Q&A with Joseph Smith's Polygamy authors Laura Hales and Brian Hales April 06 2015
by Brian C. Hales and Laura H. Hales
Paperback $19.95 (ISBN 978-1-58958-723-6)
Available April 14th in print and e-book
Q: The last few years we've been inundated with new information concerning Mormon polygamy, from podcasts about polygamy, to the Church posting an essay on the subject, to Brian's 3 volume set on the history and theology of polygamy in early Mormonism. How does Joseph Smith's Polygamy: Toward a Better Understanding fit into that landscape and contribute to this ongoing conversation?
Laura: The Gospel Topics essay on early polygamy gave as good of a basic introduction to the subject as it could in ten pages. Brian’s book was 1500 pages. This book expands on the information in the essay by using the research used to write the trilogy. The first third of the book provides a theological framework for the unfolding of Nauvoo plural marriage; the second third provides the history; and the third contains short biographies of 35 of Joseph’s possible plural wives who agreed to participate in this strange practice.
Brian: Even though this volume is short, no major topic has been avoided. All the controversies have been presented. This volume fills an important niche to help inquirers who want more information than that found in the LDS.org essay, but don’t have the time or interest to dive into 1500+ pages of my trilogy, which deals more with the various opinions regarding the controversies.
Q: Like most authors, you would probably like as many people as possible to read your book. Is there an intended audience for this volume?
Laura: Absolutely. This book differs from the first three volumes in the series in that it was written specifically for Latter-day Saint members curious about Joseph Smith and his many plural wives, or who wonder about the meaning of Doctrine and Covenants 132. Whether the reader has a basic or a more comprehensive knowledge of the topic, they will benefit from the information in this volume.
Q: What do you hope they get from it?
Laura: Our hope is that readers will gain some reassurance. Often in the past, aspects of the practice have been exploited or sensationalized by authors less concerned about accuracy than promoting their opinion of Joseph Smith or for their distaste for the practice of plural marriage.
There may be things that are surprising and possibly discomforting about what occurred during the time period, but when contextualized, they are easier to understand. The early polygamists were just as skeptical as us about the restoration of the practice. Their actions (including the behaviors of Joseph and Emma) are better understood when historical and theological information is provided.
We would also hope that readers will gain just a little bit of sympathy for Joseph Smith as they learn of the difficult choices he had to make. Perhaps readers will also feel admiration for the plural wives whose faith, courage, and tenacity enabled them to have the bravery to embrace this commandment.
Q: Books about controversial subjects invite all kinds of commentary and criticism. As you have thought about what you would like reviewers to write about the book, what would top your wish list?
Laura: We did our best to present the story in the words of the participants without overly opining on motivations for behaviors, leaving the reader to ponder the evidence. At times, we probably could have provided more context, but we really wanted the reader to be able to look at the scant evidence and realize that much that has been previously published has included a fair amount of guess work. There is so much that we simply do not know. Hopefully we have conveyed the nebulous nature of the historical record, so the reader will be wary of any author that proclaims to know for surety what happened in any given situation.
If readers and reviewers could leave the book with an open mind, pondering what they have read, and searching on their own to answer their questions through further research, then I would be pleased. I have done this myself, studying the history of these people, how they interacted socially, and why Joseph would choose to be sealed to certain women. Some of my questions have been answered, but it takes time, patience, and study on the part of the seeker. Having reviewers laud us for leaving the door open instead of evaluating the merits of the book on their preconceived notions of what occurred, would be great.
Brian: Because polygamy involves sex and religion, it is immensely controversial. It appears that the greatest factor in determining a person’s reaction to plural marriage (or a book about it) involves their a priori beliefs. Because of the ambiguities and contradictions in the historical record, multiple interpretations can be advanced. Unbelievers seem to disagree with any explanation that does not depict Joseph as an adulterer motivated by libido. Believers, on the other hand, may join with us in seeing that while questions exist, there is no credible evidence Joseph was involved in sexual immorality and much documentation to support he was sincere and felt compelled by God to establish the practice.
This book is not an attempt to increase testimony, but instead to tell the story as accurately as we can, believing that historical truth will support belief better than any alternative. Accordingly, the best we may be able to hope for is for reviewers to conclude that we have presented the evidences with clarity and in a balanced way allowing individuals to understand our interpretations, even if they do not agree with them.
Q: Laura, tell us a little about your own journey in co-authoring this volume with Brian. Where were you at personally about the subject matter when you began the project, and where did you end up?
Laura: My journey began before I married Brian. I attended an author-meets-critic session at the Sunstone Symposium where Brian’s trilogy was being critiqued. I hadn’t read the book, so I had no idea if the criticisms were valid. So I read the books over the next six weeks, expecting not to learn much new about early polygamy. After I finished the last page of the book, I found myself asking what had happened to the Joseph Smith I knew.
After thinking, writing, and studying about Joseph Smith and his practice of polygamy for the last eighteen months, I think I have found him again. He isn’t the sanitized prophet that I grew up with, but he is much more real to me. Over time I have been able to feel sympathy for him, which was elusive for me for a long time. The Joseph I know now is so much more multi-dimensional, and I feel like I have been able to get a small glimpse into his character from those who knew him. Hopefully over the years that view will broaden with even more study because I still have unanswered questions.
Q: What were the most enjoyable and least enjoyable aspects of writing Joseph Smith's Polygamy?
Laura: The most enjoyable part of writing a book with a co-author is the synergy that happens—working together on an idea, completing each other’s sentences, and suggesting that elusive word to express a common thought. The least enjoyable aspect of writing this book were the spirited conversations that occurred when we disagreed on how to present a specific concept. I had to keep reminding Brian that he had already written “that book” and this one was for a different purpose and audience. I’m sure this was frustrating for him as well because this it is the first time he has collaborated on a writing project.