The New York Times overlooked the real Joseph Smith story

The New York Times’ most-emailed story of the moment is about Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism:

NYTimes most emailed Joseph Smith

Here’s the opening paragraph:

Mormon leaders have acknowledged for the first time that the church’s founder and prophet, Joseph Smith, portrayed in church materials as a loyal partner to his loving spouse Emma, took as many as 40 wives, some already married and one only 14 years old.

There’s a story in there, to be sure, but I don’t think the Times devoted enough attention to the real revelation. Let’s run through each of the allegations in that paragraph: that Smith was a polygamist, that some of his wives were young, and that others were previously married. Before I begin, I will readily admit that I am largely ignorant of Mormon history and practice, and that what follows should readily reflect that fact.

Frankly, I was not at all surprised to learn Smith was a polygamist. If you’d asked me two days ago whether he was or not, I almost certainly would have said, “Of course.” After all, as the New York Times point out, the Mormon Church only “issued a manifesto formally ending polygamy” in 1890, well after Smith’s assassination in 1844.

I also wasn’t shocked to learn that Smith married young girls. After all, I’ve read parts of Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven, which describes so-called fundamentalist Mormons, and am also aware of latter-day adherents to that faith, like Warren Jeffs, who has gotten himself in trouble for similar activities. That people would have done the same, or worse, over 150 years ago — remember, slavery was legal, and fundamentalist Mormons felt no need to append the adjective at that time — surprises me not in the least.

What I did find remarkable about this story, but which the New York Times remarks upon hardly at all, is the fact that many of Smith’s 40 wives were married to his friends. Here’s what the article had to say:

The biggest bombshell for some in the essays is that Smith married women who were already married, some to men who were Smith’s friends and followers.

If the Grey Lady truly believed this nugget was “the biggest bombshell”, it probably would have paid it a little more attention. It didn’t. So allow me to expand: Joseph Smith married some already-married women. Now step back and focus on the women instead of the man: several of Joseph Smith’s wives were married to more than one man.

The early Mormon Church did not just practice/condone/permit/encourage/overlook polygamy — it applied the same rules to polyandry as well. And I don’t remember reading anywhere that the Mormon Church outlawed that practice in 1890.

Have at it, ladies.

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