It is marvellous how conventional wisdom can be harnessed to turn facts upside down.
I was in Salt Lake City last week, checking out some of the historic sites maintained by the Mormons – the members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. It’s a movement that’s spawned thousands of books.
Attractive young ladies of different races and nationalities are there to guide you through places like the Mormon Tabernacle and the Beehive House lived in by Brigham Young. Of course, unless you’re Mormon (and I’m not) you’re not permitted into the grandest edifice of all, the LDS Temple.
I was eager to see everything I could to help me get it right in the historical adventure novel I’m working on. (A branch of my family headed by Joseph Argyle walked 1,300 miles across the Great Plains as members of the Mormon First Handcart Company in 1856.)
The great controversy that’s always dogged the Mormon church is of course polygamy. Officially disowned for over 100 years, polygamy is still a sore point because some have refused to give up the practice.
Like any religion, Mormonism has trouble facing up to facts. Founder Joseph Smith promoted polygamy (the more kids a man fathered, the higher he’d rank in Heaven), claiming he’d been told in a revelation that “if any man espouse a virgin, and desire to espouse another, then he is justified; he cannot commit adultery for they are given unto him.”
That’s not the way the young lady guiding us through the Beehive told it. Her version was that Joseph Smith had “received a revelation telling him that some men were called upon to support other families in need. Later, there was another revelation that this was no longer necessary.” She added, for good measure, that anyone who practices polygamy is not acceptable as a Mormon. The conventional wisdom of the LDS today suggests that polygamy was merely a historical anomaly, without religious significance.
Polygamy aside, you can’t travel in Utah without being tremendously impressed at the achievements of this once-persecuted sect. Mormons have managed to cling to a primitive religion while also embracing modernity. Their focus on education, work, and family — all causes espoused by Brigham Young — turned a desert into an American Zion.