Friday, April 18, 2008
With this raid of the Texas polygamist compound all over the news lately, and with the outcome of the 400+ children who were taken into child protective services's custody being largely determined today in court, I have felt my latent fascination with polygamy re-sprouting. About 3 years ago I read every book on polygamy I could get my hands on. I had just visited Nauvoo for the first time since I was a young teenager, and suddenly this concept and the controversy that accompanies it became objects of great interest to me. Because many of the Nauvoo historical sites were left to Emma Smith, or rather because she chose to remain in Nauvoo instead of following Brigham Young and the saints to the west, these sites are largely properties of the Community of Christ church- once the Reorganized LDS church. Interestingly enough, there were many books on polygamy in the visitors center there. I found this interesting because on my tour of these sites the elderly brother who took us through told me in no uncertain terms that he did not believe Joseph Smith was a polygamist. He said that their church held the firm belief that Brigham Young had started polygamy, and had unsuccessfully attempted to convince Joseph Smith to follow his example and officially introduce polygamy into church policy. Consequently, there were many books on the shelf in that visitors center which attempted to present testimony and facts that decry the myth of Joseph Smith being a polygamist. The Community of Christ has preserved the Joseph Smith line as the prophetic dynasty that is called to lead the true church. They follow the bible, the book of mormon and the other canonized scriptures that the LDS church uses. Of greater interest to me is that in the early 1990s women were given the priesthood in the Community of Christ. They are given it by the laying on of hands by those who are in authority the same way that the LDS are given the priesthood. They baptize, preach, administer ordinances, and even lead congregations. In fact, the line of Joseph Smith turned to a critical point in the early 90s when a male prophet could not be found. The person in line was a female, and so she became a prophet. Pretty progressive for a mormon, right? I had not heard this in all my life as a mormon, and I was duly impressed as a part-time feminist. I asked my mom about this and she looked on it with the appropriate degree of disdain. She believes women cannot rightfully hold priesthood of any kind, but she wasn't mad at them because like true LDS believers she must see the Community of Christ as just another vain attempt to access the true authority to save. The fact that they have Joseph and Emma at their root makes them no closer to truth. Because truth is all or nothing. Isn't it?
Of course the FLDS church has its own difficult story. Men choosing to believe that the LDS prophet Wilford Woodruff "sold out" in 1890 by receiving or claiming to receive a revelation about the end of polygamous practice-- or "the principle" as it was commonly referred to, broke off into many and various factions which have survived if not flourished since that day. Now I have read many books about polygamy. There are so many I have not read, but one interesting book I read while still at BYU was this book I found for a dollar at Savers called "More than One." It was all about how even though the current LDS church does not practice polygamy, and in many ways has tried to PR as much distance from the issue and their history as they can, this author shares that this is still very much a mormon principle, and shares letters and journal entries from many women who were involved in polygamy from the mid 1830s-1900. I found this book very moving as an LDS believer (which I very much was at the time). I found myself touched yet perplexed as to why the church would distance themselves from polygamy the way they have, while still allowing men to seal themselves to more than one woman in temple ceremonies in cases of death of a wife or even in cases of lawful divorces that do not go through the process of breaking the temple seal. I was especially confused and quite upset when in the July 2005 Ensign there was a beautiful article about the life of Bathsheba W. Smith, wife of George A. Smith. If you read the article from start to finish, it would appear that Bathsheba was an only wife of a prophet, much like a Marjorie Hinkley was in 2005. What the article omits, is that Bathsheba was very passionate about living "the principle", that she shared her husband with several other wives, and did so in great faith and diligence. In her journal entries, she talks about how firmly and plainly she believes and follows the practice of polygamy as a divine gift given to the world. The Ensign article pulled a lot of quotes from her journal and writings, but omitted anything regarding polygamy. They had to do some creative editing in order to accomplish this. So many of her entries talk about living the principle, even encouraging her husband to follow it to a greater degree! To me, it clearly was one of the vital tenets of her faith in the restored gospel. Yet here in this article which is meant represent the greatness of her life and her faith, no whisper of polygamy is present. If this principle is still important to our theology, why are we ashamed of it? Could it be that we are afraid of scaring off potential converts by embracing our past involvement in the practice, and also owning that we still believe that the principle is an important part of eternal salvation?
The problem with the situation in Texas is this: even though surely these are mostly wonderful mothers with the best intentions, the truth of the matter is that they have been indoctrinated to believe that it is holy and spiritually purposeful to marry of their young women as young as is desired by the men in power. The young girls have been taught that the greatest blessing of their lives is to bear these children, even as children themselves. They have no compass by which to decide that this is abuse of power, that this is abuse of children. Adolph Hitler, one of the most successful indoctrinators in modern history said that,
"The great masses of the people...
will more easily fall victims to
a big lie than to a small one."
Indoctrination is an interesting thing. As LDS people we too have been indoctrinated, but not nearly on this scale. However, we do believe that we must do and be certain things in order to be acceptable and worthy before God. We must perform certain acts willingly if we want to be saved. Even our thoughts and feelings have been infiltrated and are to an extent monitored. We have been taught to sometimes shun common sense and other "of the world" views to uphold what we have agreed to believe to be the "only true and living church on the face of the earth." We've covenanted before God and angels to uphold these teachings, and prior to 1990 we even made signs concerning physical punishments associated with failing to comply. Indoctrination and mind control is actually principle of most religions, at least the ones who are powerful and successful. And make no mistake, Mormonism is powerful. Mormonism is successful. So are many other faiths. What would happen if somehow a megalomaniac like Warren Jeffs were to become our prophet. We are not at such a risk to this because we are not subject to dynastic considerations when choosing leaders, but nevertheless: what would the prophet convince you to do? Would you, like a suicide bomber, go to eternal glory by blowing up an enemy to the church? Would you take a 14-year old wife? Would you send away your son because there are too many men for each follower in the community to have the requisite 3 wives needed to get to heaven? How far would your religious training and beliefs take you? Would you reject your child because they told you that they could not follow the religion you taught them? What are you willing to give up to follow what you have been taught and what you have chosen to believe?
The quote that I read which inspired me to write this post was spoken by Flora Jessop, a woman who escaped from a polygamist compound and now is an activist in saving other women. Having been taught that the polygamist world where she was raised and reared was a literal heaven on earth, she said after leaving that, "The pain got so bad in heaven that I was willing to damn myself to hell to escape it."
Flora Jessop now knows that she is not going to hell for leaving the FLDS community and refusing to follow its principles. I understand Flora's statement though. As I started making my way out of mormonism, I truly believed that I might be making a choice to go to the Telestial kingdom. I have heard many ex-mormons who have been out of the church for YEARS saying the same thing: they are going to the Telestial kingdom but they would rather that then have to live their lives in the church. To me that is powerful.
I would like to say that I, as a human being, was not flourishing in the LDS church. There were moments of true connectedness and wonderful experiences in the church, but overall I felt like my soul was being slowly stripped of any ability to FEEL. For years I tried to tell myself that it was my own wickedness and unworthiness that made me unable to fully connect to my life as a mormon. There was also enough about the church that I loved which allowed me to distract myself from the fact that I was losing my soul not saving it. I believe that now I have a fair attempt at life because I have left the indoctrinated world and choose to see the world with my own eyes, and feel through my own rescued soul.
Leaving the church is not actually the full answer though. Authorities in Texas know that just taking these women and children out of that environment is the very beginning of trying to give them a chance at life. Just getting out without further work can leave a person shattered and alone, with no foundation for finding meaning in the rest of his/her life. Many who are removed from polygamist communities find their way back into the safety of their childhood indoctrination, finding nothing but hopelessness and pain on the other side. The road out of indoctrination will be long and extremely difficult for anyone who endeavors to tread it uncertain pathways. But the bright shining truth of humanity is that a soul never dies. No matter how beaten down we feel, there is always a way to heal, improve, and fully live life. That is the great blessing of life, and also its great hope.