For the first time in recent memory, a new manual Mormons will use to study the writings of founder Joseph Smith acknowledges Smith's role in introducing the practice of polygamy.
The acknowledgment may not seem groundbreaking to many Mormons or historians, nor will it likely satisfy most critics, but its inclusion in an official course of study is a departure from past practices and may signal a new openness about Mormon history.
The change is "not a response to critics who think the church has not been straightforward about its involvement with plural marriage in the 19th century," said David Marsh, manager of curriculum development for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. "It is included . . . to illustrate a few of the doctrines or principles that do not have application to our day and which are therefore not included in the book."
Still, it is noteworthy.
The church launched its church presidential writings course in 1998 with Brigham Young. In Sunday meetings, the all-male priesthood and the all-female Relief Society used the same manual to separately examine Young's thoughts on a particular topic. Critics quickly noted, though, that the book's biographical sketch of Young listed only one wife, not the more than 50 women he had married. The volume made no mention of polygamy, a practice Young followed and defended throughout his life.
Nor was polygamy acknowledged in the manual about President Joseph F. Smith, who had five wives, or the one about President Heber J. Grant, who had three.
Much has happened in the intervening decade since Mormons looked at Young.
In 1998, current church President Gordon B. Hinckley told CNN interviewer Larry King that polygamy was "behind us. I condemn it as a practice. It is not doctrinal. It is not legal."
Yet Americans continue to have trouble distinguishing Mormon beliefs from those of convicted polygamist leader Warren Jeffs and those portrayed in the fictional HBO's series "Big Love." For clarity, the LDS Church posted on its Web site articles explaining early Mormon notions about plural marriage.
It took eight years for a committee of scholars, historians, volunteers and church employees to research, compile and organize Smith's writings into a single volume meant as a two-year study for church members.
Marsh, a member of the committee, does not know why the paragraph about polygamy was included this time.
"It could have been a function of the makeup of those writing committees," he said. "We like to give them autonomy."
All the manuals were, of course, approved by the church's governing authorities.
In addition to the paragraph about plural marriage, the Smith manual is distinctive for the thoroughness of its footnotes. The first chapter about Smith's "First Vision," in which he claimed to see God and Jesus in a grove of trees, includes a footnote about how Smith described the encounter in different ways to different people.
"The endnotes provide the date and the place the prophet spoke, the names of those who recorded the prophet's discourse, corrections to information in the History of the Church that has been discovered since its publication . . . and other helpful information," Marsh said. "The endnotes are unprecedented in [LDS] Church Curriculum manuals, and are one of the book's strengths."
He is pleased with the product.
"This book will be translated into 29 languages," Marsh said. "For the first time in the history of the church, the teachings of the prophet Joseph Smith will be accessible to members all across the world."
What the preface says
A new manual LDS Church members will use to study the writings of Joseph Smith notably includes references to polygamy. The preface includes these two paragraphs:
"The Prophet taught the doctrine of plural marriage, and a number of such marriages were performed during his lifetime. Over the next several decades, under the direction of the church presidents who succeeded Joseph Smith, a significant number of church members entered into plural marriages.
"In 1890, President Wilford Woodruff issued the Manifesto, which discontinued plural marriage in the Church (see Official Declaration 1). The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints no longer practices plural marriage."