The LDS Church has posted a rebuttal to an opinion piece written by Timothy Egan that appeared on the New York Times blog on April 23rd (2008). Mr. Egan’s article, “Faith of Our Fathers,” makes a critical comparison between FLDS polygamy and the early Mormon Church. He writes,
“Faith is a moving thing; witness the throng in Yankee Stadium who came away in a fever of fellowship after listening to the Pope last weekend, or the 55,000 moved to practice random acts of compassion by the Dalai Lama at Qwest Field in Seattle two weeks ago.
“But religion can also be used as an excuse for awful behavior – from the torture of the Roman Catholic Inquisition, to beheadings by Jihadist killers, to the sexual manipulation of children by early Mormons and their latter-day sects.
“…The [LDS] church has been vocal about denouncing the renegade Mormons in Texas, and quick to point out that it abandoned polygamy in 1890, as a condition of Utah’s statehood.
“For a long time, though, the church was at odds with basic American ideals, and not just because old guys sanctioned marital sex with dozens of teenage girls. What you see in Texas — in small part — is a look back at some of the behavior of Mormonism’s founding fathers.”
The LDS rebuttal, “Polygamy Then and Now,” written by LDS Church Historian Marlin K. Jensen, begins with this:
“…Egan wrote a post on the Outposts blog claiming that the way polygamy is practiced today by members of the FLDS sect in Eldorado, Texas is the same as it was practiced by members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) in the 19th century.
The alert reader might notice a disparity here. In the New York Times article Mr. Egan does not say, as the LDS rebuttal claims, that the way FLDS practice their polygamy (which might include, for example, forced marriages, exiling young boys, etc.) is the same as the way in which early Mormons practiced polygamy. Mr. Egan actually writes that what we see in the Texas FLDS community is a look back at the behavior of early Mormon leaders “in small part.”
The LDS rebuttal continues,
“Much of the argument Egan makes for similarities between FLDS polygamy and early Mormon marriage practices relates to the claim of ‘sexual manipulation’ of children as evidenced by the age of marriage.”
Mr. Egan does mention the young age of some of the plural wives of both early Mormons and today’s polygamists, but the bulk of his argument is based on “some of the behavior of Mormonism’s founding fathers”; specifically, the claim of divine revelation commanding polygamy coupled with militant defiance against the government.
Mr. Egan’s charge of “sexual manipulation of children by early Mormons,” is not set forth as an empty claim. He provides his readers with one example as background. Speaking of Joseph Smith, Mormonism’s first prophet, Mr. Egan writes:
“Before he died at the hands of a mob, he married at least 33 women and girls; the youngest was 14, and was told she had to become Smith’s bedmate or risk eternal damnation.”
The LDS rebuttal points out that it was not uncommon in the nineteenth century for 15-year-old girls to wed. Yet it misses an important point and does not address the other factors involved in these Mormon marriages: the 15 year-old girls often married men twice their age, and they married men who had multiple wives.
The remainder of the LDS rebuttal does not address issues raised in Mr. Egan’s opinion piece but rather addresses differences between early Mormon society and the FLDS communities that the LDS Church would like to stress. For example, it talks about the freedom enjoyed by Mormon women in the nineteenth century, about the industriousness of the Mormon communities, about the involvement of these early Mormons in things like politics and education; all starkly contrasting with today’s FLDS model.
At the same time that the LDS rebuttal discusses these non-issues in relation to Mr. Egan’s article, it avoids discussion of the core of Mr. Egan’s comparison: the divinely commanded and divinely required practice of plural marriage in defiance of the law.
The LDS rebuttal concludes,
“Mr. Egan’s cavalier comparison of FLDS polygamous practices with those of 19th century Latter-day Saints is historically unsupported and simply wrong. By implication, he also unfairly impugns the integrity of all Latter-day Saint marriages and families, the very institutions they hold most dear.”
Though the Church is loath to admit it, Mr. Egan’s statement, “What you see in Texas — in small part — is a look back at some of the behavior of Mormonism’s founding fathers,” is historically supportable and accurate. Does Mr. Egan “unfairly impugn the integrity” of polygamous Mormon marriages? He is entitled to his opinion. And you and I are entitled to ours.