Op-ed: LDS Church should make clear Smith was wrong to take 14-year-old wife

First Published      Last Updated Apr 08 2015 04:18 pm

I'm a believing Mormon woman with two young daughters. I'm also a psychologist with a Ph.D. from Brigham Young University. I'm encouraged by the church's recent essay series on complex history issues and grateful for their progress toward transparency.

The newest essay on polygamy explains that Joseph Smith was directed by God to take plural wives — including 14-year-olds — and encourages readers to learn from stories of women who obeyed in spite of their initial repulsion to the idea: "Like [polygamy's] participants, we 'see through a glass, darkly' and are asked to walk by faith."

Because this essay will be available online and included teen curricula, I'm worried the good motives driving this essay might unintentionally lead to negative consequences. Here's why:

I've worked in a prison rehabilitating sex offenders. I'm well-versed in victim grooming patterns. These include establishing a relationship of trust (often with age/other authority), convincing victims that their proposal isn't wrong, and afterward ensuring that victims remain silent.

In 2009, a married seminary principal victimized a female student and promised to marry her. Elizabeth Smart's abuser also comes to mind. I fear that official church sanctioning of this essay in its current form may unintentionally lead to more such cases.

I propose the following preventative options, addressed to the essay's author and leaders who commissioned it:

1) LDS scripture illustrates how prophets can be inspired and make mistakes. Their mistakes don't negate the good that they do in other contexts. Ideally, please acknowledge that Joseph may have erred in his practice of polygamy.

2) Please excise mollifying language for Joseph's polygamy and his secrecy surrounding the practice. Consider acknowledging that practicing polygamy while releasing "carefully worded" denials that "emphasized that the church practiced no marital law other than monogamy" (i.e. secrecy toward the public and his wife Emma Smith) was a mistake.

3) Consider reframing the tone to focus less on the idea that obedience and faith in the face of initial moral hesitation brings blessings, and instead emphasize an individual's moral ability to choose (agency) and determine right from wrong as a personal journey. The essay acknowledged that Joseph told associates (read: young women he proposed to) that an angel with a sword was compelling him to marry them. I personally feel that a teenager's assent under such conditions is not true consent.

4. I noticed after publication you later added quotes from Joseph's younger wives describing their initial revulsion toward polygamy and later acceptance. I know these quotes are well-meaning and I'm glad you're including their voices, but given the essay's obedient tone and assertion that Joseph never erred, their quotes could actually lead to victims resonating with their initial sorrow and hoping to later find similar joy/peace.

5. If you keep the assertion that polygamy was God's will and Joseph didn't err, consider adding a warning that God cannot command a man (even a priesthood leader) to have sex with someone today. As the brain's frontal lobe (in charge of executive functioning and long-term scope) is not fully developed until our mid-20s, I feel such clarifications for youth will help tremendously.

Before concluding, please consider revisiting the policy that male priesthood leaders conduct worthiness interviews (discussing sensitive topics such as sexuality) alone with women and girls as young as 8 years old. This issue was raised earlier this year in a New York Times article. Other women could be present in the room or even conduct them.

I'm a Mormon woman who loves the church. I believe leaders who commissioned this essay are good, well-meaning people whom I sustain and support. In that spirit, as a psychologist, I feel sustaining also involves helping my church family progress when I see areas of improvement that can help our Mormon daughters thrive in an empowering, safe community.

Kristy Money is a psychologist and member of the board of Ordain Women.