In watching various people address the new publication of information by the Church on Joseph Smith and his wives, I feel similar to the way I did when watching the reaction to 9/11*. Because I'm a relatively self-centered person**, I have spent a great deal of thought analyzing my reaction to understand it. Why, in a world where so many are so shocked and appalled by the Church's admission† to the extent and nature of Joseph's sealings, am I utterly unaffected?
Of course, the reason is complicated, based on a many-layered set of experiences and ways I've processed them. But I thought I'd tease out a few things that I've not seen anyone else hash over.
I had a great seminary teacher in high school, and I'm possessed of a hunger to understand things. When he taught polygamy, he encouraged us to study, ponder, and pray about it and decide whether or not it was from God. I went and read everything I could get my hands on (which wasn't much, outside of scripture) but it was then (at about 14-15 years old, incidentally,) that I first decided that I would accept polygamy if I were a first wife and asked by God to do it. It wasn't a decision I came to lightly.
Not long afterwards, I was smart enough (barely) to be invited to a recruiting class at BYU back when I was in high school. One part of that week was an intensive .5 credit class by Susan Easton Black. To my (admittedly sketchy) memory, she had just completed or was possibly still engaged in a project to research out the women who had themselves sealed to Joseph Smith posthumously, break the sealing, and re-seal them to their mortal husbands. She joked that she was afraid to die because of all the women who would be angry with her. I could be misremembering this entirely, but it's what I remember.
I know I learned a great deal about polygamy in that class, which I think was about Joseph Smith. While I don't remember the exact things she said or taught, I believe that my opinion of polygamy was developed more fully into what it is today because of her instruction. It was there that I came to know the extent and nature of Joseph's polygamy, that some were with Emma's endorsement, others were not. Some were sexual,†† others weren't. Some were teenagers, others old women. At times, Joseph embraced polygamy, other times was appalled by it. She painted a portrait of a man who was not a caricature, neither a sex-crazed patriarch intent on abusing his spiritual authority, nor a helpless victim before God's commandments simply going through the letter of the law in order to wiggle out of having to have sex with anyone but Emma. He, like me, was complex. He struggled with obeying the commandments of God, knowing what to do but not how.
I also have had the privilege to visit Kirtland, Nauvoo, and surrounding areas three times, once as a fourteen year old, once just after my mission, and once as a mother of young children. Each time, I've soaked in a little more history, and (with my vivid imagination) had a little more perspective on what life was like during the early years of the Church. I came to know Joseph as a man AND a prophet, and to admire him for being just like me, except called to sacrifice his life to the work of the Lord.
Later, after going through divorce, dealing with the self-recrimination, and breaking back out into dating, I had opportunity to confront the idea of polygamy again. After a series of difficult dating experiences, and realizing that I was not really marriage material (especially not in this life,) I began to wonder about my eternal fate. This time, instead of being the magnanimous first wife extending an opportunity for celestial marriage to a poor, otherwise alone woman, I was the unwanted woman dependent on the generosity of other women for exaltation.‡
It was this time, in one of the most humiliating times of my life, that I learned to break through mortal sensibilities and see a glimpse of heaven. It was a glimpse of heaven, not only extending through me to others, but to me. It was learning that all the jealousies, selfishness, and other-ness of everyone around me can melt away as I learn to know God. Not just know of Him, or believe in Him, but to truly sense His nature.
That knowledge isn't something I can easily share. I'm certain that it will be mocked as blind obedience, or labeled disgusting by people who are revolted by every idea of polygamy. But, for me, struggling with this concept prepared me to face the worst trial of my life, when I was brought face-to-ugly-face with my own fallibility. Without learning how to forgive and understand Joseph, without seeing a glimpse of the true face of God, I would never have been able to pick myself up from the ashes of my marriage and move forward. I would not be able to live every remaining day of my life, knowing I will fail in one of the most important injunctions given me by God: to marry a righteous man.
Because I won a bit of a lottery and was smart enough to be invited to learn at the knees of a prophetess named Susan Easton Black, because I was fortunate enough to have parents who believed in the importance of experiencing parts of Church history, because I had parents and a seminary teacher who drove me to discover things for myself, because I suffered through a divorce which represented a near-complete collapse of everything I thought I knew and wanted, I was privileged to understand polygamy before the Church's most recent essay. I have been blessed with a resiliency of testimony. And I don't take that for granted for a moment.
I know that many of you out there are really struggling with it. I know it's shredded your soul and your testimony is disintegrated, or nearly so. But if I can, let me offer my testimony and experiences for you to borrow until you are strong enough to build back the structure of your faith. I know it's not enough to carry you through everything, but hopefully it's enough to help you hold on a little longer.
This life is messy. Our attempts to hear and understand Deity are no less messy. It wasn't any different for Joseph than it is for us. He just had a great deal of motivation to keep moving forward in the work of God. Know you're not alone in your struggles. Not only is my weak hand there to help you get through this, but the Savior offers His hand for you to take—His hands graven with a reminder of every bit of your pain.
Weeping endures for a night, but joy comes in the morning.
* As if I'm the only unsurprised/not-shocked person in the world.
** I'm working on it, so far with limited success.
† This is an emotionally loaded word, but it's the one so many people use, so I'm using it here, too. The essay in question can be found here.
†† Mind you, I wouldn't care at all if either way. I am one who thinks that the sexuality of Joseph Smith's sealings are utterly irrelevant and not my business.
‡ Now, don't get me wrong. I don't believe that this will necessarily be the case. But I needed to confront the possibility for myself.