Church members and leaders enjoy the refrain that we can’t judge Joseph Smith (and other church leaders) by modern standards. Nobody today should criticize them for living according to the cultural norms of the day. People thought and did things differently back then.
This expands beyond Mormon church leaders into politics etc. There are many who want to say since slavery and racism were so common back then, that we can’t judge anyone for exhibiting racist attitudes or comments. We would like to forget that people like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson while being founding fathers of America, were also slave owners.
Similarly, Joseph Smith is the founder of the LDS church, yet he also secretly married dozens of women and girls. He married women who were already married, while their husbands were serving missions-missions that Joseph himself sent them on. We’re told that marrying was much more common in those days, and we can’t judge him by the standard we have today…
But was it? And even if it was, what was the age difference in these marriages? And were these marriages secretive? Were these marriages polygamous? Were angels with flaming swords involved?
Also, we can’t forget that it wasn’t THAT normal back then. If it was, why would Joseph have kept these things so secret (not sacred), and why was he so threatened by the Nauvoo Expositor printing the things he did? Why would he destroy the printing press for peace, if what they said was normal behavior for the day? Was he behaving like a “man of his times“? Did anyone else do this sort of thing? Why would the people have mobbed him and killed him if they had no qualms with what he was doing?
These statements deflect from the real issues. They deflect that polygamy was NOT common. There is nowhere that had religiously sanctioned polygamy to the level of the early Mormon church. First, it was secretive and exploitative, later it was simply exploitative. Consider this family portrait of Joseph F Smith showing off his 5 wives and forty-eight children. This was after his first wife became disenchanted with plural marriage and divorced him. This was not normal anywhere but in Utah.
The argument that we can’t judge early church leaders by today’s social norms because they were simply men of their times and living according to their own culture of the day is also flawed in that leaders are supposed to be led by God, not social norms. We can’t have it both ways. Are they led by God or social norms?
If it’s social norms why are they against same-sex marriage today? Same-sex marriage is so much more culturally normal today than polygamy, polyandry, or older men marrying teenage girls ever was in the 1830s and 1840s when Joseph Smith was doing it, or throughout the rest of the 1800s and into the 1900s when prominent church leaders were collecting wives.
If God leads them, then we totally should judge their behavior by right and wrong. Right and wrong to an extent are social norms too. Some may retort that God’s ways are not our ways and his “right and wrong” are beyond our comprehension… but there were plenty of people in their day who were against polygamy, and against slavery for that matter because they thought it was wrong. If apologists want to argue today that God supports plural marriage and the racism of Brigham Young, then he’s no God of mine, or at least no God worth any sort of worship.