Q&A with William V. Smith for Textual Studies of the Doctrine and Covenants: The Plural Marriage Revelation February 07 2018
Available February 27, 2018
Q: Give us a little background into how you became interested in researching plural marriage?
A: Section 132 is Joseph Smith’s final revelation text and in some ways, it had a greater influence over his subsequent legacy than any other text aside from the Book of Mormon. My main historical interest in Mormonism is its preaching texts. Joseph Smith’s revelation texts, together with his own sermon corpus, are connected in many ways to that broader Mormon and Protestant sermon culture. The revelation had deep influence in the relationships between Territorial and statehood Utah and the United States; and made for interesting common ground narratives with other segments of the social landscape in America, as well as indelibly marking the boundaries between Mormon faithfulness and Protestant America even into the twenty-first century. Those stories fascinated me.
Q: It's a common misconception that Joseph Smith first learned about polygamy through the plural marriage revelation, when, in fact, he had already been practicing it for a few years prior to receiving it. If not to introduce it, what was the purpose of the revelation when it was received?
A: The revelation arises from a request by Hyrum Smith, but that story has multiple axes. His brother Hyrum seems to have been convinced of the virtue of polygamy out of its promise of being eternally with his deceased first wife, Jerusha Barden, while not abandoning his second wife, Mary Fielding. This domestic concept of heaven was the logic of polygamy for Hyrum. Emma Smith, first wife of Joseph, was deeply opposed to her husband’s polygamy for a multitude of reasons. Jealousy was at issue, but perhaps more-so the state of the Mormon community and its political and social predicament. Hyrum apparently believed his own adaption to polygamy could convince Emma of its virtue and bring Joseph and Emma into harmony. The result was a text largely directed to Emma Smith and very much a contemporary construction, yet it served to drive future social, religious, legal, and political tensions—including various schisms within the Church and the Smith family, the rise of Brigham Young and the apostles, and the long territorial status of Utah.
Q: In your book you show how the revelation points to new theological ideas and priesthood structures that Joseph introduced during the Nauvoo period. What are some of these new ideas, and why are they important to understanding the revelation?
A: The revelation brings to a climax many threads from 1830s Mormonism. For example, a refined picture of heaven, church hierarchy, and the Abrahamic story. It also reflects significant discourse in Nauvoo regarding coping with loss, heavenly progression, etc. Some of the theological threads originated with an event in June 1831. It was during a conference of that month that Joseph Smith introduced the “high priesthood.” Together with this introduction came the concept of “sealing up to eternal life.” Could a person, even a whole congregation, be guaranteed a seat at the Throne of Grace in this life? The high priesthood had the power to do this. I take some time in the book to explore the relationship of the high priesthood and its divisional office of patriarch with the idea of sealing, and how this idea became fully realized with the Nauvoo incarnation of sealing and priesthood. The plural marriage revelation draws on some elements of Smith’s Nauvoo preaching in public and private, some of which shows an interesting contrast between Smith’s public sermons and later interpretations that were prominent in Utah.
Q: What are some of the lasting impacts of the plural marriage revelation that are affecting Mormonism today?
A: Many important themes in current Mormonism are based on narratives derived from the plural marriage revelation. One of these is serial polygamous marriages where a man may remarry after the death of a spouse and have hopes that both households will be intact in the heavens. Women are not eligible for such practices. Temple practices of sealing, marriage, and family are traced to section 132, though not explicitly. The “Proclamation on the Family” is largely founded in nineteenth-century values that find textual support in the plural marriage revelation. The long defense of polygamy through the beginning of the twentieth century shaped the Church’s political attitudes in Utah to a great extent. Utah’s reaction to that political struggle was to position Mormons as ultra-Americans, rather than members of a dissenting sect of outsiders. These are just a few areas where the plural marriage revelation has had a large impact on Mormons historically and in the present.
Q: What are you hoping that readers will gain from reading Textual Studies of the D&C: The Plural Marriage Revelation?
A: My hope is that readers will come away with an increased respect for the early Mormons (especially women) who lived during the time of the practice of polygamy and its ending; as well as the power the revelation had over Mormon teaching and thought. The revelation is rarely quoted or referenced in the LDS church of the last nearly one hundred years, which was influenced by the political tension between Washington and Utah. I hope readers will gain a greater understanding of the roles that culture, the migration westward, public perception, and social change had on the public views of Latter-day Saints. Section 132 is a deeply-embedded component of Church teachings on eternal family, the approach of the Church towards gay rights and marriage, and social and political issues like the ERA and the role of women within the Church. It is not an exaggeration to say that the revelation on polygamy is one of the cornerstones that underlies what Utah and the LDS church are today.
Please join us on Tuesday, March 13 at Writ & Vision in Provo, UT, for a special roundtable discussion and book signing for Textual Studies of the Doctrine and Covenants: The Plural Marriage Revelation. The roundtable discussion will feature Bill Smith, Don Bradley, and Lindsay Hansen Park. The event begins at 7:00 PM and is free to the public.