The primary victims of Joseph Smith were his wives. Including his first wife. This is a point that might be argued among those of us who have written on clergy sexual misconduct, but that's how I see it. As opposed to the stories of today, Joseph Smith forced his wife to accept that "celestial marriage" was of God, even though it was illegal, and she was called to stay with him. Historians tell us she was first deceived and later devastated at her fate. She really did not have the choices, though difficult, that wives of perpetrators have today. She had married him without a vow of "in monogamy or polygamy." As with all clergy perpetrators, Smith broke sacred vows to his wife when he accepted what he saw as other sacred vows from God. Not unlike many of the delusions that are fed by clergy perpetrators to their victims today.
Among the many secondary victims were the men and women he persuaded to follow him into polygamy. Yes, some of his victims became perpetrators, as well. The most famous being Brigham Young.
Not that Smith assaulted or molested Young. He did not. Young was such a devoted follower, however, that he felt he could not refuse Smith's direction. Young's pleas, which he recorded in a letter to Smith, ring from the grave as heart-wrenching: "No, I cannot. Ask me to do anything. Ask me to sacrifice my wealth, my fortune. Ask me to be away from my family. But don't ask me to do this."
Finally, he was worn down to the point of accepting what he knew in his heart and soul was wrong. So, in a way, I see him as a victim. In another, I see him as a perpetrator of sexual misconduct, though it is framed as a religious practice and called polygamy.
Listen to Young's acceptance: "I will accept this principle. And it's the first time in my life that I desire the grave. I wish I were dead rather than have to do this." Some would say he had a choice. I believe this question would be up for debate among authorities on religious power. I myself cannot come to a clear-cut answer.
I know for certain, though, that he had more than 50 victims. People may argue that the women had a choice. I don't think so. Young, like Smith, held far too much power for a woman to refuse him in that community! She would have been scorned and treated like an infidel for refusing a prophet!
Both men--unlike Abraham, yet like so many others who were carrying out the command to engage in "celestial marriage"--were quite secretive about this "God-sanctioned" practice of polygamy. Of course, readers of this blog are likely to immediately recognize that secrecy is a hallmark of any abuse--why does one need to hide what is right and good?
Even today, this perpetrator continues to have an immense following. Unlike Abraham, who was following his culture and living within the confines of the law when he participated in polygamy, this man broke the law. This prophet had so much charisma that the town of Nauvoo, Illinois was rivalling Chicago in population, just a few years after the "faith" was born!
Polygamy may have been the straw that broke the camel's back, but it was more than a straw. It was sanctioned by the charismatic prophet, a man that I believe (as many scholars do) had delusions of grandeur. The power that was already his, I dare say because the people had given it to him, didn't just threaten the city of Chicago. It allowed Smith to create a following that continues provide inspiration, intrigue, and scorn for a religion that was actually born during the period of time when fundamentalism, a form of twisted Christianity that still permeates a large portion of our society, sprung up rampantly.
Not that the persecution and violence was an appropriate and moral outcome, however. That's where the story turns more tragic.