October 2, 2009

Flake: "The Emotional and Priestly Logic of Plural Marriage"

The following are my notes from Kathleen Flake's Arrington Lecture at the Logan Tabernacle, October 1, 2009. This post is an incomplete mix of paraphrase, summary, and direct quotes from my personal notes, no recording was utilized so keep that in mind. This is not a transcript. Stay tuned for the paper itself for better accuracy when the Arrington folks put it together for publishing. The footnotes were added by me. If you are involved with the student essay competition, be honest and use your own notes! This post is for the benefit of those who could not attend the presentation.  

Introduction by Phillip Barlow
(Wherein he notes Flake's unique perspectives based on her areas of interest. History, law, religious studies, ritual, and memory)

Welcome to this historic building; a fitting wonderful place to have the series. Each autumn we look forward to distinguished scholar coming and sharing their thoughts on Mormon history. In the past we've listened to Ross Peterson, Ken Godfrey, Richard and Claudia Bushman, Thomas Alexander, etc. and Kathleen Flake distinguishes herself even in this impressive company. She is a historian of course, but distinguishes herself from other garden variety historians in her knowledge of other fields, she brings other dimensions to her work.

First, she knows the law and was a practicing attorney for 15 years before she was "clever enough to get serious" about the study of religious history. She wrote a book I like to call "Mr. Smoot Goes to Washington." However, she surrendered to the evils of normal academic nomenclature by titling it The Politics of American Religious Identity.1

Next, she knows religious studies in the "formal sense of that term." Religious Studies can be construed as a topic: one approaches religion as philosopher or a theologian or whatever. But it is also a distinct discipline which investigates how belief relates to behavior. What does belief do for how the person lives out their lives? How does it shape and get shaped by communities? How does a new religion gain traction in the world when it is birthed and how is it sustained? It must change or die. How do they change without losing their identity and the essence of their founding vision?

She knows ritual. She has lovingly accused other scholars perhaps like me of being textually literate and ritually illiterate, and I think she is right.

She knows narrative; how to unpack them and how to create them.

Finally on my list, she knows how to think about memory and how it works among people and communities. This is an issue that is on the front burner in the historical profession right now, as well as among psychologists and others.

Paper by Kathleen Flake
(Wherein she discusses the research she has been doing for an upcoming book on plural marriage and then takes questions from the audience. Flake dissects the "priestly logic" of plural marriage by discussing how 19th century American outsiders viewed the practice and how Mormons themselves made sense of it. The time period Flake focused on is confined to post-1852 through 1890. She explores the intersection of 19th century American or "Victorian" marital ideals and Mormonisms "priestly" ideals comparing Methodist and LDS marital liturgy):

This was a fifty-page paper and I cut it down to twenty for this lecture. I am hoping your questions help me give the rest. The 19th century in America was a time of high romance and low tolerance for Mormonism. I seek to investigate the relationship between these two trends to better understand logic behind practice of plural marriage. When I speak of logic, I am not referring to an absolute, but rather a set of assertions based on specific premises and assumptions. People who share your premises and assumptions will think you are logical. The people who don’t will think you are wrong. My academic approach tries to understand and explain. It is done out of curiosity and not out of judgment. The question is: what did they think they were doing? Approaches from this direction often get misunderstood as endorsements. Remember: when I speak of the logic of plural marriage I am not endorsing it or arguing it was logical to any but those who practiced it, and not even to all of them. What meaning did they bring to the marriages that helped them make sense?

Fanny Stenhouse was one Mormon that the practice didn’t make sense to.2 Fanny's views: polygamic Mormonism viewed woman as a "convenience." In the proper Gentile home a woman is viewed as the companion of the husband. This complaint of Fanny's is more apparent than any "immoral" problem with the practice; the lack of companionship was her big problem. She described the faces of women in and out of polygamy to make the contrast. The woman of polygamy's countenance is sorrowful; she receives only share of husbands love. Monogamous wife is happy, and no matter how small her husbands heart may be (not exactly a flattering comment for me [laughter]) as small as her husband's heart may be she knows she rules therein. She yearned for her husband's society and Mormonism deprived her of that so she couldn’t feel happy. Marriage for Mormons, she explained, had the chief object if increasing the kingdom rather than to seek the happiness of the individual couple.

Certainly there were other LDS women as miserable and angry as Fanny but they didn’t or couldn’t abandon it like she did. But some did leave a record of their travail and the support of their husband. We as readers are rightly sympathetic with the plight of those who struggled in polygamy and many studies focus on these elements. But what about those who made polygamy seem like a source of human flourishing? These examples deserve analysis, too. It is useful to turn to them when trying to understand the emotional logic. The indictments against the practice see it as another level of patriarchy and hierarchy. An issue of social control which oppressed women. It was designed to monopolize power or resources by creating dynastic alignments between a ruling class. These charges can all be made against regular marriage, too. So there is more here.

I am suspicious of any general tendency to see only one side of argument. I admit my own monogamous bias, but I am genuinely curious about the fact that some people did thrive under this form of human relationship. What did they think they were doing? How did they make sense of the marriages and what was the logic? My working thesis is that the Saints' rejection of 19th century romantic marital norms expressed a positive ethic and religious identity related to LDS priestly ideals. I suspect the 19th century conflict between monogamy and polygamy was about more than the number of people in a marriage. Perhaps the priestly character of early Mormon marriage contradicted early 19th century marital ideals.

Even the Mormons thought polygamy violated what seemed like universal norms. From the advantage of hindsight we know these norms weren't as stable or normal as they thought. The saying seems to apply here: "What is most strongly held is often clutched by a nervous hand." By the 1800s marriage had been in flux for a long time. The cultural changes in America involved issues of personhood and social contract, new economic issues and the free market, innovative theologies of man's agency and political revolution that overturned hierarchies both political and religious all played a part in how marriage was understood. This was a time of big change to an idea of marriage for love. Up to this time marriage had served the purpose of ensuring progeny or economic stability or achieving social mobility. This doesn’t mean people didn't love each other. It means love wasn't the reason for getting married at the start; rather, it was the ideal effect of marriage. By time of the Revolution, love as the main reason for marriage was preferred twice as often as wealth. In 50 more years the preference became the norm. One should get married for love. This was described in a poem called "Home" by Dora Greenwell:

  Two birds within one nest;
      Two hearts within one breast;
  Two spirits in one fair
  Firm league of love and prayer,
Together bound for aye, together blest.3

A recommended book on the history is Marriage, a History by Coontz.4 Love based marriage became the norm, the wife staying home and the man as breadwinner was the recipe for heaven on earth. This was "Victorian marriage," and the only good one in America. It was based on love and defined by soulful companionship; two became one. Equality in loving expression was the best way. Mormonisms practice seemed to contradict this approach to marriage in every respect.

Or at least that is what Elizabeth Kane expected in 1872 when she went with her husband Thomas to Utah.5 Elizabeth, a non-Mormon, visited LDS homes, spending the winter in St. George's polygamous society. Elizabeth married for love and deeply regretted any long separation from her husband. She was devotedly Presbyterian and strongly in favor of equality for women. Her account is a valuable one, she didn’t have to live the practice and she brought an open mind and a critical eye. She was surprised in Utah's polygamous homes, they were grand and simple. Relationships also appeared to conform to her ideal of Victorian domesticity. She recognized in many cases a depth of emotional attachment she considered romantic love. Wives were treated as individuals. When she was introduced to families it was not uncommon for wives to be brought separately, husbands treating each as she was the only "Mrs. X." The introduction would repeat and since each wife was given same opportunity for conversation it must have seemed to Elizabeth "like a 19th century version of Groundhog Day" [laughter]. These and other experiences showed a sense of parity she assumed impossible in such marriages. Even more surprising were the intense emotional attachments she found. For instance, the loss of a spouse was very difficult despite other spouses remaining.  One husband carried a daguerreotype of a wife who had been dead for two years though he had three other wives. It seemed as though plural hearts could beat in one breast. She was also impressed by the relationships among the wives; the other wives lamented their loss of the woman in the daguerreotype and wept over her. Elizabeth Kane’s experiences surprised her. She wondered how a first wife could possibly give her husband to a new wife. At Nephi she was intimate with the household long enough to see tender intimacy between some wives themselves; a certain bond of daily habit and proximity; a friend whose interests are identical with her own, who can share their feelings and talk about difficult issues without violating the sacred confidence of the home and family. Elizabeth wondered: "can you image anything (while sober) more insane?" [laughter]. Elizabeth Kane’s analysis, tells story and talks to leaders.

Following the same line Claudia Bushman traced in a former Arrington lecture, these accounts show more than a morally laudable renouncement of jealousy by the women. They could love and respect their husbands, and the wives themselves often moved in an interesting counterpoint, almost like marriage relationship themselves. Some insist that "polygyny" is the more correct term, polygyny, gyn as in gynecologist; one man many women. But "polygamy," the label often used by the Saints, communicated the idea of the network of marriages—not just many wives—many spouses. Some of these could produce a firm league of love and prayer in a group. Emotional commitments could not be a closed circuit. Elizabeth noted a curious difference between Mormon women and the idea of the Eastern "harem." (Granted that her understanding of Muslim women mistreated their situation, but she was trying to emphasize the freedom aspect of the Mormon situation). They are more at liberty. they had management of families and households and outside business affairs, almost as if they were widows. In many cases they played those roles as de facto widows of husbands on lengthy missions. The men were then responsible for expanding the kingdom, the women for maintaining the members in stakes; each doing whatever necessary economically and otherwise to secure success for the kingdom. As Carol Cornwall Madsen has described, they were to preserve the physical and spiritual integrity of those within rather than of the institution itself.6 Self-representations of the women themselves showed women happy to be flourishing individually, etc., rather than surviving in a marriage by merely suppressing jealousy. A vibrant emotional independence was produced and was a virtue.

The ideal was not to single off and become one pair against or contrasting with all others. This was painfully illustrated by one domestic situation where a woman became so devoted to her husband that she followed him everywhere and was devoted to him even at the expense of her own children. This was not something the community was comfortable with. [I think I understood the story correctly here but this is the one spot I was a little unclear on.] As Fanny had pointed out, the women were instructed that the object of marriage was not the devotion of two souls to each other, the affection or indissoluble union of two people. Instead, it involved a certain dissolution of the self, which Fanny saw as the marital problem. It was a necessity, not a benefit of plural marriage for Fanny. But the women Elizabeth encountered experienced that problem as the solution. As one plural wife had described, though it (polygamy) be a fiery furnace it will prove the one thing needed to cleanse and purify us of selfishness, jealousy, and other mundane attributes.

I suggest it is the Victorian ideals of one pair soul-mates that Mormon polygamy most countered. The Mormon logic of marriage, in contrast, was priestly. First we need to talk about what I mean by priest.
A priest is one who has the right to access the actual powers of heaven—think of that 16-year-old who kneels at the table each Sunday and offers prayers on the bread and water—to mediate and exercise those heavenly powers for the benefit of others on the earth. This doesn't just apply to the title, the office of a priest in the LDS context. The most obvious example is the priests of Aaron who were set apart to make sacrifices  for Israel to maintain their covenant with God. From the beginning, Mormons ordained men and made them into councils where mediating the powers of God occurred. Joseph Smith placed women into this structure when he ordained Emma to preside over the Female Relief Society. He instructed the Society that their duty was not only to relive the poor, but also to save souls. They were to be empowered to accomplish this by joining with the men in newly-revealed temple ceremonies. To restore the fulness of the priesthood it would require all. Why? Marriage itself was an order of the priesthood, without which highest heaven is not attained.

A lot could be said about this and I cut out thirty pages here but I just want to say one thing, a small thing, as it relates to emotional utility of the temple marriages that strived: The mutual interdependence involved, that both men and women needed each other to have the highest order as conferred through marriage, stood in opposition to the romantic oneness that defined men and women relations in Victorian marriage. (And I apologize to the men—I am focusing more on women here because it is assumed that polygamy was most oppressive to women and it is an obvious place to begin. You'll have to read my book for next chapter.) I want to look at the Temple rituals that created the marriages to see intention of the marriages.

Consider the priestly identity of those involved in the ceremony. I want to look at the two best sources we have on this. One is from Orson Pratt as part of his unenviable assignment in 1852 to explain polygamy to the world. The other is from an earlier ceremony performed by Newell Whitney, a Bishop in the church who married his daughter Sarah Ann to Joseph Smith in 1842. In this ceremony he did not explain his position or authority to perform the ceremony in terms of his church office. Instead, and significantly, he claimed a priestly office and sealed them "in my own name and in the name of my wife, your mother, and in the name of my holy progenitors, by the right of birth which is of priesthood, vested in me by revelation and commandment and promise of the living God."7 Having a father stand in and perform a wedding rather than going to a state official was not uncommon for earlier Puritans. For them, what really made the marriage official was the actual vows between people and anything else was icing on the cake. But there was something different here, Whitney said he used his authority and that of his wife and their holy progenitors, possessed by all of them. This was "by the right of birth which is of priesthood." So the marriage performed by Newell Knight of Sarah Ann to Joseph Smith was not just the Puritan way of marriage. He considered himself and his wife to have divine authority and it had been passed to them by birthright from progenitors. This was then vested in him officially by the Melchizedek priesthood. This authority was then given to the couple in the priestly rite, which can be seen in the instructions and blessings given to the bride and groom. Knight commanded the bride that if she agrees to the covenant of the sealing, she was to "observe all the rights between you both that belong to that condition" of being married. He referred to "rights" instead of "duties," duties being what we might expect a marriage ceremony to enjoin upon the couple. The ceremony is devoid of reference to duties (except a vow to be companions).

Compare this to the Methodist liturgy of 1845. The groom promised to love, honor, comfort, keep, the bride, and the bride promised to obey, serve, honor, and keep the groom. [Flake actually read from the liturgy here.] There is no mention of rights or priestly rights given to the couple. In fact, marriage was noted as being ordained as a remedy against sin. It was for those who don’t have the gift of celibacy in order to be undefiled. Well, that's throwing cold water on it! [laughter] Marriage is "a good and holy ordinance of God just like farming, building, cobbling and barbering," said John Calvin. The couple is given duties, and not surprisingly, none of them had a sanctifying dimension. Compare that to the Mormon ceremony. In the "name of the Lord" a command is given for "all those powers [vested in me] to concentrate in you and through you to your posterity forever." With these words couple is linked to the powers of their holy progenitors and parents, and the powers are vested, or belong to the bride and groom by virtue of that ceremony. Whitney used the priesthood authority to marry the couple and to convey the authority to them.

The contrast between Mormon and Methodist ceremonies could not be more extreme and in the Mormon case it included women in the priesthood. The fathers were not without the mothers in priesthood. Or in context here, an LDS version of "fair firm league" mentioned in the poem above: men are not patriarchs without matriarchs; women had their own commissions, though not that different from those of the men. Saints were not taught that the object of marriage was the indissoluble union of two souls, but union of more, including the progeny, too. Elizabeth Kane records her surprise at the lament of a mother grieving the loss of twin girls. She thought mothers would regret the birth of daughter as misfortune, knowing they too may enter a plural marriage, but this was not so. Elizabeth said the women believed in the grand calling of endowing souls with tabernacles so that they might accept redemption. Birth was coupled to redemption, souls were being saved, it was not simply about numerical increase.

This view was confirmed by Orson Pratt's 1852 account of plural marriage in which the groom and the bride were commanded to "be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, that you may have joy and rejoicing in your posterity in the day of the Lord Jesus"8 (or in the day of the resurrection). Plural marriage was bestowing the powers that made child bearing into priestly acts that gave access to heavenly powers. Women believed they had access to those powers through birth. These 19th century LDS rites were officiated in by women and men—women washing, anointing, and sealing babies for birth, men baptizing, ordaining, and sealing for life; women birthing into the word, men birthing into the resurrection. The process is Temple-centered, immersed in ritual covenants that held them all together in a network of people with saving powers. The Temple's purpose was to create that saving network. This speaks to Mormonisms most fundamental and enduring paradoxes: An attempt to create highly individuated persons which then makes them able to access the powers of heaven by attaching them to an earthly community of others. This community was secured by the required reciprocity of gender roles in sealing, and extended to others through additional marital and adoptive sealings. This enabled a level of psychological individuation that allowed radical independence, but this independence was in service to a highly-gendered priestly order. Each was capable of standing alone, but were placed together because of the network of covenant relationships.

The terms of the covenant, I believe, were first used in what I consider the first temple ritual, the revealed greeting for the Kirtland school of the prophets: "I salute you in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, in token, or remembrance of the everlasting covenant, in which covenant I receive you to fellowship in a determination that is fixed, immovable and unchangeable, to be your friend and brother..." (but of course you could put other relationships in there) "through the grace of God, in the bonds of love, to walk in all the commandments of God blameless, in thanksgiving, forever and ever. Amen."9 I suggest this depicts the nature of love in plural marriage. It does not describe a love that is fixed and immovable, but a determination that is fixed and immovable. Love is subordinated to the primary covenant to Jesus Christ and required repentance and gratitude, and to receive each other in those bonds, forever.

For Fanny, the highest object of marriage was to know that she alone ruled in her husbands heart as its sole queen. Did those who strove in plural marriage desire to rule in each others hearts? Not if they kept their covenants. They had bigger ambitions. This is seen in Eliza R Snow's promise to the Relief Society: "You, my sisters, if you are faithful will become Queens of Queens, and Priestesses unto the Most High God. These are your callings."10 These callings dramatically challenged other norms of 19th century marriage; the thought that such marriages could survive only through indifference to "love" itself. And for some that may be true but for others, they lived on different terms. There was something in their marriage which would gladden the heart, and there could still be married lovers. Thank you.

Question and Answer:

Q: When will your book be published?

A: Ah, this is a question from our sponsor [laughter]. It will be published as soon as it's written, which usually takes about a year, so we should see it in 2011 perhaps. I can't believe it has taken that long.

Q [Thomas Alexander]: Did this priestly element change when the Relief Society was made into an auxiliary of the church instead of coordinate with the priesthood as it had been?

A: Jill Mulvey Derr, who is in the audience, has things to say about this; read Women of Covenant, if you don’t have that book your library is incomplete.11 Things changed before that, when the Relief Society was first disbanded in 1843. It seems the fathers ate grapes and the children's teeth are set on edge in this case.12 The LDS like other people in the Progressive era began to order itself bureaucratically, and I don't use that word pejoratively, this idea of auxiliary seemed to fit. I think we could look at 1890 and the loss of polygamy as a hit to the notion of women as part of the priestly order. We as LDS began to increasingly embrace romantic marriage, much of this was lost. It is there for us to see in the records and so forth, but...

Q: Were there any children born from the Whitney-Smith marriage?

A: Not that I have seen or heard about. We always assume marriage have sexual competent or else it was not a marriage. That wasn’t true of all sealings or marriages. Sealing is analogized to adoption or marriage, but it doesn't really fit either perfectly, including the assumption that these networks were sexual. Not that they weren’t sexual, but it is more complicated than that.

Q: Do these sort of ideas you describe go on in current polygamy in fundamentalist groups?

A: I haven't studied those groups, Martha Bradly has some information on this, I don't know.13

Q: You reminded me of that scripture that says man shall leave father and mother and cleave unto his wife. Cleavage here is actually a paradox, because the word can mean a union and also a place of separation. Is that correct?

A: That is a fun insight; he said "Cleave" is a word that can have opposite meanings, a sense of separation and sense of uniting.

Q: I wonder if you're finding primary source documents that will talk about the philosophy you describe, if it really describes the deeply held feelings that they had. Or were these feelings that the women you quoted formed over time?

A: He's asking about primary sources that support my hypothesis, besides Elizabeth Kane? The reason I use her is she has credibility and insider doesn’t and she had unique access. When the Saints engaged in defense of plural marriage they were speaking to the criticism of the opponents. You always match your argument to what you are accused of, a good lawyer knows that, like wrestlers on a mat, you bend your body depending on your enemy. So they are bent in a Protestant critique, and it is problematic getting past that superficial layer because they don’t expect Protestants to appreciate their logic, so they use Protestant logic to explain things. So it is highly politicize and twisted. And what were the men saying? What about their emotions? We can imagine how it is when you come home and your wife has her three friends there and they’ve been talking about you, right? [laughter].

Q: Talk more about hierarchy, the men and so forth and maybe what this has to do with the Proclamation to the Family.

A: When I spoke about hierarchy, it is implicit in everything I said about women. They were part of it in a particular way, though the sphere was different as to some things but not other things. What was the sense of hierarchy in Victorian marriage? Also, I make it a point to never talk about the proclamation to the family. I'll let you worry about that. As for hierarchy in Victorian marriage, it was one of the struggles. There was this upsetting of authority, democratic impulse during that period that changed the way people related to each other, Gordon Wood's thesis about the radicalization of the American Revolution talked about how the ways of relating changed from hierarchy to other notions of affinity.14 In Victorian marriage the man is superior to woman, a larger range of action and he's out building railroads, but they were also more equals in the house, mates, matches. And out of this develops a sense of benevolence to reform, to suffrage, women are going to use that notion of the overruling of patriarchy to assist them in getting their rights. You get a lot of passive aggression, we flatter him in public but in private he’s mud, etc.

Q: Were there other plural wives who expected companionship of a husband and felt they got ripped off?

A: Absolutely, there were those who felt surprised or betrayed. But once it becomes a social norm in Utah especially after the 1852 public announcement, no women would be surprised because they see it all around. But there are plenty of women who didn't like it and you see them quoted in many books. I don’t want to downplay their experience, my assumption is that women would be disappointed, so let's find women that weren’t disappointed, lets look at them and see what they were thinking.

Q: You say these were people remembering, but they weren’t going to the temple every week like we could. It seems that those for whom it worked were probably part of the small elite group?

A: Well  that is the old problem of the elite; it is the elite people who write; they have a little more leisure time and means of education, so we have a problem on the record. Luckily with Mormonism we have a lot of writers. Elizabeth Kane was so useful because in that journey she is seeing all kinds of families, too, not just "elites." She tells a moving story of a blind man and his two wives, scratching out a living like two hens in the dirt out in St. George. She sees all kinds of marriages. This question also bumps into problem of political debate because they are the ones articulating the debate.

Q: My Great-grandfather had 4 wives, was a historian and an attorney, and he talks about his relationship with his wives. His third wife [unintelligible] divorced him and would not allow herself to live in same town as any of the other wives.

A: Yes, so the acrimony was so strong that the wife would not allow the other wives to live in the same town. The stories are as amusing as they are legion. I like the group of women who wanted to divorce the man but they were fine just living together [laughter], so sometimes there is comedy in addition to the strong tragedy.

Q: What proportion of LDS population between 1852 and 1890 were living in polygamous marriages. I've been taught it was a very small percentage.

A: Dr. Alexander has looked at that closely, I'll defer to him, but that question came up during the Smoot hearings and it was a very low number, I can't remember now, I'm terrible with numbers but it was something less than ten percent. Someone wrote a response to that saying ten percent not living it would be more accurate. [Thomas Alexander from the audience says it was about 25%.]

Q: [unintelligible]

A: Do I believe polygamy was a true revelation from God or did Joseph Smith concoct it? Well, historians don’t have a dog in that fight, we treat it as "this is what those people believed" and try to make sense of it that way; sorry cant help you on that one.

[Same man]: I didn’t think you could! [laughter]

Q: Were you saying that Mormons saw plural marriage as a protection against adultery?

A: No, that was the Methodist view, it was protection against sin. Methodists had the idea that the only way to holiness was through celibacy, that was the highest holy life, you were endangering yourself by engaging in this carnal physical order, but it is better to marry than to burn, better marry than go to hell, that's what Paul said. But if you marry, the church needs to bless it so the carnal preoccupations of marriage and sex itself don’t endanger your soul.

Q: You spoke about Newell Whitnmey and Orson Pratt, and a little back to the School of Prophets. What about Joseph Smith’s theology?

A: I am arguing that was Smith's theology; that the function of marriage was to endow individuals to access divine power so you can exercise it for the benefit of world. "You’ve heard the phrase 'Saviors on Mount Zion,' and that’s not just geneology work."

Q: How was plural marriage first presented and how did people take it, the initial respondents to the practice.

A: Here I was talking about the period after plural marriage became more normative. My reading of the record is that Joseph Smith tried various ways to introduce people to this and all of them had pretty much a bad reaction, and one by one there grew a core of followers up to about 200 people. But it was taught personally not publicly. People who accepted it as revelatory did so based on the fact that they themselves had received a revelation; this was never a matter of logical proof and reasonableness, but more about  charismatic gifts, etc. 

Kathleen Flake, The Politics of American Religious Identity: The Seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle, University of North Carolina Press (2004). The book was the winner of the 2005 Mormon History Association "Best Book Award."

Fanny Stenhouse and her husband T.B. H. Stenhouse were converts who became outspoken opponents of Mormonism. For one view see Ronald W. Walker, "The Stenhouses and the Making of a Mormon Image," Journal of Mormon History 1 (1974): 51-52. Some of Fanny's work, including Tell It All, can be read on GoogleBooks.

"Home," by Dora Greenwell, Poems, by the author of 'The patience of hope', p. 151.

Stephanie Coontz, Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage, Viking Adult, 2005.

Flake made much use of Elizabeth Kane's A Gentile Account of Life in Utah's Dixie, 1872-73: Elizabeth Kane's St. George Journal.

Madsen is an emeritus professor of history at Brigham Young University and has written extensively on Mormon women in the 19th century.

This document can be found in H. Michael Marquardt, The Joseph Smith Revelations: Text and Commentary (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1999), 315-16.

Orson Pratt, The Seer, vol. 1, number 2, p. 32.

Doctrine and Covenants 88:133

Eliza R. Snow, "An Address," Women's Exponent, Vol. 2 (Sept. 1873), No. 8.

Jill Mulvey-Derr, Janath Russell Cannon, Maureen Ursenback Beecher, Women of Covenant: The Story of Relief Society, Deseret Book (2002).

Proverbial saying from Ezekiel 18:1-4, among other references.

Martha Sonntag Bradley wrote Kidnapped from That Land: The Government Raids on the Short Creek Polygamists, University of Utah Press (1993).

Gordon S. Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution, Vintage (1993).

Next Year's Arrington Lecture Speaker(s) Announced

Last night Phillip Barlow announced that Carl Arrington and Susan Arrington Madsen will both speak at the 2010 Arrington lecture in Logan, Utah. Carl and Susan are children of Leonard Arrignton, the historian for whom the lecture series is named. According to Barlow, one reason for the selection is that Arrington's diaries will finally be open for scrutiny in Utah State University's Special Collections.

Each fall a distinguished scholar is invited to deliver the Arrington Lecture at USU. The Special Collections and Archives in the Merrill-Cazier Library and the Leonard J. Arrington Lecture and Archives Foundation has selected the two speakers for next fall.

Later today (hopefully) I'll post my notes from Kathleen Flake's 2009 Arrington lecture. MormonTimes has an article on the lecture here.

September 28, 2009

Joseph Smith's Descriptions of the Book of Mormon Translation

There are several explanations and guesses regarding the Book of Mormon translation method, whether it was done by the gift and power of God or the cunning of men. Different theories exist among those who accept the book as an ancient record translated by revelation and among those who believe the book is some type of forgery. Moreover, it seems a solid understanding of the translation is necessary in order to weigh the strengths and weaknesses of internal evidences or anachronisms.

A good translation theory should take into account textual evidence and the many witness statements from claimed observers. Part of the confusion surrounding the translation procedure stems from differing witness accounts. Currently there is no single place to review all of the known witness explanations of the translation of the Book of Mormon.1 To remedy this situation I've started the "Translation Witness Account" (TWA) Project. I want to provide the most comprehensive source of witness statements possible in one convenient location.

This post includes eight statements from Joseph Smith describing the translation of the Book of Mormon. These are my preliminary notes so exact dates and circumstances need to be fleshed out further. In these statements Joseph didn't go into much detail:


"...I would inform you that I translated, by the gift and power of God, and caused to be written, one hundred and sixteen pages, the which I took from the Book of Lehi, which was an account abridged from the plates of Lehi, by the hand of Mormon..."

This is from the Introduction to the first edition of the Book of Mormon, which was evidently included to put down false reports and describe the loss of 116 pages.

- Book of Mormon (1830)

25 October 1831

"Br. Hyrum Smith said that he thought best that the information of the coming forth of the book of Mormon be related by Joseph himself to the Elders present that all might know for themselves.

Br. Joseph Smith jr. said that it was not intended to tell the world all the particulars of the coming forth of the book of Mormon, & also said that it was not expedient for him to relate these things &c."

During an 1831 church conference Hyrum Smith invited Joseph Smith to explain how he translated the Book of Mormon. As Ben Park pointed out to me, this occurred shortly after the publication of a statement from a critic describing a stone in the hat method. Ezra Booth, “Mormonism–No. III,” Ravenna Ohio Star, October 24, 1831 (reprinted from New York Courier and Enquirer). If the brothers were aware of this publication Hyrum may have desired to see Joseph clear up the issue.

-Minutes of general conference, 25 Oct. 1831, cited in Far West Record, p. 13, Historical Department Archives of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, UT. See "Minutes of a conference at Orange, Ohio, October 25, 1831," in Donald Q. Cannon and Lyndon W. Cook, eds., Far West Record: Minutes of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1830–1844, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1983), 23.


"The Book of Mormon is a record of the forefathers of our western tribes of Indians, having been found through the ministrations of an holy angel, and translated into our own language by the gift and power of God."

Joseph Smith's second personally-recorded account of the process in an 1833 letter to N. E. Saxton.

-Joseph Smith, History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, B. H. Roberts, ed., 7 vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1974), 1:315. For more information on Saxton (incorrectly called "Seaton" in the History of the Church,) see "History of the Church, Vol. 1 Chapter 22," footnotes 7, 8, and 9, at BOAP.org.


"I obtained them [the plates] and translated them into the English language by the gift and power of God and have been preaching it ever since."

This description occurred during a conversation with "Joshua the Jewish Minister."

-Warren Cowdery, Manuscript History of the Church, Book A-l, pp. 121-2, LDS Church Archives. [Check version in HC.] As per Mark Ashurst-McGee, this first appears in the 1835 November 9-11 entry in Joseph Smith's second Ohio journal (1835-1836). The entry in handwriting of JS's scribe Warren Parrish. Later it is converted into the 1834-1836 history. The volume of history that was kept in was later turned over and used as the first volume in the History of the Church. So just a note that your page citation for that volume, originally the recto, is now the verso pagination.

1 July 1838

“Moroni, the person who deposited the plates, from whence the Book of Mormon was translated, in a hill in Manchester, Ontario County, New York, being dead, and raised again therefrom, appeared unto me and told me where they were and gave me directions how to obtain them. I obtained them and the Urim and Thummim with them, by the means of which I translated the plates and thus came the Book of Mormon.”

From a "question and answer" piece with Joseph Smith, published in the Elder's Journal.

-Elder's Journal 1 (July 1838): 43.


March 1842

"Through the medium of the Urim and Thummim I translated the record, by the gift and power of God."

This statement is from the Wentworth letter. I need to check the wording to see if it is borrowed from Pratt's Interesting Account pamphlet and if so, if that in turn was borrowed from Cowdery's earlier published letters to W.W. Phelps.

-Joseph Smith, "Church History," Times and Seasons 3 (March 1842): 707.

May 1842

"...immediately after my arrival there [at Harmony, Pennsylvania] I commenced copying the characters off the plates. I copied a considerable number of them, and by means of the Urim and Thummim I translated some of them, which I did between the time I arrived at the house of my wife's father in the month of December [1827], and the February following."

The Times and Seasons 1842 serial publication of the Prophet's "history of the Church."

-Joseph Smith, "History of Joseph Smith," Times and Seasons 3 (May 1842): 772; also in History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, B. H. Roberts, ed., 1:19.

13 November 1843

"By the power of God I translated the Book of Mormon from hieroglyphics; the knowledge of which was lost to the world: in which wonderful event I stood alone, an unlearned youth, to combat the worldly wisdom, and multiplied ignorance of eighteen centuries."

Letter to James Arlington Bennett.

-Times and Seasons 4 (Nov. 1843): 373

Dan Vogel's Early Mormon Documents series and John Welch's Opening the Heavens are currently the two most comprehensive sources for witness statements. If you are aware of any witness statements about the Book of Mormon translation that were not included in these two collections or in this blog post, let me know.