Joseph Smith as Peeping Tom

by “Faraday”


This essay hopes to solve a great mystery: the origins of the naked part of the endowment.

The mystery

Most people know that the signs and tokens of the temple come from Freemasons. And the Adam and Eve part comes from the book of Genesis. But where do the washings and anointings come from?

The lost ceremony

In modern temples, “washings and anointings” refer to applying oil to the head, water to the feet, etc. These are like Biblical practices: kings had their heads anointed with oil, and Jesus famously washed his apostles’ feet. And in the 1836 predecessor to the endowment Joseph Smith did just that: washed feet and anointed heads. (The report also refers to “washing” but that seems to refer to washing their hands etc.). But from 1842 there was another part: you had to get stark naked, with a bathtub! Where did that come from?

Let’s get naked!

Most people don’t know that until the early 20th century, the “washing” required you to stand there naked, with no towel to cover you. Then you got in a bath: this was no symbolic dab of water, your whole body got washed! Here is one of those bathtubs, from the Salt Lake temple in 1911, courtesy of Wikipedia.


In modern times the “washing” is fully clothed and takes about a minute. In fact the whole endowment session, including all ordinances, is over in a couple of hours. But in 1842 it took pretty much all day. For example, when you were finally given underwear you were left sitting on your own for an hour or so (in the version described in the Naked Mormonism podcast). And it was a lot weirder: originally there were no washings for the dead: you only did it for yourself. So your first time was your only time. And this was the days before electric lights: this was a time of shadows, real blood oaths backed by real Danites, belief in all kinds of supernatural things. Getting naked and having someone wash you was just icing on the weirdness cake.

Where did the weird naked stuff come from? One clue is that the endowment is all about the priesthood. We are endowed with power to become kings, and kings are strictly male. So in the 1836 version it was all male. But in 1842 Joseph decided that women should be allowed in. And the ceremony should involve getting naked. Coincidence?

Naked endowments and Peeping Toms

It should be obvious to anyone that a naked bathing ceremony is a Peeping Tom’s dream.

“While the temple ceremony encouraged reverence and decorum, Brigham Young complained that church members sometimes peeked through partitions to observe others being endowed.” (source)

The peeping problem is so obvious, that only Peeping Toms would want a naked ceremony. So where did the idea come from?

The naked ceremony cannot be traced to Freemasonry. And it cannot be traced to anointing kings and washing feet: foot washing was about being humble, and head anointing was about becoming a king. But the naked washing was abut being promised health and strength. It’s just a different concept. We might try to trace it to baptism, except baptism is a completely different concept too and a separate ordinance. Just where did the naked bathing ceremony come from?

The revelation on polygamy

The endowment is closely linked to polygamy: it was invented to bind people in oaths of secrecy, and polygamy at the time was the biggest secret of all. So to understand the endowment we need to understand polygamy. The key text is Doctrine and Covenants 132, and the key passage is verse 39:

“David’s wives and concubines were given unto him of me, by the hand of Nathan, my servant, and others of the prophets who had the keys of this power; and in none of these things did he sin against me save in the case of Uriah and his wife; and, therefore he hath fallen from his exaltation”

What was “the case of Uriah and his wife”? David spied on Bathsheba while she was bathing. David then sent her husband Uriah away to war, so that David could have Bathsheba for himself.


You might wonder how David came to be spying on Bathsheba bathing? This was because David owned the palace and temple, the highest buildings in Jerusalem. Everybody else had small houses. The women could bathe on their roofs for privacy. But David, in his office at the top of his castle, could see them all, and choose any he wanted. As long as Nathan approved.

Modern readers often skim over the “Uriah and his wife” passage without realising its significance. In Joseph’s day the Bible was far better known than it is now. The Uriah story was one of the best known stories of all: the fall of king David! A story of drama, sex, violence, reversals, it has everything! When talking polygamy, this is the most famous example of all! And in those almost-Puritan times, when seeing a woman’s ankle could make a man horny, imagine how this story stayed in a man’s mind. King David could stand on his balcony and see every woman, naked! And then choose to bed the ones he wanted! For a man like Joseph, that idea would tend to crowd out all others. Once referenced it would tend to stay in the mind, no matter what else was being discussed.

Modern readers also tend to forget what Joseph means when he said polygamy, or some aspect of it, was a sin. For years Joseph had been saying “spiritual wifery” was a sin while practising “celestial marriage.” To outsiders they look like exactly the same thing. But Joseph had to reassure his followers that he would never do anything like that. Until he was found out of course. So when Joseph says the Uriah’s wife episode was a terrible sin, that does not mean he would not do it. It just means it was on his mind, and he wanted to reassure followers that he would never spy on their wives in their baths. Oh no sir. Definitely not. Meanwhile, Joseph was planning a new ceremony that involved naked wives and bathtubs…

In the revelation Joseph says this was the only time David sinned. Why was it a sin? 2 Samuel 12 explains:

“The Lord sent Nathan to David. When he came to him, he said, “There were two men in a certain town, one rich and the other poor. The rich man had a very large number of sheep and cattle, but the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb he had bought. He raised it, and it grew up with him and his children. It shared his food, drank from his cup and even slept in his arms. It was like a daughter to him. ‘Now a traveler came to the rich man, but the rich man refrained from taking one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare a meal for the traveler who had come to him. Instead, he took the ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man and prepared it for the one who had come to him.’ David burned with anger against the man and said to Nathan, ‘As surely as the Lord lives, the man who did this must die! He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity.’ Then Nathan said to David, ‘You are the man! This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you from the hand of Saul. I gave your master’s house to you, and your master’s wives into your arms. I gave you all Israel and Judah. And if all this had been too little, I would have given you even more. Why did you despise the word of the Lord by doing what is evil in his eyes? You struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and took his wife to be your own. You killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. 10 Now, therefore, the sword will never depart from your house, because you despised me and took the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your own.'”

Note the analogy with the traveler and the rich and poor man. The sin was not in taking the lamb, but in being an asshole about it. In ancient times it was good to give your very best to a weary traveler. Clearly this lamb was the best, so yes, the rich man should have taken it. But he should have made a deal with the poor man: explained the situation and offered him ten sheep in return.

Joseph learned from David’s mistake. Joseph did not simply take women by force, like a rapist. The endowment was designed to first get people totally on board with whatever Joseph needed, and to promise them eternal riches in return. Then if people disobey and need to have their throats slit it’s their own choice. The endowment solves the Uriah problem.

I wonder if Joseph saw other parallels between himself and David. The previous year Joseph had sent Orson Hyde away on a mission so he could marry Orson’s wife. And the new endowment ceremony threatened death to any followers who did not accept Joseph’s way. And Joseph previously created the Danites, showing that he was serious about the death threats.

Finally, note that only a prophet (like Nathan) could decide which wives were justified and which were sinful. Luckily, Joseph was himself the prophet. Even luckier, Joseph was also the king. Well, technically the mayor of Nauvoo, but on 11 April 1844 the Council of Fifty declared him “our Prophet, Priest & King.” So if Joseph the king saw a woman and wanted her, it was not a sin as long as Joseph the prophet approved.

Seers and peeping

Joseph was a seer. He saw stuff. He told us “a seer is greater than a prophet”. Joseph began as a glass looker, a scryer, a peep-stone user. His whole schtick was that he could see things that are hidden. Whenever God or nature had ordained that thing was hidden (far away, or buried in the earth, or lost to history), Joseph could pull aside the veil and have a good old look.

Scrying, or seeing, explains everything. For example, the coming forth of the Book of Mormon is a classic example: a spirit guards buried gold, Joseph with his peep stone finds it, and on the night of the autumnal equinox the spirit gives it up. All of Mormonism is about seeing hidden things: spirits and angels and plates and translations that others cannot see.

Nothing can be hidden from a seer. Using a peepstone or crystal ball, or other means, they can see what they are not supposed to see, and nobody else will know.


And what did Joseph look for the most, throughout his life? Apart from gold? He looked for women! As Grant Palmer (“Insider’s View”) reminded us, Joseph was accused of sexually harassing women in every single place he lived. Joseph just loved to see women’s private parts, and if possible then show them his. Leonora Cannon Taylor writes about one of Joseph’s chat up lines:

“…I had many tryals about this time [May-Sep 1843, when Joseph made polygamy public and began naked washing] but I am yet alive, “ [Her next diary entry reads] “Come Joseph Don’t be filling that up with balderdash, ‘how is your garden this year I’ll show you some summer apples my lady’ O Dear.” (source)

I am sure that readers can work out what Joseph meant by the lady’s “garden” and his “summer apples”. A lady’s “garden” is a well known euphemism. And Joseph’s “summer apples”? Apples are harvested in the Fall: summer apples are about the size of very large cherries, and summer is the time to play. If you get my meaning. No wonder Leonora’s reaction was “O Dear”.

As Leonora’s case shows, not all of the women agreed to show Joseph their gardens. This must have been extremely frustrating to him. Until one day Joseph received a revelation of how every single one of his friends’ wives could be naked before him. And specifically have their private parts touched. What an inspired idea!

Sacred ceremonies, including naked ceremonies, had to be performed exactly right. So the prophet, the seer, had to be able to see everything, including the naked part, whenever he wanted. But there was a problem with that. Joseph still remembered that time he saw Mirinda Johnson’s “garden”. And Mirinda’s brother Eli found out. Eli and his friends tarred and feathered Joseph, the mob screamed for Joseph’s castration, and he only barely escaped. That was a close call! Another problem was Joseph’s wife Emma. She had caught him in the barn with one of his lady friends. Another time when she found out about his extra-curricular gardening she kicked the other lady down the stairs. For some reason Emma was not convinced that polygamy was divine, despite God’s clear statement that Emma would be destroyed if she did not let Joseph have any women he wanted. Why couldn’t Emma understand?

Clearly Joseph had to be able to spy on the ceremony without anyone knowing. Not even Emma. Especially not Emma. But how?

A temple designed for a Peeping Tom

Let’s look at the endowment in general. The “Naked Mormonism” podcast shows how it was designed to disorient the woman. It was confusing, scary, full of strangeness and shadows and starting with nakedness, designed to make her feel helpless. The whole point was to get her to a state where she would bow her head and say “yes” to anything.

Now let’s look at the temple that was designed around the endowment. The Nauvoo temple was built for the endowment and has some interesting differences from the Kirtland temple. The Kirtland temple had its own pre-endowment elements (preaching, washing of feet, anointing of heads) but no naked women. The Nauvoo temple was “Kirtland plus naked women”. Can you see the difference?


The difference is the offices. (And the baptistry, to get people used to the idea of bathing.) Pay special attention to the top floor. Naturally you would expect washings to take place in the basement, where the water was, right? Yet Joseph wanted the washing to take place on the top floor. When Joseph died, Brigham Young changed it to the bottom floor like any sensible person:

“Earlier in 1842 there had been suggestions that the upper story of the temple will when finished be used for the ritual purposes, but at the beginning of 1845 Brigham Young decided that upon each side of the font there will be a suite of rooms fitted up for the washings and also in the recesses on each side of the arch on the first story.” (Weeks, p.351)

Why use the cramped and inconvenient upper floor? One obvious reason is that there are no windows there. But look at the design. Despite having less space, the sides are lined with offices. This is where Joseph would do his work, or wait for his time in the ceremony. In other words, when the women (and men) are naked, Joseph would be just a few feet away behind a door. And for the new washing ceremony to be correct, Joseph had to be able to peep from his office whenever he wanted. Whether he used a keyhole, curtain, or crack in the door is anyone’s guess. But his offices had to be on the same floor as the naked women, and close enough to see every detail of what was happening. Because these sacred ordinances had to be done right!

One problem with the “temple designed for a Peeping Tom” theory might be that Joseph planned the temple in 1841, a year before he got the full Masonic treatment and decided naked women could be involved. But the inside design of the temple was not finalised until after Joseph decided he wanted naked women naked women. The design of the temple, like everything else Joseph invented, was constantly changing:

“Governor Thomas Ford of Illinois gained the impression from Mormons themselves that their temple was commenced without any previous plan and that the master builder from day to day during the progress of its erection received directions immediately from heaven as to the plan of the building. […] temple plans remained
general and fluid no complete plans being presented at any one time. […] changes in temple details from first drawings to final building were dramatic” (Weeks, pp 341-2)

In particular, the interior arrangements (and whether the offices were close enough to the flesh for him to see anything) were still being tweaked right up to the end:

“During April another visitor learned that the interior plan is yet undecided upon or rather the prophet has not received a revelation in regard to the interior arrangements. In June [1844] the prophet informed others that the temples interior structure and arrangement had not been decided on.”(Weeks, pp.347-348)

If these were just ordinary offices for ordinary business why would he care? Why not leave that part to the architect? And why put them on the same floor as the ceremony, squashed next to the naked people, unless being squashed together was the whole point?

Conclusion: the “wife of Uriah” principle

Here, then, are all the elements of the new naked bathing ceremony:

  1. A woman bathes naked. (And men, but the scripture focuses on the woman.)
  2. The king is in his office at the top of his palace, where he might “accidentally” see the bathing.
  3. The king then chooses the best polygamous wife.
  4. This is approved of God as long as all parties agree first, e.g. by being promised great rewards (in heaven)

If this is not the source of the naked bathing ceremony, please provide a better known source from the same general period. Study the Freemasons’ books. Study the Bible. I can wait.

Of course, we do not have video proof of what Joseph did. All we know is that he would be on the other side of a door or curtain while his friends’ wives got naked. Maybe he never peeped? Sure…



The original temple ceremony
(Part 2, the woman’s perspective)
Joseph Smith’s history of chasing women
(part 2)
Polygamy timeline
Endowment timeline
William Weeks, Architect of the Nauvoo Temple
Polygamy diaries etc.
Tarring, feathering, and almost-castration

Sunday in Outer Blogness: Delicious magic rocks edition!

The news of the Seerstone has been out for more than a week, and it has led to quite a bit of reflection and information on seerstones and church history. Also some fun stuff, like old-timey temple recommend questions and a glimpse into the future. Someone even found an old post post about how such magical objects were made!

The CoJCoL-dS is really going to town on confirming all that weird stuff you’d only heard rumors about before. Their own social blog just put up a post about the church’s secret vaults. It’s great that they’re being more honest, but it kind of calls attention to the fact that they weren’t being forthright before:

Oh, and the rock that Joseph actually used? According to outside sources (which turns out are more trustworthy than the whitewashed and carefully pruned history that the church reports), he found it and convinced people to hire him to use it to find treasure. I guess it didn’t occur to those who hired him, that if he could find treasure, he wouldn’t have been poor. He never found any treasure but he took the money and was subsequently brought up on charges – another part of history missing from these books.

Some members aren’t happy to see magical thinking return to prominence in Mormon beliefs, but perhaps it’s inevitable. If the rock wasn’t really magic, then it starts to look like Joseph Smith was making all this supernatural stuff up…

Of course, as weird as all the folk magic in the early church was, what about what’s going on in the corporate church today? The Newsroom claimed that “[T]he admission of openly gay leaders is inconsistent with the doctrines of the Church”, which leads people to sincerely ask: Really? Are you sure about that? Then some members who weren’t happy about being called out for criticizing the LDS Newsroom really nailed it:

4. Public Affairs will be aware that the most common interpretation of D&C 1:38 is that when the Brethren speak it is as if the Lord has spoken. Are we to understand that Public Affairs now stands in that chain? Does this make the Newsroom in some way revelatory? Public Affairs will be aware of the “President Newsroom” jibe: would it be helpful if one of the apostles were to clearly explain its role and authority?

5. The Newsroom has been active in promoting a more nuanced view of the priesthood ban, as Brother Otterson’s discussion of the Gospel Topics essays shows. The essay on “Race and the Priesthood” tells us that, “[o]ver time, Church leaders and members advanced many theories to explain the priesthood and temple restrictions. None of these explanations is accepted today as the official doctrine of the Church.” Had the Public Affairs department of the church given voice to these mistaken theories via a news release at the time, what responsibility would members have had in relation to it? Would it have been reasonable to criticize such a release?

And Daniel Midgley spelled it out even more directly:

a. The morality of the world improves, or an unpleasant tidbit from church history emerges.
b. The Church feels pressure to change.
c. Church leaders resist the pressure, because that’s not how the church works!
d. The issue starts to affect the bottom line, as members leave.
e. President Newsroom releases an uncredited, unannounced essay on in the middle of the night.
f. Apologists, PR flacks, and surrogates defend the church
g. Church leaders say nothing to clarify church doctrine, so that everyone can keep believing what they like.

Hawkgrrl followed up with some discussion of the church-as-marriage metaphor. For a quick intro to that metaphor, here’s what I said about it at Sunstone a few years ago:

J. Max claims that when faithful Mormons post complaints to the Bloggernacle, it’s like taking your marital problems down to the pub. I find that a very interesting metaphor. The problem is that all these faithful members — who do have a profound and intimate relationship to the church — don’t have the equivalent of a living room or bedroom where they can talk to the people who make church policies and expect the leaders to listen to them and take their perspectives into account.

Then there was another discussion on marriage and the church which kind of led to a very practical reason to oppose revering the Bible…

Andrew S interviewed Alison Udall about what the new Mormon Spectrum site adds to the LDS-interest online discussion.

We have some more book reviews this week! Steve Otteson gave 4 1/2 tapirs to Faith Beyond Belief, Knotty reviewed Perfect: The Journey of a Gay Ex Mormon and Goodbye, I Love You, Jonathan Langford reviewed Steven L. Peck’s latest book, and Hans RoseKat reviewed The Joseph Smith Papers, Revelations and Translations, Volume 3.

In interfath interactions, Ron V. Huggins is calling for authentic dialog between Mormons and Evangelical Christians. In other LDS culture stuff, a pool in Orem, UT is enforcing modesty rules for four-year-old girls. In philosophy, why are swear words a moral issue?

Well, that wraps up another fun week in Mormon-land! Any guesses on what they’ll do next week?

General Authority Bullsh*t: A category on my Blog

From Benson’s crazy commie-hatin’ days, to Paul H. Dunn’s deep diving lies, to little discrepancies in Monson’s talks, this category of posts on my blog, “Exploring Mormonism” reveals how much these men speak as men.

Hopefully the in-depth fact checking of some of the more influential leaders, conference talks, Ensign articles, and so forth will help illustrate that even the very influential statements aren’t inspired, but should be counted about as worthy as any other old man’s advice.

General Authority Bullshit

Help? Do I belong here?

How do we help “new bloggers” find their voice?
Are we really a community that does?
I believe we are, or at least can be.

Main Street Plaza is an Internet home for people who care about their thoughts and ideas, eventhough weoften disagree. Wedon’t have the same world view,but it helpsus tobe able toarticulateour point of view, and listen to others asthey express theirs.Disagreements on doctrineor different life choices,does nothave to lead to animosity.I hope that we are making a space for people questioning their faith, lives and community, and to help them feel that they have a “voice” as they work throught those struggles.

An Example of doing it right!

I think that Post Mormon Girl does a great job giving voice to her experiences with the church, and how those experiences shaped her life. Her entire blog is great and some time. when you have the flu or something else, where you have an excuselay inbed,I highly recommendreading through her past posts. She is an awesome person, writer, friend and she has a great way of gently encouraging new readers and commenters to talk, even if they are VERY shy.

Part of what is remarkable about Post Mormon Girl, as a blogger and human being, is that she makes sure to thank each person who comments, or to engage them in some way. When she doesn’t know an answer, she will post that she doesn’t know, and ask her readers whether they know them. She also asks questions that she genuinely doesn’t know the answers to, and at the end of the OP asks her readers to share their experiences.

This is one of her recent posts, that especially hit home with me: (You really should take the time to read the OP and ALL ofthe comments)

The post is touching and masterfully written.Thecomments, thoughts, ideas and personal experiences added to the OPmake it much morepowerful!. PMG is a great writer, who writes honestly and straight from the heart. There is no doubt that her writing stands on its own. While being a great writer is important, her original reasonfor starting A Post-Mormon Life, was to help others who had, were or were going to have some of the same experiences, when they decide that leaving the LDS church, She wanted other people toknow that it is possible to leave the LDS church, andthey can be happy. Mostly, she wants people to ask questions, or leave part of their own stories, so they can be part of the larger narrative of current Mormons, Ex-Mormons, and thosestraddling the fence.

What we are doing now, and howwe can bebetter!

Hopefully, Main Street Plazais creating a space for thestoriesof people who have had the LDS church touch their lives. As a place forexperiencesto beshared, a place of encouragement, and not a place of condescension or condemnation.This is a place that you can hear the words and voices of those whose lives have been different,while you still share some common threads.

Hopefully, you willfind acceptance, no matter where you fall on the living-believing-caring-hoping scale of personal growth.As you discuss, debate, and find common ground, hopefully you will see Main Street Plaza as a place to embraceideas and people who don’t agree with you (or do agree with you) that you respect because of the lives they live and their tollerance and support, no matter how different you may seem at first.

Oftentimes, connecting through blogs has less to do with marketing and more to do with making personal connections, but it is hard to make those first few connections, If someone has posted on a group blog, and they have a personal blog that is in their profile, check out their blog. If theirblog is interesting, and youare comfortable with the content, leave a comment about something you liked, and then ask them to check out your blog.It can be a great was tostart conversations that mightnot happen inlarger forums, with 20-50 comments. There are new and more experienced authors,who offer their advice, when you ask for it. 😉

There are times whenyouneed help now, and you aren’t sure who to ask. So, please, if you are new or have been lurking for a while,
please leave a comment with your question(s) and hopefully between the community members, we will be ableto answer all of them.

Julia 😉


**Disagreeing is just as honorable as agreeing, as long as comes from a supportable idea or an experience based insight. Name calling is always an easily throw, like the balls from a Nerf gun. I am asking you to at least try meeting me half way, and stick to only calling me an idiot, AFTER you have shared your “supportable idea.” :-)

Mormonism: a “Native American” faith?

With Mitt Romney’s nomination closer and closer, there’s a lot of talk about whether Mormonism has made it…whether it’s succeeded, been accepted by American society…

I was watching a Morning Joe episode that featured Matthew Bowman, author of a new book The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith, who’s also the associate editor ofDialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. Bowman does a good job on the show, in my opinion.

However, one of the commentators says:

An impetus behind [writing the book] — and we’d love to hear you talk more about this — is that it is a native American faith (these words were emphasized by the commentator). What does Mormonism tell us about the country? […] What is particularly American about Mormonism?

I think it’s wrong to refer to Mormonism as a “native American” faith.

Thankfully, Random House does not use precisely the same phrasing in their description of Bowman’s book:

[Bowman] explores the history and reflects on the future of this native-born American faith and its connection to the life of the nation.

Since the subject of ongoing racism in the Church has been a subject of controversy recently, I’d like to speak to what comes to my mind in terms of Mormonism (specifically, the Book of Mormon) in the context of the history of this nation.

Though the Church has made a point to “condemn racism, including any and all past racism,” still, according to Mormon belief, a fair-skinned angel named Moroni brought a divine text to a white man named Joseph Smith after the deaths of hundreds of thousands of darker-skinned native peoples after European colonization. Apparently, in this text, God is happy with the American Constitution, finding the new nation exceptional, which leads one to wonder whether God in Mormonism finds it acceptable that native populations were wiped out to make room for America to fulfill its unique destiny.

In this text, an alternative history of the Americas is described, one that indigenous peoples today find preposterous. The story also includes darker skin as a “curse.” As we know, this curse was thought to still be in effect for those of African descent particularly, an interpretation that was officially deemed wrong after 1978.

The “dark skin as a curse” passages of the Book of Mormon are now considered more figurative by the Church, as proven by official changes in chapter summaries in 2010. Still, it took until 2006 for the official introduction of the Book of Mormon to change from Lamanites being the “principle” ancestors of the indigenous peoples of this continent to instead being “among” their ancestors.

I just can’t get over the fact that the Book of Mormon, as it’s moved through American history, has basically been a case in which descendents of colonizers have mythologized a land and its original inhabitants without the input of those inhabitants or their descendants. That seems racist to me, and is one of the fundamental issues I have with the American-born (there, that seems better) faith.

My place in Mormon history

A lot of people — upon leaving the CoJCoL-dS — are amazed to discover how fascinating LDS church history really is. It’s not just that the whitewashed history in Sunday School is incomplete and inaccurate. It’s that you’re force-fed this watery-porridge version of church history that inoculates many people from even wanting to study more church history on their own. So when the leaders say, “Don’t go out and read a bunch of (non-or-marginally approved) books about church history!” one very natural response is “No problem!” Until you disobey that commandment and see how interesting those books can be, that is.

One such book I read recently is Todd Compton’s In Sacred Loneliness, a relatively faith-friendly series of short biographies of the plural wives of Joseph Smith. This book gives a good overview of what it was like to be a member of Joseph Smith’s inner circle. The thirty women profiled run the gamut from LDS leaders to people who kind of lost interest and wandered off, from women who embraced polygamy (going on to join another leader’s harem) to women who had close relationships with their pre/post-JS husbands, from women who died in the thick of the story to women who lived long enough to see the CoJCoLd-S give up polygamy.

Part of my motivation for buying this book was to learn more about Nancy Maria Winchester — my personal church-history connection — to help find my place in the grand Mormon adventure. There’s kind of a “pioneer day” sentiment of “Wouldn’t it have been exciting to have been there when all of these miracles were happening, and to have known Joseph Smith?”

Yet, reading the book made me feel almost more of an outsider than before. I was continually struck by the feeling that I would never have joined this organization. I would never even have considered it. Then I tell myself: It was the ‘Great Awakening’! This was an exciting new trend! They had a prophet who was presenting popular, modern ideas as revelations from God, improving on that dusty old Bible! Yet, I still feel like it’s not a trend that would have appealed to me. Perversely, I can’t imagine my Uber-Mormon mom converting to a wild new religion, either. But my Dad? Maybe…

But then I ask myself if that would have been enough to have gotten my family [fictionally transported more than a century into the past] involved in the grand Mormon adventure. Certainly there were cases where a woman was brought into the Mormon adventure more-or-less against her will by a husband or father (like Martin Harris’ wife Lucy, or Helen Mar Kimball’s first polygamous marriage). Yet, this book also has tales of women who converted whole-heartedly to Mormonism — and brought unwilling or half-willing husbands along for the ride. Overall, the book showcases a number of tales of women’s independence and autonomy. It illustrates the strange connection between polygamy and feminism. At a time when women essentially had the same legal status as children (with respect to their father or husband), the central matriarchs of early Utah society were functionally single moms. Their husbands were more like patrons “with privileges”. Of course the women relied on a great deal of material support from their brothers and other male relatives when their absentee (deadbeat?) shared patriarch “husbands” didn’t come through.

One other striking thing about the book is all of the death: specifically how many mothers lost many or all of their babies and children. This isn’t a specifically Mormon point, BTW. If you can find a collection of bios of ordinary women of centuries past, you’ll find a collection of tales of babies and children dying. Really — despite the trek west — the pioneers of the American frontier had a better survival rate than families in many countries of Europe that didn’t have plentiful farmland to invade.

One line in the book jumped out at me about how we can hardly imagine what it would be like to experience so much loss. That’s true, but it’s because we’re the strange ones. We modern people in wealthy countries have managed to separate ourselves so completely from the daily experience of death that we can hardly comprehend what it was like for ordinary parents and spouses for most of human history. Rather than having more children than you can effectively handle and then watching many of them die you can typically choose to have no more kids than you think you can raise well, and more importantly, you can expect that you will most likely see them all live to adulthood. As I’ve said before, this is the number one thing I appreciate about living here and now, over all other modern advances. And it’s a point to keep in mind when trying to understand the experiences of people in earlier eras.

Todd Compton’s In Sacred Loneliness is an excellent starting point for an adventure exploring your Mormon heritage!

Connected Mormonism

It has become a platitude among journalists to refer to Internet communities as echo chambers that induce confirmation bias. In the good old days, goes the reasoning, everybody had to watch the same three network news and we were all on the same page, at least, with regard to the facts.

I am sorry but the proponents of the echo chamber hypothesis suffer from nostalgia. One need only to remember the turmoil over civil rights, the riots and police brutality at the Democratic convention in Chicago, the assassinations of Dr Martin Luther King, Jr and Robert Kennedy, and the culture wars to realize that Americans did not agree about the facts any more back then than today

For example, millions of Americans remained convinced that Martin Luther King was a communist, no matter how long they stared at Walter Cronkite.

In 1960, the bigots went crazy when John F. Kennedy became President without the Internet. In 2008, the bigots went crazy because Barack Obama became President with the Internet. And in 1932, the bigots lost it when Franklin Delano Roosevelt became President even though there was neither TV nor the Internet.

The media have little to do with it. The problem is rather that too many people in the United States have an authoritarian mindset and will not tolerate the loss of a democratic election. The sad reality is that they view their opponents as less than citizens and on occasion, i.e. the civil rights movement, as less than human. Those people are not susceptible to fact based arguments.

The echo chamber effect of the Internet is exaggerated as well. Internet Mormonism is a case in point.

It is true that a wide variety of Mormon communities have emerged on the Internet. From traditionalist heretics celebrating the Mormon temple cult to apologists rationalizing the faith, there are a wide variety of forums and message boards for Mormons of all flavors. There are Mormon mommies, Mormons who feel they were hurt by religion, Mormons who want to enjoy the community without subscribing to the dogma, Mormons who do not want to talk about politics and those who do. There are Mormons who want to protect each other from each other. There are smart Mormons and several flavors of feminist Mormons. Of course, there are edifying and uplifting Mormons. There is even a forum for Mormons who want to say, pardon me, F*ck.

The nice thing about the Internet is that all those people can now find each other. In part, that’s probably a function of space and numbers. There aren’t that many Mormons in the first place and if you want to have a discussion about the evil and virtue of the Mormon torture memo, you might be hard pressed to find people who are willing and capable to carry on an intelligent discussion about this and other topics in your local community.

That is especially true if you harbor any kind of doubt. There might be whispered assent in the hallway or the parking lot but Mormons quite effectively police each other face to face. The Internet connected not only rare Mormons but it allowed dissidents to remain anonymous and to form the Disaffected Mormon Underground.

For the first time since New Mormon History and Sunstone had been ostracized by Mormon authorities, dissenters found that they were not alone, that they enjoyed some protection from sanction, and that they could provide the benefits of community to each other.

Even though the brethren had initially succeeded in isolating Sunstone, the symposiums have now been rejuvenated by a generation of Internet Mormons whose theological outlook is more diverse than ever. I hear that there are even discussions whether this or that Mormon authority can be properly referred to as an SOB.

The one thing that Mormons have not been able to find on the Internet is echo chambers. No matter what your cause and outlook, other kind of Mormons would run in your forum and your blogs. They had to be warded off with sticks.

Had it merely been a matter of communications technology, the Internet would have produced the most diverse Mormon community imaginable. The preservation of unity actually required good old fashioned sanctions and prohibitions. Even so the Internet has produced the most diverse Brighamite communities ever.

As for the Disaffected Mormon Underground, that is being transformed by Facebook. Disaffected Mormons are increasingly out in the open. Most of us now post under our legal names and Mormons of all flavors are friending each. Despite occasional defriendings, I would say that Internet Mormons are self-confident and more connected than ever.

RE: I left the church because I found out all the history that they never taught.

This post, by Ardis E. Parshall, has gotten some play recently, here at MSP and elsewhere. Since numerous people linked to it, I thought I’d stop by to see what all the fuss was. Basically she talks about her awful mission experience and then concludes that there is nothing that can convince her that the LDS Church is NOT true, because those are all failings of men, not the gospel. After reading the post, I wrote up a response, which I attempted to add to the discussion. There is no indication when you attempt to comment that comments are screened and correlated. But my comment was correlated out of existence and here’s her response to my (never posted) comment. So, I figured I’d post it here:

First, it’s awful what happened to you on your mission. Truly awful.
Second, it sounds like what you are saying despite that is that there is nothing, nothing that could ever get you to stop believing the LDS Church is true and that there is a god. If that is what you believe, your position is irrational. Daniel Dennett makes this point quite clear in his book, Breaking the Spell. Let me see if I can illustrate this with a hypothetical scenario. If you really are saying that nothing can change your position, then:
If two supernatural entities descended from the sky one bright, beautiful morning while you were outside on a walk with several people you trust and care about; and if they glowed with supernatural brilliance and had all of the stereotypical characteristics attributed to god the father and jesus christ (you know, male, beards, long hair, white-skin, etc.); and if they descended right in front of you, hovering mid-air, and began to speak, “Ardis, your mission president was an evil man. He was not called of god. The LDS Church is in apostasy. We are here to call you to start a new religion. One that represents our true desires.”; and if they then proceeded to ordain you as the next prophet(ess) and detail their plans for you; and if the visit lasts several hours; and the people with you, whom you trust, are there to witness it, would you deny that it occurred?
Based on your earlier suggestion that there is nothing that can dissuade you from your “knowledge” that the LDS Church and its gospel are true, your response to this supernatural visitation would be to dismiss it and deny it. After all, it didn’t go through the proper priesthood channels. It was not correlated. And it runs counter to current Mormon teaching that women cannot hold the priesthood. Ergo, it must not be god and jesus christ.
As an apostate and now atheist, if this happened to me and those who were with me were credible witnesses, I’d at least have to consider it as genuine. Why wouldn’t you? If you wouldn’t, your belief is irrational. If you’re okay with that, there isn’t much else to say. If you don’t think it’s irrational, please explain why.
Of course, the obvious follow-up to this is: Yes, this is extreme, but if you would reconsider your beliefs for this extreme event, why wouldn’t you for something less extreme, like Joseph Smith’s philandering or Brigham Young’s false doctrine? It’s just a matter of degree. Yet, you dismiss that as irrelevant. That is irrational.
Just my two bits…

I’m doubting Ardis will sully herself by stopping by MSP to respond, but you never know.