Sunday, December 12, 2010

Mormon Polygamy on Trial: Day 10 Summary and media links

We all have our biases - at least I have mine. Perhaps it is time to disclose some of them. I am a white male who was born and raised in Southern Alberta, Canada. I am monogamous and heterosexual - I have been happily married to the same woman for almost 30 years. I recently retired from a 30 year career in the oil and gas industry where I worked as a research geoscientist - primarily involved with geostatistics.

I have six generations of Mormon ancestry (all monogamous). However, I chose to leave the LDS church and become a member of the Community of Christ in 2006 (the CofChrist/RLDS church was formed in 1860 as the anti-polygamy branch of the original Mormon church in 1860). I could never bring myself to believe that polygamy - as it was practiced in the Mormon church- was a divinely ordained principle. I struggled for many years trying to understand the history of Mormon polygamy and the many inconsistencies that have arisen due to the varying interpretations of this history. Finally, these inconsistencies became one of the primary reasons that I left the LDS church.

Now my biases are out in the open. That feels better.

In light of these biases, it may seem surprising when I say that I am uncomfortable with the way the polygamy charter challenge is proceeding and I am even more uneasy about the was the media is reporting the events. Here is a recent example.

Thursday marked Day 10 of the BC Supreme Court charter question concerning the constitutionality of Canada’s 1890 anti-polygamy law. Professor Joe Henrich from UBC was the expert witness. Dr. Henrich has very impressive credentials in psychology, anthropology, economics, and even aerospace engineering. However, he did not begin looking seriously into polygamy prior to March of 2010 when he was asked by the BC attorney general’s office to contribute as an expert witness in this case.

Dr. Henrich presented a powerpoint presentation to the court that provided an overview of his position. Starting from a biological perspective, he showed that human evolutionary considerations would suggest that our species should naturally tend to polygyny (one man with many wives). He backed up this assertion by showing that the vast majority of human cultures have been (or presently are) at least partially polygynous.

Dr. Henrich then proceeded to trace the history of Western monogamy. Starting with the ancient Greeks, more than 2500 years ago, he argued that monogamy was adopted to insure that citizens could have more equal status in society. He then traced the history of monogamy through Roman times, where Caesar Augustus strongly enforced monogamous marriage as a way to strengthen the empire. Dr. Henrich further reported that Christianity adopted its’ monogamous tradition through the influence of Roman law. The European nobility were slow to abandon their polygamous traditions until the Roman Catholic church was finally able to bring them into submission through controlling inheritance laws. It has been suggested that once the kings and nobles were restricted to having the same number of wives as the peasants, that this was a step towards democracy.

Dr. Henrich showed studies from Asia and Africa that indicate that polygamy and the resulting increase in un-marriageable men cause a significant increase in crime - especially substance abuse, robbery and murder. This is likely caused by the fact that higher status men are able to easily attract additional wives. while lower status men must take on significantly higher levels of risk in order to find a mate. He also reported that studies show that women and children in polygamous societies are at higher risk of a abuse and neglect. Dr. Henrich pointed out that these studies are not from North America, and that other factors such as relative wealth, education, culture, etc. must be taken into account.

I agree with many of Dr. Henrich’s arguments. For example, I strongly agree with his premise that the greatest positive step towards equal rights for women came when they were able to take control over their reproductive choices. His conclusions also indicated that in polygamous societies, polygamous families are always higher in status that monogamous ones. A strong confirmation of this tendency was given during the Reed Smoot hearings in 1903, when LDS President Joseph F. Smith confirmed that while less than 20% of the men in Utah men were polygamous, this group comprised almost 100% of the wealthy and powerful men in the state.

So given this agreement, why am I uncomfortable? For one thing, there are several of his other arguments that I find very hard to believe. Most of his conclusions are based on studies from cultures that are very different from our own. He contends that differences in wealth, culture and education can somehow be “controlled for” in statistical analysis. Having spent a significant part of my life working with statistical studies, and I find this very difficult to accept -especially without seeing any of the data. He also suggested that the most likely result of a polygamy induced gender imbalance would be an increase in the murder rate and I have certainly not seen evidence of this in the Creston area.

More troubling to me is his assertion that our cultural choice to embrace monogamy has resulted in mating patterns that have ultimately shaped our genetic evolution over the past 2500 years and that this combined effect has helped to shape us into a WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) society that is significantly different from the rest of the human species. In his abstract for a recent paper, called “The weirdest people in the world”. Dr. Henrich states “WEIRD subjects are particularly unusual compared with the rest of the species – frequent outliers. The domains reviewed include visual perception, fairness, cooperation, spatial reasoning, categorization and inferential induction, moral reasoning, reasoning styles, self-concepts and related motivations, and the heritability of IQ. The findings suggest that members of WEIRD societies, including young children, are among the least representative populations one could find for generalizing about humans.”

We agree it’s WEIRD, but is it WEIRD enough? « Neuroanthropology

I believe we should be very careful with assertions like this. It reminds me of the track taken by Jared Diamond in his famous “Guns, Germs and Steel” where he self-depreciatingly cherry picks facts from science, history and even linguistics to explain how WE (Western Europeans) accidently - and fortuitously - evolved to become the pinnacle of human achievement. It is a slippery slope. One minute our culture is simply an outlier - a little better in terms of fairness, moral reasoning, cooperation, etc. Before you know it, we are not only different from other cultures, we are superior. We can prove it and we know why. Many of these same types of arguments have been historically used to justify slavery, colonization, imperialism and even Aryan supremacy. In short order, WEIRD could potentially come to stand for White European Imperialism’s Racial Discrimination.

Back to the subject of polygamy legislation. In a recent paper, Nathan Oman contends that the US Supreme Court decision on the 1879 Reynold’s Mormon Polygamy case was largely based upon racist and imperialistic views. He clearly documents how Mormons were portrayed as racially separate from the rest of America and how much of the anger against 19th Century Mormons was fueled by an accusation of racial treason.

SSRN-Natural Law and the Rhetoric of Empire: Reynolds v. United States, Polygamy, and Imperialism by Nathan Oman

Back to my biases - I am very sensitive to any claims that one group is superior to another on the basis of some arbitrary claim. For example, I get very nervous when our society is held up as monogamous with all of its’ associated benefits when in reality, our society is actually far from this ideal. This was pointed out by Dr. Henrich when he noted the similarities between serial monogamy and polygamy. It is also undeniable that the rich and powerful men in our society are not bound to a monogamous lifestyle - as can be easily observed on the covers of several popular magazines.

I am also very sensitive to media reporting that consistently reports stories that re-enforce preconceived biases and ignore important counter-evidence that comes out in the same proceedings. I strongly dislike legal tactics that attempt to win a case through excluding important evidence rather than sincerely seeking after the truth. For a good example of both of these points, just read the affidavits from Dr. Angela Campbell and Dr. Henrich. Then consider how lawyers defending section 293 spent an entire day attempting to block Dr. Campbell from testifying as an expert witness while happily accepting Dr. Henrich. In spite of the fact that Dr. Campbell has researched polygamy and the law for more than 5 years, and has actually made 2 personal research visits to Bountiful - while Dr. Henrich who has spent less than 200 hours studying the subject -beginning in March 2010. After you have read the affidavits, read the media reports on the two witnesses.

Does the reaction come from the quality of the witness or is it based upon how well the witness’s testimony agrees with the desired narrative?

Polygamy hurts women, hinders society: Expert

Legalized polygamy would be an attack on hard-won rights

Polygamy leaves women worse off, court told - The Globe and Mail

B.C. government too cowardly with polygamists

CTV Calgary- B.C. polygamy case underway with battle of experts - CTV News

The weirdest people in the world?
Joseph Henrich,Steven J. Heine and Ara Norenzayan (2010).
Behavioral and Brain Sciences, Volume 33, Issue 2-3, June 2010 pp 61-83


Socrates said...


I found your reasoning regarding Dr. Henrich and his testimony very illuminating and correct, if true objectivity and critical thought is the standard of measurement.

His conclusion's, based on such a shallow and cursory review of the actual Canadian polygamists at issue in this case, are truly revealing and dispositive of his obvious bias, which severely compromises his effectiveness as a professional witness...

On a personal note, I'm curious to know at what point you decided that Joseph Smith was a fallen prophet? Inasmuch as you left the LDS Church because of its polygamist underpinnings. It is now certainly beyond historical dispute that Joseph Smith introduced and lived polygyny (as evidenced by numerious affidavits by his plural wives and other contemporary's) and therefore must be a fallen prophet in your estimation.

I'm also curious to know if your fellow church (Community of Christ) members also believe Joseph Smith to be a fallen prophet because of his participation in polygyny?

Please respond with an explanation to this query if you would care to disclose your reasoning on this subject...

keith said...

Dear Socrates,

Thanks for the posting and for the very kind words. You have also asked a very good question, but before I get to that - I must confess that I am a really big fan. The Republic and Apology are my personal favorites!

On a little more serious note, hopefully if I can give you a meaningful answer - at least from my personal perspective. First, I would like to make clear that I cannot speak for the Community of Christ. For one thing, Community of Christ members are a very free-thinking group of people, so there is always a broad and diverse range of opinion on most issues. There also seems to be a growing understanding that the concept of a One True Church was not what God really meant. I believe this was nicely expressed in the recent revelation - canonized last April by the membership as Doctrine and Covenants 164 - “However, as a growing number have come to understand, the redemptive action of God in Christ—while uniquely and authoritatively expressed through the church—is not confined solely to the church. God’s grace, revealed in Jesus Christ, freely moves throughout creation, often beyond human perception, to achieve divine purposes in people’s lives. In harmony with God’s will, the Holy Spirit leads some people already committed to Jesus Christ through Christian baptism to further focus their response through church membership.”

As for Joseph’s polygamy. I have studied this issue from many different perspectives - off and on over the past 20 years or so. For most of this time, I believed the historical evidence was very conclusive - as you have mentioned - coming primarily from journals, later testimonies, etc. Over the past 4 months, I have revisited this history from a new perspective - relying primarily on documents that were written during Joseph’s lifetime - including the History of the Church, Teachings of Joseph Smith, Church periodicals, Far West Record, etc. I was quite surprised to see nothing but strong denials and negative statements on polygamy in all of this work. As far as I can see, everything linking Joseph to polygamy was written long after 1852, when Brigham brought forward D&C 132 (obviously attributing it to Joseph). After this analysis, I am left with 2 possibilities. Either Joseph was not involved personally with polygamy (the historic RLDS position) or that it was a secret practice involving an inner circle of elite members (the anointed quorum) in Nauvoo.

In the latter case, which I believe is the most probable, polygamy during Joseph’s time was markedly different than it was under Brigham and later leaders. The most obvious difference is that 9 of the first 12 women who have been consistently named as Joseph’s plural wives, were all married to and continued to live with their husbands during Joseph’s lifetime.Many of these women were married to prominent leaders, like George Harris, Orson Hyde, etc. To me, this looks very much like the complex marriage system - where the community of goods was extended to a community of wives - as was practiced by the Oneida Perfectionists (1848 - 1879) of New York State and perhaps the Cochranites (1818 - 1840 or so).

Sorry for the long ramble. However, I also need to clarify my personal take on prophets. I believe prophets are people who respond to God’s call to speak Truth to Power and to bring Good News to the Poor, Freedom for the prisoners and bring sight to the blind (both physically and spiritually). In this light, I certainly see Joseph Smith Jr. as a prophet. Along with people like Socrates, the Hebrew Prophets, Mohammed, Martin Luther King, Buddha, Gandhi, Joseph Smith III, Steve Veazey and others. It seems to me that, Joseph was always experimenting with the Spirit and sometimes he went wrong. One story, as recounted by William Marks (President of the Nauvoo stake) in the 1850s, says that Joseph had started polygamy but determined that it was a mistake and had enlisted his help to stop the practice.

Socrates said...


Thank you for your open and candid response to my query. Perhaps at a later date we can explore the history surrounding Joseph Smith and polygamy in greater detail. I'm pleased to hear that you still consider him to be a prophet.

Regarding Dr. Henrich and his flawed report I found an interesting rebuttle that parallels in some respects your analysis of Henrich's flawed reasoning. Here's the link:

Please continue your excellent reporting on the Reference Case. If we had to rely on Daphne Bramham and the Vancouver Sun for accurate, unbiased news in this case we'd surely be lacking in factual, uncolored information...

keith said...

Thanks Socrates, I have been writing an article about the history of marriage in the LDS traditions (most of it is posted here) and I hope to post my understandings about Joseph Smith's polygamy possibilities in the next day or so. I hope you won't hesitate to keep me honest.

On a related note, I am hoping to submit a paper to the next Restoration Studies Symposium on the same subject and I would like to have co-authors and/or reviewers from the LDS and fundamentalist LDS perspectives. Please let me know if you know someone (obviously including yourself) who might be interested.


Socrates said...


I appreciate your invitation to contribute some source references for your research project on Joseph Smith and polygamy.

The holiday season has kept me busy with domestic chores but I hope to have a few URL links and suggested bibliography for your consideration.

Considering the millions of people that have been influenced by the Prophet Joseph's life and contribution to American religious thought--Your selection of his "polygamy possibilities" as a theme for your paper to be presented to the next Restoration Studies Symposium is most appropriate.

I'm looking forward to the results of your research and final presentation...

Socrates said...


To begin with, it is a well established historical fact that the Prophet Joseph made many public statements refuting the fact that he was teaching and practicing the doctrine of plural marriage. The Prophet’s first denunciation was in Kirtland, Ohio when the Fanny Alger relationship was discovered by Warren Parish (Joseph’s secretary at the time) and Oliver Cowdery (Second Elder). The following links provide background for those allegations:

By clicking on the source (names) additional information is referenced, for example the following link comes up when Oliver Cowdery is activated:

Check out all the links to get more background and substantiating evidence.

Joseph Smith had received a revelation as early as 1831 alluding to the fact that men would be required to live plural marriage in this the last dispensation of the fullness of times (see Unpublished Revelations by Fred Collier).

His reluctance to enter the principle brought about a heavenly consequence (see link):

It was the Nauvoo period however that the doctrine of plural marriage was secretly promoted and developed more fully, evolving into what became the Quorum of the Anointed (1842-1845). An excellent dissertation on this group, with Joseph Smith as its leader and principle organizer, is recounted in the following publication:

JOSEPH SMITHS QUORUM of the ANOINTED 1842-1845 A DOCUMENTARY HISTORY Edited by Devery S. Anderson & Gary James Bergera
Signature Books Publishing, LLC. ISBN: 1-56085-186-4 (

Another excellent research source for this period and subject is the comprehensive and scholarly Masters Thesis by Andrew F. Ehat, which thoroughly addresses the subject of plural marriage and its relevance to temple ordinances. Ehat also covers the succession question and events that led to the division of LDS and RLDS incarnations. The best link I could find on short notice is as follows:

Although it is 189 pages, I highly recommend this thesis for historical accuracy and relevant content for your selected subject.

Socrates said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Socrates said...

Continued from above

Keith, I’m sure you’ve heard of Todd Compton’s book, IN SACRED LONLINESS
THE PLURAL WIVES OF JOSEPH SMITH Signature Books ISBN: 1-56085-085-X

This well researched work builds on other efforts to document the plural wives of Joseph Smith, the most noteworthy of which was the work of historian Andrew Jensen who compiled the affidavits and sworn testimony of twenty seven of Joseph Smiths wives in his publication THE HISTORICAL RECORD VOL.VI (May 1887) The copy that I own personally is truly a relic indeed, being one hundred and twenty three years old, but copies of the affidavits are extant in other works and on the internet.

Another contemporary account that can be relied upon for accuracy is the Diary of William Clayton, Joseph Smith’s personal secretary, published as:

AN INTIMATE CHRONICLE The Journals of William Clayton, edited by George D Smith, Signature Books ISBN: 1-56085-022-1

This diary is a fascinating read giving background to the secretive nature of plural marriage on the underground in Nauvoo. Of particular note is the entry wherein Clayton as Joseph’s scribe copies the revelation of Celestial Marriage as it literally falls the lips of the Prophet as he recites it from perfect memory and Clayton makes two copies, one of which was later burned by Emma. Clayton’s affidavit of this event is also included in Andrew Jenson’s Historical Record and elsewhere.

A very readable overview of the Prophet’s doctrinal development that was not open to general public scrutiny is disclosed in a letter from Benjamin F. Johnson to George S. Gibbs, answering questions relating to the Council of Fifty, Plural Marriage and Succession of Authority:

I’m sorry I don’t have a better source for this historically significant letter than this Amazon paperback copy. If you persist, I’m sure you will be able to find a downloadable copy on the internet like I have done in the past my website source is no longer available.
The following link covers some of the material but not as detailed as the letter on points relevant to your subject:

Keith, I think the above references should keep you busy for a while and help to insure that your presentation is adequately researched…