Elder D. Todd Christofferson recently gave this interview to a Reuters reporter. The reporter left his big question for the end. You can read the complete interview here
REUTERS: We have one last question and we raise this because it seems obvious that there is going to be a lot more scrutiny of the church. There is historical evidence that suggests Joseph Smith took a 14-year-old bride, Helen Mar Kimball, when he was 38 years old. In today’s terms, that would make him a pedophile. Does this bother you or other LDS church members?
CHRISTOFFERSON: It would depend on what all the facts were and the context. In those days, of course, was that it was not so uncommon in the society of the time. Today that would be statutory rape. A different standard applies. What I look to, I’m telling you about my personal approach, is: what do I know through study and through prayer concerning Joseph Smith and at root my witness is that he was divinely called. That’s the foundation. Now whatever questions might arise — as to whether he erred or stumbled in a certain matter — throughout his life he wasn’t perfect. We don’t claim perfection in the human being. I don’t know what he was responsible to before — God I don’t know frankly. But as to his prophetic calling, his prophetic mission and what he achieved in that goal, I’m convinced of that. So the fruits of what he accomplished I think are evident.
From a non-LDS perspective, I have to say that this answer is a little creepy. I know that many sincere LDS find satisfaction with it, but I don’t think it really passes mustard outside the LDS circle. If it works for you, great. But you shouldn’t honestly think that this solves the problem for non-LDS.
Fourteen year old girls getting married, may have happened in the 19th Century but it wasn’t common. Even more so, it wasn’t common for a 14 year old to marry a man nearly 3 times her age. And most certainly it was never common for a 14 year old girl to marry a man who already had a wife. So we don’t need to hold Joseph Smith to today’s standards, we can hold him to his own day’s standards. This was a scandalous act no matter how you swing it.
Christofferson, tries to walk a fine line in his answer by saying that this may have been a mistake on Joseph’s part, but his prophetic message and calling are still intact. The problem is, Joseph used his prophetic calling to marry Helen Mar Kimball. You can’t separate the restoration of the priesthood from his practice of polygamy. They both come with the same authority. They are both the fruits of his mission. If you think his plural marriages were a mistake, then you have to say he was abusing his prophetic authority. I don’t think LDS are willing to do this because then it starts the slippery slope of trying to figure out when he was and when he was not abusing his power as Prophet.
Perhaps I’m reading more into Christofferson’s comments than I should. He didn’t actually say that Smith’s marriage to Kimball was a mistake. He just said that Smith erred and wasn’t perfect. If I happen to misconstrue his comments because he happened to be making them in the context of polygamy, perhaps that’s my fault.
There is another response that only on occasion do I hear from LDS: “you have to have the right kind of spiritual eyes to understand it”. There is one word that runs through people’s heads when they hear this from anyone from any new religious movement.(and it starts with a “c”). They may be right, perhaps you do need to have to be given spiritual eyes to understand it, but what I, and others hear is, “you haven’t been brain-washed yet.” I’m glad that this sort of response is beginning to diminish from the LDS apologetic arsenal. If I ever get the hunger to hear it again I’ll call up a Jehovah’s Witness or a Moonie who are still pretty fond of it.