. In other words, whatever happened between 1829 and 1843 is bound to be extremely difficult to accurately recreate. Those involved were trying to cover it up, and make it difficult and hopefully impossible to know it took place. They did not want it public.

Moreover, not everyone who was taken into confidence by Joseph was trustworthy, or honorable. Some men were predisposed to exploitation of vulnerable women. John C. Bennett, for example, was a sexual predator before coming to Nauvoo. When he became the Mayor and a member of the First Presidency, he learned about these unrecorded teachings and began to behave in a contemptable manner.

John Bennett would later publish salacious details of sexual misconduct in Nauvoo, attributing to Joseph some of his (Bennett's) own conduct. Some of what Bennett wrote was true (i.e., private taking of multiple wives) and some of it was sensational, untrue, and was a reflection of his own behavior projected onto others, most notably Joseph Smith.

The Bennett expose of Nauvoo underground sexual practices acquired increased credibility years later when Brigham Young began to openly practice and advocate taking plural wives. Some people who had not believed Bennett at first, changed their minds and took him as a credible source once the public revelation of plural marriage became international news.

Section 132 was not revealed publicly in 1843. When it was finally made public, it also seemed to vindicate Bennett's accusations about Nauvoo private behavior. The revelation was attributed (I think correctly) to Joseph Smith, and therefore it established a religious basis for the Bennett accusations stemming directly from Joseph.

In addition to Bennett, others also knew of the private taking of additional wives. The most vocal parties with inside information were critics of Joseph Smith who left the church. These disaffected former Mormons had little reason to tell an accurate story. They were trying to discredit the church, not to defend it. Even if they attempted to be "fair" in retelling what they knew, their accounts are colored by:
-Disaffection for Joseph Smith.
-Hostility to the religion.
-Questions about whether or not they fully understood the matter.
-Issues about how "hidden" and "secret" practices were explained.
-Their attempts to make themselves appear more moral than their private conduct actually reflected.

All of this strongly suggests to me that the words of Jacob and Section 132 need to be carefully studied, and the history of how the practice was conducted by the few who knew what was happening must be taken with some careful skepticism about its accuracy.

When characters like John Bennett and William Law were involved in seducing women and claiming there was a secret teaching allowing "spiritual wives" because Joseph Smith had actually discussed the principle with them, it becomes apparent that whatever Section 132 permits or does not permit, the principle can be abused. It was abused by these men, and other insiders. Joseph's public statements condemning adultery, and denouncing polygamy can be reconciled with Section 132. But to reconcile it all requires some knowledge about these events. It also requires recognition that the neat, tidy history that ignores these rather messy interpersonal conflicts and betrayals of trust is inadequate.

Plural wives is as unpleasant a topic as you encounter in our religion. However, its unpleasantness does not detract from the importance of sorting it out. Given the various conflicting charges and countercharges, it is a relief to just accept a superficial account and hope it is true. That applies to BOTH sides. BOTH those who reject the practice, as well as those who welcome it, need to be willing to sort through it and reach the correct conclusion.

Just because the fundamentalists have recognized more of the truth about the history does not mean they have sorted it out aright, nor that they are living a "higher" law. It may mean they are just as wrong about their conclusions as they think the church is for abandoning the practice.

I've taken the topic seriously. I've accorded the advocates' arguments respect. I think they are wrong. As I continue this discussion I'm hoping some of them may be persuaded there is still some of the story they haven't yet sorted out correctly.

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