Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Marriage, Religion and the State : A Mormon history (Part 9)

Discussion: Background context surrounding the origin of Mormon Polygamy

From today’s perspective, it is difficult to imagine the intensity of feeling that drove the 60 year battle between the United States government and the LDS Church over the definition of marriage. In fact, in 21st Century North America, few would deny that marriage appears to be a threatened institution. One out of every two marriages end in divorce and a growing number of people are choosing to live together in common-law relationships rather than formalize their unions through marriage. The LDS church, together with Catholics, protestants and Jews are working together in organizations like the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) to defend traditional marriage through political activism. Recently, NOM claimed a significant political victory in opposition to same-sex marriage during the 2010 mid-term US elections1.

Smaller communities continue to exist within the American mosaic that are based upon alternate models for marriage and relationships. These include members of the Federation for Egalitarian Communities which are founded on principles of non-violence, ecology, a commitment to establish the equality of all people and not to discriminate on the basis of race, class, creed, ethnic origin, age, sex, sexual orientation or gender identity.2 The oldest and most established of these communities, Twin Oaks Ecovillage, explains their policy on relationships as “ Whereas in the mainstream, certain relationship styles tend to be socially and economically rewarded (most notably a man and woman married to each other), at Twin Oaks a much wider range of relationship choices are accepted as normal and are not remarked upon3” These communities typically practice a form of polyamory (more than one lover) or open relationship. These relationships are are not simply Free Love, but in contrast “Open relationships mean more commitment, working on difficult feelings when they come up, and committing to support one lover’s feelings about another.” Perhaps surprisingly, Twin Oaks has a solid tie to Restoration movement.

One of the buildings at Twin Oaks is called Oneida House, after the Oneida Perfectionist community founded by John Humphrey Noyes during 1848 in Madison County, New York4. Like the Latter Day Saints, the Oneida community sought a return to primitive, apostolic Christianity and they held all things in common. Seeing no intrinsic differences between property in persons and property in things, Noyes abolished traditional marriage and instituted a system of polygamy and polyandry known as “complex marriage”.5 Noyes did not conceal his teachings and their practice of complex marriage, even after they were mobbed and driven from their first settlement near Putney, New York during 18476. Notwithstanding their public teaching and practice of an extremely unconventional marriage system, the Oneida community flourished without serious persecution until 1876, when complications arose when John Noyes tried to pass the leadership to his son. By 1880, the community was abandoned through a combination of internal dissension and external pressure.7 John Noyes and his Perfectionist community were preceded by Jacob Cochran and his Society of Free Brethren and Sisters who formed a radical Christian community near Saco, Maine in 18168. Cochran also called for a return to the apostolic church, re-baptized his followers to cleanse them from sectarianism9, denied legal marriage vows, created a system of spiritual wifery and a series of secret rituals10.

From today’s perspective, it is difficult to imagine that these unconventional marriage concepts emerged as part of the Restoration tradition. However, these events must be seen in the context of the Second Great Awakening that swept America in the early 1800s. The revolutionary war brought about a consciousness of freedom from Europe with its traditions, values and the existing social order. This new freedom spawned a strong desire to create a new society. Many people rejected the established churches, seeing them as corrupt agents of the old order.

It is important to remember that the Christian message has always been revolutionary; proclaiming Good News for the poor, freedom for the captive and relief for the oppressed11. In the time of Jesus, He directly confronted social, political and religious discrimination. In return, He was accused of being a drunk, a glutton, a friend of sinners and tax collectors. His female followers, who moved beyond their societal restrictions, were labelled as sinners and harlots12. Jesus’ harshest critics were the leaders of the established religious orders who went so far as to accuse him of being possessed by demons. In return, Jesus charged his critics with hypocrisy, stating “by your own tradition, you nullify the direct commandment of God” and “These people draw near to Me with their mouth, and honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship me, Teaching as doctrines the commandment of men13”. Just prior to his death, Jesus warned his followers that they were no longer “of the world” and because of this, they would be hated and persecuted for being his disciples14. The words of Jesus were fulfilled soon after his death when the apostles were brought before the Sanhedrin and commanded to stop proclaiming His gospel. Peter responded “We ought to obey God rather than men15.”

Jesus’s Kingdom of Heaven signified a movement away from the dominion of rich and powerful rulers who took from the poor and oppressed the weak. Unfortunately, from the time of Constantine, the Christian church became the Imperial Church spreading Rome’s agenda among the European nations. Through the history of Europe’s reformation, the radical Spirit of Christianity broke through as the voice for the poor during times of political uncertainty. However, the reformation churches soon became national churches, the pre-cursor of today’s media, for the protestant states. This left a sense among the peasant classes that the Spirit of Christianity had been overtaken once again to serve the interests of the powerful and maintain the unjust social order. During the early 1500s, Germany and Switzerland saw the birth of the anabaptist movement that rejected the catholic and emerging state churches for a belief in millennialism, adult baptism, a priesthood of all believers and the common ownership of goods. In 1534, radical Anabaptists were able to take control of the city of Muenster, declaring it to be the “New Jerusalem”,where they formed a community of goods and began practicing polygamy16.

A century later, a similar movement took place in England and it rose to prominence during the political instabilities surrounding the English civil war. Seekers, Ranters, Levellers, Shakers, Quakers and Fifth Monarchists rose up to challenge the monarchy, the authority of the Church of England and the injustices of the established social order. These diverse groups shared contempt for professional clergy and adopted many beliefs that echoed the Anabaptists. For many believers, the imminent coming of Christ was not limited to the outside world alone, but Christ was already rising in the hearts of the elect. Once a disciple became conscious of Christ within them, they were no longer bound by law and they could not sin. Traditional marriage was rejected as legalistic and just another man-made convention while free love become a new ideal 17. These perfectionists could lie, steal, commit adultery and still remain sinless.(Hill)

These radical ideals were vibrant and alive in America during the Great Awakening. Shakers, Quakers, Anabaptist and Seekers had come to the new world with its promise of religious freedom. After the revolutionary war, in the Second Great Awakening, many Americans held a strong desire to explore new found freedoms rather than turn political and economic power over to the rising American merchant class and the professional clergy that supported them. Unfortunately for the oppressed, the established American churches, with their passive doctrine of pre-destination that suggested that some were born to be saved and others born to be damned, clearly supported the position of the rising merchant aristocracy and presented a heavenly projection of earthly injustice18. Tremendous excitement surrounded a gospel of liberation, especially for the poor who were on the margins of society. This revolutionary gospel also appealed to women, owing in part to their “socially limited and unexciting lives”19. This religious ferment and popular dissent against the religious establishment of the time contributed to the success of Jacob Cochran’s Society of Free Brethren and Sisters, the Free Will Baptists, the Shakers, the Campbellites, and eventually the Oneida Perfectionists and Mormons.

There is little doubt that Joseph Smith’s family was aware of these radical spiritual movements. In her biography of Joseph Smith, Lucy Mack Smith describes her elder brother Jason as a minister in the Seeker movement20. She also relates that her husband, Joseph Sr., “would not subscribe to any particular system of faith but contended for the ancient order, as established by our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ and his Apostles21”. There is no way to know the extent that Joseph Smith’s home environment affected him, however it certainly explains why he was not brought up within a specific religion, and his freedom from a consistent, parentally-enforced religious upbringing.

It is reasonable to assume that Joseph’s home background contributed to the “serious reflection and great uneasiness” that he experienced in his deliberation about which church he should join in his teenage years22. These deep uncertainties ultimately led Joseph to his ‘sacred grove” experience, where he was assured him that he should not join any of the existing churches. In his later recollections, Joseph recalled that the Lord told him that “their creeds were an abomination”, and “they draw near to me with their lips but their hearts are far from me, they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof.23”. These statements, which echo the words spoken by Jesus to the established religious leaders of His time, are a clear rejection of the standing churches that helped enforce the power and economic structures of Joseph’s day.

1 accessed Nov, 2010

2 The 7 Principles of the Federation of Egalitarian Communities
Each of the FEC communities:
1. Holds its land, labor, income and other resources in common.
2. Assumes responsibility for the needs of its members, receiving the products of their labor and distributing these and all other goods equally, or according to need.
3. Practices non-violence.
4. Uses a form of decision making in which members have an equal opportunity to participate, either through consensus, direct vote, or right of appeal or overrule.
5. Actively works to establish the equality of all people and does not permit discrimination on the basis of race, class, creed, ethnic origin, age, sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity.
6. Acts to conserve natural resources for present and future generations while striving to continually improve ecological awareness and practice.
Creates processes for group communication and participation and provides an environment which supports people's development. (accessed Nov, 2010)

3 accessed July 30, 2010
4 Communistic Societies of the United States, 1875, Charles Nordhoff p. 260
5 Communistic Societies of the United States, 1875, Charles Nordhoff p. 271
6 Communistic Societies of the United States, 1875, Charles Nordhoff p. 260
7 (accessed nov, 2010)
8 Cochranism Delineated, A twentieth Century study, Joyce Butler . 148
9 Cochranism Delineated, A twentieth Century study, Joyce Butler . 155
10 Cochranism Delineated, A twentieth Century study, Joyce Butler . 157
11 Luke 4
12 Luke 7
13 Matthew 15: 6, 8-9
14 John 15:18 - 22
15 Acts 5:29
16 Jan van Batenburg Divorce was obligatory if one party to the marriage was not of their group. "Polygamy was common among them, and, like the early Christians, their goods were the common possession of all." They awaited the imminent return of the Lord, and Batenburg considered himself to be Elijah.
17 “It is a curious fact that with every great revolutionary moment the question of free love comes into the foreground. With one set of people, as a revolutionary progress, as a shaking off of old traditional fetters, no longer necessary; with others as a welcome doctrine, comfortably covering all sorts of free and easy practices between man and woman” Frederick Engels, “The book of Revelation, in Progress, Vol II 1883.
Christopher Hill World Turned Upside Down p 306.
18 Cochranism Delineated, A twentieth Century study, Joyce Butler . 148
19 Cochranism Delineated, A twentieth Century study, Joyce Butler . 158
20 History of Joseph Smith by his Mother; Lucy Mack Smith (p9) “Jason my oldest brother... became what was then called a Seeker, and believing that by prayer and faith the gifts of the gospel, which were enjoyed by the ancient disciples of Christ, might be attained”
21 History of Joseph Smith by his Mother; Lucy Mack Smith p 46 “About this time, my husband’s mind became much excited upon the subject of religion; yet he would not subscribe to any particular system of faith, but contended for the ancient order, as established by our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ and His Apostles.”
22 Joseph Smith - History 1:8 (History of the Church - volume1 chp. 1)
23 Joseph Smith - History 1:19 (History of the Church - volume1 chp. 1)

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