In October 2007, I returned home to Texas from my mission in Nevada. In April of the following year, the raid on the YFZ Ranch near Eldorado, TX, occurred. I didn’t think much about it at the time because, you know, they weren’t real Mormons (as many LDS are wont to say). However, a good (non-member) friend called me soon after the raid and posed some questions about these polygamists Mormons, seemingly bothered that one of his best friends was mixed up in an abusive cult. I was likely too dismissive of his concerns, largely due to the mentality above. I explained the schism between the FLDS and Utah-based LDS Church, pointing out that my church had ceased practicing polygamy long ago. That seemed to satisfy him as we talked about how bizarre the whole situation was. However, just how strange all of this was to outsiders did not fully hit me until a little later at work when a newly-hired woman asked me (something along the lines of), “What church do you go to?” When I told her I was Mormon, she became rather pale. Being used to the reaction (I do live in the South), I expected her to be some kind of evangelical. However, her next question threw me: “So…is there, like…a community of Mormons around here?” I didn’t understand her at first. I pointed out that there was a chapel just down the road from where we worked. I also made an offhand remark about how “we aren’t Amish or something” (nothing against the Amish). But it hit me only after I’d gotten home: she was thinking of the recent raid. She was thinking I was part of a polygamist cult estranged from society. Truth be told, I was slightly unsatisfied with my own explanations. Sure, the LDS Church doesn’t practice polygamy today, but it did early on. And that’s weird. What’s more, the ghost of polygamy still haunts us theologically today. Maneuvering it has not been our forte.
This is what makes William V. Smith’s recent Textual Studies of the Doctrine & Covenants: The Plural Marriage Revelation so profitable for Latter-day Saints. While numerous books have been written on the subject of polygamy, Smith’s book analyzes the canonized revelation itself, exploring the historical and theological context as well as its evolving interpretations. Furthermore, the book is formatted to aid the reader in their personal study of the text. Each chapter is a section of verses from D&C 132 in subsequent order. But within each chapter is a more-or-less chronological history of the themes and theology compacted within those selected verses. This format makes it easier for readers to navigate. While I read straight through on my first reading, it will be easier to return to specific sections and concepts in the future.
As an active Latter-day Saint, the book certainly holds important and interesting historical information regarding D&C 132. But it is the theological implications of this information that make Smith’s book such an engrossing read. One of the biggest takeaways is how interwoven the theologies of sealing and plural marriage were during the Nauvoo period. “The term Celestial Marriage was almost universally synonymous with polygamy in Mormonism until 1890,” writes Smith, “after which it gradually came to refer exclusively to sealing” (pg. 23). Similarly, the “new and everlasting covenant” was a term used in reference to baptism and only later to sealing. By 1921, the “new and everlasting covenant” was “an umbrella term that encompassed both sealing and polygamy, with the latter having a reduced status” (pg. 25). In a sermon reported in Wilford Woodruff’s journal on March 10, 1844,
[Joseph] Smith outlines what may have been his primary purpose in polygamy: the establishment of sealing networks, in which families were joined to each other through sealing bonds that guaranteed salvation to those sealed to him. In that light, one can somewhat understand why some women—or their families through them, like fourteen-year-old Helen Mar Kimball, daughter of Heber and Vilate Kimball—might desire to be joined to Smith…The (virtually unbreakable) sealing link to Smith, whose exaltation was assured, meant that Kimball’s family had staked a claim in the glory of the hereafter (pg. 137).
This idea lingered after the martyrdom. Following Joseph Smith’s death,
a relatively robust practice developed of sealing men to other men as father and son, without a biologically relationship. Called “adoption,” it served two salvific purposes with a background based in Malachi 4:6: “And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.” Smith had redefined “turn” as “seal” in sermons, and the curse of an impending second coming of Jesus and the “smite the earth with a curse” combined to place a sense of urgency in the binding together of the Saints…The necessity of an unimpeachable chain of sealings and the limited time to accomplish that led to the idea that those who were sure links in the salvific chain, like Smith himself, were the only certain anchors. Hence many men were sealed to other men at the top of the priesthood chain, to the apostles after Smith’s death, and then to Smith himself. These lesser men in the chain would, together with those sealed to them, be assured safety at the imminent end of the world. This was the practice of adoption. It effected real relationships in the here and now, with men and women using titles of mother and father with such adopted parents and assuming rights to inheritances. These relationships became so complex that Brigham Young halted adoption after the Latter-day Saints left Nauvoo, stating that, unlike marriage sealings, they must be confined to a temple (pg. 201-202).
The need to create an expansive heavenly kinship network seems to have been in part shaped by the belief in an impending millennial reign by Christ. “Seal all you can” was incentivized by this millennial urgency. Polygamy was in some sense sealing taken to 11. “The transition away from polygamy saw an important shift in Mormon cosmology and eschatology,” explains Smith, “with the anticipation of an imminent millennium being stretched out to a far off epoch of end times. This extended millennial expectation enabled sealing links to be stretched through lost generations and removed the immediate need to be connected via sealings to one of the faithful leaders of early Mormonism” (pg. 80). What’s more, understandings of priesthood and offices (e.g., apostles) evolved and consequently affected the way the plural marriage revelation was interpreted. Of course, polygamy was seen as having an earthly purpose as well: “It had the vital, present, and human purpose of filling the earth with the posterity of its participants…The revelation theologized sex and gave it divine utility in plurality: children…A connection between ethical behavior toward unborn preexistent spirits and the personal glory found in God-like activity was at work in the theological framework of polygamy and procreation…Assuming that children raised in righteous homes were more likely to be brought into the kingdom of God, it became imperative that unborn spirits be given the increased possibility of being reared in righteous Mormon households. Polygamy was understood as increasing those chances” (pgs. 158-160). All of this fueled what the author calls “kingdom fever”: “a “get all you can” philosophy drenched in a picture of an afterlife where glory and family enlargement were one” (pg. 159).
None of this negates the more disturbing elements of plural marriage, nor does Smith shy away from them. However, realizing that plural marriage and sealing largely developed in tandem can help us better contextualize and understand early Mormon polygamy. But more excitingly, it can reignite the intensity and urgency felt by the early saints regarding sealing. It can also reemphasize the universal nature of sealings by reminding us that it goes far beyond our own nuclear family and ancestral line (at least it did for me). As Blake Ostler put it, “I’m not saved unless you are. My exaltation depends on your exaltation. So when it comes down to it, it doesn’t really mean a thing unless you’re all there with me. Because if a single one of us isn’t there we’re all diminished by your absence.”
William V. Smith’s Textual Studies of the Doctrine and Covenants is yet another home run for Greg Kofford Book’s Contemporary Studies in Scripture series. Not only does Smith make one of the most complex and controversial revelations in the Mormon canon accessible to a lay readership, but his attention to detail and the expansive range of his historical analysis will also make it invaluable to scholars. Historians and theologians alike will benefit from Smith’s painstaking research. Anyone who is serious about Mormon history and scriptural studies should have this on their shelf for continual reference.