Book Review: Textual Studies of the Doctrine and Covenants – The Plural Marriage Revelation, by William Victor Smith
Over the last few decades, several quality books on the history of
polygamy have been published. So what makes this one different? Unlike
most polygamy books,“The Plural Marriage Revelation” only touches very
lightly on the practice of plural marriage in the lives of individuals,
while focusing on the revelation in Doctrine and Covenants section 132
and its development as scripture over the course of the LDS Church’s
Joseph Smith sought to develop a special people that could build
heaven on earth. Why wait until the next life to experience heaven, when
it could be enjoyed in this life? However, various efforts failed. The
great spiritual awakening at the Kirtland Temple, with washings,
anointings, and great angelic visitations was soon followed by apostasy
and expulsion of the faithful Saints from the city.
Similarly, Independence Missouri promised a Zion as bright, bold and
beautiful as Enoch’s city. However, contention between the old settlers
and Mormons led to Joseph’s imprisonment and the extermination order
that caused the church to again flee for safety from its enemies.
In Nauvoo, Joseph would try again to build a new hope for heaven.
This time, it would be one focused on sealing family and dynasties
together, in order to have them ready for the anticipated Millennial
reign of Christ.
As part of this new view of heaven, Joseph transcribed the 1843
revelation for his brother, so that Hyrum could use it to convince Emma
to accept plural marriage. As W. V. Smith notes, “The plural marriage
revelation had set in motion a reconceived notion of Zion, with polygamy
at its center.”
Instead of following a chronological history of polygamy, as most
books on the subject do, this volume breaks down the revelation in
D&C 132 into sections, and then discusses each portion in a
chronological way: How did each section affect the Church in Nauvoo, in
Brigham Young’s Utah, and in the 20th century?
Among the concepts in the chapters discussed: the Ancient Roots of
Polygamy, the Permission to Seal, Unconditional Sealings, Polygamy and
the Afterlife, the Keys of the Kingdom, the Mechanics of Plurality and
Kingdoms of Heaven, and the Law of Sarah.
Smith notes that while the revelation was written down in 1843, it
was not made public until 1852, and was not canonized until October
1880, when Orson Pratt’s newly organized set of scriptures were adopted
by the membership of the Church. Even though not in the official
scriptures until this late date, the revelation was clearly understood
as scripture (perhaps one of the most influential of all revealed
scripture) by the apostles of the nineteenth century.
Unlike many of Joseph Smith’s other revelations, the Revelation on
Plural Marriage never was edited nor prepared for publication. It was
written as a private missive, primarily for Emma’s view. What we read is
the raw revelation, with no changes to prepare it for Church-wide
consumption. One can only wonder what changes Joseph may have made in
it, had he been given the chance to publish it himself.
The chapters discuss the evolving views on specific issues regarding
plural marriage, priesthood, exaltation, godhood and how such should be
implemented. At one point, patriarchs were viewed as having the
authority to seal eternal marriages, for example. However, the power of
the Patriarch of the Church rose and waned with the growth of the power
of the Twelve Apostles. Smith notes that Joseph viewed his brother
Hyrum, the Patriarch, as his legitimate successor. With Hyrum’s death,
Brigham Young quickly stepped in to convince the Church that the Twelve
held the keys of priesthood, and that they could function as a
presidency. Later, he would have to convince the Twelve that he could
reconstitute the First Presidency.
Modern LDS take our canonized scriptures and the current functions of
priesthood for granted. Smith’s book helps us understand how much
things evolved as events changed. For example, Smith notes, “The term
‘sealing’ has also gone through a fluctuation, evolution, and refinement
of meaning in Mormonism. When the Church made its blockbuster public
announcement of polygamy in 1852, it included the first public reference
to Joseph Smith’s April 3, 1836, visitation of Elijah in the Kirtland
temple…’ officially establishing the proper keys of sealing a decade and
a half after the events in D&C 110 occurred.
Even the term, “new and everlasting covenant” evolved from meaning
the sacrament of baptism to the concept of sealing and plural marriage.
Just what was salvation, and what were the requirements to enter into
the Celestial Kingdom? Smith discusses the evolving concept of the word
“angel”, how at times it could mean a being that progresses, and other
times when it means one who is stopped in eternal progression.
The requirements for entering Celestial glory were also in question.
Smith notes that Wilford Woodruff quoted Brigham Young as stating that
if a person even spoke out against polygamy, such a person would not
enter into the Celestial Kingdom. Yet a year later in 1870, Woodruff
noted that Brigham Young said that even an unmarried person could enter
into the Celestial Kingdom.
Smith provides an interesting discussion on the concept of Mother in
Heaven. The concept that things on earth reflect things in heaven, led
to nineteenth century opinions on God having one or more wives, gods
having sex to create spirit children, and the importance to expand one’s
personal kingdom by having more children than the next god. While
Joseph Smith never mentioned a Heavenly Mother, the concept was pressed
and unofficially canonized by Eliza R. Snow in her poem, “Oh My Father.”
While Smith discusses the 1890 revelation ending polygamy, he gives
as much attention to the second proclamation and the uncomfortable Smoot
hearing. Even more discussion is provided for Wilford Woodruff’s 1894
revelation that ended dynastic sealings and promoted being sealed to
one’s biological family line. Suddenly, the concept of polygamy and
building one’s own giant dynasty in one’s own kingdom of heaven was of
lesser importance than sealing families together for eternity in God’s
heaven. This concept of heaven on earth continues in the Church to our
day, as we promote heaven in our homes.
The book has helped me to ponder some important, yet uncomfortable
questions I’ve tried to evade in the past: how does one separate out the
glorious concepts of eternal marriage and godhood, from the concepts of
polygamy? What does it mean to be destroyed, in conjunction to
rejecting plural marriage? Will we have to deal with this issue in the
hereafter, or will it be optional? What is Emma Smith’s final
reward/damnation? Will priesthood authority and practice continue
I’ve read a variety of books on the topic of polygamy. Most have
focused on the struggles individuals had in living this difficult
requirement, while leadership flaunted it in the face of its enemies.
William V. Smith’s book takes us on a fresh perspective, dealing
directly with the revelation and how each section related to major
periods of the Church under Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, Wilford
Woodruff, joseph F. Smith, and us today. D&C 132 revelation is laid
out raw and helps us understand how we in the 21st century must deal with the enigma of plural marriage today.
Textual Studies of the Doctrine and Covenants – The Plural Marriage Revelation, by William Victor Smith. Greg Kofford Books.