“A more honest, less defensive history”: The Courage of W Wallace Smith, Robert B. Flanders, and Richard P. Howard

Recording by Mrs Watcher

To begin this series we shall consider the astounding faith, knowledge, courage and integrity of the above three people in their involvement that ultimately resulted in the making of an institutional decision that rocked the very foundations of the faith tradition they loved and had believed in.

We shall also revisit the true origins of the RLDS Church and show how the original leaders of the movement testified that Joseph Smith was the true originator of Mormon Polygamy.

Along the way, we shall make note of the ultimate testimony that puts this matter to rest; the testimony of prophecy.

The three men shown above, and several others were involved in the making a calculated decision that had catastrophic consequences on the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints.

Their decision had to do with admitting that a foundational historic claim of their faith tradition was wrong. Their faith tradition had taught them that Brigham Young was the originator of Mormon polygamy, not Joseph Smith.

However, we will observe historical documentation to show that the true foundational leaders of the RLDS church never considered Brigham Young to be the originator of Mormon polygamy. They knew from their own personal involvement with Joseph Smith that he was the instigator.

This story begins with the remarkable desire of a core number of people to challenge the deeply embedded belief within an institution, causing the institution to fragment.

Once the evidence was so great that they could no longer deny it, they did the right thing.

They told the truth.

The courage of leaders and historians within the RLDS Church to reverse the historical claims of the institution despite the inevitable fractures that would be caused by making such a public admission is a remarkable and painful one.

To fully understand the truth behind the confusing and messy historical narrative, one must understand the prophetic context provided in ancient scripture.

My Own Curiosity About the Controversy

As a young curious and impressionable boy, I would often peruse the LDS books on my father’s bookshelf. It was during those early years that I acquired a real curiosity about prophecy as I borrowed and read “Prophecy Key to the Future” by Duane Crowther.

Another one of the many books that caught my attention was a pamphlet documenting a written exchange between one of the Smiths’ of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints and his cousin who was a leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints.

The debate between these two cousins was on whether or not Joseph Smith was the instigator of polygamy.

Although I was not nearly as fascinated with history as I was with prophecy, I found the topic of polygamy and the spiritual wife doctrine fascinating.

I would eventually realize that religious history cannot be fully understood until viewed through the eyes of prophecy.

Many years later I was shocked when the RLDS Church changed it’s position on the polygamy issue and changed it’s name to the Community of Christ. It seemed like they morphed into a protestant church instead of a restoration church, almost overnight.

I remember how some of their main-streamers left the church at that time, unwilling to give up their core beliefs

Meeting a Future Apostle in Nauvoo

Several years ago during one of my pilgrimages to Nauvoo, I had the opportunity to meet with one of the Community of Christ historical site administrators who is also one of their historians. Little did I know at that time that he was soon to be made an apostle of the Community of Christ Church.

I quizzed him about several historical and doctrinal things related to some of the things I have discovered and written about over the years.

He was kind enough to refer me to some sources that supported some of the beliefs I have about history and doctrine.

During the conversation he said some very interesting things and I was surprised at how candid he was in acknowledging Joseph Smith’s involvement in polygamy.

One of the things I got from the conversation is that for years, the leaders of the RLDS and LDS church debated back and forth over whether Joseph Smith was really involved in polygamy. He indicated that many years later, when the top historians and officials of the RLDS church could no longer deny the overwhelming flood of evidence that Joseph was involved in it, it really threw their church into an identity crisis, as well as a crisis of faith.

That is largely what ultimately motivated the RLDS church to change its name, take its emphasis off of church history, off of the importance of Joseph Smith and even off of the Book of Mormon; according to some, the Book of Mormon was relegated to a book with good principles in it, that was no longer considered scripture.

Fast forward several years later and I found myself sitting next to and chatting with John Hamer, another high-profile member of the RLDS/Community of Christ who has been a pastor and historian.

He was familiar with my blog and remembered chatting with me in the comments section of his Mormonstories interview. (John Hamer, Mike Quinn, William Shepherd and every other credible LDS historian all agree that Joseph Smith secretly practiced polygamy.)

In my conversation with John Hamer, I asked him if he knew John and Pamela Price and if he was familiar with their research supporting the belief that Joseph smith was not involved in practicing polygamy. This was his response to me about the Prices:

” The Prices are wrong about Joseph and polygamy. They are in the “Josephite” (RLDS) tradition, but they are not in Community of Christ. They are independent “Restorationists” (meaning conservatives who separated from the RLDS Church).

I’m familiar with their arguments; I’ve read their book. Their book is entirely uninformed of the evidence; it’s not actual scholarship; it’s simply a repeat of old pre-scholarly RLDS polemics that have been discredited. I have not personally met them or conversed with them on the topic, although I have been to their book store in Independence.”

“John Hamer is the editor of John Whitmer Books and President of the John Whitmer Historical Association (the Community of Christ’s equivalent of MHA). In Mormon studies, John has produced maps for the LDS Church Historian’s Press, Herald Publishing House, Greg Kofford Books, the Journal of Mormon History, Mormon Historic Studies, the JWHA Journal, and Restoration Studies, among others.”

An Institutional Paradigm Change

Beginning in the 1960’s, an amazing and bold historical paradigm change began to take place among historians and leaders of the RLDS Church. It is referred to by some as the New Mormon History.

Richard P. Howard was one of the first three RLDS historians to join the Mormon History Association (MHA), and he was among the original fifteen founders of the John Whitmer Historical Association (JWHA) on September 18, 1972. He served as president of JWHA in 1985[12] and as president of MHA in 1990–91.[13]

Also among the founders of JWHA was Howard’s assistant in the Church Historian’s Office, W. Grant McMurray. McMurray later became a member of the church’s First Presidency, rising ultimately to become prophet-president of the church.[2]

By the 1960s and 1970s, the traditional RLDS view that Brigham Young rather than Joseph Smith Jr. was the origin of Mormon polygamy had been called into question by scholars of the New Mormon History. In 1965, Robert B. Flanders, a professor of history at Graceland College published Nauvoo: Kingdom on the Mississippi.
Flanders concluded that the traditional RLDS view was incorrect, asserting instead that the practice had indeed originated with Joseph Smith.[14]

In 1977, the First Presidency of the RLDS Church directed Howard to investigate the issue. Several years of careful study led Howard to generally agree with Flanders’ conclusions.

His seminal article on the topic, “The Changing RLDS Response to Mormon Polygamy: A Preliminary Analysis” (1983), opened the door to reassess the church’s official policy.[15] However, as Howard recalled decades later, this study was “heavily edited” and “watered down” at the direction of church leaders and Howard considered its final form to be “a painful compromise.”[16]

Among Howard’s final accomplishments as church historian was the production of The Church through the Years, published in two volumes in 1992 and 1993. Volume 1 was subtitled “RLDS Beginnings to 1860” and Volume 2 was subtitled “The Reorganization Comes of Age, 1860–1992.”

As Howard explains in his introduction, the work resulted from the desire of RLDS prophet-president W. Wallace Smith to have “a more legitimate history of the church” with the goal of producing “a more honest, less defensive history”. (Wiki)

It is apparent that LDS historians had an impact on the views of RLDS historians and leaders in their decision to finally admit the truth publicly about Joseph Smith’s involvement. However, those that know the truth about how the RLDS Church actually began and the history behind it, realize that the real originators of the movement never believed that Joseph Smith was innocent of the practice. They actually provided some of the most compelling testimony that Joseph Smith was the originator of the polygamy/spiritual wife practice.

As we consider the testimony of the real founders of the reorganization and augment their personal testimonies with what anxient prophecy says about Joseph Smith, it will show the grand folly of all of the people who are now jumping on the “Joseph Smith never practiced polygamy” bandwagon.

To be continued..

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