Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Wikipedia Features Plural Marriage

Happened to glance over the main page of Wikipedia last night and found this gem in the "On This Day" section:

1843Joseph Smith, Jr., founder of the Latter Day Saint movement, allegedly received a revelation wherein Christ proclaimed that anyone who rejects plural marriage will suffer damnation.

A part of me was a bit surprised. I know anyone can edit Wikipedia, but I expected the main page to have a little more class than, say, the kids in my seventh grade classes. A part of me was not at all surprised: Mormonism is in a blind spot as far as most people's sensitivity sensors are concerned. Most Americans can easily recognize that saying "1750 BCE -- Abraham purportedly received a revelation wherein the god El ordered the mutilation of all male genitalia" is both inaccurate and offensive, but won't blink about language involving Mormonism no matter how sensationalized or biased.

Since anyone can weigh in on Wikipedia, though, I decided not to let it just stand. I have no idea how to edit the main page directly, but there a "discussion" tab behind every page, and discussing is one of the things I do best. As it turns out, there's a section of the Main Page's discussion page specifically to errors in the "On This Day" page.

Using a neutral tone, I pointed out three problems with headline:
1) The use of "allegedly" is not consistent with Wikipedia's religious reporting on other areas (I referenced the Ten Commandments article as evidence: no "Moses allegedly received" phrasing there).
2) The phrase "anyone who rejects" is not consistent with the revelation (see D&C 132:3), which clearly limits any warnings to those who have "this law revealed unto them": i.e. people who have a direct experience with God on the subject, not just "anyone."
3) Hyperlinking "damnation" to the Wikipedia article of the same name is misleading, since Joseph Smith's views on damnation by 1843 were far different than the generic Christian, Muslim, and Jewish views given in that article.

I recommended a rephrasing that would get rid of the "allegedly" and the sensationalizing "damnation" bit altogether. I figured that letting someone neutral make the actual change would have the added benefit of avoiding a direct confrontation with whatever editor--probably far more experienced than me in working with Wikipedia--who had made the initial headline.

I went to bed.

When I woke up, the new headline was this:

1843Joseph Smith, Jr., founder of the Latter Day Saint movement, proclaimed a revelation recommending polygamy.

From a historical perspective, there's still a bit of a problem: "proclaimed" is hardly what happened in 1843. And the verb "recommending" could probably be improved on. But it's pretty much impossible to capture an event (actions in context) through a headline (words out of context) no matter what the subject, so I'm willing to cut the writer a lot of slack. The overt bias is gone, and that's good enough. I don't expect anyone to get everything right; I'll settle for some basic politeness.

An interesting side note--one of the responses on the discussion page to my criticism of the initial line was this:

"I think you make a couple of good points there. However, rewording the hook as you suggest to avoid them makes it very bland, and hardly worth having on the front page. I'm tempted to swap the hook for one of the other eligible unused ones (e.g. the 1862 Medal of Honor hook, and that's an FA) - any other thoughts?"

I had to smile when I read that. If you take out the sensationalism, the revelation on plural marriage seems hardly worth featuring for a broad internet audience. Since plural marriage is not practiced by something like 99.6% of people today who believe in Joseph Smith as a prophet, I don't think it would have been a bad call to swap it out for something else. But I'm also OK with the final form it took on the "On This Day" page.

Besides which, it was fun to see my influence on the front page of Wikipedia.


  1. For what it's worth, the archived page still has the old verbiage.

  2. James, you rock my world.

  3. Ben: I think I fixed the archived page.

    Scott: thanks. Someday I'd like to look up other LDS-related Wikipedia pages and try to make them better. My guess is that there's a great need for good Mormons who know how to write in a neutral, documented way to help make sure things are explained fairly.

  4. .

    Happily, there are many engaged in that task. But more help is always appreciated.



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