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Joseph Smith’s Polygamy (Book Review)

joseph smith polygamy

Joseph Smith, the founder of the Latter Day Saint Church, is one of the most, and probably the most controversial religious figure of American history; and his practice of polygamy, something unheard of in all other Christian denominations, is what mainly contributed to the scandalous nature of this person and religion he founded.

Brian C. Hales, although an amateur historian, has written what is likely to be the most comprehensive work on the subject: an enormous 3-volume research about 2500 pages long. Himself a member of LDS, Brian Hales has been deeply interested in the history of Mormon polygamy for a long time, but found out that there was no scientific work that would combine all that is currently known on the subject; and thus he decided to create such a book himself.

As a result, we have a work based on carefully cited and well-documented sources concerning Joseph Smith and his family, with extensive footnotes that would interest those who want to check the facts. In other words, Joseph Smith’s Polygamy is very likely to become the book future researchers are going to cite when writing on the subject.

At the same time, the book will not only be interesting for academic historians, but for everybody who is interested in the history of LDS and Mormon polygamy in particular. However, it is hard to recommend it to those only casually interested in Mormon history – although it is extremely well-documented and presents a very clear picture of Joseph Smith’s life, this book presupposes that you already have some understanding of the topic – enough to benefit from the new ideas introduced by Hales.

In addition to that, there are summaries that would be helpful for those who want to learn the bare essentials on the subject without trudging through all the excessive footnotes, sources and fact comparisons. However, if you are not interested in a detailed study, why bother dealing with this book at all? There are other, more general historical works about Mormons that would make a better choice for beginners, like Richard Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling. The topic of early Mormon polygamy is too complicated, confusing and misleading for an outsider to learn anything of importance from such a specialized work.

Polygamy is a very sensitive subject for modern Mormons – many well-meaning members of this church find it to be the stumbling block to faith, something that is hard to accept coming from the alleged prophet of your religion. Mr. Hales does its best to tread carefully on this treacherous ground – he doesn’t assert his own opinion, instead limiting his role to presenting all the facts and alleged facts and leaving it for the reader to decide what he or she thinks about it all. This is what makes it a real historical research rather than an attempt to prove or disprove some suspicious facts of Joseph Smith’s biography.

However, it is probably one of the weak points of the book as well – for some people’s taste, there is a bit too much documentation and facts and not enough research per se. Some criticists will certainly say that Joseph Smith’s Polygamy is not so much a research as a laying out of all the documents pertaining to the subject in a form readable for the majority of readers. Although Hales does have some ideas of his own – namely, the difference between ‘eternity only’ and ‘time and eternity’ sealings, some readers are likely to think that more than 2500 pages of text are a somewhat excessive way of proving a point that has a purely theological importance.

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