Monday, September 8, 2014

Polygamy and Coercion

Note: This post is part two in a three part series on polygamy. Part 1 Part 3

I want to start out by talking a little bit about coercion. To coerce is " to persuade someone forcefully to do something that he or she may not want to do." (Cambridge Online Dictionary)  Coercion consists of applying usually negative pressures to get someone to do something that they don't want to do. Positive incentives can also be considered coercive when they are something that is extremely important to the individual. For example, telling a young son or daughter that you will start loving them if they clean their room would be coercive since the child would infer that not cleaning their room would lead to you not loving them, which is just something that a child is not prepared to cope with.

Let me be clear, not all coercion is bad. You have to get a child to clean his/her room somehow. Anyone who has raised children knows that reasoning with the child and just asking them to clean their room will frequently not work. A reward or proportional punishment is appropriate in this instance.

But in my mind there are certain areas of life that are morally off-limits to coercion. Sex, love, and marriage are three that come to mind. In my opinion, applying coercion to people's decisions in these areas is morally wrong across the board.

One of the biggest problems I have with the way Joseph Smith practiced polygamy was that his proposals to women were many times coercive. I guess it wouldn't bother me so much if he had just said to them, "Hey, I've got this new polygamy thing going on and if you want to participate, that's cool and if you don't, that's also cool. I mean, God cares most about whether you are a good person but if you want to get in early on this new marriage system that he wants started, God would really like that." I mean, the whole idea of men marrying multiple women being important to God is pretty hard for me to wrap my head around, but if it was important to God, that's the way it should have gone down: without coercion. A God who coerces people into sex, love, or marriage or supports such coercion is not a God I can get excited about worshiping.

Besides the wording of the proposals, another contributing factor to the coercive element of Joseph's marriage proposals is the power imbalance inherent in the prophet/disciple relationship. Followers of a prophet or guru believe that this leader speaks for God and that what they say is God's will. Going against the leader's will implies going against God's will and some sort of negative consequence from God.

Let me give some examples of the types of marriage proposals I am talking about.

Joseph told several people that when he was first commanded to practice polygamy, an angel delivered the message. He was reluctant to marry polygamously and the angel had to visit three times to get him to do it. According to Joseph, the angel brought a sword on the third visit and threatened to kill him if he did not start practicing polygamy. There are various people who report that Joseph told them this story and they are summarized in a table that spans pages 188 to 191 in Volume 1 of Joseph Smith's Polygamy by Brian Hales. Also, here is a link to a paper authored by Hales that contains the same table. As you can see, people who report that Joseph told this story include Joseph Lee Robinson, Lorenzo Snow, Benjamin F. Johnson, Eliza R. Snow, Orson Pratt, Zina Huntington, Helen Mar Kimball, Erastus Snow, and Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner. Here are quotes from two of Joseph's wives:
I know whereon I stand, I know what I believe, I know what I know and I know what I testify to you is the living truth. As I expect to meet it at the bar of the eternal Jehovah, it is true. And when you stand before the bar you will know. He preached polygamy and he not only preached it, but he practiced it. I am a living witness to it. It was given to him before he gave it to the Church. An angel came to him and the last time he came with a drawn sword in his hand and told Joseph if he did not go into that principle, he would slay him. (Mary Lightner, Address to Brigham Young University, April 14th, 1905, BYU Archives and Manuscripts)
19 year-old Zina remained conflicted until a day in October, apparently, when Joseph sent [her older brother] Dimick to her with a message:an angel with a drawn sword had stood over Smith and told him that if he did not establish polygamy, he would lose "his position and his life." Zina, faced with the responsibility for his position as prophet, and even perhaps his life, finally acquiesced. (Todd Compton, In Sacred Loneliness, page 80-81)
Why is this a problem? If I believe in the church, I either have to believe that Joseph made up the story to get people to marry him and God backed his prophet despite this serious moral lapse, an uncomfortable thought, or I have to believe in a God who sends angels out to force compliance to commandments that don't make much moral sense, using death threats.

Put yourself in Joseph's place for a moment. An angel comes and tells you to marry many men or women. You find this morally confusing and don't wish to comply. You put off obeying the angel. The angel keeps visiting and on the third visit brings a .44 magnum, points it at your forehead and says, "You had better start marrying polygamously or next time I visit, I'm pulling this trigger," and disappears.

This God who is in charge of this whole affair is not a God I could worship, even if he were real. I would tell the angel, "I am not going to do this until you make it clear to me why it is necessary and why it is a morally correct thing to do. Reason with me or kill me now and get it over with."

But I think it is much more likely that Joseph made up the story to make his polygamous proposals more effective because he knew that his followers would be eager to do anything to save his life, since they believed him to be a prophet of God. As Compton states above, "Zina, faced with the responsibility for his position as prophet, and even perhaps his life, finally acquiesced." The story was very effective at getting Zina's compliance in marrying Joseph, despite the fact that she was already married to a faithful LDS man.

Let's talk about Helen Mar Kimball now. She is first introduced to the idea of polygamy at age 14 by her father, apostle Heber C. Kimball. When relating her own story, Helen is clear that when she first is introduced to the idea, she is angry that he is suggesting she marry Joseph Smith and that it is something that she does not wish to do. She states:
I will pass over the temptations which I had during the twenty four hours after my father introduced to me this principle & asked me if I would be sealed to Joseph, who came next morning & with my parents I heard him teach & explain the principle of Celestial marriage-after which he said to me, “If you will take this step, it will ensure your eternal salvation and exaltation & that of your father’s household & all of your kindred."
This promise was so great that I willingly gave myself to purchase so glorious a reward. (Helen Mar Kimball, letter to her children, March 30th 1881)
A couple of things bother me about this. First, the idea that one's family's salvation can be dependent on whether a 14 year old marries Joseph Smith is just...well...I have no words. It was wrong for Joseph to tell her this. Second, this promise, according to her words, is clearly what influenced her to agree to marry Joseph Smith. It is a positive but coercive incentive. But it doesn't even make any moral sense. the salvation of these people should be completely independent of whether Helen marries Joseph.

Another example of a coercive proposal is Joseph's proposal to Lucy Walker. Walker was a foster daughter of Joseph. Her mother got sick and died, and Joseph sent Lucy's father on a mission and had Lucy come stay in his home. Lucy writes in her story which was published in 1888:
In the year 1842, President Joseph Smith sought an interview with me, and said: “I have a message for you. I have been commanded of God to take another wife, and you are the woman.” My astonishment knew no bounds. This announcement was indeed a thunderbolt to me. He asked me if I believed him to be a prophet of God. “Most assuredly I do,” I replied. He fully explained to me the principle of plural or celestial marriage. He said this principle was again to be restored for the benefit of the human family, that it would prove an everlasting blessing to my father’s house, and form a chain that could never be broken, worlds without end. “What have you to say?” he asked. “Nothing.” How could I speak, or what could I say? He said, “If you will pray sincerely for light and understanding in relation thereto, you shall receive a testimony of the correctness of this principle. I thought I prayed sincerely, but was so unwilling to consider the matter favorably that I fear I did not ask in faith for light. Gross darkness instead of light took possession of my mind. I was tempted and tortured beyond endurance until life was not desirable. Oh that the grave would kindly receive me, that I might find rest on the bosom of my dear mother. Why should I be chosen from among thy daughters, Father, I am only a child in years and experience, no mother to counsel; no father near to tell me what to do in this trying hour. Oh, let this bitter cup pass. And thus I prayed in the agony of my soul. 
The Prophet discerned my sorrow. He saw how unhappy I was, and sought an opportunity of again speaking to me on this subject, and said: “Although I cannot, under existing circumstances, acknowledge you as my wife, the time is near when we will go beyond the Rocky Mountains and then you will be acknowledged and honored as my wife.” He also said, “This principle will yet be believed in and practiced by the righteous. I have no flattering words to offer. It is a command of God to you. I will give you until tomorrow to decide this matter. If you reject this message the gate will be closed forever against you. (Lyman Omer Littlefield, Reminiscences of Latter-day Saints: Giving an Account of Much Individual Suffering Endured for Religious Conscience (Logan: Utah Journal Co, 1888), 46–48)
This is clearly not something that Lucy wanted to do, in fact she talks of her desire to die in order to escape this situation. What does Joseph say that finally pushes her to make a decision? That God says she has to and that if she doesn't agree to marry him within a day, "...the gate will be closed forever against [her]." To me this is clearly coercive.

Why am I so sensitive to coercion? Why does it bother me so much? As an LDS missionary I had a companion who I am pretty sure suffered from narcissistic personality disorder. As a missionary, you must spend 24 hours per day in the presence of your companion, so I was subjected to about 8 weeks of nearly constant coercion with respect to what seemed like every facet of my life. This was hands-down the worst 8 weeks of my entire life.

At first I didn't understand why control was so important to this guy. I had never dealt with someone like him before in my life and I was very ill prepared to do so. I am very easygoing and so I was just biding my time until one of us got transferred away. He would manipulate me on a near-constant basis. I tolerated it because I thought that God wanted me to be there and the rules said I had to stick with him at all times. After a time, the manipulation and coercion reached a point where I think he had gotten pretty comfortable with ways of getting me to do what he wanted and he reached into my pants and fondled me.

After this, I did make a call to the mission president and this missionary was sent home, but I still sit and wonder about how I let things go as far as they did. This guy was at most 120 pounds. I could have easily broken him in half. How did I let him control me like he did? He was just really good at coercion.

The thing is, when I really started studying Joseph Smith, I saw a lot of the techniques that my companion used on me being used  by Joseph to get the compliance of those around him, and Joseph attributing things to God where God was the coercive agent, like the angel with the sword story above. I just no longer believe that a just God would coerce or would endorse a coercive prophet.

9/11/14 Edit: I found an online copy of Brian Hales's table  and updated the text above to include it.

Also, It was brought to my attention that the new seminary manual addresses the fact that Joseph told others that an angel with a sword threatened to destroy him. In lesson 140 it states:
Explain that the Prophet Joseph Smith was reluctant to begin the practice of plural marriage. He stated that he did not begin the practice until he was warned that he would be destroyed if he did not obey (see “Plural Marriage,” Historical Record, May 1887, 222).
Following the reference cited in the manual leads you here. Flip to page 222 and you will find the following affidavit by Lorenzo Snow:
The following affidavit was made before J. C. Wright, clerk of Box Elder County, Utah, Aug. 28, 1869: 
In the month of April, 1843, I returned from my European mission. A few days after my arrival at Nauvoo, when at President Joseph Smith's house, he said he wished to have some private talk with me, and requested me to walk out with him. It was toward evening, we walked a little distance and sat down on a large log that lay near the bank of the river; he there and then explained to me the doctrine of plurality of wives.

He said that the Lord had revealed it unto him and commanded him to have women sealed to him as wives, that he foresaw the trouble that would follow and sought to turn away from the commandment, that an angel from heaven appeared before him with a drawn sword, threatening him with destruction unless he went forward and obeyed the commandment. 
He further said that my sister Eliza R. Snow had been sealed to him as his wife for time and eternity. 
He told me that the Lord would open the way, and I should have women sealed to me as wives. This conversation was prolonged, I think, one hour or more, in which he told me many important things. 
I solemnly declare before God and holy angels, and as I hope to come forth in the morning of the resurrection, that the above statement is true. 
(Signed) Lorenzo Snow.


  1. I liked the way you made your message both general and personal. I don't believe that God, the living God of Love, uses coercion like that.

  2. While I absolutely agree with your take on coercion, I question the fact that all the proof of such coercion is recollected memories thirty to forty years after the fact. Is there any reliable contemporary proof?