Sex, Attachment, and the Quest for a Universalist Ethic in Mormonism and Star Wars

SFRA Review, vol. 51, no. 3

Symposium: Mormonism and SF

Sex, Attachment, and the Quest for a Universalist Ethic in Mormonism and Star Wars

Ian McLaughlin


Post-Lucas Star Wars media has continually sought some way around or through the prequel Jedi (Golding 8). Where the original trilogy merely outlined the contours of a nearly vanished religion, the prequels, set during an era of Jedi power, put meat on the bones. While these Jedi still claim to fight for an impartial good, their claim is seemingly undercut by their strict allegiance to the Republic; they were now portrayed as arrogant adjuncts of political power, not rebels or wandering monks. Their tenet of chastity, while arguably implicit in the first trilogy, was drawn out, its oppressiveness dwelt on at length. While Lucasfilm sought to marginalize the prequels entirely in the early days of the Disney acquisition, more recent projects have begun to engage with—and even rewrite—the rich but fraught prequel text, often in ways critical or dismissive of the Jedi Code (Golding 8-10, 194-5; Asher-Perrin). As several announced and in-development projects, such as the High Republic series (prequels to the prequels) and Ahsoka (a live-action television series focusing on Anakin’s former apprentice), deal directly with the Jedi Order, the debate over the Jedi and their controversial doctrine of non-attachment promises to continue for years to come.

This paper argues that the prequels do not condemn their version of the Jedi Code. All the Jedi beliefs and practices in the prequels, from their doctrine of non-attachment to their political entanglements, are structured around meeting the demands of the light side of the Force. In the Star Wars mythos, the Force is an “energy field created by all living things” (A New Hope 34:43-45) and therefore, those who claim to serve it must put aside local commitments and prejudices to protect “all” living things. This is even more true for Force-users who choose to take on a political role as counselors of the Republic, the representative body of all intelligent life. In the prequels’ telling, it is Anakin’s refusal to abide by this universalist ethic, along with the hypocrisy of Jedi leadership in its administration, rather than that ethic itself, that brings about the Republic’s downfall. When the Jedi Code is seen in this light—as a declaration of war against particularity, an attempt to combat the self-serving corruption associated with power—its cohesion as a religious system, as well as its shortcomings, comes into better view.

In fact, the Jedi Code can be helpfully illuminated—in both its appeal and pitfalls, its logic and contradictions—by analogy to another radical and sometimes troubling religious system. Early Mormonism (1830-1844), like the Jedi Order, was designed to build a people of bigger, more encompassing ethical commitments than the familial structures around them allowed for. Mormonism’s founding prophet, Joseph Smith, built a radically communitarian faith by demanding sacrifices from his followers and by offering new spiritual rituals to bind the community together into a single network of the saved (Brown 203-47). Polygyny (alternately referred to as polygamy, plural marriage, or “The Principle”), Smith’s most controversial doctrine, fulfilled both purposes at once: participation required the sacrifice of social propriety, preexisting beliefs about monogamy, and the health of existing marriage relationships (and, for single women, any hope for future monogamous pairings) while offering new rituals of “sealing” that multiplied kinship ties, subsuming family units into the religious community (Brown 239-43). Where the Jedi prohibited attachments, Smith sacralized them.

Unlike the Jedi Order, the Mormon Church has not collapsed: however, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the largest successor organization to Smith’s Church, did retreat from more extreme attempts to turn the marriage relationships towards communitarian ends. From the beginning, Smith’s position as sole messenger of the divine will entailed unequal power dynamics in his own marriage proposals and in his invitations to subordinate male leaders to take additional wives (see Bushman 120-1, 151, 437). It also brought into question his claims to share in his followers’ anguish and sacrifice, since he was the one who introduced The Principle and could effectively dictate the terms by which it was practiced (Bushman 437-9). Ultimately, Smith’s insistence on practicing polygyny drove away some of his closest followers and led to his death at the hands of an angry mob. In a similar way, the extremity of the Jedi Code, and the arrogance of those who administered it, drove away adherents of that Order. In both cases, defections brought near-fatal harm to the organizations.

Understanding the similarities between the Jedi Code and the early Mormon Church—in both belief and practice—helps us understand something of the challenge the prequels pose to current and future Star Wars writers and fans. While the prequel Jedi might not have alighted on the perfect implementation of their ideals, and while Smith almost certainly did not, both took seriously the responsibility to escape the constraints of human (or alien) partiality, as each thought the Force/God demanded. As much as some Star Wars writers seem ready to leave the prequel Jedi behind (Golding 194-5) and/or write attachment into the Jedi code (“The Legacy” 22:32-22:54), Anakin’s fall from grace, the product of his persistent self-centeredness and inability to abandon attachment (in short, his refusal to abide by the Code), invites a more complicated appraisal of the Jedi project.

The Shaping Power of the Universalist Ideal

Near the beginning of Anakin’s guardianship of Padme in Attack of the Clones, he explains Jedi philosophy to her. Over a meal in a spaceship cafeteria, Padme observes that it must be hard to live under the strictures of the Order. Anakin agrees, citing his inability to visit loved ones (presumably an allusion to his mother). “Are you allowed to love?” Padme retorts. “I thought that was forbidden for a Jedi.” Anakin smiles out of the corner of his mouth. “Attachment is forbidden. … Compassion, which I would define as unconditional love, is central to a Jedi’s life. So, you might say … we are encouraged to love” (Clones 35:06-35:46).

This is the most direct rationale for Jedi policy that the trilogy offers. Usefully, Anakin frames the prohibited behavior (attachment) in terms of the positive value from which it would detract (compassion/unconditional love). The most likely meaning of “unconditional” in this context is not that of continuing to love someone despite their transgressions but something more like “universal” or “impartial”: there is no precondition of mutuality or particularity before a Jedi will love or serve. The implication of Anakin’s account is that specific attachments are forbidden because they interfere with a Jedi’s more important (central) attachment to the universe at large. In a conversation with Palpatine, Anakin elaborates on Sith ideology, the mirror of the Jedi Code, explicitly linking selfishness and passion (which in both the original and prequel trilogies is the gateway to the Dark Side): “The Sith rely on their passion for their strength. They think inwards—only about themselves” (Revenge 45:43-45:48).

Even the Jedi’s role as political adjuncts of the Republic fits within the project of impartiality. Because the Force is universal and material—“an energy field created by all living things” (A New Hope 34:43-45) regardless of their moral dessert or the particular will of a divine being—the Jedi must seek the Good of the whole universe. Unlike the Israelites, whom the Old Testament designates God’s chosen people, the Jedi are not justified qua protagonists (see Wright 27-32). In the absence of a personal god who picks favorites, in Star Wars, the Force requires its servants to weigh the interests of all life forms and civilizations equally. The Republic is the only political formation that can plausibly claim to embody the interests of all sentient life, and, therefore, the Force—unlike the Empire, it represents, rather than simply rules, the galaxy. The Republic is as an ideal vehicle for channeling Jedi energies, endowing them with authority and resources through which they can act as “keepers of the peace” (Clones 4:48-4:51) or “guardians of peace and justice” (A New Hope 33:58-34:01). The opening sequence of the trilogy highlights the Jedi role as ambassadors and mediators (The Phantom Menace, 0:00-4:24). The mutually productive relationship between Republic and Jedi only begins to go awry at the end of Attack of the Clones, as the Order allows itself to be co-opted as generals and abandons negotiation with dissenting groups.

Unlike the Jedi, Joseph Smith did not deliberately structure his religious system to root out attachment, but he did seek to disrupt or overpower particularist attachments where they interfered with his radical, all-encompassing communitarian vision. Smith cultivated loyalty to the “Zion” community both by demanding sacrifice and by introducing new rituals that bound the Church together. Of the first tactic, he taught, “A religion that does not require the sacrifice of all things, never has power sufficient to produce the faith necessary unto life and salvation” (Smith 6:7). In its early days, Mormonism was a religion that required a lot of sacrifice. Converts from across the United States, Canada, and England were commanded to pull up roots and “gather”: first to Ohio, then Missouri, then Illinois. Men were called upon to leave their families and serve missions in far-flung places or to assume time-intensive leadership positions (Bushman 254-6). But Smith gave as well as took away, introducing an extensive liturgy of community-building rituals to his followers. Members had their lineage traced to a tribe of Israel in “patriarchal blessings”; baptisms for the dead connected the body of Saints throughout time (Brown 213-8). All this helped forged what Samuel Brown terms Smith’s “Great Chain of Belonging.” The ideal Mormon society was not a collection of isolated nuclear families but a single network of the saved (223-8).

Polygyny functioned on both levels—as a terrible sacrifice that built faith and as a welding link that forged new ties across the community. Smith probably felt called to “restore” Old Testament polygyny in 1831, but due to opposition to his early attempts to implement what he called “The Principle,” he only began to practice it in earnest in the last three years of his life (1841-1844) (Bushman 437). In that time, he married somewhere around 33 women, ranging between 14 and 58 years in age (Compton 1, 3-6). He attempted to keep the practice secret from the world and from most of the Church, but he revealed it to his closest male associates and asked many of them to take on plural wives as well (Van Wagoner 50-55). Due to the secretive and contentious nature of early Mormon polygyny, the sources for it are few and contradictory. While some observers have seen little more to it than sexual predation, others have found in the emerging practice tantalizing hints of a broader theology of community and covenant. For purposes of this paper, I rely primarily on Samuel Morris Brown’s framework from In Heaven As It is On Earth (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2011), supplemented by Richard Bushman’s classic biography of Smith, Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Knopf, 2005). Brown situates polygyny within the context of Smith’s other community-building rituals and his theology of adoption and community. Bushman also emphasizes the communitarian valence of polygyny and speculates that the traditionally posited motives of sex and reproduction were less important to Smith (“He did not lust for women so much as he lusted for kin” [440]). Readers may consult Fawn M. Brodie’s Smith biography No Man Knows My History (New York: Knopf, 1945) or Peter Coviello’s Make Yourselves Gods (Chicago: Univ. of Illinois Press, 2019) for framings more attuned to polygyny’s undeniably sexual aspects.

While it should be noted that women and girls bore the brunt of the cost for Smith’s social experiment—they were the objects that spread familial ties throughout the community (Coviello 94; Van Wagoner 89-101)—the sacrifices required of men also played a role. Men as well as women recounted experiencing extreme psychological and spiritual distress as they considered Smith’s new doctrine. Members of both sexes sacrificed the health of existing marriage relationships, pre-existing beliefs about monogamy, and their social standing in embracing the practice (Van Wagoner 41-49, 89; Bushman 439-41). The universality of sacrifice gave polygyny its power to radically retool the private nature of the marital relationship and turn towards communitarian ends.

Both the self-sacrificial and community-building aspects of polygyny are on display in cases—of which there are about a dozen—where Smith asked women who were already civilly married to marry him in religious ritual. One of these women, Zina Diantha Huntington, accepted the call with her husband Jacob’s acquiescence. He remained faithful to the church, but never stopped pining for Zina. For her part, Zina later told the New York World that polygyny had exposed marital love as a “false sentiment” (qtd. in Brown 243). Similar to Anakin’s formulation of the Jedi Code—eschewing individual ties to preserve universal commitments—faithful Mormons sacrificed particularist ties in order to build loyalty to the cause of Zion. The difference is, where the Jedi avoided attachment, Smith appropriated it. Rather than encouraging celibacy, he subordinated coupling to the cause of Christ. As Brown says: double marriages like Zina’s “served as a strong reminder that marriage was not primarily to protect exclusive pairings but to create a heavenly network of belonging” (243). In crafting his vision of holy community, Smith was influenced by a trend within American Protestantism away from a “theocratic” conception of heaven (oriented around the worship of God) to a “domestic” heaven where God’s followers would continue to associate as a community (205-8). He was also influenced by the idea that unbelievers are spiritually “adopted” when they join the community of God: he expanded the concept in far more literal directions, introducing ritual after ritual to link Saints to each other and even to the 12 tribes of Israel (208-220). Ultimately, his rituals and the Jedi Code served a similar role, placing adherents in an ethically neutral position by creating loyalty to an abstraction—the universal love demanded by God/The Force. As Smith once wrote to his apostles, “a man filled with the love of God, is not content with blessing his family alone but ranges through the world, anxious to bless the whole human family” (qtd. in Brown 240).

“Failed, I have”: Power and Its Abuses

Ultimately, both approaches to reining in the power of particularist attachment failed. The Jedi, and the Republic they served, collapsed. While there were compounding factors—Anakin’s disobedience, Palpatine’s power—the films are clear that the Order, by dint of its arrogance, was complicit in its own destruction. The demise of polygyny is a more complicated story. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the largest successor group to Joseph Smith’s organization, gradually abandoned the practice between 1890 and 1906 under intense pressure from the U.S. government (Van Wagoner 153-63; see also Quinn). However, polygyny as a tool for breaking down romantic attachments—and thus building universal community—failed much earlier, as male leaders reframed the practice as a means of expanding individual patriarchal households. While this framing was latent in Smith’s original revelations and teachings, it did not always predominate in his lifetime (Brown 227, 246). The two systems broke down in similar ways: by driving away adherents with their extreme ethical demands and cultivating self-righteousness and spiritual blindness among the faithful. the faithful.

The Jedi Order failed Anakin because their interpretation of the Code led them to be emotionally unavailable for the turbulent adolescent. Obi-Wan generally kept himself aloof, trying to model the duty-driven, attachment-free style with which his Padawan struggled. In Attack of the Clones, a key driver of Anakin’s courtship of Padme is his master’s refusal to give him the validation and approval he craves (28:14-29:16). By the time of Revenge of the Sith, Palpatine has come to fill this void. Compare Anakin’s relative equanimity in the face of Palpatine’s request to spy on the Jedi Council with his fury at Obi-Wan’s mirror-image request that he spy on Palpatine for the Council. “But that’s treason!” Anakin exclaims, listing his objections in seemingly ascending order of importance, pausing as he gets more honest: “You’re asking me to do something against the Jedi Code. Against the Republic. Against a mentor … and a friend” (38:52-40:15). For Anakin, the abstract goods of the Code and the Republic fall below personal relationships. That Palpatine is spared a similar outburst (see 35:55-36:43) suggests that Obi-Wan is not a mentor or a friend—or at least, far less of either one than the Chancellor. Certainly, Mace Windu, who constantly expresses mistrust of Anakin, is no friend of his (1:08:09-41). The only other prominent member of the Council in the series, Master Yoda, does at least show intermittent compassion for the Chosen One. When Anakin’s mother dies on Tatooine, Yoda feels it all the way from Coruscant: “Young Skywalker is in pain, terrible pain” he tells Windu (Clones 1:21:02-38). However, when Anakin comes to him for advice about his nightmares of losing Padme, Yoda’s ideological rigidity prevents him from saying anything that might be useful to a person who’s strayed as far from the Code as Anakin has. “Train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose,” he offers lamely (Revenge 33:21-34:40).

Just as the Jedi went too far in depriving Anakin of normal friendships within the Jedi Order, Smith’s insistence on polygyny strained his community—already built on ritual and sacrifice—to the breaking point. In the face of intermittent opposition from his first wife, Emma, Smith frequently went around her back to marry other women (Bushman 490-9); in 1843, he dictated a revelation promising God would “destroy” her if she continued to resist (Doctrine and Covenants 132:54). In the same document, Smith warned that all members to whom polygyny was revealed must “abide the law … or be damned” (132:6) and revealed the so-called “Law of Sarah,” which taught that husbands should first seek their first wife’s consent before practicing polygyny—but were free to proceed without consent should their wife refuse (132:61-65; Van Wagoner 83-4). Ultimately, Smith’s refusal to give up polygyny broke the Church apart. By 1844, many members had left the Church over the new doctrine, including some of Smith’s closest advisors (Van Wagoner 31-33); some of them founded a newspaper, The Nauvoo Expositor, to draw attention to the still-clandestine practice (Bushman 539). Smith’s order as Mayor to destroy the paper’s press was one of the largest contributing factors to his imprisonment and assassination (539-46; Van Wagoner 63-71). After his death, the Church split up. Emma refused to follow the largest faction West and her son eventually led a “Reorganized” branch of Mormonism that denied Smith had ever taken additional wives (Van Wagoner 73-7).

Despite his general insistence on polygyny, Smith often demonstrated leniency in face of reluctance or opposition. Belying the harsh rhetoric of his revelation, he rarely issued reprisals when someone refused to accept the doctrine’s divine provenance (Bushman 491). He generally asked participants—prospective wives, their family members, and male leaders—to receive their own spiritual witness. While he promised them great blessings if they complied, he did not punish them if they did not (Bushman 439, 491-3). Several Church members later told versions of the same story: that Smith had asked for their his wives and that they, after a day or three of mental anguish, acquiesced; but, at the last moment, Smith claimed that the proposal was an Abrahamic test of faith and he did not require the claimant’s wife after all (Van Wagoner 41-3). In these stories, told decades after the fact by members advancing a faith-promoting narrative, Smith is portrayed as though he had planned for the interactions to play out that way all along. It seems quite possible that he did not, given that he did marry ten already-married women—that, rather, in these cases, he relented from his original intention after beholding the haggard and distraught state of his friends.

There are signs of similar tactful fudging in the prequels. When Obi-Wan tells Yoda he cannot kill Anakin (“He is like a brother to me”), Yoda responds, not with a lecture on attachment or a command that Obi-Wan “let go of everything [he] fear[s] to lose,” but with a clever reframing of the task. Anakin is already dead, he says. “The boy you trained, gone he is, consumed by Darth Vader” (Revenge 1:37:47-1:38:18). When it comes down to it, Yoda fears that Obi-Wan cannot straightforwardly live by the Code they have both been inculcating in Anakin all along (and, indeed, Obi-Wan subsequently fails to dispatch his former apprentice). Perhaps similar tacit allowances could have been granted to Anakin if he had confessed his love for Padme or his fears for Shmi.

In addition to driving initiates out, leaders in both systems became arrogant and self-centered, falling short of the potential for radical selflessness in their systems (see Coviello 93; Brown 227). Polygyny became more about aggrandizing clannish patriarchal households than merging all saints into a single Household of God. Far from asking top leaders to surrender their one and only spouse, leaders now in the Utah period of polygyny (1847-1906) married many spouses and never gave up any. Through their inflated progeny, they expanded their personal postmortal “kingdoms” until these were supposedly among “the largest” in heaven (Brown 227). While there were some features of Joseph Smith’s original revelation on (and practice of) plural marriage that facilitated this result, perhaps even made it inevitable, a fulsome discussion of the evolution of polygyny over time is beyond the scope of this paper (for further information, see Danes; Ulrich; and Van Wagoner). As polygyny became a more established aspect of Mormon practice and identity, and as the Church left the Midwest and isolated itself from American society in the Mountain West, men were now spared much of the sacrifice of social standing and the wrenching surrender of prior beliefs about monogamy (Van Wagoner 92-93, discussing how plural marriage came to be seen as a “model lifestyle” among Mormons in Utah). Plural marriages continued to adversely impact the health and intensity of individual spousal relationships, however (91-94).

The Jedi became arrogant sitting in their palatial temple towering over the capital city of Coruscant. In one noteworthy instance, their librarian tells Obi-Wan that a planet he has inquired about cannot exist because “If it’s not in our archives, it doesn’t exist” (Clones 34:31-34). The larger example is the Jedi’s inability to perceive events around them–namely, Palpatine’s identity as a Sith (Revenge 1:01:25-54) or the creation of the Clone Army (on the latter, see Clones 57:28-58:55). In a further demonstration of arrogance, they deflect responsibility, blaming the Dark Side for clouding their judgment (4:25-5:08).

Although the Jedi fell short of their high ideals, their behavior is at fault, not the ideals themselves. This is brought home by the implicit foil between the rest of the Jedi and Anakin. Anakin’s short-sighted approach to life is consistently highlighted: in scenario after scenario, he is unable to put the abstract Good over whatever good is immediately in front of him. While on a mission to save the Chancellor, he nearly pulls away to rescue a couple of random Republic fighter pilots; Obi-Wan keeps him on task. To save Obi-Wan on Geonosis, he betrays his mandate to keep Padme safe. On Geonosis, he almost abandons his pursuit of Dooku to tend to an injured Padme; Obi-Wan has to scream “Come to your senses!” at him (Clones 2:03:52-4:06). Finally, to keep Padme safe from his own nightmares, he betrays the Republic and the Jedi. For all the Jedi Order’s flaws, it is Anakin’s failure to abide by the principles of the Code, rather than the Code itself, that precipitates his downfall.

Coda: “Into exile, I must go”

As the Star Wars franchise expands, its new custodians continue to grapple with the complex legacy of the prequel Jedi. Dave Filoni, one of the lead creatives behind the seven-season TV show The Clone Wars (a midquel meant to fill the gap between Episodes II and III) and The Mandalorian (a spin-off set after Return of the Jedi) recently offered a negative interpretation of the Jedi Code. In his reading, Qui-Gon Jinn, a vaguely unorthodox figure in The Phantom Menace, understood something the Jedi Council did not: “Jedi are supposed to actually care and love and that that’s not a bad thing. The rest of the Jedi are so detached and become so political that they’ve really lost their way” (“The Legacy” 22:41-22:45). Charles Soule, author of a novel in the new “High Republic” project (a prequel to the prequels), offered a more nuanced interpretation: “It’s very easy for a Jedi to love … it’s just you have to love without being controlling and love without being afraid of losing somebody” (Soule). Now that Star Wars has lost a “sovereign (re-)writer” in the person of George Lucas and Disney has so far failed to establish the canonicity of its own contributions to the myth, the texts Lucas left behind have taken on new authority, becoming subject to constant reinterpretation as the franchise seeks a way forward (Canavan 277-81).

As the debate over the prequels rages on, this paper offers a couple of fresh considerations. First, impartiality is a key ethical commitment of the light side of the Force. Wildly divergent systems might be thought up to achieve this goal—as varying as polygyny and sexual abstinence—but universalism is the Star Wars ideal. Contrary to Filoni, the prequel Jedi Order does not teach that loving and caring are bad things. It teaches that attachment to specific individuals interferes with the impartial decision-making required of those who serve the Force. In the real world, the rightness or even acceptability of Smith’s ethical experimentation is a subjective question; the literary text of the prequels, however, clearly does not condemn the Jedi Order. For all its flaws, the Order remains on the light side of the Force throughout the series; impulsive, duty-averse, attachment-prone Anakin does not. So long as humans/humanoid aliens—trapped in time and space and sometimes fond of romantic pair-bonding—seek to place themselves in the same ethical position of a disembodied Force or an all-powerful God, strange systems of bodily discipline and sacrifice will crop up to achieve that goal.

No system is immune to abuses of power and corruption. Those at the top will carve out exceptions for themselves and their friends that they refuse to extend to underlings. Some abuses are more objectionable than others (involving teenaged girls in polygyny, for example, or children in the Jedi Order). But so long as a religious system involves certainty in the correctness of one’s convictions and an organizational hierarchy with no internal or external checks, there will always be the possibility for arrogance and abuse. The prequel Jedi had the right ideals; but having the right ideals, even in a space opera, is not the same as being righteous.


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Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher. A House Full of Females: Plural Marriage and Women’s Rights in Early Mormonism, 1835-1870. New York: Knopf, 2017.

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Ian McLaughlin is a second-year student at Brigham Young University Law School. Before selling out, he presented academic papers on Mormonism and evolution at the Mormon History Association and the Neal A. Maxwell Institute’s Summer Seminar on Mormon Culture, and on Irish political culture at a session of the Eighteenth-Century Ireland Society in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Ian is a playwright and novelist, with aspirations of writing the Great Mormon Novel.

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