Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » I Have a Question, 1930

I Have a Question, 1930

By: Ardis E. Parshall - May 11, 2010

These questions were answered by apostle and mission president John A. Widtsoe for the benefit of readers of the Millennial Star:

Q. Did Joseph Smith practice plural marriage?

A. Yes. The revelation permitting plural marriage, dated July 12th, 1843, was taught by the Prophet to several persons, including his own brother Hyrum, who have testified to the fact that the Prophet had more than one wife. Several honourable women have testified under oath that they were wives of the Prophet. There are more than one hundred affidavits to the same effect, by persons “Mormon” and non-“Mormon,” who lived in Nauvoo in the life of the Prophet, on file in the office of the church Historian.

It is an historical fact, not questioned by anyone except those who have personal reasons for so doing.

Q. Should the congregation kneel when the blessing is asked upon the Sacrament?

A. The manner of administering the Sacrament is as follows: “The elder or priest shall administer it; and after this manner shall he administer it – he shall kneel with the church and call upon the Father in solemn prayer.” (Doc. and Cov., 20:76.)

The common English meaning of the word “with” is “in company of” or “among”; and it is in this sense that the word is used here. The Elder or Priest shall kneel “with” the congregation present, when the Sacrament is blessed. The revelation is directed to the officiating person and declares that “he shall kneel”; not that “they shall kneel.” the person officiating acts for and represents the congregation. Each one present cannot do all that is done by the officiating Priest of elder.

No harm would result if the congregation also knelt, but it would add nothing to the force of the blessing; it would cause confusion at a time when every thought should be concentrated upon the covenant to remember and serve the Lord; and it has not been the practice of the Church. It is in full harmony with the revelation if the congregation remain seated, in absolute quiet, while the kneeling Elder or Priest blesses the Sacrament, and while it is being distributed.

Q. Did Joseph Smith ordain anyone to be his successor in the presidency of the Church?

A. There is no evidence that the Prophet Joseph Smith ever ordained any person to succeed him in the presidency of the Church. His recorded acts indicate on the contrary that he held that the organization of the Church would provide amply for the filling of any vacancies that might occur in the divinely authorized offices of the Priesthood.

Had the Prophet selected someone to be his successor, it would probably have been his eldest son, bearing his name. This son, however, disclaimed any such ordination. …

Had Joseph the Prophet so ordained his son, or anyone else, it would have been known among the people and properly recorded. …

The Prophet Joseph Smith understood well the order of the Church, and knew that upon his demise the authority to conduct the affairs of the Church would rest upon the Twelve Apostles.

Q. Was the Church rejected because the Nauvoo Temple was not completed within a set time?

A. Such a question is merely unworthy quibbling about sacred things, and is scarcely worth attention. A remarkable revelation on temple work was received by the Prophet Joseph Smith on January 19th, 1841. (Doc. and Cov., 124.) In this revelation was a commandment given to build a temple in which baptisms for the dead, which up to that date had been performed in the neighbouring river, should thereafter take place.

The revelation says, “I grant you sufficient time to build a house unto me; and during this time your baptisms shall be acceptable unto me. But behold, at the end of this appointment your baptisms for your dead can not be acceptable unto me; and if you do not these things at the end of the appointment, ye shall be rejected as a church, with your dead, saith the Lord your God.” (Doc. and Cov., 124:31-32.)

The meaning is clear. The Church must provide a holy place in which to do the work for the dead, and it must perform work for the dead, else the Church will not be acceptable to the Lord. In other words the principle of salvation for the dead through the vicarious efforts of the living is of paramount importance.

Upon the receipt of this revelation, the Church proceeded without delay to erect a temple at Nauvoo, and in the midst of many difficulties, including the loss of the Prophet and Patriarch, the Temple was completed and publicly dedicated on May 1st, 1846. In this Temple, before the Church was forced to move west, baptisms for the dead and endowments for the living were performed. … By this willingness to obey, the Saints were made more acceptable to the Lord, who had not set a specified number of months or years for the completion of the task, but had promised “sufficient time.” The Temple was completed, dedicated and the required holy work done therein. What more could be asked?

Q. Why were Brigham Young and others baptized after entering the valley of the Great Salt Lake?

A. during the long, hard journey across the plains to the valley of the Great Salt Lake, President Young was forever impressing upon the members of his company, who could not be brought under the sheltering influences and discipline of a branch or ward in a stationary locality, the necessity of absolute righteousness. He also foresaw that the rough frontier life, and the difficulty of providing ample spiritual protection for the people during the trying days of conquering a wilderness, would lead to many minor irregularities and might cause larger errors of action. Especially did he sense that, with the people, he stood before an herculean task, the conquest of the Great American Desert, which could be accomplished only by the help of the Lord; and divine favour could be expected only by a pure and righteous people.

Therefore, on August 6th, 1847, ten days after the arrival of the first pioneers in the Valley, he and the apostles present, feeling their deep need of the help of the Lord, and also setting an example to all, renewed their religious obligations and covenants by the symbol of baptism. Many, if not all of the company, followed the example of their leaders. Many of those who came West later were baptized, though it was always a matter for individual choice, a personal acknowledgment of willingness to serve the Lord to their full ability.

The baptisms thus performed were only renewals of covenants already made with the lord. There was never any question of the validity of the former baptism, or a need of baptism for membership in the Church. the only baptism of Brigham Young into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was that performed by Eleazar Miller on April 14th, 1832.

Q. What is the status in the Church of Christ of the temple ordinances and the doctrine of salvation for the dead?

A. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has built temples from the beginning of its history. During the life of Joseph Smith, the Prophet, the Kirtland and Nauvoo Temples were constructed, and others projected but not built because of the opposition of wicked men.

The temple ceremonies, the so-called endowment, were taught by the Prophet himself. In his history he records under date of May 4th, 1842, that he that day gave the endowment to seven of the leading brethren, including Brigham Young. (History of the Church, Vol. 5, p. 1-2.)

During Joseph Smith’s last years, he gave much instruction concerning the necessity of doing vicarious work for the dead. He taught that the work of the Lord would be defeated and “the whole earth would be utterly wasted” at the coming of Christ, if this work were not performed. (See Doc. and Cov., 2.) On other occasions he wrote, “The greatest responsibility in this world that God has laid upon us, is to seek after our dead.” (Times and Seasons, Vol. 6, page 616.) “Those Saints who neglect it, in behalf of their deceased relatives. do it at the peril of their own salvation.” (Times and Seasons, Vol. 2, p. 578.)

There is no more important principle in the gospel. The Church of Jesus Christ always accepts and practices it. It is an indispensable doctrine.



  1. The first question reminds me of a little story I’ve mentioned elsewhere.

    Every week for Family Home Evening, we sing the songs that are going to be sung the next week in Sacrament Meeting. One week we did a song by Eliza R. Snow and I mentioned as I was getting up from the piano bench that she was the second general president of the Relief Society and that she had been married to Joseph Smith.

    My daughter interrupted, “But Joseph was just married to Emma.”

    “No, Eliza R. Snow was married to Joseph Smith, and after he died, to Brigham Young.”

    “But I just read the biography of Joseph Smith by his mother and it didn’t say anything about that.”

    That led to an interesting little discussion.

    Which leads me to think that perhaps I need to do a church history lesson every month, so that my children will not eventually hear some of the non-Sunday School history (or the non-glossy-church movie versions) and feel that the wool has been pulled over their eyes.

    (I personally feel that the church has no business teaching polygamy. It was a commandment for the Saints during that time period, but is not a commandment for ours. But other people do feel differently.)

    Comment by Researcher — May 11, 2010 @ 9:02 am

  2. Elder Widtsoe surely is correct in his statement that it is the custom of the church for the congregation to remain seated during the sacramental prayers.

    But I think he’s wrong on the language of that verse in Moroni–there are a lot of words other than “with” that would describe our custom–“he shall kneel before the church”, for example.

    The translators of the Book of Mormon into other languages seem to agree with the plain meaning of the statement, rather than Elder Widtsoe’s explanation.

    Comment by Mark B. — May 11, 2010 @ 9:05 am

  3. I loved Widtsoe’s response regarding Joseph’s involvement with polygamy: “It is an historical fact, not questioned by anyone except those who have personal reasons for so doing.” He successfully turned the issue off of the historical record and onto the person who might be scandalized. This might be a good pattern to follow.

    One other thing: as I was reading these answers, parsing them for clues as to the author’s frame of mind as much as for their doctrinal purity, I got thinking again that distilling answers to Gospel questions is no easy task. It’s hard work! Sometime, it might be fun to have a post here at Keepa where an (historical) Gospel question is posed and readers/commenters are given the chance to try and answer it as well as the original. Would be eye-opening, me thinks . . .

    Comment by Hunter — May 11, 2010 @ 9:57 am

  4. This is really quite interesting. The response to the plural marriage question is refreshingly forthright. It is important that at this time, such things were still an important consideration – there were still polygamists in Church hierarchy (including the Church President). Some of the other responses tend to reflect the position of inadequate historical research from which he was writing, I think.

    Kneeling in sacrament was debated in the 19th century.

    JS, surely appointed his successor in Hyrum and likely Samuel, JSIII or David Hyrum (though not immediately for the latter two).

    His rebaptism discussion is generally inaccurate and doesn’t consider rebaptism being common from Nauvoo to the 1890s. BY was rebaptize, many–perhaps more than a dozen–times.

    Comment by J. Stapley — May 11, 2010 @ 10:34 am

  5. Thank you for carrying on such nice conversations the last few days when I’ve been too dizzy to read the monitor.

    I don’t remember where or when I learned about Joseph Smith’s plural marriages, but it could hardly have been on Sunday, and probably not even in Seminary. If parents don’t bring it up, or make relevant reading material available, I don’t know how kids are supposed to learn these things enough not to be startled later. Maybe another way to do it besides a formal FHE lesson would be that if you knew, say, that one of your kids was reading any church history, like Lucy’s book, to ask questions about what you know isn’t there. Could make for some lively dinner conversation!

    I will never parse words with Mark B., even if in my delirium I fancy myself to be Elder Widtsoe!

    Hunter, I like your suggestion for a you-answer-it-yourself post. We could award points for brevity, accuracy, coming close to GQC’s (or whoever’s). It *isn’t* always easy, is it, to answer these questions effectively.

    J., do you really think the rebaptism discussion is inaccurate, or just incomplete? I thought he did a fairly good job of describing the purpose for rebaptism upon reaching the Valley, even if it ignores all possible reasons at other times. It would be helpful if we could get inside his head and know what question he really thought he was answering — he seems to be speaking to someone who may have sought rebaptism in 1930 for the wrong reasons, doesn’t it?

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — May 11, 2010 @ 12:07 pm

  6. That is a good point, Ardis [and sorry about the dizziness – that bites]. Rebaptism was a cause celebre of schismatic fundamentalists, but I would be surprised (perhaps mistakenly) if that were on his mind while writing to the Saints in Europe. But you are also right that he may be addressing an individual’s concern.

    I guess his response seemed a bit exceptional to me.

    Comment by J. Stapley — May 11, 2010 @ 12:26 pm

  7. Except (as far as I know) for the sacrament, these all seem to be issues with the RLDS. Was there a notable RLDS mission to England or something else going on at the time that would have raised these questions with readers of the Millennial Star?

    Comment by Left Field — May 11, 2010 @ 1:49 pm

  8. Left Field, you’re very perceptive. I shortened several of the answers so that the post didn’t drone on forever, and the parts I cut out make it very clear that Widtsoe is responding to RLDS challenges. I don’t know what was happening in England then that would have sparked this.

    (I hope no one thinks I was deceptive in my abbreviating. I think, for example, that Widtsoe’s last line on Joseph’s plural marriages is valid as shown here, without limiting it to the “personal reasons” the RLDS might have had to deny the historical facts.)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — May 11, 2010 @ 2:54 pm

  9. Several years ago I photographed all of the big pioneer portraits in the Daughters of Utah Pioneers, pioneer museum in Logan, Utah. Then I put a copy of each photo in two large binders, complete with information about that photograph. I arranged the pictures alphabetically, by maiden name for the women, followed by any married names in parenthesis. The heading for Eliza R. Snow was shown as “Eliza Roxcy Snow (Smith, Young).”

    One day I was going through the binders to see what comments people made. A woman had inserted this note on Eliza’s page, “I think this is Eliza R. Snow!” Duh! I don’t know if it was Eliza’s middle name that threw her or the (Smith, Young).”

    Comment by Maurine — May 11, 2010 @ 5:13 pm

  10. It is easier for kids and the uninformed if they are taught from trusted sources. I had to learn from FAIR on their blog some of the details, but thankfully my mother of a 4th generation in the Church family did tell me about our own family’s polygamy and let me know gently how it worked so I wasn’t hoodwinked by the anti’s.

    But I know others who were not as lucky being the “deer in the headlights” when they are slammed with slanted material and don’t know that it’s been slanted or that it’s actually true in the kernel of it but not the details.

    Thanks again Ardis for all the good work you do of informing us (along with good entertainment – and to the commenters like Maurine at 5:13 that shows me that people are the same everywhere!

    Comment by Allison — May 11, 2010 @ 8:19 pm

  11. Would kneeling for the sacrament have been an RLDS talking point in 1930? I went to an RLDS sacrament meeting about 15-20 years ago, and I don’t remember the congregation kneeling, but perhaps it was a practice in the past.

    Comment by Left Field — May 11, 2010 @ 10:30 pm

  12. In reading the comments about Eliza Snow and polygamy, I was reminded of my last visit to the Brigham Young gravesite, where Eliza is buried. Her gravestone is marked, “Eliza R. Snow Smith” and I still remember the look on the face of a family member there who was incredulous that Eliza had been married to Joseph Smith. The family member — a lifelong member of the Church — had no idea that Joseph had ever practiced plural marriage. Where was Elder Widtsoe when I needed him?!

    Comment by Hunter — May 11, 2010 @ 11:27 pm

  13. My sources from late 19th and early 20th century Church books all refer to “Eliza R. Smith.” Current books (the 1985 “Hymns,” for instance) refer to her as Eliza R. Snow. I wonder if there was some official direction behind the creep back to her maiden name?

    On a related point, it’s interesting to me that all of the 1st three R.S. Gen presidents were wives of J.S. (Emma, Eliza, and Zina) the last two also of Brigham Young. Having never attended relief society, is this generally known, or glossed over with the rest of uncomfortable Mormon history?

    Comment by Clark — May 12, 2010 @ 10:32 am

  14. I’m not sure when I learned that Eliza was one of Joseph’s wives, but I strongly suspect it was while I was an undergrad at BYU (l970s). It’s hard to remember a time post-mission when I didn’t know that.

    A good spot here to plug Orson Scott Card’s “Saints”, still my favorite LDS historical novel (and not just because the competition is often weak). His main character, Dinah Kirkham, is modeled heavily after Eliza (including being a plural wife of both Joseph and Brigham).

    Back in the early 1990s, when we lived in San Diego, Sandra was part of an informal book club organized among women in our ward. When given the opportunity, she suggested that they read “Saints”, and they did. The reaction to the novel was quite mixed; some absolutely loved it, and others were profoundly offended. ..bruce..

    Comment by bfwebster — May 14, 2010 @ 10:47 am

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