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[Note: this post has been edited to improve clarity and typography.]

In a recent NPR article concerning John Dehlin, a number of incorrect statements were made, and this post addresses some of them.

Article: “Dehlin is charged with apostasy for publicly supporting same-sex marriage, the ordination of women, and for questioning church doctrine.”

This seems to be the story he is promoting, but also appears to be misleading. Dehlin has promoted the idea that issues regarding same-sex marriage and women’s ordination were a main reason for his discipline; however, his Stake President’s view, as demonstrated in the correspondence which Dehlin eventually and quietly released, suggests these are not the issues that have resulted in discipline:

“Thank you for sending the letter from you and Margi. I fear that in my willingness to engage in a discussion on all of the issues that you chose to address during our lengthy conversations, the direction of my true concerns may have not been clear. As the letter I gave you states, I am focused on five core doctrines of the Church: (1) The existence and nature of God; (2) Christ being the literal Savior of the World and his Atonement being absolutely necessary to our salvation;(3) the exclusive priesthood authority restored through the Church; (4) The Book of Mormon as scripture and the revealed word of God; and (5) the governance of the Church by doctrine and revelation through inspired leaders.”

I’ve written previously about the process by which Dehlin promoted this particular narrative while simultaneously attempting to deflect blame for it. So I won’t focus on this here except to say I don’t think his LGBT and OW concerns contributed significantly to his being scheduled for a disciplinary hearing.

In the article he goes on to talk about some of his alleged concerns, which on this occasion focus on polygamy: “Like the fact that he married more than 30 women,” Dehlin says. “Many of them were teenagers, one as young as 14. Many of them were other men’s wives, who, you know, were still living.”

It’s relatively well-known that members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints practiced an unusual form of marriage early in the church’s history in which marriage of a man to more than one woman was for a time authorized. Plural marriage as a practice has existed throughout history in various parts of the world and still persists in a variety of cultures. However, it is often perceived as alien and unfamiliar by those who live in areas where it is not practiced or condoned. The key statement of the theology underlying the practice among Latter-day Saints is Doctrine and Covenants 132, in which Joseph Smith is commanded to practice this principle and institute it among the Saints. Joseph Smith was sealed (a religious ceremony having, among others, the purpose of allowing the participants to engage in a relationship that continues after death) to a number of women. While some of the sealings were stipulated to be for “eternity only” meaning that the relationship which was contracted would be of force only after mortal life, others were for both time and eternity, meaning that the relationship was for both this life and for the next. These “time and eternity” relationships carried the possibility of conjugal relations, though evidence shows they did not always occur. A number of children have been proposed as possible offspring; however, no DNA evidence has linked them to Joseph, and in fact has conclusively excluded the majority of them. Even the most likely offspring, Josephine Lyons produced inconclusive results, though existing historical evidence is supportive of the possibility. The fact that out of these approximately thirty marriages only one possible child with surviving posterity has been identified suggests that conjugality was not the highest practical concern or priority in these relationships. Richard Bushman in his landmark biography of Joseph Smith states that “Like Abraham of old, Joseph yearned for familial plentitude. He did not lust for women so much as he lusted for kin.” [1]

Dehlin mentions two particular concerns: sealing to young wives and sealings to those who also had a living civil husband. However, despite being aware of the research on these topics, the limited information that he gives insinuates that they were problematic in ways that the evidence does not support.

Teenage wives were not uncommon in the period and many women were married at 16. While marriages at 14 would have been “eyebrow raising” in the words of a notable scholar of polygamy, they would not “be considered scandalous in the 1840s” [2]. Plural marriage on the other hand was much more culturally surprising, and many initially rejected it before being persuaded to enter into such relationships by divine manifestations. Nevertheless, one may reasonably suppose that Dehlin’s purpose in bringing this up isn’t so much to question the sociological acceptability of various ages being married during the 19th century in frontier America as to offend modern sensibilities about what appropriate relationships entail. His comment is designed to imply that Joseph Smith contracted a relationship with a 14 year old—Helen Mar Kimball—for the purpose of sexual relations. The evidence, if he were to present it honestly, greatly complicates this viewpoint. First, it wasn’t Joseph who arranged the marriage but rather Heber C. Kimball, the girl’s father, who suggested the union. Second, the balance of the evidence is that the marriage wasn’t consummated, and the historical record shows that she was somewhat disappointed with the situation of not being able to socialize as a single person despite still living with her family. Third, Utah practice, which may very well have been influenced by Joseph Smith’s practice of plural marriage typically insisted on waiting until those married at a younger age were mature before allowing conjugal relations to occur. This was particularly true in plural relationships where a young bride was not the only person with whom the husband might rightly experience such relations. A much more complete discussion of the evidence concerning young brides is available at josephsmithspolygamy.org, and most of my discussion here follows and attempts to summarize Brian Hales’ more complete materials

Dehlin’s second accusation was that of the women that Joseph Smith was sealed to “Many of them were other men’s wives, who, you know, were still living.” The accusation here is that Joseph either stole someone’s wife or was engaged in some sort of unrestrained sexual experiment such as Dehlin stated took place at some Mormon Stories conferences. As to the actual accusation, however, the answer is the evidence is against polyandry (a woman with more than one man to whom she has recognized legitimate sexual access). A majority of the relationships appear to have been for eternity only. Others happened after the prior husband had separated from their wife and the wife was considered eligible for marriage—a “church divorce” type scenario.

In the cases where there was a living husband, the evidence is against these relationships allowing Joseph conjugality with these women. The fact that neither the husbands nor the wives in these cases raised any objection to the relationship seems to strongly suggest that they didn’t mind whatever was going on, and that would not be consistent with normal 19th century attitudes if sexual access were being permitted. Thus the relationship in many of these cases seems to be one of the current husband being the functional husband for mortality, and the couple remaining together for time, but the wives exercising their prerogative to be with Joseph in eternity.

In the cases where the husband had left the wife, the sealing was considered to have superseded the abandoned civil marriage, and the previous marriage was considered void. At the end of the day, there is no unambiguous evidence supporting multiple simultaneous husbands being recognized as legitimate sexual partners.

The evidence and history surrounding alleged polyandrous relations is again reviewed well on Brian Hales’ website.

Notwithstanding Dehlin’s talking point containing a seriously misleading characterization of Joseph Smith’s practice of plural marriage, it remains a challenging subject to understand and relate to for many individuals, especially given that most members of the Church come from cultures where it is not practiced or condoned. For those who are interested in learning more about this difficult practice I highly recommend the Church’s own treatment of the topic at the following links:
https://www.lds.org/topics/plural-marriage-in-kirtland-and-nauvoo?lang=eng
https://www.lds.org/topics/plural-marriage-and-families-in-early-utah?lang=eng
https://www.lds.org/topics/the-manifesto-and-the-end-of-plural-marriage?lang=eng
https://www.lds.org/topics/plural-marriage-in-the-church-of-jesus-christ-of-latter-day-saints?lang=eng

For those who have ongoing questions about this or other difficult Mormon topics, I would highly recommend FairMormon’s question service where you can ask difficult questions to a panel of experts who have knowledge on nearly all difficult aspects of Church History. I have found these to be a useful resource in the past.

Continuing with the content of the NPR article, it states concerning Dehlin: “And beyond that, he has doubts about the foundational scriptural texts for Mormons, The Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham. “‘I discovered that there’s a mountain of evidence that indicates that they’re 19th century documents and not anything necessarily directly of God. And so that’s led me to not be able to believe everything the church teaches.'”

I have already addressed his comments made elsewhere on the Book of Mormon, and there is little enough variety in his talking points that the same post basically responds to these comments as well.

 

[1] Rough Stone Rolling, pg. 440, Richard Bushman

[2] Brian Hales’ article on young wives

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