Lying Successfully Is Hard
In my life, I have found that telling the truth is always easier than lying. This is true because all you have to do is remember what happened and tell it to the best of your ability. And generally, when this is done over time regarding the same event, the resulting stories, while maybe not exactly alike, greatly resemble each other in substance. Lies, however, are a different matter. To lie successfully about an event is hard. It requires great mental powers. First, you have to construct a story (sometimes on the fly) that is believable to your audience. This requires a good imagination as well as knowing something about the audience and what they will believe. Second, since you already know the truth, you have to remember the lie you told and not get it confused with the truth. Since the truth never changes because it is actually what happened, a lie that is being passed off as the truth must also never change. In addition, the liar must remember to whom he told the lie so as not to repeat something different to the same individual or group of people. Third, if the liar never wishes to be caught in the lie, over time, he must remember the lie and to whom he told it. And this is the most difficult part because after 5, 10, or 20 years, our memories fade and it is hard to remember the lies you told and to whom you told them. Keeping this in mind let me proceed to the point of this blog.
Did Joseph Lie about Polygamy?
Joseph is accused of secretly teaching and practicing polygamy and lying about his involvement in it from about 1831 until his death in June 1844. Joseph never preached a public sermon nor made a public statement in favor of plural marriage. In fact, he did just the opposite. He publically denounced its practice as evil and tried to eradicate it from the Church by pursuing punitive actions against those who were practicing it and accusing him of doing so. Even the historians who state he did practice polygamy confirm that he never publically said he did and always spoke against it.
In Brigham Young: American Moses, p. 100, the author, Leonard J. Arrington, states that Joseph “unquestionably began to introduce the principle [of celestial marriage] to some associates in the spring of 1841, while the Twelve were still in England.” According to WivesOfJosephSmith.org, Joseph took two wives during the period of 1831 to 1841, three wives in 1841, eleven wives in 1842, and seventeen wives in 1843. From 1831 until his death in 1844, if Joseph lied about the doctrine and practice of polygamy, he would have lied to his family, Church members, and Church leaders in varying degrees. If the above statement by Arrington is correct, during the first 10 years (1831–1841) he would have had to remember all of his lies so no one would have known. Then beginning in 1841, he would have begun to reveal the truth to an increasing number of a select group, continuing to keep the general Church membership ignorant of the doctrine and practice. If he truly did this, he must have been a very smart man to keep it all straight. Remember, if you lie and want people to believe it, you have to remember the lie and to whom you told it over time—13 years in Joseph’s case. However, I believe he kept it straight because he told the truth that he did not teach or practice polygamy. If you tell the truth, you only have to remember the truth. In addition, it is much easier to be consistent in your story. Since there was no variance in Joseph’s position on polygamy, I have to believe he was telling the truth.
However, Joseph did more than just state he wasn’t a polygamist. He actively pursued those who indicated he was a polygamist and defended himself against rumors. One of the many examples was Joseph’s address to a Church conference in Nauvoo on April 6, 1843:
President Joseph then asked the conference if they were satisfied with the First Presidency, so far as he was concerned, as an individual, to preside over the whole church; or would they have another? If, said he, I have done any thing that ought to injure my character, reputation, or standing; or have dishonored our religion by any means in the sight of men, or angels, or in the sight of men and women, I am sorry for it, and if you will forgive me, I will endeavor to do so no more. I do not know that I have done anything of the kind; but if I have, come forward and tell me of it. If any one has any objection to me, I want you to come boldly and frankly, and tell of it; and if not, ever after hold your peace. (Times and Seasons 4 [May 1,1843]: 181)
If Joseph was lying about teaching and practicing polygamy and wanting to continue that lie, he would not have opened himself up to possible attack on this issue. But even if for some strange reason he did, the result speaks for itself. No one came forward to prove he was practicing polygamy. And in those days there was no concern for being politically correct. As the expression says, they called “an ace an ace and a spade a spade.” So if he had been teaching or practicing polygamy, someone would have come forth to challenge him.
Did Brigham Lie about Polygamy?
However, Brigham Young had major problems with consistency in his story about how he learned of the plural marriage doctrine. I am sure we are all familiar with the following statement made by him in the Bowery, Provo, Utah, July 14, 1855:
Some of these my brethren know what my feelings were at the time Joseph revealed the doctrine; I was not desirous of shrinking from any duty, nor of failing in the least to do as I was commanded, but it was the first time in my life that I had desired the grave, and I could hardly get over it for a long time. And when I saw a funeral, I felt to envy the corpse its situation, and to regret that I was not in the coffin, knowing the toil and labor that my body would have to undergo; and I have had to examine myself, from that day to this, and watch my faith, and carefully meditate, lest I should be found desiring the grave more than I ought to do. (Journal of Discourses 3:266)
So according to this statement, Brigham first heard the doctrine of plural marriage from Joseph, and he was so repulsed by it that he would have rather been dead than to obey it. According to Arrington above, Joseph informed Brigham of this doctrine after Brigham returned from England, about July 1841.
However, in 1874 (19 years after his previous statement) Brigham reported to the Deseret News a significantly different account of how he first learned of this doctrine:
While we were in England, (in 1839 and 40), I think the Lord manifested to me by vision and his Spirit things [concerning polygamy] that I did not then understand. I never opened my mouth to any one concerning them, until I returned to Nauvoo; Joseph had never mentioned this; there had never been a thought of it in the Church that I ever knew anything about at that time, but I had this for myself, and I kept it to myself. And when I returned home, and Joseph revealed those things to me, then I understood the reflections that were upon my mind while in England. But this (communication with Joseph on the subject) was not until after I had told him what I understood—this was in 1841. The revelation [Section 132 in the Utah Doctrine and Covenants] was given in 1843, but the doctrine was revealed before this. (Joseph Smith Fought Polygamy, Volume 1, Chapter 4; The Messenger of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints 1 [June 1875]: 29; Deseret News, July 1, 1874)
According to this statement by Brigham, during 1839–1840 the Lord, not Joseph, revealed to him the doctrine of plural marriage. Upon his return to Nauvoo in 1841, he told Joseph what the Lord had shown him and Joseph confirmed it.
In comparing these two statements, each one greatly contradicts the other. If the first one was true, Brigham would have remembered the account 19 years later, particularly because the event was so traumatic that he wanted to die. It is not easy to forget those types of memories over time, and even if they are forgotten, they do not morph into an entirely different story. If the second one was true, Brigham would not have been astonished or repulsed by the doctrine as indicated in the first account because the Lord had shown him up to two years previously that it was correct. In addition, if the second statement was true, he would have told it the first time, especially considering it gave the authority of the Lord to practice polygamy.
Who Told the Truth?
So who was telling the truth about Joseph’s involvement in polygamy? For 13 years, Joseph stated he did not teach or practice polygamy and sought to take action against those who were practicing it and accusing him of doing so. Joseph’s story never varied. However, after 19 years, Brigham’s second story made the first one look false and the first one made the second look false. Who was telling the truth? I believe Joseph was because his story never varied.