Thursday, November 18, 2010

Updating Mormon Morality

Mormonism has always had a knack for being able to modify morality in order to keep pace with the demands of one's libido, so I was not surprised to read today that "the Mormon Church no longer believes that same-sex attraction is inherently sinful after a major policy u-turn." They are updating their Church Handbook of Instructions to remove the claim that same-sex relationships “distort loving relationships”.

This is new territory for the Latter Day Saints, but the principle of updating morality is not. After all, Joseph Smith’s own theology tended to keep pace with his changing morality. For example, during his early career Smith apparently did not believe it was okay for a man to take more than one wife, for the  Book of Mormon calls the practice an “abomination” (Jacob 2:24, 27). However, later he began quietly advocating both polygamy and polyandry. (Polygamy is when one man takes many wives; polyandry is when one woman is simultaneously married to two or more men.) Smith had a keen eye for younger women, and by the end of his life he had been ‘sealed’ to thirty-three different women. Ten of his wives were under twenty. Many of these marriages were kept secret, and this is hardly surprising given that one third of Smith’s women were married to other men at the same time.

How did Smith persuade so many women to be united to him? One effective way was to hold out to them the promise of eternal salvation. For example, in May 1843, a 37-year old Smith promised salvation to 15-year old Helen Mar Kimball if she would take the step. For others he offered even more, claiming that plural marriage would “ensure your eternal salvation and exaltation and that of your father’s household and all your kindred.” In other cases, he told the women that God had threatened to slay him if he did not marry them. Joseph even received a Word stating that his wife, Emma, must stand ready to receive the additional wives of her husband on pain of everlasting damnation. (This Word from the Lord made it into the sacred Doctrine and Covenants, Section 132)

Richard Bushman, a sympathetic Mormon biographer, has pointed out that “In the first six months of 1843, Joseph married twelve women, two of them already married to other men, one single and fifty-eight years old. Five of the women boarded in Joseph’s household when he married them. Emma probably knew nothing of these marriages at first and then temporarily accepted them before regretting her action and demanding that all five leave.” Though Smith bowed to Emma’s wishes and dismissed his harem, this did not stop him taking additional wives. The women now were expected to simply carry on with their lives as before, but with one difference: they might receive an occasional ‘visit’ from their prophetic husband.

As is often the case with strange religious movements, the next generation will take things further than the founders. It should come as no surprise to find Smith’s successors developed an elaborate theology out of Smith’s revelations about plural marriage. For the generation that followed, plural marriage became a way that both men and women could earn their salvation. When he was dead, Smith’s successor Brigham Young had fifty-five wives, at least six of which had living husbands. But Brigham was more open than Smith, pronouncing, “Now if any of you will deny the plurality of wives, and continue to do so, I promise that you will be damned," (Journal of Discourses, vol. 3). And again, "The only men who become Gods, even the Sons of God, are those who enter into polygamy," (JoD, vol. 11). According to Young, even Christ was a good Mormon polygamist.  Again he wrote, “Jesus Christ was a polygamist; Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus, were his plural wives, and Mary Magdalene was another. Also, the bridal feast of Cana of Galilee, where Jesus turned the water into wine, was on the occasion of one of his own marriages.” (JoD, 1:50) 

If this progression continues, then potentially all the canons of Biblical morality are up for grabs. The Mormon church has not yet approved of homosexual marriage, but the recent policy chance signals a definite shift in that direction.

To read more about Joseph Smith, see my article Profile of a False Prophet

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