Polygamy in Pieces: Part 4 - Consent (Doctrine & Covenants 132)

Thursday, November 11, 2021


Transcript for this episode by the awesome Heather B!

Works Cited for this episode:

Channing: Hi, friends! I’m Channing.

Elise: And I’m Elise.

Channing: And this is The Faithful Feminists podcast.

Elise: [00:00:12] But this is not just any Come Follow Me podcast. We do things a little differently here. We offer approachable feminist interpretations of the Come Follow Me manual for those who want to study and understand the scriptures in a framework of equality, social justice, and sisterhood. We are here to show you all the really good ways faith and feminism work together to illuminate and deepen the gospel experience. 

Channing: We’ve saved you a seat on the soft chairs, so join us today for a conversation about Doctrine and Covenants sections 129 through 132 for November 8th through the 14th. This week, it's going to be a little different.

[00:01:03] Because there is so much content and so many feelings and so many resources about this week’s sections, especially section 132, we've decided to do a miniseries titled “Polygamy in Pieces.” Each day we'll release a new episode covering a different aspect of early Mormon polygamy. We hope that this series is a deep dive but comes to you in manageable parts.

[00:01:31] Today, we'll be talking about consent and exploring and trying to answer the question of, “is it possible to give true consent with section 132 as the foundation for polygamy?” And this question of whether or not true consent can really be offered in this instance can really be helped by understanding what consent is and having some good information about it.

Elise: [00:02:00] We found a really great YouTube video called “Consent for Kids” by Blue Seat Studios on YouTube. This is a resource that Kristen B Hodson shares on her Instagram. And we felt, like, it was an an incredible resource to include in this week's episode in the video, it says, “This is your body.” So imagine this, like, little kid. It's little kids talking to little kids about consent. And the little kid says, “This is your body. You get to decide what you do with your body. No one else is entitled to tell you what to do with your body. Not your friends, not strangers, not adults you know. No one is entitled to decide what you do with your body, except you. That's called bodily autonomy, by the way. And that's what consent is all about. By the way, if a person bribes someone or threatens someone to get them to say yes, that's not consent.”

Channing: [00:02:52] This video on YouTube. I highly recommend checking it out. It's seriously, only a couple of minutes long and show it to your kids. They do such a great job talking about consent and you'll see throughout today's episode and also in tomorrow's episode as well. I share a lot of kid resources about consent, because I think that it's actually so amazing the way that kids books share those very basic knowledge pieces about sexual health and consent and boundaries in a way that adults sometimes put a lot of language to it. But for kids it's presented really simply, and it's really hard to deny the truth of them, I feel like. Kristin B Hodson, who Elise and I love, we've followed her for years, she's a fantastic sex therapist and educator on Instagram. You can find her on Instagram @KristinBHodson. She gives a great definition of consent in an Instagram post from August 2020. She writes, “An ambivalent yes or a doubting yes is not the same as an enthusiastic yes. Consent is: 1) given without coercion or pressure 2) enthusiastic 3) not able to be given if under the influence or under pressure. And it sounds like a “solid yes!” Not, “yes?”

[00:04:21] I also love this definition of consent from RAINN, which stands for Rape Abuse and Incest National Network. They define consent as “an agreement between participants to engage in sexual activity. Consent should be clearly and freely communicating. Consent cannot be given by individuals who are under age. If someone agrees to an activity under pressure of intimidation or threat, that isn't considered consent because it was not given freely. Unequal power dynamics such as engaging in sexual activity with an employee or a student-” and I personally, like, this is my own definition, I personally would argue that clergy and followers- “also means that consent cannot be freely given.”

With these couple of definitions of consent, I'm picking up on a theme here of what consent is and what it's not. And what I'm noticing here is the fact that consent must occur without pressure, without intimidation or threat. And unfortunately, because of the way that early Mormon polygamy was set up under the threat of condemnation and damnation, I believe that consent never could truly have been provided, ever.

[00:05:42] For me, I think about these women who had left their homes, they'd left their families of origin, they'd moved to so many places, been displaced, they'd been sick and taking care of all of their neighbors, all for this promise, from a prophet that there was this restored truth and there's this restored gospel. They'd given up so much.

[00:06:03] And for me, I find it really just heartbreaking that they even had to face the idea that they'd have to give up the one thing that they'd worked so hard for this eternal salvation, this promise of living with their families forever, that they would have to give that up if they didn't consent to plural marriage.

[00:06:23] Okay. Especially knowing that if it wasn't even just like, “oh, if you don't consent,, like, God will be mad at you.” It's like, “if you don't consent, you lose all eternal life. And not only that, but, like, you are damned, you are condemned.” Simply said these women were facing an entire eternal life without a connection to God. And yeah, if that's not pressure or threat, I don't know what it is. 

Elise: [00:06:51] Yeah. I mean, that's the, I feel, like, the threat is so clear multiple times in section 132, the threat of damnation, the threat of destruction by God. I mean, those are the circumstances under which these women had to air quotes “consent”, but it's not consent.

[00:07:08] It's pressure. It's coercion. It's manipulating. 

Channing: Yup. Yup.

Elise: I think another tricky issue with consent here is that alongside the law of polygamy, we get what's called the Law of Sarah and author Heather Farrell provides a really good understanding of what the Law of Sarah is and how it's practice. In her article from the Mormon Women Project website titled “Polygamy and the Law of Sarah” she writes, “Doctrine and Covenants section 132 verse 65 tells us that Sarah, in accordance with what God called the Law of Sarah gave her consent to Abraham's marriage with Hagar. This Law of Sarah is perhaps the most confusing part about section 1 2. It states that the law concerning plural marriage is that the wife must first give her consent for the husband to take another wife yet the verse also states that if she, the wife, received not this law of plural marriage, because she “did not believe and administer unto him according to my word,” and she then becomes the transgressor and he is exempt from the Law of Sarah. Meaning that if the husband is commanded by the Lord to take another wife and his wife doesn't consent, then the husband can do it anyway.

[00:08:19] Orson Pratt also wrote about how the Law of Sarah was practiced during Joseph Smith's time. He said, “When a man who has a wife teaches her the love of God and she refuses to give her consent for him to marry another according to the law, then it becomes necessary for her to state before the president the reasons why she withholds her consent.

[00:08:38] If her reasons are sufficient and justifiable and the husband is found in fault or in transgression, then he is not permitted to take any step in regard to obtaining another. But if the wife can show no good reason why she refuses to comply with the law, which was given to Sarah of old, then it is lawful for her husband, if permitted by revelation through the prophet to be married to others without her consent and he will be justified and she will be condemned because she did not give them unto him as Sarah gave Hagar to Abraham and as Rachel and Leah gave Bilhah and Zilpah to their husband Jacob. 

Channing: [00:09:13] “Simply put, under the law of Sarah, the wife can either grant permission for her husband to marry additional wives or she can be damned.” And that's a quote from Gary James Bergara who wrote “A Private Revelation”,  [a review of] William Victor Smith’s “Textual Studies of the Doctrine and Covenants: The Plural Marriage Revelation” in Dialogue 2018 Winter edition. Bergara continues saying, “The revelation Joseph dictated on July 12th, 1843, was directed at his own civil wife, Emma Hale Smith, in an effort to convince her of the divinity of plural marriage. The revelation did not inaugurate-” That means begin. It didn't begin. “-Joseph's controversial practice of plural marriage-” As we discussed earlier in the timeline piece, “-but instead presented a theological justification for its implementation. It makes explicit to Emma that her husband's practice was a heaven-mandated command and that its objective was to maximize procreation and that all who rejected it would be damned eternally. The revelation in no uncertain terms, informed Emma, and those like her, who were reluctant to embrace the new teaching. that if they rejected it, they would thereafter never be able to obtain a fullness of celestial glory.”

[00:10:32] On the church website from the same article that we've been using throughout this series, titled “Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo”, they provide this statement, “The revelation on marriage required that a wife give her consent before her husband could enter into plural marriage. Nevertheless, toward the end of the revelation, the Lord said that if the first wife “received not this law”, meaning the command to practice plural marriage, the husband would be exempt from the law of Sarah, which presumably-” the church is saying “-was the requirement that the husband gained the consent of the first wife before marrying additional women. After Emma opposed plural marriage, Joseph…” 

I hate this. Okay, here we go. 

“After Emma opposed plural marriage, Joseph was placed in an agonizing dilemma, forced to choose between the will of God and the will of his beloved Emma. He may have thought Emma's rejection of plural marriage exempted him from the law of Sarah, her decision to “receive not this law,” permitted him to marry additional wives without her consent.”

[00:11:38] Honestly, that's heartbreaking and I'm a little bit disgusted. Especially the way that this essay frames Joseph “placed in an agonizing dilemma” when even the church itself claims like, “oh, we don't actually know, like, what the early practice of polygamy was like, it's so shrouded in mystery and shadow.” And yet there are so many resources and so many historical records from that time that indicate that Joseph Smith was already in sexual relationships with women outside of his marriage for up to 10 years before this revelation on polygamy was ever even written down. And so for me, I'm like, “oh yeah, I'm sure he was in an agonizing dilemma.” 

Elise: [00:12:21] Yeah. I also just think like, I don't know how much more clearly we can lay out that true consent is not involved in any part of this whole process. Right. And it's so upsetting because it's another example of the way that the church as an institution doesn't care about its women, because there's threats of destruction, there's manipulation, but now there's this also kind of loophole law that you know what women, even if you don't consent, there's the secret law of Sarah that basically says your husbands can still move forward with plural marriage without you having to be on board at all.

Channing: [00:12:55] Yeah. And so these women find themselves in this double bind, right? Because the Law of Sarah is right there in section 132. And so I imagine as they're reading through this, you know, before they get to verse 65, which is kind of down there a little ways, they're probably like, “oh, hell no. Hell no.” And then they get to verse 65 and I can just, like, imagine their heart, like, because mine did, my heart sank into my stomach and I was like, “there's no escaping this. There is no getting out of this for me, because whether I choose to participate- as if choice is really a thing here- like, whether I choose to participate or not, it doesn't matter because my husband can choose to do it anyway and there will be no consequences, right? No accountability.”

Elise: [00:13:45] No consequences. I also think it's interesting that you bring up, like, the idea of there being no escape here. And I just want to kind of unpack that a little bit because sure, people maybe from the outside might look inwards on the situation and say, “well, they could escape. They could just like, not practice Mormonism anymore.”

Channing: And some did.

Elise: Yeah. Some absolutely did. But I think that when we throw that in the mix as kind of. “Well, why, why don't they just leave? Why don't you just stop? Why don't you just stop practicing Mormonism?” I think that doesn't actually, I think that does a disservice to the depth of faith and the trials that these women have experienced, especially, like you said earlier, so many women have been displaced from their homes. They've been on these treks across the country. I mean, they have been committed, not just to the practice, but also to the faith, I think. Like we heard earlier when we shared some passages from Fannie, like, she has come to know the voice of a tender, loving God through Mormonism, but it also conflicts with the same God of Mormonism here, that's showing up as vengeful and destructive.

[00:14:53] So. I don't think it's as simple as saying, “well, if women didn't like it, they could have just left,” because that also places the full burden on women. Right. “If you don't like it, then leave. And if you leave, you'll lose your community, you'll lose your spiritual structure. You'll probably lose your husband.”

[00:15:11] And then what do you do with your children? Like, it's an impossible ask . 

Channing: [00:15:15] Yeah, it really is. Especially for women who at the time could not work. Especially for women at the time who it was very unusual for them to, like, live alone without their children or a spouse. Like, it is an impossible ask. Especially once they get to Utah. Where are they going to go? That's my question. There's nobody there, like, where are they going to go? And so, yeah, I agree. It is an impossible ask. And I think also you presented a really important aspect of placing the blame on their shoulders as if it is the responsibility of the abused to both escape the abuse or justify their reason for staying when they're not at fault, absolutely not. Yeah. And so this whole conversation that we're having I hope can illustrate really well that, at least for Elise  and I, the consent that was given by women to participate in polygamy was for the large part given under duress, it was given under pressure of intimidation and threat in a landscape of unequal power dynamics.

[00:16:25] This means that true consent could not have been given at all. Based on my personal limited research of the extensive, meaning, like, years-long careers-long research of others, the few women advocating for protection and the righteousness of polygamy were the ones who benefited the most from it. It was usually those whose marriages gained them greater economic stability and safety, greater social recognition and status for themselves and their children.

[00:16:53] For me, I believe that it's the benefit and the privilege that polygamy provided these women, which they are defending rather than the actual practice. I believe that polygamy was simply the vehicle for women to obtain it. And that, like, we have many quotes that I don't think got included in this episode, but we have many quotes of women, especially the ones who are, like, the staunchest supporters, basically saying along the lines of polygamy is super easy to practice as long as you feel nothing, as long as you have no attachment, as long as you simply view it as a way to move through the social ladder or get the blessings or whatever. And I can't imagine, I honestly, seriously, cannot imagine what that was like.

Elise: [00:17:42] No. I also think that, like, we're not saying, like, we're not making a kind of a general spread judgment call on non-monogamous relationships with full consent. Like, cool. You want to be in a polygamous marriage or you’re polyamorous, like, amazing. Is everyone consenting, not under duress, not under manipulation? And if that's the case, like, that's fantastic, you should be able to celebrate and be in whatever type of relationship dynamic you enjoy or feel called to the most.

[00:18:13] So it's not a general judgment call. I would say of, like, “polygamy is bad everywhere at all times.” Because I don't think that's what we're saying. We're saying it's awful because there was not true consent here. 

Channing: [00:18:26] Yeah. Well, and I think too, like, we're specifically saying this version, this brand of polygamy labeled as plural marriage, an eternal celestial, everlasting covenant, this was wrong because, you're right, in a modern day polygamous marriage, or even in whatever polygamous marriage, where there was freedom to leave whenever you wanted, when there was ability for boundaries and consent to be negotiated at every turn where your salvation and eternal life didn't depend on you staying in that relationship, when your economic stability and your ability to provide for yourself isn't threatened by staying or not staying in that relationship, then that would be a healthy non-monogamous marriage, right? Like, a healthy non-monogamous relationship to be able to have the freedom, to move, to change your mind, to remove yourself, like, that would be healthy.

[00:19:22] Elise: Yeah. To communicate your needs and be heard and respected, renegotiate what's okay and what's not okay. Which none of those things are happening in this early Mormon polygamy. 

[00:19:32] Channing: Right. And so I think it was, I think it's important, yeah, to make that distinction between what we're talking about here is a very specific type of polygamy and not non-monogamous marriages in general.

[00:19:44] Finally, for me, the last, I mean, as if I could ever, like, be ever done talking about polygamy, but one of the biggest issues that I take with polygamy. And this is really kind of a hinge point for me as I've been going through and preparing these episodes and just doing so much research, like, I'm kinda like, okay, well here for me, like, here's the “so what?” Here's what it really boils down to for me. And it's really a deal breaker, especially about section 132. And it's the story that I found from that essay “Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo” on the church website. It reads, “When God commands a difficult task, he sometimes sends additional messengers to encourage his people to obey. Consistent with this pattern, Joseph told associates that an angel appeared to him three times between 1834 and 1842, and commanded him to proceed with plural marriage when he hesitated to move forward. During the third and final appearance, the angel came with a drawn sword, threatening Joseph with destruction, unless he went forward and obeyed the commandment fully.”

[00:20:54] So what we have here is a story of God through his angel, forcing Joseph Smith into a nonconsensual relationship with another woman. Who cares what this woman wants? Who cares what Joseph Smith wants? Apparently God commands. And so I'm like, “okay, this doesn't feel right to me.” So I literally typed into the Google search bar “What is it called when you are being forced into a marriage that you don't want to be in?” What came up? Well, the website for the Rights of Women in the UK, and they say, “What is a forced marriage? A forced marriage is a marriage which takes place against your will or a marriage that you agreed to, but you didn't really have a choice. The definition of force used by the government includes physical, psychological, sexual, financial, and emotional pressure, as well as emotional and psychological abuse or harassment.” Hint, hint, an angel appearing to you three times and telling you to do something you don't want to do would probably be considered harassment. “Forced marriage involves situations where you feel pressured to the point where you agree but only because you feel you did not have the choice to say no and you would not have consented, had the pressure not been placed on you.” This is so important. Also from the U S Citizenship and Immigration Services website, it reads, “The United States Government is opposed to forced marriage and considers it to be a serious human rights abuse.”

[00:22:26] It also includes some helpful signs to notice when someone or yourself might be involved in a forced marriage. Signs include “you feel you do not, or did not have a choice regarding whom to marry or when. You're experiencing or being threatened with abandonment, isolation, or physical and emotional abuse if you do not marry, or if you attempt to leave a marriage you did not consent to. You may be closely monitored in an effort to prevent you from talking to others about the pressure you are facing and you believe that you or people you care about would be hurt or even killed if you refuse to marry or attempt to leave a marriage you did not consent to.” 

[00:23:06] And so with this information, this is where it starts to get really icky for me, but also where something becomes crystal clear. From the examples about consent provided so far and with the examples of forced marriage, my opinion of section 132 has two outcomes. Either God is a proponent and an advocate for forced marriage, which violates not only consent, but also human rights or section 132 does not have divine origin. And I'm sure it will shock and surprise no one, but I believe the latter. The introduction to Doctrine and Covenants- which we discussed way back in the beginning of the year- it encourages a reading of the “tender yet firm voice of the Lord.” Abuse is not loving. It is not tender. It is not gentle. Abuse is not patient. It does not honor consent. It does not guide, or it does not care. It commands. We were promised the loving, but firm voice of the Lord. And this section is an anomaly, an exception to that rule because it is a void of all respect, affirmation, appreciation, self-determination for everyone involved, but especially for the women it affects and mentions not by personhood, but how they serve and how they serve God.

Elise: [00:24:40] I'm so glad that you laid that out so clearly and so passionately for us because that's exactly the stance that we need to take. I mean, you and I obviously are taking it, but we encourage other people to explore the understanding of consent. And to ask yourself the question, “Is it really consent if you were forced?” Friends, we love you so, so much. Thanks for joining us on another episode of our mini series titled “Polygamy in Pieces.” We'll talk to you tomorrow. Bye.

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