Last year, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints admitted on its official website that the reason it barred black people from becoming priests until 1973 was straight-up racism. They added that “Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form.” It was one of those things critics always held against them, but church leaders never wanted to acknowledge. American Atheists even used that information in a 2012 mobile billboard:
And now the Mormon Church has admitted something else critics have long suspected even though church leaders never said it out loud: Joseph Smith, the founder/prophet of Mormonism, had between 30 to 40 wives. While church leader Brigham Young was known to be polygamous, that wasn’t necessarily the case for Joseph Smith.
Even worse, many of Smith’s wives were already married to someone else. And at least one of them was barely a teenager:
Evidence indicates that Joseph Smith participated in both types of sealings. The exact number of women to whom he was sealed in his lifetime is unknown because the evidence is fragmentary. Some of the women who were sealed to Joseph Smith later testified that their marriages were for time and eternity, while others indicated that their relationships were for eternity alone.
Most of those sealed to Joseph Smith were between 20 and 40 years of age at the time of their sealing to him. The oldest, Fanny Young, was 56 years old. The youngest was Helen Mar Kimball, daughter of Joseph’s close friends Heber C. and Vilate Murray Kimball, who was sealed to Joseph several months before her 15th birthday. Marriage at such an age, inappropriate by today’s standards, was legal in that era, and some women married in their mid-teens.
Laurie Goodstein of the New York Times already has reactions from Mormons and religious scholars:
“Joseph Smith was presented to me as a practically perfect prophet, and this is true for a lot of people,” said Emily Jensen, a blogger and editor in Farmington, Utah, who often writes about Mormon issues.
She said the reaction of some Mormons to the church’s disclosures resembled the five stages of grief in which the first stage is denial, and the second is anger. Members are saying on blogs and social media, “This is not the church I grew up with, this is not the Joseph Smith I love,” Ms. Jensen said.
The essays held nothing back, said Richard L. Bushman, emeritus professor of history at Columbia University and author of the book “Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling.”
Dr. Bushman said of church leaders: “Somewhere along the line they decided they were just going to tell the whole story, not to be defensive, not to try to hide anything. And there’s no single fact that’s more unsettling than Joseph Smith’s marriage to other men’s wives.”
I’ll give the church credit for owning up to its own sordid past. (To be clear, they’re not saying polygamy is okay, only that it was a part of their history.) People are always going to criticize the church for issues like this, so leaders might as well be up front and admit their religion got it wrong.
If only they could admit they’re still behind the times when it comes to issues like same-sex marriage…
I guess we’ll have to wait a few more decades until they issue the explainer on how they screwed that one up, too.