That otherwise good and religiously inclined men and women actually believed that God commanded obedience to the doctrine of polygamy seems to us quite incredible, and but few can be found today who will even attempt to defend this doctrine without an effort to minimize and excuse the practice. Such is the inevitable fate of any peculiar behaviorism after being tried in the crucible of public opinion.
But in 1860, and even after that date for some years, polygamy with all its unlovely implications was, as Joseph Smith once called it, "a depressing cloud on the horizon of the past" that had to be lifted before the missionaries of that day could go forth to preach the simple gospel truths as in the days of the first Joseph. The Reorganized Church folk might be ever so virtuous, but so far as public opinion went, a Latter Day Saint was a Mormon, and a Mormon was a polygamist, or if not actually one, he believed it was all right to have more than one wife.
A Latter Day Saint could not enter public life, he could not apply for a job, his children could not attend college or even ordinary grade school, without being marked. People did not admit lightly that they were Latter Day Saints. Such an admission took courage and a great deal of it. Looked at with horror by religious people, with distaste by people of culture, and as a subject for coarse and lewd jokes by the vulgar, the lot of a person who became a Latter Day Saint in 1860 was harder than one who dared to take the step in 1830. Moral courage is as rare as physical courage.
Then, too, there was always the danger of deception. Polygamy had been kept a secret in the West for many years. Who knew when the Reorganization would spring something new?
Therefore, the first affirmation the church had to make was, "We advocate good morals and good citizenship; polygamy is not and never has been a tenet of the church." When Joseph Smith came to the church, he said it had been revealed to him what stand to take against the sin in the West," and he took that stand with those who loyally helped him, his two younger brothers and others. Whenever there was action taken in the world, in the State or in the Nation against this evil, the Reorganized Church was in the front of that fight, until the world finally came to know that there was a "nonpolygamous" group of Mormons. The church said that polygamy was wrong of itself, always had been and always would be, regardless of where and how it started and that it was never a part of the restored gospel. As for its origin, they kept an open mind. They asked for proof and took the privilege of examining what was submitted. Those who wished to fix the responsibility on Joseph Smith, or shift it from themselves, accepted and advocated this theory, especially Brigham Young and other principal men in the Utah Church who by 1852 had entered into polygamous alliances; but the evidences in support were considered wholly insufficient by many thousands of the members of the original church and by many honest inquirers after the facts, as well as the sons and descendants of Joseph Smith who, notwithstanding their desire to protect his reputation, were undoubtedly sufficiently courageous to face the facts. As the claim was made so many years after his death, and was not and is not supported by any undisputed act done or word spoken by him during his lifetime, the burden of proof, by all rules of evidence, has rested upon the proponents of the claim, and they have never proved their case. An eminent jurist, Federal Judge John F. Philips, reviewed the evidence presented by the polygamous Utah Mormon Church, in legal proceedings wherein the origin of the doctrine and practice of polygamy was a vital issue, and he held1 that Brigham Young and not Joseph Smith was the author and instigator of that obnoxious and heretical doctrine.
The Nauvoo Neighbor, a weekly newspaper published during the later years of Joseph Smith, in its issue of June 18, 1844, published official minutes of meetings of the Nauvoo City Council when, sitting as a quasi-judicial body, that tribunal investigated the circumstances connected with the issuance of a scurrilous sheet called the Nauvoo Expositor in its only issue of June 7, 1844. Both Hyrum Smith and Joseph Smith gave their testimony and both denied and branded as a lie that a revelation had been received by the latter providing for polygamy. This document2 can be seen at the City Library of New York, and it is highly important, as this testimony was given but a few days before these men were murdered by a mob. Young Joseph stated that as the years passed, his confidence in his father's innocence increased, and even since his death and as late as 1933, new evidence in rebuttal of the Utah claims has come to light.
If it was necessary to clear the church of the accusation of polygamy when our men went before the world, it was doubly necessary that those having once tasted of its bitter fruits be careful not to be caught in its snare again. It was necessary to convert those honest in heart, who had actually placed a confidence in it for there were such, strange as it now seems. True, the majority of the factions had a deep and abiding hatred of the doctrine, but in the largest of them all, belief in this nefarious practice had actually at times been made a test of fellowship, while isolated cases of plural wives were seen in two other groups.
To those outside the church and those within, the Reorganization declared in no uncertain terms the uncompromising stand they had taken, and pointed to the Book of Mormon and its plain declaration that polygamy was an abomination.
This doctrine was, Young Joseph had said, the only doctrine in any faction that he held "in utter abhorrence."3 To men of refined sensibilities like the sons of Joseph Smith, the very literature emanating from the West, crude, coarse, and repulsive as it was, involving their father as it sought to do, was a lifelong cause of sorrow and indignation.
The history of the doctrine has no place in the history of the church except as it affected the lives of the members; polygamy was never put forth as a belief of the church until announced by Brigham Young eight years after Joseph Smith's death. That it existed many years previous cannot be denied; nor does the candid student fail to admit that all abnormal behaviorisms in human society are a matter of evolution, but they realize that evolution may proceed from a comparatively harmless beginning. Given an age of speculation (religious speculation not confined to Latter Day Saints) and a gross materialistic leadership such as that of Brigham Young, the riddle is not difficult to solve.
Whatever its origin, the Reorganized Church has taken a firm position against it, upon which the attitude of Young Joseph himself may be taken as representative.
Having been asked by a friend:
"If it were proven conclusively to you that your father was a polygamist, what difference would that make in your position on polygamy?"
"None," was the answer. "Polygamy would still be everlastingly and eternally wrong. Should I ever become so convinced, it would merely mean one more sorrow that I must carry to the grave."
Hating the doctrine4 as he did, believing as he did that those who implicated his father in it had marred his life, his mother's and his brothers', this new leader was constantly urging tolerance upon those who looked to him for counsel.
We are striving to secure a unity of belief among the one-time Latter Day Saints, our only intention towards them being for their good. To make this intention apparent to them is our duty, and to present the good in such form that they are attracted to it rather than repulsed from it is also our duty. Our relation to them, then, is one of friendship to the men composing them; though there may be and ought to be no compromise upon our part with those measures of either or all of them that we believe to be erroneous or wicked.
The men composing these various organizations have been at one time, if they are not now, lovers of the principles of the gospel as taught by Christ; they were honest in the convictions which resulted in their obeying it, and they have taught the necessity of obedience to it as strenuously as do we. We in this respect stand upon common ground, and so far should meet as brothers. If they advocate and practice what is to our understanding wrong, we to them occupy a similar position, because we teach and practice what is to their understanding erroneous. With the three or four of them that are left, we are now at variance on points of doctrine; but that variance is rather upon matters of comparatively later origin and does not involve what all agree in calling the fundamental principles of the gospel of Christ, however that gospel may to us be affected by the teaching of those things to which we do not agree.
At present but one of these organizations, the one in Utah, outnumbers the Reorganization, and from all the indications seen now, the latter is rapidly increasing. . . . As a natural result, judging from past history, the increase of numbers, and the growing importance which the increase of numbers gives, there will be a strong tendency to become conservative; and arrogant conservatism is but another name for intolerance. Our labor should be to secure our relations with these factions from assuming the intolerant form.5
In the past this advice so far as applies to the question of polygamy in the West may, at times have been forgotten; it may be forgotten again in the heat of controversy, but it cannot be denied that the wiser men of the Reorganization have striven from the first to take a tolerant, kindly attitude towards those who have held opposite views, even while, as the third Joseph has said: "We are and have been the acknowledged and avowed enemy to the doctrine of polygamy, and we are called to preach in opposition to it."
As the occasion for such preaching becomes less, no one rejoices more than the Reorganized Church. Polygamy is not a pleasant subject; our ministry turn with relief from it to the two great affirmative objectives of the church, the redemption of Zion and the evangelization of the world, beside which all else pales to insignificance.
1 Reorganized Church vs. Church of Christ, et al., 60 Fed. 937.
2 Nauvoo Neighbor, issue of June 18, 1844.
3 Speech at Amboy, Illinois, April 6, 1860.
4 Joseph Smith (Young Joseph) had such a deep abhorrence of this particular doctrine that he confesses to have become physically sick at meeting at a dinner table with a Utah relative and his several wives.
5 From a series of Herald editorials published 1871, 1872. Republished in Church History, Volume 3, page 679.