I was always aware of plural marriage and I knew that Joseph had practised it. But when I first began to study the details, it was by way of [an inadequately researched book that made startling claims], and I almost immediately encountered . . . [troubling] claims. . . . And I stopped at that point because I hadn’t done the legwork to [know the whole story]. The author dumped it on me and he moved on and I had to decide what to do with it, and many of you or most of you have perhaps had that experience of kind of bopping along blissfully, and then someone presents you with some stuff and just kind of leaves you to deal with it. And that’s why plural marriage is such a useful tool for the antis is because they don’t have to do much.
So, I thought about it a lot. And I didn’t know much but I knew three things.
- I knew that I didn’t know enough to answer the questions that this was going to bring up.
- I knew that finding the answers, if there were any, was going to take a lot of time and a lot of work.
- I knew that I might not be intellectually or spiritually up to the challenge of finding those answers or recognising the answers or being satisfied with the answers. And I knew that answers might not exist.
So, I determined then to take that to the Lord and it was one of the most interesting experiences of my life. The scriptures talk about having the Spirit give you words—give you words to pray when you don’t know what you should say (e.g., Romans 8:26, 3 Nephi 19:24). Well, I thought I knew what I was going to say, but apparently that wasn’t what I was supposed to say, so I ended up saying something quite different from what I knelt down intending to talk about. Somewhat to my surprise, I found myself telling my Father in Heaven what bothered me and instead of begging him for answers or insisting upon them (as I had half planed to do) I found myself telling him that I would not forsake him, that I would not forsake our relationship, that I was not going to turn my back on it or on him. And, that I was not going to abandon my covenants. I told him that come what may, I would do whatever he wanted me to do. And then, I asked him if it would be spiritually dangerous for me to commit the kind of time and energy and effort and intellectual work that this project would probably require.
And I thought that that was going to be the first of many struggling prayers over the issue. But God is gracious and he told me very clearly that I was quite free to investigate it, that it would all work out, though he gave me no idea of how or in what way, and that I had nothing to worry about. And here I am, four years later, talking about it—you must be careful what you ask for, you may get it. I almost think he was a little bit unfair! If I had known this was part of the deal—I did not bargain for this. I did not set out to be the person people ask about plural marriage. Anyone out there who wants the title can see me after.
But, as I’ve thought about that experience--and I think you picked that up very well in this quite heartrending letter that I’ve been reading from here—even the idea of plural marriage is deeply hurtful for some people, especially women. And it’s more, I’m convinced, than just some kind of social or cultural revulsion. I think sometimes it’s speaks to the things that we have experienced in our lives. It brings up memories of the abusive power or of men who mistreated us or sexual abuse or inconsiderate spouses or a host of other things. And it also is easily made to seem a textbook example of the abuse of religion for power—the preacher who wants sex with you and your daughter in exchange for salvation. And I sympathise with all those reactions because I know something of them.
But, perhaps, because of them or in my case, because of the vastness of the topic, we become very uneasy, in a way, with plural marriage that I don’t see with other apologetic issues. We feel a pressure and urgency to solve this problem above all others, once and for all, and quickly. The more we look, the harder it seems to solve it. In large part because the usual sources that we have to rely on, as I have shown you, do very little to help us solve it. And without the primary sources we are, in a sense, lost. And the cycle is thus a vicious one because the more we try to solve it, the more it gets dumped on us.
Now, I am not—before some mouth-breather on the internet concludes otherwise—I am not suggesting that we stop thinking or that I think thinking is a bad idea.
But, the problem was, in that moment, when I first approached God with this, was that my spiritual life did not have four or five years, which is how long I’ve been doing this now, to sit in the church archives. My spiritual life could not be put on hold for that long. How long could I halt between two opinions? If Joseph be Baal or a sexual predator, don’t follow him. Jesus called the apostles and did not tell them to spend three or four years with the primary sources before deciding to answer the call to “Come, follow me.”
And for me, ultimately, the question (I see now) had nothing to do with plural marriage at all. Plural marriage was only the catalyst for a much more fundamental question and that question was, “Do I trust Father?” And I see now, by the grace of God, that my instinctive reaction was to do that, to express my trust and, amazingly, to mean it. I did not realise it at the time, but what I effectively chose to do, if I can put it crudely, is I chose to “consecrate my brain.” I value my brain—we all do—nobody likes to be thought foolish or naaive or ill-informed or duped or cognitively dissonant or any of the other labels people can put upon us. I’m a doctor, I’m regarded as a reasonably smart person, I love science, I love evidence, I’m a sceptic, I’m a rationalist. I say all this about myself—I am all those things, that’s part of how I conceive of myself.
I could have gone before God and I could have demanded answers, I could’ve told him I want the evidence and I want it now, I want closure. I could’ve issued him ultimatums. I could’ve told him that if this didn’t work out, I was quitting. But, I chose instead, to consecrate my brain. I was willing to sacrifice my self-image, my years of learning, my intellectual effort and my social respectability on the internet (which I’m sure is crashing as I speak!) because I trusted Father.
But, you know, it’s the funny thing about consecration, you always get back everything you consecrate, with interest. Once my Father and I had an understanding which took, maybe, 10 minutes, I was back to thinking again. And immediately, I began to get more answers and perspective that I know what to do with, and it hasn’t stopped yet. It’s like trying to drink from a fire hose and I apologize for spraying you all but I haven’t exactly got it controlled yet.
I got “good measure, pressed down, and shaken together, and running over” (Luke 6:38). I cast my bread upon the water and God sent back an aircraft carrier with a bakery on top.
My only fear in saying all this is that some people will think I’m offering a pat answer—I’m not. Abraham was asked to consecrate Isaac. And with Isaac went all the precious promises, everything that made Abraham, Abraham. But he put his son on the altar and he got him back and so much more. We know how Abraham’s story ends but Abraham did not. And as Elder Maxwell observed, even when we know it’s a test, we can’t say, “Look ma, no hands.” You can’t consecrate your brain while crossing your fingers and hoping that we can somehow trick God by going through the intellectual motions and that he will support our demand for proof. You can’t ask for a sign, but I bear you my witness that “signs follow them that believe,” in this as in everything (D&C 63:9).
And so, I’ve tried to answer some questions today but I will leave you with one. And that question is, “Do you trust Father?” If you do, I have no worries, and if you do not, or if you’ve forgotten how, or you fear you may be starting to, you must start there because no answer from me or anyone else will satisfy you on a historical matter. And if plural marriage doesn’t trip you up, something will. Settle it up with Father and then you and I can talk.
Praise be to the man who communed with Jehovah. I will not bear you testimony of the history I’ve told you for that could all change tomorrow. But I bear witness of the Lord of the outstretched arm, who comes into our nights and into our days and clasps us to his chest, and who gives us back a hundredfold of all the poor leavings that we drop upon the altar—sometimes with clenched fists and worried backward glances, since we really didn’t want to give it up—that we drop upon the altar which is already stained with his far more impressive sacrifice on our behalf.
--Greg Smith (slightly edited)