To a crowd in Nauvoo two months before he died Joseph Smith declared:
“You don’t know me; you never knew my heart. No man knows my history. I cannot tell it: I shall never undertake it. I don’t blame any one for not believing my history. If I had not experienced what I have, I would not have believed it myself. I never did harm any man since I was born in the world. My voice is always for peace.” (DHC 6:317.)
He was talking to believers. They assumed Joseph was like them. They projected onto him all their misapprehensions, desires, and ambitions as if they were his. But the crowd who was prideful, quarrelsome, arrogant, and foolish accepted among their ranks those who were engaged in adultery, conspiracies, financial speculation, and counterfeiting.
June 27th, two months after his public lament, Joseph was slain. His legacy was in the custody of the very group who did not know him. Those same people have now bequeathed to us their misapprehensions and errors. When we get to the anniversary of Joseph’s martyrdom we mourn the loss of a man who remains, for most, a misunderstood stranger on whom we project the errors of that same Nauvoo group.
The challenges with Joseph’s history began early. When John Whitmer, Church Historian and record keeper, left the faith in 1838 he took the history he had been keeping with him. That required a do-over.
But telling Joseph’s history was entrusted to others. The Publication Committee members believed they had the right to make clarifications and emendations, and proceeded to do so. Today we have a conventional account of plural marriage handed to us by the proud descendants of the Nauvoo crowd who never knew Joseph. When that view is challenged, their descendants rise up in their pride to challenge and condemn a truer view of the prophet who never did harm to any man since he was born into the world.
Following Joseph Smith’s death, there was an aggressive effort to change the records to support the new polygamous administration of Brigham Young. A recent author wrote:
“The official History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was published in book form under the direction of the First Presidency in 1902. The introductory assurance that ‘no historical or doctrinal statement has been changed’ is demonstrably wrong. Overshadowed by editorial censorship, hundreds of deletions, additions, and alterations, these seven volumes are not always reliable. …The nineteenth-century propaganda mill was so adroit that few outside Brigham Young’s inner circle were aware of the behind-the-scenes alterations so seamlessly stitched into church history. Charles Wesley Wandell, an assistant church historian, was aghast at these emendations. Commenting on the many changes made in the historical work as it was being serialized in the Deseret News, Wandell noted in his diary: ‘I notice the interpolations because having been employed in the Historian’s office at Navuoo by Doctor Richards, and employed, too, in 1845, in compiling this very autobiography, I know that after Joseph’s death his memoir was ‘doctored’ to suit the new order of things, and this, too, by the direct order of Brigham Young to Doctor Richards and systematically by Richards.” The Quorum of the Twelve, under Brigham Young’s leadership, began altering the historical record shortly after Smith’s death. Contrary to the introduction’s claim, Smith did not author the History of the Church. At the time of his 1844 death, the narrative had been written up to 5 August 1838.'” (Richard S. Van Wagoner, Sidney Rigdon: A Portrait of Religious Excess, Signature Books (Salt Lake City, 1994), p. 322.)
I believe the unpublished text of Section 132 (the revelation on eternal marriage including plurality of wives) may have been one of the texts deliberately altered before its publication. Clearly, there were differences between Joseph Smith and Brigham Young on the subject of plural wives. Compare these two passages from the text published by Brigham Young in 1852:
First, the tight controls which must be in place before any authorized additional wife could be taken (in the second part of the revelation):
Verse 29: “Abraham received all things, whatsoever he received, by revelation and commandment, by my word, saith the Lord…” [God directly commanded him.]
Verse 39: “David’s wives and concubines were given unto him of me, by the hand of Nathan, my servant, and others of the prophets who had the keys of this power; and in none of these things did he sin against me save in the case of Uriah and his wife…” [A prophet specifically authorized the marriages.]
Now compare these limits with the any-thing-goes-if-you-can-talk-the-virgins-into-it language later in the same transcript:
Verses 61-62: “And again, as pertaining to the law of the priesthood—if any man espouse a virgin, and desire to espouse another, and the first give her consent, and if he espouse the second, and they are virgins, and have vowed to no other man, then is he justified; he cannot commit adultery for they are given unto him; for he cannot commit adultery with that that belongeth unto him and to no one else. And if he have ten virgins given unto him by this law, he cannot commit adultery, for they belong to him, and they are given unto him; therefore is he justified.”
The contrast between the strict limitations of verses 29 and 39, which seem to have been what was underway during Joseph Smith’s lifetime, with the much broader license of verses 61-62, which seem to be a description of what happened with Brigham Young’s practice, raises questions of alterations and emendations with the text. Brigham Young expanded the practice further (perhaps because of the short supply of additional virgins) to include widows, divorcees, and other men’s wives (if you held more keys than her current husband). The published revelation seems to have cross-purposes and cross-motivations.
We know how Brigham Young advocated and practiced taking additional wives. What we have about Joseph Smith is very limited, and there is little first-hand information tying him to something definite.
Contrast these verses:
Verse 7: “…(and I have appointed unto my servant Joseph to hold this power in the last days, and there is never but one on the earth at a time on whom this power and the keys of this priesthood are conferred)…”
Verse 39: “…by the hand of Nathan, my servant, and others of the prophets who had the keys of this power…”
The first publication of Section 132 had the parenthetical statement limiting it to “one on the earth at a time.” Nathan was younger than David, and likely would have been functioning as a prophet throughout David’s lifetime. If others gave David wives, in addition to Nathan, while Nathan was still living, then there was not “only one at a time.”
Brigham Young fought Parley Pratt over who was able to authorize plural marriages. The dispute began before Section 132 was published. When Brigham Young called for his election as “president” in December 1847, part of his reason for wanting the office was to make it clear that Parley Pratt did not have equal right to authorize plural marriages. He wanted sole control. He claimed that right as president, and verse 7’s parenthetical insertion justifies his claim to exclusivity. If it were not there, Brigham Young could not thwart other apostles’ claims to the right to seal marriages. Brigham Young elevated his rhetoric about unauthorized plural marriages by asserting they were “adulterous” if HE alone did not authorize them. When Parley was murdered by Elenor McLean’s husband, Hector, in 1857 Brigham Young remarked the killing was justified because of Pratt’s adultery.
Section 132 is the only substantive evidence originating directly from Joseph Smith on the subject of plural wives. What if it does not actually contain an unaltered text? What if the best proof we have is compromised by LDS leaders between Joseph’s death in 1844 and publication eight years later?
The overwhelming body of now accepted proof about what Joseph did, said and thought about the practice is taken from information gathered, produced or composed after the public announcement in 1852, and much of it decades after that.
Almost everyone has their mind made up about this topic, so it is unlikely for any new opinions to be formed on this subject by the present generation. But I believe the LDS Church has done a poor job of protecting the name and reputation of Joseph Smith. Had the record not been flooded with post-1852 advocacy for Brigham Young’s practices, it is much more likely Mormons would share Emma Smith’s explanation of Joseph’s conduct than the one commonly accepted today.
Reclaiming Joseph’s name and reputation on this topic seems like an unlikely battle to win today. The Nauvoo descendants continue to impose on Joseph their inherited misapprehensions.
I mourn Joseph’s death today. But I mourn every day the sometimes grotesque caricature that the proud descendants of Nauvoo pretend is an authentic picture of a man they never knew.