The Polygamy PrincipleBy: Wayfarer
Today’s guest post is by Wayfarer.
Joseph Smith approached both Helen Mar Kimball (14 years old) and Nancy Rigdon (19) to join him as his celestial wife, using in both cases the promise of exaltation if complied with, and something quite onerous if not. Neither woman/girl wanted to accept the ‘principle.’ Helen Mar received a lot of pressure from her father, but Nancy’s father Sidney was shocked, and he vigorously opposed the ‘principle.’ Consequently, Helen Mar complied, while Nancy Rigdon did not.
I find this case study fascinating and informative, but nuanced in a way that makes the lesson quite difficult to understand. The Church teaches that if we follow the prophet, we won’t be led astray. We are also taught that we are free to choose, and that we should seek divine inspiration. In this rather complicated scenario of Nancy Rigdon and Helen Mar, neither of them personally desired it nor felt it right to comply. Nancy Rigdon chose to follow her personal feelings and rejected Joseph’s offer. Helen Mar chose to comply with the ‘principle,’ against her own wishes, perhaps thinking this might be for the greater good of promised exaltation for herself and family. Soon thereafter, the Rigdons were out of the mainstream church, and the Kimballs of course continued in the principle and served in the leadership of the Church. Who was right?
- Can we justify Joseph Smith’s actions in this case — to use the promise of exaltation or threat of damnation to induce a young woman to become the prophet’s wife?
- If the prophet asked you to do something you knew was wrong, would you do it? Why or why not?
- Does the word of the prophet absolve you from inquiring for yourself whether something is true? Does it absolve you from acting against your own conscience?
- What responsibility do you have when you are told by the spirit that the teaching you are being taught is contrary to God’s will?
- Is it possible for a man to be called of God as a prophet yet do some things that are completely contrary to God’s will?
- Does the fact that Joseph Smith had serious human failings make him less a prophet of God?
One cannot read the Bible without realizing that prophets are not portraits of perfection. Peter had profound failings; Paul had a thorn in the flesh — some unspecified personal failing that he could not overcome. David, the archetype of a good king in Israel, had adultery with Bathsheba and had Uriah killed in cover-up. Yet, the Psalms of David are among the most inspired teachings of the Bible, including and especially Psalm 51, the penitential psalm David allegedly wrote after Nathan called him on the Bathsheba/Uriah incident.
Joseph Smith seems to me to be a true prophet in the grand tradition of the Bible: both divinely inspired and profoundly flawed at the same time. Learning that we can fully accept a person’s prophetic authority while rejecting his human failings is necessary if we are to understand how God works through humans. We are never absolved from personal responsibility and revelation. The Lord’s version of the premortal Plan of Salvation was not based on blind obedience, but rather the need to make choices by studying out the matter, and then prayerfully seeking the spirit to guide us in the Lord’s way.
To me, the lesson of Nancy Rigdon and Helen Mar is fundamental. Both made choices. Nancy Rigdon, to my mind, made a better informed choice, because she bravely upheld her integrity regardless of the consequences of being thrown out of the church. Helen Mar chose to follow the prophet against her own will and was blessed for it by remaining a member, but it is evident from her writings in later life (especially her poetry) that her choice did not make her truly happy.
So much can be learned and understood about freedom, choice, and responsibility, when we look at this example. Doing the right thing in some cases is very hard. The question is what process we go through to do the right thing, and whether in doing right, we’ll immediately benefit thereby. We often don’t benefit, but this doesn’t absolve us from our spiritual and moral responsibility to choose the right. Nancy suffered censure as a result of her choice. Do we have the courage of our convictions to choose the path of integrity and authenticity even if that means censure and potential rejection by the church?
Ultimately, which of them chose the more difficult path? It’s hard to say. What do you learn from this comparison?