I am SO glad I wasn’t born in Old Testament times. Aside from my personal preference for pants, plumbing and fast food, I think I would have made a lousy follower of God. Animal sacrifices are not my style (for crying out loud, I’m a vegetarian). Smiting entire groups of people, along with the men, women, children and cattle…all more than I could take. And don’t even get me started on adult circumcision.
Fortunately, I don’t have to live up to any of those commandments. Different times, different places, different circumstances all led to rules of conduct specific to certain people. I strongly suspect that I would have done poorly had I been raised in Moses’s ZIP code, but I’m off the hook. Nobody is showing up at the gym with two sharp stones.
I started thinking about this today when I was reading the Church’s new publication regarding the practice of plural marriage during the Kirtland and Nauvoo periods. Latter-day Saints have long engaged in some significant cognitive dissonance when it comes to polygamy during the life of Joseph Smith. We know that the revelation on plural marriage was given to him, we know that some folks around him practiced plural marriage, but we often pretended that Joseph Smith didn’t. I’m not sure why, but Brigham Young practicing polygamy gives us considerably less heartburn than Joseph Smith doing it.
I think much of this comes from a lack of reliable information about how and under what circumstances plural marriage was practiced within the LDS Church prior to the exodus to the Salt Lake basin. Because the early Saints knew how the practice would be seen by those around them, they were secretive about it. Moreover, the practice appears to have been inconsistent, with some polygamous “sealings” (the process by which a marriage is solemnized for eternity) being conducted for this life, some for only the hereafter. The entire temple practice was a bit of a mess until after Joseph Smith was killed, with it being left to Brigham Young to bring some order and consistency to it.
All of that said, Joseph Smith practiced plural marriage. I get that.
And I couldn’t do it.
Brigham Young famously said that when the doctrine of plural marriage was revealed to him, he “looked for the grave.” It was only after considerable soul searching and prayer that he finally was able to embrace it. (And, frankly, he overcompensated for his hesitation). Looking for a grave would barely describe how I would feel if I were asked to take another wife. I love my wife, and the idea of bringing anyone else into that relationship is offensive to me. Even if it was Halle Berry.
So, what do I do with that? How do I stick around in a Church when I find the past practice of plural marriage to be…well…icky?
To me, this goes back to the basic question of whether you are on board with the whole “God” thing or not. If you are a Christian, your faith requires that you have to accept a lot of baggage of prior practices that you find offensive. Plural marriage is one of them: If you want to insist that Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses were righteous men (and Christ most certainly did), then you have to deal with the fact that they had more than one wife. You have to deal with the stunning violence perpetuated by the people of God in the Old Testament. You have to deal with Paul’s misogynistic writings and Peter’s denials of Christ. Even if you ignore all of the undeniably horrible things done by Christians that God most surely denounced, there is plenty left that He embraced or commanded that shock modern sensibilities.
So all of us–Mormons and other Christians–have some choices to make. We can conclude that this past conduct actually was morally reprehensible, but then we are stuck with the scriptural approval of such stuff. We can stick our fingers in our ears and pretend it didn’t happen. We can give up on this whole religion thing. Or, we can try to understand why God gives apparently contradictory directions depending upon the time and place.
That is a fair inquiry, and not an easy one. Personally, I start with the premise that maybe I was sent to Earth at a time when some of these commandments were not in place specifically because I couldn’t handle them. Regardless, they aren’t effective right now, so I don’t have to worry about how to deal with them. Second, if I believe in a perfect and loving God (and I do), I have to believe that He possesses the ability to determine what is best for His children under specific circumstances, and then trust that He is getting it right. I try not to be so arrogant as to believe that the way I have been raised to view the world is the way that all mankind should have seen it from the beginning of time. Heck, if Moses were here monitoring my conduct, within 15 minutes he would probably be looking for big rocks to throw at me.
These aren’t easy issues. There are plenty of LDS people I know for whom polygamy is a huge stumbling block, and they try to avoid any discussion of it. Some days I feel like that myself. But I am not about to perform an autopsy on a living patient just so I can ponder over a long-healed internal scar. I have a firm conviction in the divinity of Christ and the truthfulness of His gospel. That is not something I can just cast aside because I am uneasy with past practices to which I have to present obligation to comply. I trust that when I am not seeing “through a glass, darkly,” I will have a better understanding of a lot of things, one of which will be the practice of polygamy. Until then, I will be still and know what I know.