You aren’t alone. Many of us have been exactly where you are. When you called, you didn’t have to say much before I understood. You’d encountered the Fanny Alger story. You’d been taught Joseph Smith’s polygamy began in Nauvoo, not Kirtland, and with Emma’s consent, not behind her back. Your image of Joseph Smith is shattered, and with it, your trust in the leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. These men who pushed a scrubbed clean narrative of Joseph no longer seem incorruptible. You feel broken. What was certain no longer is. With each breath, your pain reminds you of Emma’s pain.
My first encounter with Joseph’s super-secret 1836 plural marriage to Fanny Alger happened nearly twenty years ago. I had known Joseph was polygamous (some women who encounter this history don’t), but the idea that he’d deceived Emma–that she’d discovered their relationship when she discovered the two in a hayloft–was devastating. It’s odd to me now that polygamy, of itself, didn’t devastate me, but I had the safe distance of 150 years and the assurance of the LDS around me that polygamy was a closed chapter, that it had been of that moment and would never return.
You, however, are learning this as President Nelson’s exclamation that “The Restoration continues!” is still ringing. You’re taking a closer look at D&C 132. The “elect lady” compliment isn’t what stands out to you anymore. You see the threat of destruction through different eyes. Wide eyes. Just as Emma’s heartbreak in Kirtland feels as if it is your own, this threat… Does it apply to you? Will your choice in the next life (or perhaps this one) be “go along or be destroyed,” as was Emma’s? Where’s the choice in that? You know the answer.
They’ve been telling you free agency is crucial to the plan of salvation. Was that doublespeak? The gospel you’ve loved and lived seems to be crumbling in front of you. You’ve let the Church tell you who to be, what to think, what to wear, and who to befriend and how. You aren’t sure you can trust the Church leaders ever again, so you ask me, “Who am I?”
This question I can answer. You are the same honorable woman you’ve always been. Before you discovered this hard news about such a beloved prophet, you were a woman dedicated to doing what’s right, to making the world a better place. You woke up this morning as the same kind, honest, helpful person the Church encouraged you to become. The decisions you’ll make today–and tomorrow, and all the days thereafter–will be made with a deep desire to do the right thing. You are, after all, a truth seeker.
Unfortunately, there are other questions I can’t answer for you. I can’t tell you how to make everything go back to the way things were. You’ll never see things the way you once did, but this isn’t inherently a bad thing.
You’ve been taught that wickedness never was happiness. But what so few realize is how great a wickedness conformity is. Nothing steals free agency like conformity, or sucks the marrow out of human potential, or limits the measure of your creation as effectively as submission to the illusion that sameness and unity are one and the same.
Happiness has never been easy. You’ve known for a long time that checking off all the boxes of approved LDS behavior doesn’t automatically cause happiness. Giving one’s life in the service of others can become forfeiture of the one life we are blessed with if we serve indiscriminately or under any authority other than our own. You were born to live, to develop, not to become invisible.
Some say happiness can only be found inside the Church, and others say it can only be found outside the Church. Both are misrepresenting the truth. You’ve always known happiness–contentedness–is within; it comes from living with integrity.
I can’t answer what you should do next. Many LDS women who learn what you’ve learned and feel what you’re feeling toward Joseph and the long line of Church leaders who’ve withheld historical inconveniences do, in fact, leave the Church, some temporarily, some permanently. Some, like me, stay by chiseling out our own place in it. For me, that means being vocal and forthright about the faults I see in the Church, past and present. The fall-out of that is that my footprint in my ward has shriveled, but that’s okay. I don’t do anything that interferes with my integrity.
So no, I can’t tell you how to stay in the Church, nor should I try. You’re not just exploring Mormon history, you’re exploring yourself and your relationships with God and the Church. You, alone, will decide if staying, to whatever degree, is a better choice for you than leaving. If those around you warn you that you are either “in” or “out” in the eyes of God, take comfort in knowing they are wrong. To God, the only preposition that matters is “with.” Your Heavenly Parents will always be with you.
I honor you, for the battle raging inside you is cruel. You’re fighting to believe in yourself and your ability to forge your own connection with God. You’re fighting to believe you will still be good when this dust settles. You’ve been trained to doubt yourself and rely on others, so of course, you’re frightened. Nothing feels as unsafe to an LDS woman as uncertainty.
This new uncertainty is a big, empty space that’s just waiting to be filled with all the values you’ve always carried with you. As you study the honorable and dishonorable traits of those who precede us, you will rediscover your own principles and chart your destination. Remember, that uncertainty has always been sacred; it’s that wonderful place where faith takes root–both faith in yourself and faith in God.
Regardless, my friend, I’ll be with you.
Fear thou not; for I am with thee: be not dismayed; for I am thy God: I will strengthen thee; yea, I will help thee; yea, I will uphold thee with the right hand of my righteousness. Isaiah 41:10