A Short History of D&C 132

I composed this short reception/textual history of D&C 132 when my book Textual Studies in the Doctrine and Covenants: The Plural Marriage Revelation. was published. I thought it might be useful for readers here.

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A Very Brief History of D&C Section 132: The Plural Marriage Revelation
By William V. Smith

Section 132 of the Doctrine and Covenants was the last of Joseph Smith’s formal written revelations and it was a watershed in Mormonism for many reasons. Like many of Joseph Smith’s early revelations, the revelation was given to an individual, not a community. Its target was his own wife, Emma Hale Smith, largely in response to her rejection of plural marriage.

Polygamy, a main theme of and generator of the revelation, is a complex subject in Mormonism and this short essay can only hope to discuss a few aspects that relate specifically to what is now Section 132 of the Doctrine and Covenants. Mormon polygamy essentially began in Nauvoo. One of its functions was to serve as a threshold of loyalty to Joseph Smith. Taking the step of participating in polygamy was a high-cost social commitment for women and men. Polygamy not only tested loyalty to Smith, it might have even increased it—and not just while he lived. Joseph Smith took enormous risk in introducing polygamy to any individual. While he generally selected men and women who were already close to him and had demonstrated their commitment to Mormonism, it was dangerous to challenge some of the most fundamental boundaries of the religious and social landscape. Some dissented, such as first presidency counselor William Law and his wife Jane Law, both who later publicly opposed Smith. That opposition joined a sequence of events terminating in Smith’s assassination. After Smith’s death, church leaders who were among the insiders of plural marriage became his de facto successors.

In Utah, the Church faced increasing public opposition to the practice of “plurality.” Controversy flared as Utah transitioned from its hoped-for independent nation status into a territory of the United States. The territorial selection of officials brought federal appointees to the Mormon stronghold. Shocked by polygamy and Mormon control of the political process, those federal appointees left the territory with stories of obstructionism and wives in abundance among elite Mormon men. Those tales led LDS leadership to publish two relatively secret texts up to that point: the plural marriage revelation (now D&C 132), and an April 3, 1836 vision of Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery in the Kirtland, Ohio temple (now D&C 110). This public reveal of polygamy in 1852 solidified Washington’s opposition to Utah’s statehood. That building opposition (later called the “Raid” for the practice U.S. Marshalls hunting polygamists) ultimately led the First Presidency to curtail the practice and preaching of plural marriage in Utah at the end of the 1880s. Public claims that the Church was still allowing new plural marriage in abundance put heavy cross-pressures on Church President Wilford Woodruff. After prayerful and careful consideration, Woodruff produced a document that denied current authorization of plural marriages in Utah. After meeting with fellow leaders over the document, it was edited to the succinct “Manifesto” (now Official Declaration 1), a press release statement that advised the abandonment of contracting plural marriage where it violated the law.

The statement did not intend to give the idea that D&C 132 was now void. And the psychological, sociological, metaphysical, and religious structures founded on it would take time to move and modify. Minutes and diaries of LDS apostles of the period show that many leaders thought the 1890 announcement must be temporary, that God would open the way to public polygamy once again. Indeed, they, like Joseph Smith before them saw their religious obligation as superior to their public political stance. Their commitment to the revelation and its self-claim as a part of the “restoration of all things” made it difficult to universally abandon the practice. Former Church President John Taylor and Woodruff himself had produced written revelations encouraging continued plural marriage. The result of these cross-pressures was that church leader sponsored polygamy continued through the next two decades though in small and ever smaller numbers. Complete termination seemed on the order of abandoning baptism or the temple endowment. The election of apostle Reed Smoot to the U.S. Senate firmed the LDS Church’s public opposition to post-manifesto polygamy, an opposition fueled strongly by Smoot himself. The plural marriage revelation formed a paradoxical cornerstone of Mormon belief in this environment as its sealing subtext became the core logic of the doctrine of eternal family over against its placing of polygamy as the higher law. Gradually, church leaders came to complete unity over ending even a small number of exceptions to public bans of the practice. The troubling prospect of turning their backs on a part of the divine restoration project was placed in the same category as completing proxy ordinances for the dead. It couldn’t (all) be accomplished now but at the end of time (or the Millennium) the way would be opened for it.

As Mormonism publicly forgot polygamy and embraced the role of quintessential clean-living white Americans, their position as an Intermountain West institution was accepted as the home of teetotaling, disciplined, and largely ordinary folk with quaint beliefs in an enchanted past. It was when LDS temples began to invade Christian fundamentalist home turf in places like Dallas and Atlanta that the plural marriage revelation again became a source of criticism among counter-cult ministries and a growing ex-Mormon publishing industry.

Section 132 never went through the textual expansion-contraction cycle that marked many of Smith’s other revelations during his lifetime. His life ended too soon for any revisions. It is nevertheless true that in many ways the July 12, 1843 plural marriage revelation has affected the course of Mormonism for nearly two centuries; and it was redacted, not with pen and ink, but with selective reading that shifted its focus from plural marriage onto eternal monogamous marriage. Yet, many important themes in current Mormonism are based on narratives derived from the plural marriage revelation. Section 132 is a deeply-embedded component of Church teachings on eternal family, the approach of the Church towards gay rights and marriage, and social issues such as the role of women within the Church and family life. It is not an exaggeration to say that the revelation on polygamy is one of the cornerstones that underlies what Mormonism is today.

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2 Responses to A Short History of D&C 132

  1. David Y. says:

    Thanks for this. Good summary! Very helpful.

    One question: at the beginning (Nauvoo), you seem to jump right to the loyalty issue (“One of its functions was to serve as a threshold of loyalty to Joseph Smith,”), without first addressing Joseph’s own initial practice of polygamy. The summary feels a little wanting without at least a line or two about Joseph’s own conception and practice of it. Did I miss something?

  2. WVS says:

    Since this summary was tied to the book and the book is largely a post July 1843 narrative, I didn’t go into much detail about plural marriage prior to that. There is some work in the book on the textual and cultural roots of the revelation but not too much about early attempts at polygamy.

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