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How did the women of the early Church deal with plural marriage? How do we reconcile ourselves to this practice of that time?
This is the fourteenth in a series compiled from the many interviews conducted during the course of the Witnesses film project. This series of mini-films is being released each Saturday at 7pm MDT. These additional resources are hosted by Camrey Bagley Fox, who played Emma Smith in Witnesses, as she introduces and visits with a variety of experts. These individuals answer questions or address accusations against the witnesses, also helping viewers understand the context of the times in which the witnesses lived. For more information, go to https://witnessesofthebookofmormon.org/ or watch the documentary movie Undaunted.
Short clips from this episode are also available on TikTok and Instagram.
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Witnesses of the Book of Mormon — Insights
Episode 14: Plural Marriage – Part 2
Witnesses of the Book of Mormon — Insights Episode 14:
Plural Marriage – Part 2
Camrey Bagley Fox: Welcome to our series about the witnesses of the Book of Mormon. My name is Camrey Bagley Fox. And we are joined today by Dr. Gerritt Dirkmaat. Thank you for being here.
Gerritt Dirkmaat: Thank you for having me.
CBF: So, as a Latter-day Saint woman myself, polygamy has always been a really uncomfortable subject that I don’t like, but it’s part of our Church history. How can I reconcile that? Do you have any facts that would be…?
GD: Well, I mean, if you’re asking me, is there an answer I can give you that will make you feel comfortable with plural marriage, the answer is no. Because feeling uncomfortable with that, it’s so foreign to our culture, it’s so foreign to our understanding of marriage and love, that we will never feel 100% comfortable with it.
On the bright side, no one with any authority anyway, is asking us to practice it, no one is asking us to practice plural marriage. So we’re not going to gain the same kind of testimony of it that people of the past who practiced it. But you can read the testimonies of many Latter-day Saint women who did practice it, who are certain that it’s a revelation from God, who had the exact same reaction that you have when they first heard of it.
You read people like Phoebe Woodruff who says, ‘When I first heard of polygamy, I was so opposed to it that I felt myself becoming sick and wretched.’—she couldn’t even THINK of it. And then she said, “Once I became convinced that it was a revelation from the prophet Joseph Smith, I prayed at that all-important time in my life to know the truth.’ And she says God gave her the answer that she was to practice it. That sounds like incredible, incredible faith, and sacrifice.
But Phoebe Woodruff was an amazing woman, who’d already made dozens of sacrifices for the Church, who had already been thrown out by her family because she believed, had already buried children along the way. She had already decided that her faith was going with the Church no matter, no matter what. Even she struggled with it. And really, we have that from lots of women from this Nauvoo period when they talk about it; that ‘When Joseph first talked to me about it I said ABSOLUTELY not.’
I can think of Lucy Walker Kimball, and she says, ‘When Joseph first told me about it, you know, I was indignant, and expressed myself to him because it was entirely opposed to anything I had ever been taught. But he told me that I was entitled to receive an answer for myself, and I prayed and received that witness.’ That’s why she practiced it and believed it.
I CAN’T get inside of Lucy Walker’s head and say, ‘You never actually felt that.’ She’s saying that she did. She’s maintaining her faith in the Church. She’s following it to Utah. Even after that, I have to take her at least at her word, that SHE really believed that. And hopefully that provides some comfort to us when we’re trying to figure out what’s going on in the past. But it is the most natural reaction in the history of the world to hear about plural marriage and to say, “I don’t think so.”
GD: Yeah, that’s called being a person, that’s normal.
CBF: I actually love hearing a historian talk about this, objectively, because, like you said, it’s an uncomfortable topic for most people who know about it.
GD: It’s an uncomfortable topic FOR ME. So yeah.
CBF: And it’s always been a tough one for me, and in the film I played Emma Smith, and I can’t help but think of her situation, and how hard that would — like if I put myself in her shoes.
CBF: And it’s actually kind of comforting that we DON’T know that much about it. Obviously it would be nice to have some concrete sources, but at least for me, I feel like hearing, ‘Okay, this is what we do know, this is what we don’t know,’ makes it easier for me to be like ‘Okay, this is probably something that I’m never going to have a full grasp on, in this life, at least.’
And I’m probably always going to be uncomfortable with it, and so I can turn to the things that I DO have a testimony in and build from there. And it’s not that we should ignore the things that are uncomfortable. I think it’s important to learn more about them and to delve into those. But I find comfort in NOT knowing all the answers.
GD: Well, it’s not only a very mature position of faith to take to say, ‘I don’t know the answer to this, and I might not.’ I mean, the reality is, just historically speaking, with the records that we have, having a perfect knowledge of how plural marriage was received as a revelation, when it was first implemented, how it was implemented in every case, those records don’t exist.
Now, we do have some records. I don’t want it to come across that Joseph Smith didn’t actually teach and practice plural marriage, which he of course did. We have better records of his Nauvoo plural marriages, but even those marriages, we have VERY little detail, and almost no contemporary (meaning sources from the time) where people are talking about how those marriages worked, how they functioned. Were these just simply sealings here, and then this one was a marriage in every sense of the word, or… the reality is, you can spin yourself in circles trying to figure out, and with a lack of sources, sometimes, people will state what they think is the case, as opposed to what is provable is the case. And everybody who has to deal with the fact that our church once practiced and taught plural marriage has to do exactly what you did. At some point they have to come to terms with, ‘I don’t understand this. I don’t understand it now. I don’t think I’m ever going to understand this. Thankfully no one’s asking me to practice it, so I don’t even have to come to THAT conclusion.’
GD: But what do I know? I know that The Book of Mormon’s true. I know that it’s true because I’ve read it and God told me that it’s true. I know that the witnesses saw the plates and saw the angel. I know that Joseph Smith communed with Jesus. There are parts of the truth that are so powerful, that hopefully, they can be that tide that kind of raises our ship just a little bit over the rocks of doubt when it’s things that we just don’t seem to understand.
I’ve studied Joseph Smith and Church history and American history for most of my life at this point. And I have all kinds of questions that I don’t have answers to. That’s really frustrating because I SHOULD be able to get an answer to everything!
CBF: Yeah, you should be the guy with the answers!
GD: Which, maybe it’s just a commentary on I’m not doing a very good job, right? But I don’t think you’ll ever get to a place where you have an answer for every single question that you have in this life. And so, that’s why faith is so, so central to what we believe. Are we willing to give up this beautiful truth that we do have, because I DON’T have an answer for a question that I have. And for me, I’m not willing to do that.
I mean, earlier this year my youngest brother suddenly, unexpectedly died. And it was catastrophic. The fact that I know that my brother’s going to be resurrected, that his family will be with him in the next life, is the most beautiful thing to know. And just a LITTLE bit, [it] takes a little bit of that empty part inside my soul that’s now gone because he’s gone, because I know he’s gonna live again. And for me, the truth of the knowledge of those things, they help me get past the things that are so difficult that the questions I can’t find answers for. The, ‘Why did God let this happen?’ I don’t have an answer for all of them, but I still believe that Joseph was a prophet of God, the revelations he received were from God, the Book of Mormon is from God, and that certainly carries me through my difficulties.
CBF: Thank you.