This is a tough one. It’s a war fought in the shadows of the Mormon narrative. Its mere mention has incurred violent rhetoric, snide remarks, and suspicious glances from Saints considered otherwise to be charitable and humane people. Seen alternatively as a lifestyle choice, a biological predisposition, or even an illness, it is a question–for some, a cross–that bears down on the Mormon people in their efforts to define exactly what sexuality means in Mormonism’s grand “plan of happiness.” When figures such as Ty Mansfield and Josh Weed gain increasing prominence as de facto, the Saints must know what to make of the story.
How have the Saints grappled with homosexuality? Obviously, material like this is loaded with sociocultural significance for the Mormon people. I’m not immune to that. Nor would I want to be. No issue of importance presents itself in a vacuum. If we want to address this question in a manner consistent with the Latter-day Saint faith and tradition (and not just off our own evangelical/media infused gut instincts), we needn’t think we are questioning our faith, provided we ask with a “sincere heart” and “real intent.”
The Bennett Scandal
In the early years of the Saints’ settlement in Kirtland, Joseph Smith had experimented with polygamy. It scandalized the community, and the would-be wife disappeared from Mormon history. The incident pushed one of his best men to leave the Church. Joseph shied away from sexual experimentation for several years, fearful that it could divide the Church into factions. The new faith community was not ready–and arguably never would be–for new modes of sexual relationships.
The Mormon people’s first struggle to grapple with homosexuality came under less-than-ideal circumstances. When the Saints left Missouri, they established a city on the banks of the Mississippi; Joseph called it Nauvoo, Hebrew for “beautiful place.” A charismatic bachelor named John C. Bennett swept into the city, promising the Saints that he could help them win a powerful city charter that would grant them the self-determination they craved. But Bennett had a secret. He was bisexual. Beginning in fall 1841, Bennett began to seduce the ladies of Nauvoo, claiming that he had authority from Joseph himself to contract “spiritual marriages.”
Even more, Bennett was almost certainly engaging in homosexual activity with a local 20-something named Francis Higbee. Higbee had a reputation for being a philanderer, having contracted a venereal disease from one of the many prostitutes roaming the Mississippi riverbanks (also, see here). When he called on Joseph to administer to him, Joseph visited the young man, only to find him in a position deemed “too indelicate for the public eye” to see. In open court, Joseph attacked Bennett for his improprieties, giving a lurid description of the couple’s sexual activity. Newspaper editor, John Taylor, described the scene as “so revolting, corrupt, and disgusting…that we feel to dread having anything to do with [its] publication.” Joseph’s brother, William Smith (himself something of a libertine), accused John C. Bennett of “buggery,” a nineteenth-century term for homosexual activity. Bennett’s biographer, Andrew Smith, acknowledged the plausibility of the charge since Bennett never attempted to refute it (Andrew Smith, Saintly Scoundrel, 113). Higbee had been leveling accusations of sexual impropriety against Joseph; the most stunning response Joseph could give was that Higbee himself engaged in the unspeakable act. Whatever Joseph’s alleged sins, he could, at least, tell everyone that whatever his own acts, he was not gay.
Joseph Smith’s Masculinity
Yet Joseph, as with most issues regarding social propriety, could not be cowed by prevailing cultural windows of antebellum masculinity. As a son of rural America, he had likely been raised on a diet of rhetoric about the robustness of manhood and heterosexual norms. Sodomy was a serious offense in Joseph Smith’s Palmyra. In 1820, a man was convicted of it in nearby Canandaigua and sentenced to life in prison (Palmyra Register, June 7, 1820).
While the mature Joseph Smith continued to draw a line at homosexual behavior and certainly enjoyed athletic events, his expanding vision of God’s eternal kingdom instilled in him the capacity to express himself intimately to fellow men. They
responded in kind. As late as 1847, Brigham still yearned for Joseph company: “I feel my weakness [and] my bitterness,” the memories of Joseph’s voice still ringing through his mind. Joseph thought little of male friends spending “l[ying] in the same bed at night locked in each other’s embrace talking of their love.” Though Joseph was certainly talking about the resurrection rather than homoerotic relationships, his willingness to be affectionate with fellow men speaks to his belief in eternal sociability, regardless of gender.
For the next fifty years, the Saints tried to leave behind their entanglement with Bennett. On occasion, a Latter-day Saint would deviate from the heterosexual norm. Almerin Grow was widely-known for his cross-dressing, a preference that prompted Brigham Young to direct his newlywed daughter to move away and “never return (p. 71).”
The polygamy crusades forced the Saints to adopt the prevailing (and, it was believed, sacred) model of monogamy. At the same time, homosexual activity was entering the public eye as an indulgence of the lower-classes. Seeking to burnish their credentials as a moral people, Mormon leaders blasted the “Sodomites,” claiming that their depravity would spread if not contained: “How will these be stopped? Only by the destruction of those who practice them. Why, if a little nest of them were left that were guilty of these things, they would soon corrupt others, as some are being corrupted among us.” Cannon believed that “in coming to these mountains we hoped to find a place where we could live secluded from the abominations of Babylon.” The Saints could only hope that the Lord would “wipe them out,” leaving none “to perpetuate the knowledge of these dreadful practices among the children of men.” This mirrored rhetoric by some of the nation’s leading reformers (George Chauncey, Gay New York, 38)
The Early Mormon Position on Homosexuality
To suggest that Joseph Smith or other leaders “tolerated” homoerotic activity would not tbe consistent with the evidence. Yet Joseph did express a public openness to male affection atypical to men of his background. In Moses 7, Joseph Smith tells/reveals the story of Enoch, a humble young man not known for eloquence. When God commissions him to be a prophet, Enoch resists; surely, he could find someone more appropriate. The Lord insists and shows Enoch a vision of all mankind. Now “high and lifted up,” Enoch’s heart “swell[s] as wide as eternity” as he contemplates the doings of mankind. At an early stage in the life of the Church, Joseph’s account of Enoch reveals his belief in a philos that can cause “all eternity to shake.” Perhaps Joseph felt empowered to express these feelings because no one seriously questioned his masculinity. Perhaps the visions of Enoch had educated him in cultivating godly love. Regardless, Joseph Smith’s vision of interpersonal relationships–including with men–allowed for the possibility of friendship, and affection, in spite of sexual orientation. Gay, straight, or asexual, it’s a vision worth celebrating.
Further reading: Connell O’Donovan, “Crime Against Nature”