Mistakes in the media about the Church are exceptionally common. In this particular case it felt egregious enough that I roused myself to write the letter below to the newspaper responsible:
I have serious concerns about the research and fact-checking for an article written by Philip Sherwell, your US editor, entitled “Mormon church finally admits founder Joseph Smith was polygamist with 40 wives”, dated 11th November 2014. In this article, Mr Sherwell claims that “church leaders have acknowledged for the first time in a surprising revelation about their most important prophet” that Joseph Smith was a polygamist and that the LDS Church’s “teachings had previously portrayed Smith as happily married to one woman”.
As an academic working in this field, these are serious misstatements of fact. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has always maintained that Joseph Smith inaugurated the practice of polygamy within the LDS Church, and has published this since the 19th century, including in Section 132 of its “Doctrine and Covenants” (one of the Church’s four sacred texts, including the Bible). This position was even a point of historical debate between the LDS Church and the Reorganised Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (now the Community of Christ), the latter of which historically denied this. This debate can be seen clearly in publications such as “Blood Atonement and the Origin of Plural Marriage” (Deseret News Press: Salt Lake City, 1905), in which the future President of the LDS Church Joseph Fielding Smith forcefully argues that Joseph Smith indeed practiced polygamy. To claim that the LDS Church has until now denied this not only ignores the historical record, it mistakenly attributes to the Church the position of its rhetorical opponents. It likewise sensationalises the release of an essay that, however informative, does not represent any particularly noteworthy change in direction for the LDS Church.
There has been a long history of media mistakes in reporting on LDS related matters that fuel popular misconceptions. Many of these could be resolved with some basic research.
Phd Researcher, Department of Theology and Religion
College of Humanities
University of Exeter