Early in A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens introduces us to Sydney Carton. Initially, amongst the other characters, he is forgettable, pathetic, and even loathsome. Perhaps that is a hallmark of great literature. It can produce contemptible, disgusting characters like Sydney Carton in whom a man like me may see our own character reflected. I speak only of the Mr. Carton found in the first quarter of the book. Of this character, Dickens writes:
Sadly, sadly, the sun rose; it rose upon no sadder sight than the man of good abilities and good emotions, incapable of their directed exercise, incapable of his own help and his own happiness, sensible of the blight on him, and resigning himself to let it eat him away.
What I write today is quite personal. Essayists I admire like Orwell and Hitchens, Wilde and Wallace, to name a few, managed to write very personally while maintaining a distant objectivity. They made themselves the subject of their writing without making themselves the object as well. As comedian Ricky Gervais has often pointed out, they were the subject without being the target. This is admirable and the product of a strong moral ideal, unapologetic self-confidence, and most of all, a willingness to air their own dirty laundry without compliment-seeking or compassion-sowing.
My community just watched as mother nature rendered thousands among us homeless in the space a just a few hours. Heavy winds, downed power lines and perilously dry conditions fed raging fires that consumed hundreds of homes and businesses from the blinkable space spanning from brunch to dinner. The ominous smoke was visible on weather satellites; the haunting flames were visible from my home. The apocalyptic sensation, well-fed by Hollywood over the years, felt proportionate to the scene and the sensate experience. Checking upon a close friend, she indicated that her house was not affected though she was still unable to return home even twenty-four hours after her hometown evacuated. Her comment to me after acknowledging the tremendous loss her neighbors suffered is that she “feels so blessed” to still have her home intact.
I’ve considered this answer with what I consider a fair amount of self-awareness and irony. I can’t bring myself to think of being blessed under the circumstance. Perhaps the only appropriate word I can adopt to describe how I feel is “lucky.” Luck doesn’t imply a directing hand but the indifferent providence of chance. Those who’s homes were destroyed were ridiculously unlucky. But they were no more punished than another was blessed. Darker would be the thought of divine passivity that allowed such a thing to happen, closing its ears, heart, and mind to the cries of the doomed when it certainly lies within the being’s power to intervene.
I want to say: the close friend I mention is one of the kindest, most compassionate people I know. And, while she might indeed feel “blessed,” I believe her use of the word shows the sinister nature of religious conditioning. The word has become so ubiquitous in our culture that we start to say it and, perhaps, eventually believe it. Looking for blessings and pitying those whom God did not see fit to equally bless.
Yet, there are many who will extol “answered prayers” when their home is untouched while their neighbors has been rendered little more than smoldering ash. No doubt we’ll hear “God spoke here today” and that we humans should listen. When the first unburnt Bible is shown on the evening news, I hope they’ll remember how ubiquitous that book is. And that as they celebrate the miracle of unburnt paper, thousands of decent people find they have no pieces to pick up.
What this moment makes me consider is the fundamental question I recently asked myself: what makes a person good or bad? Am I a good man? As a naturally introspective individual, I ask and have asked myself this question often. I see now that, like Sydney Carton, I’ve been too quick to resign myself to let some aspects of my life eat me away. I am a man of good abilities and emotions but have given much of my sense of self-worth over to the judgments of others. The tendency seems a common and formidable trap amongst humankind. And while I wait for people to draw near to me, I become incapable of exercising what talents I have developed toward the pursuit and promotion of goodness and happiness for myself, let alone others.
The stark realization I have recently experienced was as liberating as it was demoralizing. How many people, emancipated from mind-forged manacles, have finally understood Steinbeck’s insight that, when we let go of being perfect, we are finally enabled to be, very simply and adequately, good? Unfortunately, the peddlers of “perfection in Christ” still make the demand and seem ironically hell-bent on making you perfect after their own image of what that means.
Take the less-well-known or even concealed but equally factual and salient aspects of the life of Joseph Smith. When I was a devoted missionary, we taught that Joseph Smith never had a wife other than Emma Smith. That he never practiced polygamy. Any assertion that he did was simply a lie told by bitter apostates or dangerous anti-Mormons committed to destroying the Prophet’s good name. I was taught to feel disgust, repulsion, and pity on the people who perpetuated these lies. I was also conditioned to feel sorrow for the tarnish upon the good name of Joseph Smith. After all, “He lived great, and he died great in the eyes of God and his people; and like most of the Lord’s anointed in ancient times, has sealed his mission and his works with his own blood.”
According to the LDS owned Deseret News, the church published an essay addressing “Plural Marriage (Newspeak for Polygamy and Polyandry) in Kirtland and Nauvoo“ in October of 2014. Until this point, my experience with the church including University religion courses at BYU had spoken of Joseph Smith’s practice only as a testament to his goodness. He resisted God’s demand that he institute the practice of Plural Marriage until an angel with a drawn sword threatened to kill Joseph if he did not comply. Such was the story he told. And when Joseph similarly demanded that Apostle Heber C. Kimball give his wife, Vilate, to Joseph for his own wife we are told that all of them were reluctant and wept. However, Heber and Vilate agreed and when Heber presented Vilate to Joseph at his door one evening, Joseph was so overcome with emotion that he wept and told Heber that he’d “passed the test.” On the spot, Joseph “sealed” Heber and Vilate together in the sacred marriage ceremony Mormons place all their eternal hopes on to this day. Such might have been considered a glorious likeness of Abraham and Isaac: a just command given and, with demonstration of obedience, mercy extended. Not only mercy, but divine and eternal blessing!
What we didn’t hear about was Heber’s daughter, Helen Mar Kimball, and her alleged marriage to Joseph Smith. The story was no more than an anti-Mormon deception when I was young. The fourteen year old child coerced into marriage under pressure from her father to do so. In addition, the Prophet of God himself gave her twenty-four hours to decide and meekly informed her that it would ensure eternal salvation for her self and her family if she consented. I do not care whether or not the marriage was consummated, that is no way for a man to speak to a teenaged girl in any generation. If it were done by anyone other that their chosen prophet, no believer in Joseph Smith’s revelation would stand for it! The larger point being that I didn’t learn that Helen Mar was, in reality, married to Joseph Smith until the essay was published. Prior to that, the party line was that Joseph NEVER practiced polygamy himself. Vilate Kimball’s experience was shared as evidence that he DIDN’T practice it, he only humbly, reluctantly taught it to others and then granted great blessings to those who gave their will.
Since my disaffection, people will say that I could never have been a “devoted” missionary because of my current state of disbelief. “If you truly believed and were once converted to the gospel, you would never be able to leave.” These people lack imagination and, worst of all, empathy. I’m certain if you asked my companions, roommates, and high school classmates, most would agree that I was self-righteous and even spiritually arrogant, but that I was a devoted student of LDS doctrine and history and that I was entirely committed to my covenants. I was a budding apologist with a fire for defending the faith. But, in a high-demand religion, what one’s knows or claims to know doesn’t matter. If you are an unbeliever, your motives automatically negate your message regardless of its factuality. For Mormons, and I suspect for most religions, what one does matters less than what they profess.
My father-in-law can imagine an eternal heaven in which, if he remains faithful, he’ll become like God in power. He can imagine a conscious life he lived with God and Jesus before being born to Earth. Somehow, his imagination cannot handle conceiving of something that has actually happened many times in history. What would he tell his fifteen year-old granddaughter if the prophet of the Mormon church came to her and told her she had twenty-four hours to decide if she would consent to be his “plural wife.” If she said no, she would be damned. If she said yes, she and her entire family would be guaranteed eternal life. He deflects this question as smoothly as a politician. However, in the same conversation, he agreed that for a public school teacher to make an identical offer would be criminal. If the prophet asks, you pray about it and do what you feel is right. (Spoken like a person accustomed to holy manipulation.) If someone else does, you call the police.
So what if Joseph never had children with any of his approximately forty wives? Brigham Young and others practiced the same order of plural marriage and DID have children by their other wives. The facts are that Joseph deliberately hid the practice from his followers and his own wife. His sacred sealing to his “legal and lawful” wife, Emma, happened only after he was already sealed to many other women that she didn’t know about. He conveniently allowed himself to be “re-sealed” to two of these women, sisters, at Emma’s approval. He never told Emma that he’d already been sealed to them.
Reminds me of Bible verse from Proverbs: “The wicked flee when no man pursueth: but the righteous are bold as a lion.” The behavior of Joseph, in concealing his escapades from his wife and the public, seem like the behavior of a man who knows he is wicked. If he really felt he was doing the will of an omnipotent God, would he need to add lies upon lies?
He married dozens of women without his first wife’s knowledge or consent. When she finally found out, he prophetically threatened her with divine displeasure and eternal destruction if she did not accept polygamy. Poor Emma had caught him in the barn with Fanny Alger. Emma found her divinely anointed husband in the barn with the sixteen year-old girl who had served in their home. She euphemistically said that she viewed the “exchange” through the gaps in the barn wall. Oliver Cowdrey, incredibly upset by the relationship would call it a “dirty, nasty, filthy affair.” Read the history from both apologists and independent historians and decide for yourself if you feel this behavior can be excused in any way.
He married sisters as well as mothers and daughters. Neither of these things bothers me so long as they are consenting adults. What does bother me is that Joseph and Brigham Young would both send men on missions to build the church and, while they were away, make their spouse a plural wife. Even worse, we come back to the secrecy. Not simple failure or neglect to reveal the facts, there was a concerted effort to obfuscate the truth. He would say publicly, in May 1844, when he already had 30 wives, “What a thing it is for a man to be accused of committing adultery, and having seven wives, when I can only find one.”
Here is a good source of Joseph’s carefully worded denials over the years.
To me, the creme de la creme is the story of Joseph fleeing an absent pursuit, involves his relationship with Sarah Ann Whitney. The incriminating letter Joseph wrote to her and her parents highlight both his guilty conscious in the attempts to conceal as well as his intentions with at least some of these women. It was not merely dynastic.
Dear, and Beloved, Brother and Sister, Whitney, and &c.—
I take this oppertunity to communi[c]ate, some of my feelings, privetely at this time, which I want you three Eternaly to keep in your own bosams; for my feelings are so strong for you since what has pased lately between us, that the time of my abscence from you seems so long, and dreary, that it seems, as if I could not live long in this way: and <if you> three would come and see me in this my lonely retreat, it would afford me great relief, of mind, if those with whom I am alied, do love me; now is the time to afford me succour, in the days of exile, for you know I foretold you of these things. I am now at Carlos Graingers, Just back of Brother Hyrams farm, it is only one mile from town, the nights are very pleasant indeed, all three of you come <can> come and See me in the fore part of the night, let Brother Whitney come a little a head, and nock at the south East corner of the house at <the> window; it is next to the cornfield, I have a room inti=rely by myself, the whole matter can be attended to with most perfect safty, I <know> it is the will of God that you should comfort <me> now in this time of affliction, or not at[ta]l now is the time or never, but I hav[e] no kneed of saying any such thing, to you, for I know the goodness of your hearts, and that you will do the will of the Lord, when it is made known to you; the only thing to be careful of; is to find out when Emma comes then you cannot be safe, but when she is not here, there is the most perfect safty: only be careful to escape observation, as much as possible, I know it is a heroick undertakeing; but so much the greater frendship, and the more Joy, when I see you I <will> tell you all my plans, I cannot write them on paper, burn this letter as soon as you read it; keep all locked up in your breasts, my life depends upon it. one thing I want to see you for is <to> git the fulness of my blessings sealed upon our heads, &c. you wi will pardon me for my earnest=ness on <this subject> when you consider how lonesome I must be, your good feelings know how to <make> every allowance for me, I close my letter, I think Emma wont come tonight if she dont dont fail to come to night. I subscribe myself your most obedient, <and> affectionate, companion, and friend.
Why would Joseph care so much about keeping a home teaching visit from his wife?
So, what makes a man a good man? Believer’s and apologists say that Joseph didn’t lie because his “sealings” were not the same thing as having wives. Yet, these same individuals wouldn’t have that double-speak in any other context from any other human being outside of the LDS church leadership.
The simple analysis is that, for a believer, what qualifies a man as a good man simply comes from his active membership in the right church. That’s it. That’s all that matters. Even if he says what you’d rather not hear, if he claims membership you agree with, that’s enough to invest your life into. Even actions don’t matter after that. I mean, is that what the “second anointing is all about?” He could murder someone in the street and you’d still vote for him.
It’s not just Mormons. A stark example comes from a video oft posted on the web. An Islamic cleric of some degree (I plead ignorance of their hierarchical structure) claims that the man who does not pray is a more vile sinner in God’s eyes than the man who murders or, even, the man who rapes children. I’m certain he does not speak for all Muslims, but he does demonstrate the odds we face as a species. Goodness is determined by your profession of faith, not how you treat others. Just read a book about the Presidency of Donald Trump. See how the evangelicals flock to his banner. Mormons, too.
For Mormon young women, there is immense pressure to marry a returned missionary. That’s the overwhelmingly important criteria for a suitable partner. A kind, hard-working, respectful man without the name tag is, at best, a risky proposition. Other things may be overlooked or, at the very least, the man can be reformed or improved if he’s done his two years proselyting.
When that is the kind of man you consider “good” and the example a good man should follow? The Doctrine and Covenants declares Joseph’s “the best blood of the nineteenth century.” Either that statement is scripture to you, or it is not. Also said, “He lived great and he died great.” Does that include his treatment of women and their husbands? Yes, it does. We’ve had this conversation.
How can a non-Mormon, especially an apostate defector, ever be good enough for you? How can he or she measure up to that? Your standard allows debauchers, manipulators, and purgers to be counted as good in the face of their actions simply by their affirmation of a shared faith. There is no objective standard one could reach because it is capricious. It is based on feelings alone that ignore repulsion or categorize it carefully. Believers are conditioned to think that when they encounter “troubling” information that the unease or repulsion they experience is not because of what they are told but because they are losing the Holy Ghost who testifies of truth.
“I don’t like what you said, it makes me feel bad. Therefore you must be lying to me.”
As an unbeliever, one would make you uneasy. They would be a hindrance to you feeling the spirit. Thus, that individual must be wicked. Certainly he cannot possibly be a good man.
Our challenge becomes avoiding Mr. Carton’s fate: resigned to ourselves, letting the situation eat us away. We have made a horrible but necessary decision to leave the faith of our youth. We’ve chosen our integrity over propping up a corrupt institution that pads its coffers on promises made to the destitute. We’ve learned that being perfect according to dogmatic definitions, is neither sufficient nor is it necessary to being good. Thank you Mr. Steinbeck.
And to be overly dramatic and even sensational, in freeing ourselves from the mind-forged prison of piety, we, like the Mr. Carton later in A Tale of Two Cities, we can feel for ourselves that “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”