The online LDS response to the NYT article describing Hans Mattsson’s struggle with doubt about the Mormon faith that he had once believed in has been interesting to watch. Most responses have been generous and sympathetic, realizing that some serious soul-searching within the community is in order, while others have been more reactionary.
One aspect of this discussion I have found particularly interesting has been the conversations that have ensued over Mattsson’s confusion and concern over Joseph Smith’s polygamy. Some immediately queried, “How could Mattsson have not known about polygamy?” Is his case simply a product of his relative ignorance about Church history and doctrine, which would have made him more vulnerable to difficult new information? Others focused more on how they have personally dealt with the uncomfortable historical data, with attitudes ranging from, “I found out about Joseph Smith’s many wives a long time ago, so now these kinds of issues don’t bother me anymore” to “Polygamy is something that I struggle with and don’t have a good explanation for.”
Still others advocate for increased inoculation efforts, with the assumption being that the more transparent the Church is about Joseph Smith’s polygamy and the more we educate people early on in safer settings, the less likely they are to be broadsided with information that could lead to a severe faith crisis.
I myself am not against inoculation. In fact, I think a full-throttled institutionalized effort to be open about such issues is the only way to go. Yet I also believe that we need to go in with both eyes open, recognizing that while transparency and sensitively appropriate discussion at the right times will significantly reduce the numbers of those who feel a strong sense of betrayal by their leaders for not being more forthcoming, in the long term increased knowledge of Joseph Smith’s relationship to polygamy is also surely to have inevitable repercussions on the way we think about his prophethood and may eventually lead to substantial evolution in LDS theology. We may come to think of Joseph Smith less as a prophet with ontologically unique revelatory access to the divine will and more as a radical religious visionary whose “revelations” were a product of his own distinctive interpretive sensibilities as they interacted with the particular cultural context in which he lived.