Under the Banner of Heaven
- Jon Krakauer
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Under the new rules, Matilda was no longer allowed to drive, handle money, or talk to anyone outside the family when Dan wasn’t present, and she had to wear a dress at all times. The children were pulled out of school and forbidden to play with their friends.
Mormonism appeared in the right place, at the right time, to exploit a ripe niche that had opened in the nation’s ever-shifting spiritual ecology. Many Americans were dissatisfied with the calcified religions of the Old World. Joseph preached a fresh message that was exactly what a great number of people were eager to hear. He took measure of the public’s collective yearning and intuitively shaped his ideas to fit the precise dimensions of that inchoate desire.
Monogamy seemed to him—as it has seemed to many men who have not ceased to love their wives, but who have grown weary of connubial exclusiveness—an intolerably circumscribed way of life. “Whenever I see a pretty woman,” he once said to a friend, “I have to pray for grace.” But Joseph was no careless libertine who could be content with clandestine mistresses. There was too much of the Puritan in him, and he could not rest until he had redefined the nature of sin and erected a stupendous theological edifice to support his new theories on marriage. FAWN BRODIE, NO MAN KNOWS MY HISTORY
Joseph wasn’t by nature reflective or deliberative. He conducted his life impulsively, acting according to instinct and emotion. The Lord, it seemed to him, must surely have intended man to know the love of more than one wife or He wouldn’t have made the prospect so enticing.
This burst of theological inspiration coincided with an extended eruption of libidinous energy. Between 1840 and 1844 God instructed the prophet to marry some forty women.
According to Lucy’s autobiography, while she was living in the prophet’s home, “President Joseph Smith sought an interview with me, and said, ‘I have a message for you, I have been commanded of God to take another wife, and you are the woman.’ My astonishment knew no bounds.” When the horrified girl balked at his proposal, Joseph explained to Lucy that if she refused she would face eternal damnation. “I have no flattering words to offer,” he said. “It is a command of God to you. I will give you until to-morrow to decide this matter. If you reject this message the gate will be closed forever against you.”
Indeed, on the morning of July 12, just before Joseph recorded the notorious revelation for posterity, his brother Hyrum explicitly urged the prophet, “If you will write the revelation on celestial marriage, I will take and read it to Emma, and I believe I can convince her of its truth, and you will hereafter have peace.”
In the spirit of their county’s namesake, non-Mormons were especially alarmed by Joseph’s penchant for theocratic governance, as well as his apparent disregard for every article of the United States Constitution except those that assured Mormons the freedom to worship as they saw fit.
Joseph often asserted his belief in the ideal of democracy and in the essential value of the protections codified in the Constitution. But he also believed that democracy and constitutional restraint were rendered moot in his own case, because he had been singled out by the Lord to be His messenger.
One is often told that it is a very wrong thing to attack religion, because religion makes men virtuous. So I am told; I have not noticed it. . . . You find as you look around the world that every single bit of progress in humane feeling, every improvement in the criminal law, every step toward the diminution of war, every step toward better treatment of the colored races, or every mitigation of slavery, every moral progress that there has been in the world, has been consistently opposed by the organized churches of the world. . . . My own view on religion is that of Lucretius. I regard it as a disease born of fear and as a source of untold misery to the human race. I cannot, however, deny that it has made some contributions to civilization. It helped in early days to fix the calendar, and it caused Egyptian priests to chronicle eclipses with such care that in time they became able to predict them. These two services I am prepared to acknowledge, but I do not know of any others. BERTRAND RUSSELL, WHY I AM NOT A CHRISTIAN, AND OTHER ESSAYS ON RELIGION AND RELATED SUBJECTS
During the bleak, chaotic days that followed Joseph’s murder, 95 percent of Mormons still had no clue that their prophet had married more than one wife and had declared plural marriage to be one of the most crucial keys to gaining entry to the Kingdom of Heaven. Emma
Although polygamy was never practiced by more than a minority of Saints, it would have been hard to find many inhabitants of Deseret in the mid-1850s who didn’t consider plural marriage a lofty ideal to which all righteous men and women should aspire. By 1855, polygamy was not only being practiced openly, it was being urged on the faithful with an unrelentingly hard sell that included dire warnings to the recalcitrant. “If any of you will deny the plurality of wives, and continue to do so,” Brigham threatened, “I promise that you will be damned.” This
A rising chorus of non-Mormon voices declared Brigham to be a dangerous tyrant who wielded absolute power over his followers. One Gentile visitor warned that “on the face of the whole earth there is not another people to be found, so completely under the control of one man.” Brigham was unmoved. As far back as 1851 he had blustered that “any President of the United States who lifts his finger against this people shall die an untimely death and go to hell!” Five years later he was no less ornery, declaring that he intended to make Utah “a sovereign State in the Union, or an independent nation by ourselves, and let them drive us from this place if they can; they cannot do it.”
The impact of the Manifesto shook Mormondom to its roots, but it did not end polygamy—it merely drove it underground. For the next two decades members of the Mormon First Presidency privately advised Saints that polygamy should be continued, albeit discreetly, and top leaders of the church secretly performed numerous plural marriages.
By the 1920s most Saints, including their leaders, had turned against polygamy and were encouraging the prosecution of cohabs.
As he dragged his young wives and their pack of semiferal children back and forth across Central America, Kenyon received a series of revelations in which God told him that he was “the last prophet before the return of Jesus Christ.” God told him, in fact, that Jesus would come back to earth in the form of a child born of Kenyon’s pure seed and his daughter’s virgin womb. Heeding the Lord’s commandment, in June 1996, on Evangeline’s twelfth birthday, he took her as his wife—that is to say, he began raping her on a regular basis.
The Mormons have gained so much by abandoning polygamy that it is hard to imagine LDS authorities ever bringing it back by design. Mormondom’s path is set less these days by theologians and wild-eyed prophets than by businessmen and publicists. The LDS Church has annual revenues estimated at more than $6 billion, and it is currently the largest employer in the state of Utah.
even after LDS President Spencer W. Kimball’s 1978 revelation reversing the church doctrine that banned blacks from the priesthood, official LDS policy has continued to strongly admonish white Saints not to marry blacks. Make no mistake: the modern Mormon church may now be in the American mainstream, but it usually hugs the extreme right edge of the flow.