The Mormon church’s renovated history museum that recently reopened features a small and surprising display about an uncomfortable part of the faith’s history that for generations has been glossed over: polygamy.
The display is tucked inside a modern, revamped museum that tells the story of how the church was founded and formed in the eastern U.S. from 1820-1846 before Mormons trekked across the country to settle in Utah. Inside a special theater with a 220-degree screen, visitors can watch a theatrical dramatization of founder Joseph Smith’s much-dissected visit from God and Jesus in 1820 in the woods of upstate New York that led to the foundation of the religion.
The decision by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to provide more details about what is known as this “first vision” and acknowledge the early days of polygamy — a practice that has been outlawed by the mainstream church since 1890 — marks the latest illustration of the religion’s push for transparency over secrecy when it comes to its history and beliefs, religious scholars said.
“The fact that this is going to be deeply embedded in this kind of official narrative at the church’s signature museum is significant,” said Patrick Mason, associate professor of religion at Claremont Graduate University in California and Howard W. Hunter chair of Mormon studies. “This is where Mormons take their kids. This is where Mormon youth groups go.”
The museum is in downtown Salt Lake City near the religion’s much-visited flagship temple, where thousands of out-of-town visitors and Mormons from all over the world come to visit. The exhibit, now open, was closed one year for renovations.
At a ribbon-cutting ceremony, Mormon leader Jeffrey R. Holland said the first museum revamp since 1984 shows the religion’s commitment to documenting and honoring the faith’s history. He said many Latter-day Saints will have a spiritual experience seeing artifacts that include clothes worn by Smith’s brother Hyrum Smith when the two were killed by a mob in 1844.
Holland said the polygamy display was included because “plural marriage was a fact of life for the early Mormon church.”
“It wouldn’t be much history in this church if that were not acknowledged,” said Holland, a member of the faith’s governing body called the Quorum of the Twelve. “It’s not a principal part of the exhibit, but we acknowledge that was a fact for some years in the church.”
The reopening comes nearly a year after the church published an essay documenting that Smith had a teenage bride and was married to other men’s wives during the faith’s early polygamous days. That online article was the first time the Salt Lake City-based religion had officially acknowledged facts long documented by historians, though it also had not denied them.
The church has also published articles in recent years about other sensitive topics: sacred undergarments worn by devout members; a past ban on black men in the lay clergy; and the misconception that Mormons are taught they will get their own planet in the afterlife.
Early this year, the church published pictures for the first time of a small sacred stone it believes Smith used to help translate a story that became the basis of the religion. Those pictures are now on display in the museum.
The polygamy exhibit features the headline “A Test of Faith: The Saints and Plural Marriage” above an interactive touch screen with stories of men and women who practiced polygamy. Embedded in the wall is Smith’s handwritten account of a revelation he received from God to practice polygamy. It has never been displayed before, museum director Alan Johnson said.
The polygamy display sits in the museum near a cloak worn by Smith and artifacts from the religion’s first temple.
“We’re following in the style of church history department’s recent years in trying to be open and transparent about questions that people have about the church,” Johnson said.
The exhibit doesn’t include a list of Smith’s wives or details of his polygamous practices, but the touch screen provides information about where to find a link to last year’s essay with that information.
The church issued a manifesto banning polygamy in 1890, with then-church president Wilford Woodruff citing a revelation from God. It came after the Utah territory had been denied statehood by the federal government repeatedly in the previous decades because of Mormons’ practice of polygamy. In 1896, Utah was finally granted statehood.
The polygamy display may rattle some longtime church members who came of age during a time when the religion downplayed this sensitive part of its history, said Terryl Givens, professor of literature and religion and the James Bostwick chair of English at the University of Richmond.
That reaction can be attributed to efforts by church leaders and rank-and-file Mormons to find acceptance in a mainstream culture where outsiders often used that polygamous history to cast Latter-day Saints as outsiders with strange beliefs, Givens said.
Mormons also have to deal with outsiders who mistakenly believe that splinter sects that still practice polygamy like Warren Jeffs’ group on the Utah-Arizona are mainstream Mormons.
It used to be possible to tour all the Mormon historic sites in Salt Lake City without ever hearing or reading the word polygamy, Givens said.
“That opposition seared itself into the consciousness of Mormons,” Givens said. “It’s only natural they would have downplayed the polygamous party of their history. But it’s a new day, and there’s no longer any doubt about the church’s sincerity in making their history transparent.”