Big news report card: Mormon church acknowledges founder Joseph Smith's many wives

Nearly three weeks ago, the Salt Lake Tribune's Godbeat pro Peggy Fletcher Stack reported on a new Mormon essay concerning church founder Joseph Smith taking multiple wives:

A few days after that (right after reporting on Mormon undergarments), The Associated Press jumped on the story: 

But not until this week did The New York Times put the story on its front page with this headline:

It's Official: Mormon Founder Had Many Wives

Apparently, when the Times declares news "official," it becomes much bigger news — because suddenly the story is everywhere.

It's time for another "big news report card," and I'm in a relatively generous mood when it comes to today's grades:

• Associated Press: B-minus.

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Mormon church founder Joseph Smith had a teenage bride and was married to other men's wives during the early days of the faith when polygamy was practiced, a new church essay acknowledges.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints says most of Smith's wives were between 20 and 40 years old. One of them, however, was a 14-year-old girl who was the daughter of Smith's close friends.
The essay posted this week on the church's website marks the first time the Salt Lake City-based religion has officially acknowledged those facts, though it also has not denied them.

Give AP credit for beating other national media to the story. The wire report is straightforward, contains the basic facts and quotes a professor (albeit a retired one) to put the essay in context. However, the story does not quote any actual Mormon by name. And a statement such as this one — presented as a fact — really needs some attribution:

Latter-day Saints began practicing polygamy after Smith received a revelation from God.

• CNN: B-plus.

I'm generally a fan of anything that CNN "Belief Blog" Editor Daniel Burke writes. His stories almost always benefit from depth and nuance, and this one is no exception, including this excellent context:

It's hard to overestimate Smith's importance to Mormons. He is viewed as a larger-than-life prophet who received special revelations from God. The news that he had taken so many wives, including teens and other men's spouses, rocked some members of the faith, according to Mormon blogger Jana Riess.
What's remarkable about the new statement, said Steve Evans, who blogs at By Common Consent, a site that takes an intellectual approach to Mormon history, is that came from the church itself. Twenty years ago, Mormons could be excommunicated for addressing controversial topics like polygamy and the church's former ban on black priests.
But in recent years, with information about Smith's multiple marriages only a Google search away, Mormon church leaders felt pressure to answer questions from the faithful, Evans said. Some Mormons had even left the church after discovering its polygamist past.
"The church is realizing that all of these really controversial topics are being openly discussed on the Internet. So why not put out something that acknowledges the history and tries to get a little bit ahead of it?"

This one line in the CNN report did jump out at me:

As the church's essay notes, Smith also saw his fledgling Mormon movement as a restoration of the "ancient principles" of biblical prophets like Abraham, who practiced plural marriage.

The Mormon essay I read does refer to Abraham. The essay says, "In biblical times, the Lord commanded some of His people to practice plural marriage — the marriage of one man and more than one woman.2" That footnote includes a reference to Genesis 16, where Sarai tells her husband Abram to sleep with her Egyptian slave Hagar to have a baby. But in my Sunday school classes growing up, we were always taught that this was not God's will and that Abraham and Sarah were impatient in not waiting for God's timing to give them a son. At the same time, the Old Testament portrays the practice of polygamy in a negative light, at least some scholars argue. 

New York Times: A.

Religion writer Laurie Goodstein's report was worth the wait. 

Goodstein provides excellent background and quotes a wide variety of sources, including the Mormon church's historian:

Elder Steven E. Snow, the church historian and a member of its senior leadership, said in an interview, “There is so much out there on the Internet that we felt we owed our members a safe place where they could go to get reliable, faith-promoting information that was true about some of these more difficult aspects of our history.
“We need to be truthful, and we need to understand our history,” Elder Snow said. “I believe our history is full of stories of faith and devotion and sacrifice, but these people weren’t perfect.”
The essay on “plural marriage” in the early days of the Mormon movement in Ohio and Illinois says polygamy was commanded by God, revealed to Smith and accepted by him and his followers only very reluctantly. Abraham and other Old Testament patriarchs had multiple wives, and Smith preached that his church was the “restoration” of the early, true Christian church.

• Reuters: D.

Move along, folks. Reuters wrote a brief. Not much to see here. I would make the point that the term "admits" seems rather accusatory. Undoubtedly Reuters doesn't follow AP style. But AP style might be appropriate here:

admit, admitted These words may in some contexts give the erroneous connotation of wrongdoing. A person who acknowledges that he is a recovering alcoholic, for example, is not admitting it. Said is usually sufficient.

Salt Lake Tribune: A-minus.

As always, Stack is on top of the Mormon beat:

Mormon founder Joseph Smith took his first "plural wife," Fanny Alger, in the mid-1830s. He later married many additional women — including young teens and some who already were wed to other men — and introduced the practice of polygamy to select members in the 1840s.
But Smith and his church distinguished between bonds for this life, which included full matrimonial relations, and partnerships that would exist only in eternity — though it was not always clear which type of marriage the LDS prophet was practicing in every case.
These are some of the conclusions in a new Mormon essay, "Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo," added Wednesday morning to one already posted about polygamy in Utah on the website of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
It is one of several articles aimed at helping devout members, skeptical outsiders and even committed critics better understand the sometimes-sticky theological and historical issues surrounding Mormonism. The scholarly postings appear on the LDS Church’s website under the heading "Gospel Topics."

The only reason I didn't give the Tribune an A: I'm a little unclear from its report on the significance of the disclosure concerning Smith's wives.

Among other major news organizations, the Washington Post and NPR also have reported on this story this week. But since they link prominently to other news reports, I'll refrain at this point from grading their work.

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