Joseph Smith and Polygamy on the PBS NewsHour

Kristine Haglund, the editor of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought and a friend of Approaching Justice, appeared on Tuesday night’s episode of the PBS NewsHour to discuss recent announcements and essays from the LDS Church about Joseph Smith and polygamy.

Check it out:


GWEN IFILL: The Mormon Church has long faced questions about its history and origins, particularly when it comes to polygamy and race.

Now leaders are addressing these issues head on.

Jeffrey Brown has the story.

JEFFREY BROWN: The history of Mormonism goes back to its founding in 1830 in New York by the prophet Joseph Smith. His successor, Brigham Young, would lead his followers across the country, eventually to Utah.

The church officially ended the practice of polygamy in 1890. And aspects of that early history have been discussed and debated, these days online, ever since, but not, officially at least, by the church itself, until now.

The Mormon Church has been releasing a series of essays that for the first time acknowledge that Joseph Smith himself had many wives, including some already married and at least one quite young.

Kristine Haglund, editor of “Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought,” joins us now to look at all this.

And welcome to you.

Tell us first, if you would, why is this still so important to Mormons today?

KRISTINE HAGLUND, Editor, “Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought”: Historically, the revelation about polygamy came at the same time and in the same context as the revelations about eternal marriage, which is still one of the most appealing and attractive doctrines of Mormonism.

So the belief that family relationships, love and marriages can last into eternity is all bound up with the history of polygamy. And so it’s not easy to disentangle them and jettison polygamy as we might like to now.

JEFFREY BROWN: And how much of this is tied up into — well, how much of this is continually debated?  I referred to the online debates within members of the Mormon community. How much of these issues is still very much with us?


It’s been of interest to scholars for a long time, and they have debated it on all sides. And it’s still really a live theological issue. The church has never made a definitive statement about whether polygamy will continue in the afterlife. It’s still possible for a man to be sealed in the temple to more than one woman during his lifetime.

So these questions are very much live issues still for contemporary members.

JEFFREY BROWN: Tell us a little bit about — more about Joseph Smith. Why in particular is it so important to learn about him?

KRISTINE HAGLUND: Well, he’s the founder of the church, and, so, much of the original doctrine comes from him, and also much of the Mormon sense of identity.

He’s also — besides being the founding prophet, he’s considered a martyr for the church. He was killed largely due to conflict around polygamy. And so he is a central figure. A lot of people base much of their feeling about Mormonism on their personal witness of whether or not Joseph Smith was a prophet of God.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so how much are these things known within the church?  How much are they — how much — how has this all been received by various sectors of the community?

KRISTINE HAGLUND: It varies widely.

And one of the problems is that Mormonism is to a large extent now a very centralized church, and we have the same hymnals in every pew in the church and the same Sunday school lessons all over the world every week. And so people tend to assume that their experience and what they have known in the church is the same as what everyone else knows.

And that turns out not to be true at all with respect to polygamy. Some lifelong members have grown up with a family history of polygamy, and so they know about it and they have had a teacher who was more comfortable talking about it, and so they have heard some of the details. But other members are just hearing now for the very first time and finding very distressing.

JEFFREY BROWN: Why do you think the church is doing this now?  And it’s sort of coming out in an interesting way. It’s online. It’s out there for all to see, but I gather it’s not really trumpeted. It’s not put out in a kind of loud way.

What do you make of this?  There is some discussion of, is it a kind of transparency by the church, or why are they doing this?

KRISTINE HAGLUND: Well, it’s important to remember that Mormonism is a young faith as religions go.

And so I think for the last decade or so, there’s been an increasing recognition that just controlling the message and carefully limiting the amount of information that people have won’t work anymore in the Internet age. There’s been much more openness among scholars about these difficult questions.

And, at the same time, there’s been more vocal and more public dissent from people who now can publish their questions and their angry discoveries online. And so there’s just better communication on all sides about these questions. And so that, coupled with more attention from outside, from pop culture, “The Book of Mormon” musical, from “Sister Wives,” all the media attention around those pop cultural productions, and then of course Mitt Romney’s run for the presidency have put Mormonism in the spotlight and also I think given Mormons more of a sense of how they are perceived in America.

JEFFREY BROWN: And let me just ask you briefly, finally, how much is what we’re talking about here on the polygamy issue tied to any other larger changes or part of a larger discussion within the Mormon Church about other issues, the role of women, the role of blacks?

KRISTINE HAGLUND: I think, particularly with regard to women, this is all tied up. In a way, you can see in some of these essays that there aren’t all that many women represented either among scholars or among administrators of the church.

And so there is a certain tone-deafness to how these issues will play among women differently than among men.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Kristine Haglund, thank you so much.


Check out a related post by Kristine over at By Common Consent.

Also, be sure to check out Jana Reiss’ thoughtful reflections about the recent surge in news coverage about this issue…weeks after the LDS Church addressed it.

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