On Saturday April 5, 2008, the day the 178th Annual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was to begin, federal authorities raided a polygamist compound in Eldorado, Texas, on grounds that its adult members were sexually abusing minors. (This is nothing new: most polygamist communities have been found committing statutory rape and other forms of sexual abuse of minors.) Whether in response to this incident or not, Elder Richard G. Scott gave a talk, “To Heal the Shattering Consequences of Abuse”, during the Saturday afternoon session of General Conference that strongly condemned sexual abuse.
But over the days, the Church has found itself in a defensive position. Allow me to clear issues. (I may write more posts about polygamy.)
First, a note about terminology. The word “Mormon” may refer to people on two levels. The first level is referring to members of the Joseph Smith, Jr., branch of the 19th century Restorationist movement. (Defining Joseph Smith, Jr., is important because a number of other churches came out of the same general theological movement identified as Restorationism, some examples being the Christadelphians, the Disciples of Christ, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Seventh-day Adventists.) Examples of the Joseph Smith, Jr., branch of Restorationsm include:
The Church of Christ (Temple Lot)
The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (now The Community of Christ)
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (also known as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Strangites))
The Church of Jesus Christ (Bickertonite)
The Remnant Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (also known as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Brighamite))
The largest of these is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (that is, the Brighamites). This Church is headquartered in Salt Lake City, Utah.
At another level, “Mormon” is most often used to refer to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. While institutionally the Church does not approve of such a use, its widespread use is acknowledged and dealt with accordingly. At one point, the Church used to tack “(the Mormon Church)” after mention of the official name in public relations publications to make clear what entity is being talked about. (An anecdote often told by members is that after a disaster, a local official admitted that the two groups that helped the most were The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Mormon Church.)
Most of the churches that arose during the chaos after the martyrdom of Joseph Smith, Jr., are not readily identified as “Mormon”. What complicates the exclusive use of the word for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the phenomenon of churches splitting from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The major era of splits from the main Church occurred around September 1890 when President Wilford Woodruff, the fourth President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, issued the “1890 Manifesto” (also known as “Official Declaration-1” as it is designated in the canonized Doctrine and Covenants of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints), which banned polygamy by and in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. These groups split from the Church stating that the true Church of Christ would never abolish polygamy, going so far as saying that polygamy is necessary for salvation. These groups are often referred to as polygamist Mormons or fundamentalist Mormons. (All of them also oppose Official Declaration-2, issued by President Spencer W. Kimball, the twelfth President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which proclaimed that the priesthood may be bestowed on all worthy men, regardless of race.)
Just as various ultra-traditionalist and sedevancantist Catholics believe the last “true” pope was Blessed Pope John XXIII because John XXIII’s successors convoked The Second Vatican Council which perverted Catholicism, the abovementioned fundamentalists believe that the last true President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was President John Taylor, the third President. Indeed, a good number of these fundamentalist groups trace their priesthood lineage and authority to President John Taylor, alleging that President Taylor secretly ordained various polygamist men in anticipation of the apostasy of the then extant priesthood by abolishing polygamy. In other words: they assert that President Taylor also believed that polygamy was essential to Christ’s Church and to salvation, that President Taylor envisioned that his successor would abolish polygamy, and that he wanted to preserve polygamy by ordaining men with the requisite priesthood authority to establish the Church in true order when President Taylor’s successor leads the Church astray. (In response to such claims, there are various passages written after Official Declaration-1 in Doctrine and Covenants which assert that the President of the Church cannot doctrinally lead the Church astray, for God would strike him dead before he could. This assumption has done a lot to keep members united when innovations are introduced, for members will go to the default that these changes, although changes from what previous presidents have followed, must be authorized and acceptable to Jesus Christ. Official Declaration-2 is one such earth-shattering innovation which was accepted because members accepted the authority of the President of the Church.)
From the perspective of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its members, these various polygamist and fundamentalist groups have nothing to do with the Church. None of these groups’ members are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Indeed, any active association with them may potentially be an excommunicable offense in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. No Latter-day Saint may practice polygamy. Anyone who does, and who refuses to renounce it and end practicing it, is excommunicated. This applies even to regions where polygamy is acceptable, such as Africa and Muslim states: even there, Latter-day Saints are banned from practicing polygamy.
Thus, when people refer to such fundamentalists and polygamists as Mormons, without any qualifiers, it causes considerable consternation among Latter-day Saints. I experience this myself, when people make ample jokes about Mormons and their many wives. Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have not practiced polygamy since 1890, which was some 118 years ago.
Because of the widespread image of Mormons as polygamists, whenever polygamist groups are mentioned, people lump such transgressors along with Latter-day Saints, who are not polygamists. We are not the same. Indeed, Latter-day Saints and polygamists or fundamentalists are very, very, very different groups. We are aware of these differences, which simply heightens our consternation.
Polygamy remains a touchy and contentious issue even among Latter-day Saints. We are a Church built upon revelation, but there are many things concerning which no revelation has been given, no official statement issued. We, as Latter-day Saints, do not know why polygamy was introduced, what role it played, and why it was practiced. There has been no official statement regarding any of these issues. So while we may debate these questions, they remain speculative until an official statement is issued. And none will be in the foreseeable future. As far as the Church is concerned, it was a past chapter (very much in the far past) that has no bearing or significance to today. Thus, this issue is, for all intents and purposes, a non-issue.
What follows is that polygamy is not an issue that relates to salvation. We believe the Lord is very ready and eager to give us revelation when it concerns salvation. He will hold back no information or knowledge with regard to this. But He will not waste His time or our time by providing useless information on issues that have no significance. Thus, it is quite safe to say that there is nothing intrinsic or essential whatsoever in polygamy for the Restored Gospel and for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Those who desire to make it an important issue, whether such people are Latter-day Saints, apostates, or non-members, are simply fomenting strife, inaccuracy, and idiocy.
As a Later-day Saint, and as a convert, I cannot begin to tell how difficult it is to know that polygamy is a non-issue yet the first thing people think of when they hear “Mormon” is multiple wives. While some people I know have ancestors that practiced polygamy back when it was officially practiced, I have no connection whatsoever to the practice. For all members today, it is a foreign practice. And contrary to what people may say or think, I have yet to meet a Latter-day Saint who wants it back. Every man who has mentioned it has openly admitted that it is good it no longer is practiced.
So when federal agents raid a polygamist compound in Texas, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints indirectly defends such a raid by strongly condemning sexual abuse (see Elder Scott’s talk referenced in the beginning). It also has no objection to such a raid. It has no reasons to defend or position itself positively towards the polygamist group. Its members are not members of the Church. The group itself is a heretical apostate group, devoid of any authority or authenticity.
To repeat, these various polygamist and fundamentalist groups, often containing versions of the Church’s name in their own name, have no connection whatsoever with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Latter-day Saints do not practice polygamy and have not for more than a century. To associate Latter-day Saints with polygamy would be like associating white people with slavery.