Mormon polygamy explodes in the news. Why now?

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Kristine Haglund, editor of "Dialogue," appeared last night on the PBS Newshour.

(screen shot)

Kristine Haglund, editor of "Dialogue," appeared last night on the PBS Newshour.

Kristine Haglund, editor of "Dialogue," appeared last night on the PBS Newshour.

Kristine Haglund, editor of “Dialogue,” appeared last night on the PBS Newshour.

Yesterday afternoon, my phone was ringing and my email pinging.

The reason? Mormon polygamy is back in the news, so journalists are eager to help their readers and viewers understand what it all means.

And that’s great. I welcome the discussion. But the odd thing is that polygamy has been in the news since October 22, when the LDS Church released two Gospel Topics statements clarifying several historical facts about the history of Mormon plural marriage.

I blogged about it the next day, identifying five things about Mormon polygamy that the Church had officially confirmed through the statement.

I’m hardly the only blogger who covered the story last month (see here and here and here). So why did it take three weeks for the polygamy story to get picked up by mainstream media?

polygamy newsOn Monday, the New York Times presented an in-depth feature story on the subject with the headline “It’s Official: Mormon Founder Had up to 40 Wives.”

Laurie Goodstein’s coverage was well-researched and well-written. It’s clear she has been working on it for some time (and I have heard through the grapevine that the Times wanted to hold the story until after the election so that it wouldn’t get lost in the shuffle of all the political news last week).

The Times polygamy story was also front-page and above-the-fold.

It’s interesting to learn that in this age of digital media, those three golden nuggets of old-school media (major news outlet, front page, above the fold) still matter. A lot.

So yesterday we had news coverage from around America and the world, as you can see from the screen shot above left — a partial listing of stories at some point yesterday afternoon.

The coverage included stories from CNN and NPR, which did a fine job, and the Guardian in the UK, which did not. Here’s how the subheads read in the Guardian piece:

The Guardian polygamy headlineDownplaying polygamy, and even removing discussion of its history from official curriculum, is not the same as claiming it never happened at all, which is what the subhead asserts. (It also suggests that Mormon leaders have been denying polygamy for 200 years, when the religion hasn’t even had its bicentennial.)

Several journalists have asked me in the last 48 hours why the Church released its polygamy statements now. What was the catalyst?

It’s a good question. However, the bureaucratic reality of it, which I tried to explain to NPR, is that these Gospel Topics essays are all the products of lengthy incubation. The Church has had experts researching these issues . . . and then writing about them . . . and then having their products go up and up and up the food chain for approval.

So, other than the ongoing catalyst of the widespread availability of potentially damaging information (and misinformation) about Mormonism online, I don’t see any particular new event that the Church is responding to.

A more interesting question for me to gently lob back to the journalists is this: Why did almost all of you only jump on this bandwagon when the New York Times said there was a news story?

  • GP

    Very good question… I was wondering the same myself. My best guess is that the other news outlets are just regurgitating the NYT article (which in turn regurgitated the polygamy essay). Maybe that’s just how the media works? I don’t know, just speculating.

    What I’d really like to see is a good balanced article with DETAILS. We did not get any details on polygamy/polyandry in the church essay and I would expect a major news organization to poke around and get more details rather than just repeating what was already said. Who were these girls and women? What were their struggles? Under what conditions were they proposed? I know that the essay and news articles mentioned a few… but overall, what is the list of names/ages of the “up to 40” wives? It’s sad that these girls and women remain callously nameless/faceless.

    And evidence does exist that Joseph had sexual relations with many of these women (including the teenagers and already married women). Even Brian Hales acknowledges this to a degree. Why not get it all out there at once, deal with the fallout, and then move on? As of now, I think that members who may be shaken about this news may have to deal with more surprises later when they find these details… which does not sound like a good strategy to me.

  • If it takes 18 months for an Ensign article to make it through the process, these Topics have certainly not been a rush job.

  • Lindsay

    I’m not so concerned with the timing of the news media as I am the timing of when the church released the essay on polygamy and polyandry. Maybe I’m a skeptic but it seems to me that the church tried to pull a “don’t watch this hand, watch my other” by pushing the movie “Meet the Mormons” and the temple garment video, perhaps to draw attention away from this essay. The church’s explanation for the garment video was nonsensical. If they felt a need to do it, they should have during the 2012 presidential election.

  • It was a weird delayed reaction, but other than everyone just following the NYT, I don’t see much more there to speculate about.

    I would say the catalyst was what happened several years ago (reported on reuters) when Elder Marlin K. Jensen admitted at a mtg that the church was losing adherents at its fastest pace since Kirtland, and mostly it was youth of the Google generation and they were looking into what could be done regarding retention. I’d say it’s loosely correlated to the success of Mormon Stories. It probably took them about five years from the watershed “apostasy” moment from creation to release to get these essays out there.

  • Kristine

    Lindsay, I suppose that’s possible, but my sense is that most large bureaucracies, and definitely the labyrinthine depts. at the COB, would botch even the relatively simple conspiracy you suggest.

  • Matt Evans

    It’s been well documented that other news orgs follow the NYT. Back in the 90s I remember seeing a study that showed that the top stories on the evening news of the big three networks were heavily predicted by that morning’s NYT coverage.

  • Kevin Eckstrom

    Call me a stooge, but I purposely didn’t jump on this particular news bandwagon this week precisely BECAUSE it was an artificial one. Here at RNS, we used your original coverage online, and then we passed on using the Salt Lake Tribune story because, frankly, we didn’t see much news here.

    It’s only become a story in the last 48 hours because the NYT said so. And, even though Laurie Goodstein’s story was among the best out there (they always are), I felt the need to resist this knee-jerk pack journalism on a story that was, frankly, already a month old.

  • Adam

    Private parties were working on essays intended to be somewhat authoritative and orthodox, but honest. Somewhat like these essays. The Church got wind of the private effort about 18 months ago and put their own people on it. They didn’t want to lose control of the authoritative summaries of the tough issues–and it was about to happen. This was the original genesis of the project.

  • Brandon Brooks

    The information is readily available:

    I can’t speak to the validity of their research, but I have read through it more than once and feel that it is more historical than trying to persuade the opinion one way or another on Joseph Smith. As the website says, “Acknowledge and remember these largely forgotten women.”

  • CMR

    Loosing adherents because people can google the church’s history…. all they need to do is read a BIBLE to see the Mormon religion is based on man made traditions and not on scripture. Polygamy is done away with for Christian overseers.
    (1 Timothy 3:2)- The overseer should therefore be irreprehensible, a husband of ONE WIFE, moderate in habits, sound in mind, orderly, hospitable, qualified to teach…
    (Galatians 1:6-9) – 6 I am amazed that you are so quickly turning away from the One who called you with Christ’s undeserved kindness to another sort of good news. 7 Not that there is another good news; but there are certain ones who are causing you trouble and wanting to distort the good news about the Christ. 8 However, even if we or an angel out of heaven were to declare to you as good news something beyond the good news we declared to you, let him be accursed. 9 As we have said before, I now say again, Whoever is declaring to you as good news something beyond what you accepted, let him be accursed.
    (2 Timothy 4:3-4)-3 For there will be a period of time when they will not put up with the wholesome teaching, but according to their own desires, they will surround themselves with teachers to have their ears tickled. 4 They will turn away from listening to the truth and give attention to false stories…

  • Wayne Dequer

    Excellent article. Another and more detailed scholarly source about Joseph Smith’s polygamy is Brian Hales’ site at . In my reading he deals with all topics frankly and accurately explains the interpretations of other authors and why he does or does Not agree with them. Of course his site has No official association with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

  • GP

    Wayne, I agree with you; Brian Hales’ website is a great resource for reviewing original source material. And he does explain the rationale for his position versus other authors.

    One word of caution however is that in his summaries, he mixes historical facts with his own interpretations. Specifically, this is seen in his position of an “eternity only” (no sexual relations) marriage to 14 y/o Helen Mar Kimball and also for Joseph Smith’s polyandrous unions (marrying other living men’s wives). The concept of explicitly stated “eternity only” marriages is absent from the historical record and some evidence does exist for sexuality with Helen Mar Kimball and other men’s wives – beyond what Hales admits to on his site when summarizing the marriages. Of course I’m ok with Brother Hales having his own opinion, but disclosure and clear separation between historical facts and his own opinion would be more responsible than what he has now – at least it would remove the burden from the reader in making this distinction.

    Although I do frequent Hales’ site, another good resource is Todd Compton’s “In Sacred Loneliness” which is more information-based with less interpretation. This allows the reader to digest the key information and draw their own conclusions. It should be noted that Hales used Compton’s book as the primary seed for his own work. A online excerpt of “In Sacred Loneliness” can be found at

  • Pingback: Joseph Smith and Polygamy on the PBS NewsHour – Approaching Justice()

  • Theophilus

    He who has ears to hear, let him hear.

  • Danny S

    To the question, why now? In another life I sometimes received top secret briefings. As a neophyte, I once asked why the secret designation when all of the material was available in open-source (magazines, newspapers, trade journals, etc.)? The response I got was that, yes, this information was available but the important distinction is that no credible government source had ever admitted to the things in question. Just as the LDS church has not openly admitted in this manner until now. Yes, I’m sure one can point to snippets here and there or to semi-official apologists, but this is different. This is THE TOP admitting these things. If I had to guess, that’s what makes this newsworthy.

    Mind you, I don’t believe most true-believers who take the “yes, yes, I already knew that stuff” tack. Mmm, I don’t think so. If that information were so commonly known, why the writing of the essays in the first place? The essays are a tacit admission that the so-called church has NOT been open on these issues.

    The church’s manipulation of history has been found out. It is now experiencing what some have referred to as “the Google apostasy”. Elder B.H. Roberts was the true prophet when he said, “Suppose your youth receive their impressions of church history from “pictures and stories” and build their faith upon these alleged miracles [and] shall someday come face to face with the fact that their belief rests on falsehoods, what then will be the result? Will they not say that since these things are myth and our Church has permitted them to be perpetuated …might not the other fundamentals to the actual story of the Church, the things in which it had its origin, might they not all be lies and nothing but lies? … [Some say that] because one repudiates the false he stands in danger of weakening, perhaps losing the truth. I have no fear of such results. I find my own heart strengthened in the truth by getting rid of the untruth, the spectacular, the bizarre, as soon as I learn that it is based upon worthless testimony. (Defender of the Faith: The B. H. Roberts Story, p. 363)

  • W

    “Journalists admit they pay more attention the The New York Times than and Mormon Blogs” 😉

  • samuel Johnston

    The really interesting question is why any sane person would wish to follow such an evil, (yes, I said evil) madman. The Mormons who come to my door are mere children who (naturally) understand nothing of such bizarre human behavior. I can only speculate that some persons have such a commanding persona, that many are helplessly mesmerized. Of course that does not explain why the followers continue after his death.

  • Louise Michelle

    In B.C. Canada there is a court case between the Mormon church and Winston blackmore. He claims to be a Mormon .They say he is not. Blacxkmore with his 25 wives some of whom were proven underage is an embarrassment to the Mormons who want to pretend to frown on polygamy but yet don’t turn in the thousands of polygamists in Utah bleeding welfare and trading young children between old men..The FLDS people leave and can be a feeder church for the Mormons.

  • EG

    There are many people who were raised in mainstream Christian religions, and not LDS nor any contact with LDS or FLDS, who are becoming polygamists.

    They keep it secret, but the polygamist lifestyle is appealing to some mainstream Christians, and it is growing. It would be nice if the media and LDS critics would mention this. It is not a “Mormon” thing anymore.

  • Lew Craig

    If they had released it during the 2012 election it would have screamed an endorsement of Romney. Everyone I’ve talked to thought the video on garments was great. Sorry you didn’t like it.

  • Lew Craig

    How did your “evil madman” create a Church who’s members are complimented and respected worldwide, who serve their communities and contribute more to the poor than other communities? The apple does not fall far from the tree even 180 years later. If Joseph was an “evil madman” then all Mormons are evil madmen. Reality doesn’t bear that out.

  • Born Again Atheist

    The garment video omitted the four most important details – the marks. Without them garments are just oddly styled underwear (especially for men, women’s are another thing altogether). The Church omitted the actual garment to kept its strict policy of preserving sacred/secret details of the temple. They don’t want anyone getting wise to the Masonic references of the temple.