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Snuffer’s Take on Polygamy

Denver Snuffer has generated a bit of controversy on the bloggernacle lately, though I suspect your average member has never heard of him.  My post Is Excommunication Useful? got over 300 comments, and Tim Malone’s Q&A about Snuffer also got over 300 comments.  One Who is Watching noted “an obscene amount of traffic to my site” when he advertised that he was going to do a review of Snuffer’s book Passing the Heavenly Gift, the book that got Snuffer excommunicated.  Well, the Watcher is dragging out his review, though he did post bullet points to 25 things he found wrong with the book.  He is creating a PDF, and I’m sure it won’t be short nor concise–Watcher never is.

I first became acquainted with Snuffer when John Dehlin interviewed him on Mormon Stories.  John called Denver “A Progressive, Fundamentalist, Non-Polygamist Mormon Lawyer Who Claims to Have Seen Christ.”  I transcribed the last 20 minutes of the interview in which Denver claimed to talk with angels.  I’ve read about 40% of Snuffer’s newest book Passing the Heavenly Gift–the book that got him excommunicated.  This book addresses church history, not angels (at least so far), and I’d like to give some initial impressions.  In today’s review, I’d like to talk about Snuffer’s position on D&C 132, which I think many of you will find tremendous agreement with.  Snuffer introduces his controversial book this way:

Mormonism has undergone four distinct phases. The first began in 1820 and ended with Joseph Smith’s death in 1844. The second began upon Joseph Smith’s death and ended with abandonment of plural marriage, publicly in 1890 and privately in 1904. In the third phase Mormonism denounced as apostasy its practice of plural wives, marking the first time an orthodox practice became grounds for excommunication. The fourth phase began with David O. McKay and is still underway. In it Mormonism has adopted corporate management techniques to consolidate and direct central church decision-making.

Denver says that anyone can write history, and he is as qualified to write history as the next guy.  While he does refer to Mormon Historians like Richard Bushman, Michael Quinn, and Polly Aird (to name a few), Snuffer’s opinions don’t always mesh with “traditional” history.  For example, most historians (and even the D&C) state that the earliest revelations on polygamy date to about 1831.  The heading to D&C 132 says

Although the revelation was recorded in 1843, evidence indicates that some of the principles involved in this revelation were known by the Prophet as early as 1831. See Official Declaration 1.

Most historians believe that Joseph’s translation of the Bible in 1831 caused him to wonder about Old Testament polygamy; however, Snuffer pushes back the timeline a bit.  He notes that Joseph translation of the Book of Mormon has Jacob talking about polygamy. Snuffer quotes an 1872 address by Brigham Young stating

[While] Joseph and Oliver were translating the Book of Mormon, they had a revelation that the order of Patriarchal marriage and the Sealing was right.  Oliver said unto Joseph, “Br. Joseph, why don’t we go into the Order of Polygamy, and practice it as the ancients did?”

Pushing the revelation to 1829 during the Book of Mormon translation process is an interesting proposition, and I don’t know why traditional Mormon historians don’t give this more credence other than the fact an 1872 quote isn’t as good as a contemporary (say 1830) quote.  But what I find interesting is that Snuffer claims that Brigham conflated plural marriage with eternal marriage, making plural marriage a requirement when it was never supposed to be.  Snuffer claims that D&C 132 was written in 1843, but it was actually a combination of 4 revelations.  From page 154, Snuffer writes

Section 132 is not a single revelation, but instead contains several revelations received at different times separated by years between them.  Since none of them had previously been reduced to writing, when it was finally written in July 1843, all of them are set out as a single narrative.  The first revelation included only the announcement of the possibility of an eternal marriage covenant, and an answer to the inquire about Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, and Solomon’s multiple wives.  A subsequent revelation (vs. 45-50) approves Joseph’s “sacrifices,” [verse 50] confirms his “exaltation,” [verse 49], and confers the power to “seal on earth…and in the heavens.[verse 46]”    Between the first portion and the second of these recorded verses, there was another unwritten revelation.  In it Joseph had been commanded to take plural wives.  He obeyed, and merited the sealing power by his obedience and sacrifice.  He had offered what was necessary to be able to lay hold upon eternal life.[footnote references Lectures on Faith]

This means Joseph received the revelation on eternal marriage, (verses 1-33) and plurality of wives (34-40 or 44) first.  Then later Joseph was told by an angel “with a drawn sword” that he was commanded to practice this form of marriage.  The time, place and language of that second revelation concerning plural wives was not recorded.  Only after living it did he obtain the keys to be able to perform such marriages, marking the third revelation set out in verses 45-50.

Frankly, I think that many Mormons are uncomfortable with polygamy being a requirement of the Celestial Kingdom.  The church currently emphasizes the sealing power in section 132, and de-emphasizes plurality of wives.  Reducing this to a misunderstanding by Brigham Young conflating these would probably make a lot of Mormons feel better about D&C 132.  Snuffer seems to get sidetracked here, not directly referencing the 4th revelation in D&C 132, but verses 51-57 seem directed squarely at Emma telling her to “receive all those that have been given unto my servant Joseph” and “forgive my servant Joseph his trespasses” or “she shall be bdestroyed, saith the Lord.”  On page 157, Snuffer immediately tells about Emma’s reaction to this 4th revelation by quoting William Clayton journal entry for July 12, 1843.

she did not believe a word of it and appeared very rebellious.  J[oseph] told me to Deed all unencumbered lots [Joseph's remaining building lots in Nauvoo] to E[mma] & the children.  He appears much troubled about E[mma].

Snuffer goes on to explain that Emma wanted the lots

“to prevent other women from claiming they could share in the property.”

The following day Joseph and Emma reached a division of property between them.”

Snuffer goes on to say that plural wives were only supposed to be for Joseph, but he did test some of the other church leader’s loyalty by an Abrahamic test.  For example, Joseph asked for Heber C. Kimball’s wife.  After 3 days of anguished prayer, Kimball finally agreed to give Joseph Heber’s wife.  Passing this Abrahamic test, Joseph then sealed Heber and Vilate together.  Snuffer says that plural wives were supposed to be reserved only for a small group of people, stating on page 160,

In the first phase of Mormonism, this practice was secret, closely guarded, and involved only a handful of trusted inner circle.  No public teaching, or general practice of plural marriage was begun.

Things changed dramatically in the second phase.  After Joseph’s death, and the relocation west, the saints began to speak openly among themselves about the practice.  They also began to spread it beyond the inner circle.  However, until 1852 it was kept secret, and publicly denied.

With the public unveiling of plural wives, it became the teaching of the church that plural wives and exaltation were synonymous:

Snuffer believes that eternal marriage and plural wives are not synonymous and that “proof of that cannot be established through Joseph’s actions.”  Snuffer quotes an uncanonized revelation from John Taylor where Taylor asked God about “ending the practice.”  Snuffer quotes the entire revelation (which is found in Unpublished Revelations of the Prophets and Presidents of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  Compiled by Fred Collier.  Salt Lake City:  Collier’s Publishing Co., 1979, pp. 145-6).  For brevity, I will quote the most relevant parts,

My son John:  You have asked me concerning the New and Everlasting Covenant and how far it is binding upon my people….I have not revoked this law nor will I for it is everlasting and those who will enter into my glory must obey the conditions thereof, even so Amen.

Snuffer provides explanation on page 165,

You can read this again and again, but you will not find the words “plural wives” or the plural form of “wife” anywhere in this revelation.  It is true by 1886 “New and Everlasting Covenant” had acquired a new definition.  The “New and Everlasting Covenant” as revealed to Joseph Smith required “a wife” to be sealed to a man.  Interpretations and dramatic claims by the church’s leaders revised the way the words were interpreted.  But his 1886 revelation and the one recorded in 1843 should be read together.  If they are, it is clear the requirement for eternal marriage was, is, and will remain a requirement for exaltation.  But multiple wives is not, and never has been required.

Snuffer continues on page 166 that

On November 24, 1889 President Woodruff received a revelation very similar in word and content as John Taylor’s in 1886.  The words “plural wives” are also absent from the Woodruff revelation.  There is no word in the revelation that includes the concept of a plural wife, or anything abrogating the first 33 verses of Section 132 respecting the necessity of marriage between a man and “a wife.”

Snuffer explains back on page 80 that

Plural marriage is one subject, the sealing power is another.  Both topics are covered in section 132.  But they remain two, distinct topics.

Snuffer makes a distinction between commanding plural marriage, and permitting plural marriage.  From pages 147-8, Snuffer writes,

Joseph’s revelation on eternal marriages included the possibility of a man taking plural wives.  However, the first 33 verses of the revelation do not mention plural wives, apart from acknowledging that Joseph asked about the issue. [D&C 132:1]  The entire discussion within the revelation about “obeying the law once it is revealed” is referring only of marriage between a man and one women.  The qualification for godhood, and promise of continuation of the family are explained in the portion of the revelation dealing with marriage between a man and one woman. [The singular ("a wife") is used in verses 15, 18, 19 and 26.  Exaltation or godhood and posterity are explained in verses 17, 18, 19 and 20.]  (emphasis in original)

[page 148]  The answer to that separate question begins in verse 34 with the case of Abraham.  [Snuffer quotes D&C 132:34]… Instead of being an endorsement for taking multiple wives, the revelation explains Abraham was not condemned for doing it:  “Was Abraham, therefore, under condemnation?  Verily I say unto you, Nay; for I, the Lord, commanded it.”  (Id., v. 35.)

As to Isaac and Jacob, they were also not condemned because they did what they were commanded to do.  (Id., v. 37.)  As to David, Solomon, and Moses, the revelation states:  “David also received many wives and concubines, and also Solomon and Moses my servants, from the beginning of creation until this time; and in nothing did they sins save in those things which they received not of me.”  (Id., v. 38)…These words of revelation fall short of an outright endorsement for taking multiple wives.  The language only permits it in two narrow circumstances:  when the Lord commands, or when someone asks who has the right to ask–but not until after the Lord first approves the request.  In contrast, the law which must be obeyed, the law “no one can reject…and be permitted to enter into [God's] glory” [D&C 132:4] is the everlasting marriage between a man and one women.  [D&C 132:13-20]

[page 151]  the revelation requires any relationship the parties intend to endure beyond death must originate under the Lord’s authority…. [page 152]  The second issue addressed by Section 132 involves the direction to take more than one wife.  For that second event to happen, the Lord will need to either “command” it be done, [he commanded Abraham.  See verse 35]   or the person must ask, and be permitted.  [David asked and received wives from Nathan, the prophet.  See verse 39]  Unless the Lord either commands or gives permission, it is a sin for a man to take additional wives.  [For taking additional wives as a sin, read verse 38]   (emphasis in original)

I think that separating these two concepts, instead of conflating them as Snuffer claims that Brigham Young did, would appeal to a lot of Mormons and even some church leaders.  On the other hand, perhaps church leaders are concerned that Snuffer is claiming Young, Taylor, and Woodruff all misinterpreted revelations.  Personally, I don’t think church leaders are very concerned on this point (perhaps you disagree?), but I think there are other areas of the book I have not discussed in which I think Church Leaders are concerned.  In these ares, I think I can understand why the Strengthening the Church Members Committee are concerned, though I still disagree with their decision to pressure Snuffer’s stake president into excommunicating Denver.  I’ll save those topics for another post.  What do you think of plural wives, sealing power, or Snuffer so far?

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3 comments on “Snuffer’s Take on Polygamy

  1. I thought church leaders said a long time ago that plural marriage was not required for the CK. However, how does Snuffer explain plural sealing practices/policies of modern day? We flail over all the historical polygamy, but the fact remains that today and now, we seal men to all wives they’ve had in mortality, and we seal women to all husbands they’ve had in mortality. And there is nothing in our doctrine that says men and women will have to choose one spouse and one only. Therefore, we are okay with plurality (albeit in the afterlife) today. Why would historical plurality be such a big deal? I note he relies on “Unpublished Revelations…….” I’ve never heard of it, it doesn’t sound like it’s scripture, so in my estimation, is unreliable, however well intentioned.

  2. To this point, he hasn’t addressed polygamy in the afterlife, but I don’t think he would have a problem with it.

    I have heard of this book before, and itSeems that scholars generally find the book credible. Fred Collier is a fundamentalist Mormon, and it Seems to me he has done his scholarly homework.

  3. Isaac only had one wife, Rebekah, and no concubines.

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