One of the accusations you occasionally get from the far corners of the internet is that the early Church was a “sex cult” because of Nauvoo-era polygamy. That accusation, of course, begs the question of what a sex cult is. While I categorically don’t like to use the word “cult,” (for, among other reasons, implying that small religions have issues that big religions don’t have), if you were to identify a group as an archetypal “sex cult,” it would be the Children of God Movement in the second half of the 20th century. This book was written by a grandchild of the founder about her experiences in the group up until she left as a young adult; it acts as both a memoir and a history in itself about the movement.
To summarize, the Children of God synthesized traditional Christian teachings with what could be described as sex worship and communal living. Among other practices, people were encouraged to imagine the “love of Christ” as a sex act, female proselytizers used casual sex to attract “investigators,” religious materials were sexually explicit in nature, and in its later stages there were accusations of adult-child sexual contact. (Also, fun fact, the actor Joaquin Phoenix was raised in the group).
So, to relate this to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. If I had to guess, I’d imagine that Joseph Smith polygamy is probably the top faith crisis issue in the Church (maybe Book of Abraham). Of course, if your prior is that Joseph Smith was a conman the natural assumption is that it was an extravagant edifice constructed to increase his sexual options.
However, people like Warren Jeffs and groups like The Children of God are helpful examples in that they kind of show what a religion based around male sexuality does in fact look like. While sex was involved in at least some Nauvoo-era polygamy (Mormonr recently released an extensive collection of all the primary source information on Joseph Smith-era polygamy, including about sexuality), the erotic itself wasn’t sacralized and built into the theology like it was with Warren Jeffs recording orgies while he sermonizes or having sex on the altars of his temple, or the Children of God’s pass-along cards showing a very buxom Holy Spirit. (The only primary source for which it has been argued does directly address the erotic is the letter from Joseph Smith to Sarah Whitney, and you only get there if you strategically use ellipses to obscure who he’s talking to and what he’s actually talking about.)
Of course, it’s impossible to prove that on some level the erotic wasn’t operating in the background software of the introduction of polygamy, but whether you’re a believer or not it’s reductionist to see that as the main point, especially given that so much of the polygamy edifice increased the risk to Joseph without increasing his sexual options (pressuring his male followers to enter into it, marriages to older women, dynastic marriages, not having enough sex evidently to produce any genetically verified children from such relations, etc.).
If sexual options was the point that were much more direct ways to go about it. George Bernard Shaw famously wrote that “Now nothing can be more idle, nothing more frivolous, than to imagine that this polygamy had anything to do with personal licentiousness.”
Some of this may seem like standard apologetic cant to certain people, so to summarize the one take-away that I hope such people get from this post: when attributing intent and categorizing something as sex-driven, it’s useful to take into account a larger sampling frame of religious organizations that have practices that are also probably sex-driven and influenced and see if one looks like the other.
Interesting, but both the examples of sex-cults are modern enough to be built around late 20th-21st century sex cultural mores (better word for cultural mores???). Joseph Smith’s sex cult (if there was one, I’m not arguing either way) was early 19th century. The world, us cultural was so radically different that I don’t see these comparisons as all that useful.
What do sex cults in 19th century, 18th century, earlier, look like? How did they function in relation to their contemporary culture? That’s the more important questions.
I was thinking along similar lines recently. Given that Joseph Smith was attracting prudish, religious types – people really searching for a biblically based faith – it just wouldn’t have worked to have done a bait and switch into a sex cult. Everyone would have balked immediately. I agree with your assessment here too.
Couple thoughts if I were Joseph..
I would have told the angel to give me the flaming sword through the heart, since Emma was going to kill me anyway.
I would never, ever, ask God a question about anything in the past again.
Maybe it is all about sex?
First commandment for the first parents = go have sex.
Biblical prophets/past members with multiple wives and concubines = lots of sex.
Temple marriage be fruitful and multiply = have sex.
Sure, saying “go have children” is a nicer way of saying it but you throw in 6 or 16 wives and that is a ton of sex! (and maybe children)
Seriously tho, is there a more controversial topic in all of church history? It is like the church would love for it to just go away, but it cant as it was the crowning doctrine for exaltation for the first 100+ years! Pretty sure Pres. Nelson is sealed to 2 wives, do members not think about that fact? Do they think he just picks one in the next life? We still live/believe the doctrine but nobody ever talks about it.
Women talk about it, especially women in real situations affected by polygamy today. But not at church, of course.
Great post Stephen.
Discussions of Joseph’s polygamy often conveniently tend to avoid that there is zero evidence of sexual relationship between Joseph and any of his plural wives. They talk extensively about the fact that he was sealed to teenagers while ignoring that several of his wives were, for that time period, elderly. If Joseph just = creepy pedo, why is this the case? It’s strange, it often doesn’t make sense, but IMO the evidence just doesn’t indicate that, at least in Joseph’s case, plural marriage served any sort of sexual purpose.
I joined the church three years ago after years of trying to convince myself that Joseph was simply a creep, but it just didn’t add up.
REC911– You can look at it that way… in some sense, of course it is– as humans, that is our number one evolutionary purpose.
Re: Pres. Nelson, that’s not entirely true– as active, believing members, my wife and I talk about it often. I don’t think doctrine has to be perfectly understood for one to have faith.
If we allow ourselves to be dragged down by the minutiae, we will never get out of the gospel what the Lord desires us to.
What women in the church are affected by polygamy today? I am not aware of any but it looks like I am missing something.
REC911 – I haven’t read it, but you might try the book ‘The Ghost of Eternal Polygamy’ by Carol Lynn Pearson as a starting place to learning how many women feel about /experience polygamy today.
My family’ story: My sister, in her 20s as a widow with a child, married a divorced man, each still sealed to their first spouse (and agreed to keep it that way prior to marriage). Then they decided to have children together and he and his *entire family* came down on her hard to break her first sealing and become husband 2’s second wife via sealing so that the children would be sealed to husband 2 rather than BIC between her and her deceased husband. It was a nightmare and an unbelievably painful place for her to be that went on-and-on. Ended with her leaving the church, and after several children, divorcing him (although for full disclosure, this wasn’t the only issue leading to the divorce).
ReTx – Oh I forgot about that odd situation when this happens and for sure that is a hot mess. Sorry this happened to your family. I didn’t even know it was a thing until I was bishop and heard about it. I dont agree with the church’s view on it, but I get why they think the way they do. Always fun to tell a woman her new baby with her new husband belongs to her X in the next life. When my parents got divorced 100 years ago, I went through the trauma (not much mind you) of “who am I sealed to now” questions since it is so important to our doctrines. Once I got my own sealing to my wife, I dont think the sealing to my parents even matters now. I need my wife to make it, not my parents. Now that I am old, I think my sealing is the “ticket” to the CK where the wife and I can pick someone else for eternity. That of course is the gospel according to me, and I am nobody special. :)
Thanks for sharing!