Since the Guardian decided to produce very similar errors (going a step further by calling on the talents of a novelist who decided to write fiction about polygamy), I ended up feeling I had to write to them too. This covers very similar ground to the last letter, so feel free to give it a miss if you read the other one…
Dear Chris Elliot, Guardian reader’s editor,
As an academic working in the field of Theology and Religion, and specifically in LDS related matters, I am writing to indicate concern about several significant factual mistakes in the article written by David Ebershoff entitled “Polygamy wasn’t a theological debate for early Mormon women. It was part of their lives”, dated 13th November 2014. I recognise some of these mistakes have been perpetuated elsewhere, and I also recognise David Ebershoff is a novelist, and not part of your regular staff. However the article was published under your paper’s title, and so it bear some responsibility to correct the issue when an article is insufficiently researched and has fundamental misstatements of fact, particularly in a field where media errors are common and bolster popular misconceptions.
In particular, Mr Ebershoff makes the claim that “[f]or some 180 years the church has discouraged any kind of discussion of Smith’s plural marriages despite the historical evidence”. He furthermore claims that “[b]y disputing Smith’s plural marriages, and asking its followers to ignore the evidence, the church was denying the experiences of many women — some of whom were among its most loyal believers.” He likewise talks of the LDS Church having spent “180 years of discrediting the evidence and those who spoke of it”.
This claim, that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has spent much of its past history denying that Joseph Smith engaged in polygamous marriages, is a serious factual error. The LDS Church has always claimed that Joseph Smith inaugurated the practice of polygamy. It has never denied this fact, and indeed has continuously published it since the 19th century in Section 132 of its “Doctrine and Covenants” (part of the LDS Church’s scriptures, alongside the Bible). Furthermore, this claim was even key divide between the LDS Church and a related religious group, the Reorganised Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (now the Community of Christ), who rejected both polygamy and the claim that Joseph Smith practised it. This debate can be observed in historic works such as “Blood Atonement and the Origin of Plural Marriage” (Deseret News Press: Salt Lake City, 1905), where a LDS Elder (and future President of the LDS Church) argues against RLDS claims that Joseph Smith indeed practised polygamy. More recent scholarship has continued on the issue – an LDS Scholar for example published last year (to little press attention) a three volume scholarly work on the very issue (Brian C. Hales, “Joseph Smith’s Polygamy”, 3 Volumes, Greg Kofford Books, 2013).
Thus to claim that the LDS Church has denied and suppressed claims that Joseph Smith practised polygamy is incorrect. Such a claim ignores the actual historical documentary evidence (including the LDS Church’s own publications throughout this period) and mistakenly attributes to the LDS Church a position belonging to some of its historical critics. It also implies a degree of institutional dishonesty, an unfortunate claim in an area dominated by popular myths and media errors. And it overly dramatizes what is simply the publication of essay that follows other scholarly works.
It is understandable that unfamiliar topics might present some challenges to research and fact-checking; as I know from my own experience there are few comparatively few academics working in this field and I have also had to write to one of your competitors about very similar errors. Yet that very difficulty underlines the real importance of basic research and understanding to avoid communicating such basic errors to the public.
Phd Researcher, Department of Theology and Religion
College of Humanities
University of Exeter