It all started with a domestic dispute.
Okay, so it was more complex than that, and there were certainly many layers behind the origins of Joseph Smith’s polygamy revelation, but for the sake of my point let’s just say one of the most controversial documents in Mormonism’s history was meant to solve a marital spat. Because, in some ways, it absolutely was. The setting was summer 1843 in Nauvoo, Illinois. Joseph Smith’s zealous and devoted brother, Hyrum, had just embraced the doctrine of polygamy. This was no simple conversion: he had been one of the most outspoken critics of what many called the “spiritual wives” doctrine that was secretly being taught in the city, allegedly promulgated by the disgraced mayor and serial adulterer John C. Bennett. Joseph, knowing that Hyrum held such strong feelings concerning the rumors, was cautious to teach him the concomitantly controversial and secret theology of plural marriage. But once he heard and accepted the practice—a story worthy of its own post—he became one of its most ardent defenders. And now he was ready to proselytize one of his fellow colleagues in the anti-polygamy crusade: Joseph’s wife, Emma.
Hyrum was convinced that if Joseph could pen a revelatory justification for the doctrine, he could convince his sister-in-law. Though skeptical, the Mormon prophet was desperate enough to try anything. He dictated a text in the language of God that vindicated contemporary practices by referencing the patriarchs of old: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had multiple wives, and so should the inheritors of their priesthood. The revelation contained the doctrine of eternal covenants, patriarchal order, and glimpses of the heavenly kingdom. Modern Mormons accept the document as scripture, canonized in the Doctrine and Covenants; by contrast, Emma Smith rejected its contents and chastised the messenger. “[I] had never received a more severe talking to in [my] life,” Hyrum allegedly said after returning from meeting with her.
But despite Emma’s opposition—at one point, according to one account, she threw a copy in the fire—the document didn’t disappear. A decade later, now in Utah, Smith’s successor, Brigham Young, used the text to vindicate polygamy. Two decades after that, it was added to the Mormon canon, where it still remains today.
The origins, development, and fate of this text is the focus of William Smith’s new book, Textual Studies of the Doctrine and Covenants: The Plural Marriage Revelation (Kofford, 2018). Smith provides background to the revelation’s creation, and then traces how it has been interpreted from Nauvoo all the way to the present. He structures his work around particular sections of the document: a chapter on the heading, a chapter on the first five verses, then the next ten, and so forth all the way through the 64 total verses. For example, Smith demonstrates how just dissecting the many different headings attached to the revelation over the years—from the one-line opening scribbled on the earliest manuscript copy all the way to the 2013 revision that drew from the Joseph Smith Papers Project—offers a glimpse into Mormonism’s evolving views concerning polygamy, sealing, and the priesthood.
Smith’s greatest strength is his exhaustive research: he not only knows all the literature there is concerning Nauvoo polygamy, but he is also able to trace ideas through obscure 1920s priesthood manuals. Though there wasn’t much I didn’t know about the polygamy revelation’s origins, then, there was loads of new information concerning how later interpreters appropriated its meanings over the following century-and-a-half. Similar to Jonathan Stapley, whose new book on Mormon priesthood came out around the same time, Smith is providing a layer of historical and comprehensive research that is impressive in breadth. D&C 132, then, merely becomes the lens through which to view a Mormon tradition moving through Nauvoo, the Utah War, the manifesto, and twentieth-century assimilation. This is a much broader story than the book’s title lets on.
But one of the downsides of such an exhaustive and broad structure is it sometimes loses its connective tissue: the sum of the book’s parts somehow doesn’t equate to a better whole. We have comprehensive topical coverage, yes, but not as much narrative arc. Smith admits that this format lends itself to repetition, and he does his best to avoid it, but at times The Plural Marriage Revelation reads more like a reference work than a monograph. Further, the calculated and exacting way with which he deals with textual developments sometimes leads to overshadowing the lived results of these doctrines and practices—that is, as exhaustive as the work can be, it somehow misses out on the humanity of Mormonism’s polygamy tradition.
But those are, to a certain degree, unfair criticisms, and are more about a different type of book. So take my critiques with a grain of salt and focus more on the research foundation I highlight above.
What struck me more than anything else in this book, however, is the contingency of history. By that, I mean the seemingly discontinuity between two facts: 1) that the polygamy revelation was created in a particular context addressing very specific circumstances, and 2) the resulting text nevertheless has served as a foundational work for the entire Mormon tradition since then. As Smith points out, nearly every verse in the revelation claimed parochial roots, many of which are no longer relevant in today’s society. Yet because of its canonical status we are still forced to deal with its legacy.
And this isn’t an easy matter. Though Mormons seemingly gave up plural marriage a century ago, a particular form of it lasts even until today: if a man’s wife dies, he is eligible to marry another and be sealed to both in the afterlife. (The reverse is not available for women.) Russell M. Nelson, who was appointed President of the Church this year, is sealed to two women, due to his first spouse’s death over a decade ago. That means that of the seventeen men who have held that position, nine—just over half!—have had multiple wives, at least in the eternal scheme of things. As one recent author has explained, this has caused a lot of struggle and trauma. And this all had roots in that muggy summer of 1843 in Nauvoo.
As I’m currently writing my own project on the Mormon city-state in Illinois, I am knee-deep in polygamy material. But this book allowed me to take a step back and consider the larger trajectory. It is a harrowing journey, but a worthwhile one nonetheless.