Polygamy: Public Practice

In my prior post, I looked briefly at the origins of polygamy. Again using documents from B. Carmon Hardy’s Doing the Works of Abraham: Mormon Polygamy: Its Origin, Practice, and Demise (Arthur H. Clark, 2007), I will now look at the public practice of polygamy in early Utah. How did the Saints in Utah explain it to the world and what did visitors to Salt Lake City say about what they observed?

The 1852 Announcement

On August 29, 1852, Orson Pratt delivered an address titled “Celestial Marriage” at a Church conference, the first time the ongoing Mormon practice of polygamy was publicly proclaimed. In the commentary introducing the selection included in the book, Hardy notes that “most who were church members in the Rocky Mountain West, and many who resided elsewhere, had been aware of plural marriage for years.” Nevertheless, the announcement was a turning point for the LDS Church, immediately complicating its relationship with the federal government. Predictably, Elder Pratt invoked freedom of religion:

I think, if I am not mistaken, that the constitution gives the privilege to all the inhabitants of this country, of the free exercise of their religious notions, and the freedom of their faith, and the practice of it. … And should there ever be laws enacted by this government to restrict them from the free exercise of this part of their religion, such laws must be unconstitutional.

Pratt praised the first marriage between Adam and Eve, stating that it was an eternal marriage (it was “celebrated between two immortal beings” and “was eternal in its nature”) and that the object of marriage was to multiply and replenish the earth “and multiply to all ages of eternity.” He noted the promise given to Abraham of a numerous posterity, then asked, “Was he to accomplish it all through one wife? No. Sarah gave a certain woman to him whose name was Hagar ….” And he invoked what we would now call anthropology: “I think there is only about one-fifth of the population of the globe, that believes in the one-wife system, the other four-fifths believe in the doctrine of a plurality of wives. They have had it laid down from time immemorial ….” Pratt then referenced what we now call D&C 132 as “new revelation” that was “given to the Prophet, Seer, and Revelator, Joseph Smith, on the 12th day of July, 1843” and gives this familiar explanation for why plural marriage was put into practice:

[W]hat will become of those individuals who have this law taught unto them in plainness, if they reject it? … I will tell you, they will be damned, saith the Lord God Almighty, in the revelation He has given. Why? Because where much is given, much is required. … This was the word of the Lord to his servant Joseph the prophet himself. With all the knowledge and light he had, he must comply with it, or, says the Lord unto him, you shall be damned; and the same is true in regard to all those who reject these things.

A quick look at the Gospel Topics essay “Plural Marriage and Families in Early Utah” is in order at this point. The main text of the essay entirely omits reference to Elder Pratt’s 1852 address publicly announcing the LDS practice of polygamy. It gives this carefully worded description of events: “In accordance with a revelation to Joseph Smith, the practice of plural marriage — the marriage of one man to two or more women — was instituted among members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the early 1840s. Thereafter, for more than half a century, plural marriage was practiced by some Latter-day Saints.” Later in the essay, this sentence appears: “During the years that plural marriage was publicly taught, all Latter-day Saints were expected to accept the principle as a revelation from God.” A footnote to this later sentence provides the following short explanation: “Plural marriage was first introduced privately to a small group of Church members, which expanded over time. Church leaders publicly announced the practice in 1852.” So if you know the actual sequence of events and look hard enough, you can find it in the essay, but on this significant point the essay seems calculated to bury rather than present a key part of the polygamy narrative.

What Visitors to Salt Lake City Wrote

The following quotations are all taken from Chapter 5 of the book, “Non-Mormons Look at Polygamy.” In 1852, John Williams Gunnison (aka “Captain Gunnison,” a West Point graduate, who perished in an Indian attack near Lake Sevier in 1853) published The Mormons, or, Latter-Day Saints, including this passage about what was known or suspected about the practice of polygamy prior to the 1852 announcement:

The revelation of Joseph on the subject of polygamy has probably never been printed, or publicly circulated. When he declared to the council the revelation, it was made known that he, like the saints of old, David, Solomon, and Jacob, and those He thought faithful, should be privileged to have as many wives as they could manage to take care of …. Immediately rumors were spread that the wives of many of the people were “re-married” to the leaders and high-priests, and subject to them, which they declared to be a slander; and maintain that the relation existing among them is a pure and holy one, and that their doctrine is, that every man shall have one wife, and every woman only one husband, as is laid down in the Book of Covenants by revelation.

Yet they affirm that this allows to the man a plurality, as the phrase is peculiarly worded; — the “only” applying to the female alone. [Emphasis with italics instead provided by quotation marks.]

William Chandless was a teamster who came to Utah with a company of Mormons in 1855. Here is a quotation from his later book about the details of early public practice:

The institutions relating to marriage (regarded from their point of view) are judiciously planned, and tend to mitigate, in some degree, the external evils of the system; but the inequality of the sexes is a doctrine of their religious belief, as well as a rule of life. The husband is regarded as a patriarch, and his family is subject to him as its head: wives are bound to obey their husbands in all things, wrong or right. The husband’s command is accounted their justification, both in this world and the next; he is said to be their “priest and king,” they should not look beyond him …. Every-day life, however, modifies such extreme theories very much in practice. Solomon’s heart, we know, was turned by his wives, and so are those of many less wise than he.

Newspaper editor Horace Greely passed through Salt Lake City in 1859. While there, he interviewed Brigham Young:

Greely: “[I]s the system of your church acceptable to the majority of its women?”
Young: “They could not be more averse to it than I was when it was first revealed to us as the Divine will. I think they generally accept it, as I do, as the will of God.”
Greely: “How general is polygamy among you?”
Young: “I could not say. Some of those present [heads of the Church] have each but one wife; others have more; each determines what is his individual duty.” [bracketed insertion in original]

Jules Remy, a French botanist, visited Salt Lake City in 1855 and authored a two-volume report, noting:

It is an article of faith with them that in the world to which they will go on leaving this one, each man will reign over his children, who will constitute his kingdom; that the more children, the more the glory; and that if they have neither wives nor children upon earth, they will enjoy no glory whatever. … Another necessary consequence is, that the faithful are unduly occupied with the task of getting as many wives as they can.

Finally, the English explorer and adventurer Richard Burton spent three weeks among the Mormons in 1860, then wrote City of the Saints, a memoir of his visit. (See here for a brief and entertaining summary of his visit.) Here is an excerpt on the details of public polygamy:

The first wife, as among polygamists generally, is “the” wife, and assumes the husband’s name and title. Her “plurality” — partners are called sisters — such as sister Anne or sister Blanche — and are the aunts of her children. The first wife is married for time, the others are sealed for eternity. Hence, according to the Mormons, arose the Gentile calumny concerning spiritual wifedom, which they distinctly deny. Girls rarely remain single past sixteen — in England the average marrying age is thirty — and they would be the pity of the community, if they were doomed to a waste of youth so unnatural.

Divorce is rarely obtained by the man who is ashamed to own that he cannot keep his house in order; some, such as the President, would grant it only in case of adultery; wives, however, are allowed to claim it for cruelty, desertion, or neglect. [First use of scare quotes to indicate emphasis by italics in original.]

Rereading the previously linked essay, one notes how much of the text is justification and conclusory statements, and how few descriptions and examples are given. The above quotes provide some of that missing description and detail. For more, you can always read the book.

23 comments for “Polygamy: Public Practice

  1. A somewhat later (1868) but fascinating account of Utah polygamy was that of Olympe Audouard, a French feminist who visited Utah determined to shame her chauvinistic countrymen by proving that their “Mormonism” and “polygamy” (legal protection of philanderers) was more vile than that of the actual Mormon polygamists, who at least acknowledged and cared for their wives and children. She rather liked Brigham Young.

  2. Dave Banack,

    Is there a reason that you point at sources in Hardy’s work? It is a good compilation, but there are other fine works on the subject out there, some of more recent publication and more readily available to the reader. I know that Newell Bringhurst and Brian Hales differ somewhat with Hardy’s analysis. Do you have a beef with their works?

  3. Old Man, I used Hardy’s book because I have a copy in my possession at the moment and because I just read it. Hardy is a trained historian (always an advantage when writing history) and wrote Solemn Covenant (U. of Illinois Press, 1992), a highly regarded treatment of LDS polygamy. I focused on documents in this series of posts — partly because that was his approach in the book, partly because that approach fills in some gaps in the Gospel Topics essays material, and partly because it is the best way to treat a controversial topic in a relatively objective manner.

  4. Dave,

    I appreciate this discussion and I do like Hardy’s work. Thanks for tackling this subject and posting Laura Hales’ response to the OW position. I am thrilled that people are examining this issue and that seminary students are now being introduced to this neglected (by many) chapter of LDS history and doctrine.

  5. Dave,

    I read the Hales article posted above. I’m discouraged. And more than a little upset.

    I can’t get past the notion that the seminary lessons rationalize and justify Joseph’s polygamy. Basically, if I’m reading the lessons right, the thesis is that God commanded Joseph to take many wives, Joseph was “given” women to fulfill the commandment, and Emma was commanded to accept it as God’s will (through Joseph no less). That’s basically it, no? Polygamy was God’s idea and it was difficult, but ultimately required of God. Oh, and God told Joseph to tell Emma that it was God’s idea, not Joseph’s.

    The audience is teenage young men and women. I am absolutely an advocate for presenting honest, straightforward answers to every question for which I know the answer. In my house, I am not squeamish about any topic. Really. It makes other adults in the room uncomfortable. If I don’t know an answer, then I tell them “I don’t know.”

    Now here’s my problem. There is no way in hell I’m going to rationalize or justify to my own daughters how Joseph practiced polygamy. Period. The thought makes me sick. Seriously, what father is going to have another grown man teach his daughters that God gave a bunch of women to Joseph and his wife was commanded to go along with it? Should we teach how polygamy was practiced? You betcha. Should we tell them it was God’s idea? No way.

    There are only two groups on earth teaching teenage girls that God gives women to men (and then God tells the woman through the man that’s it’s really God’s idea): the LDS church and ISIS.

    Anybody else upset about seminary lessons that justify polygamy?

  6. #7 Josh Smith, I stand with you. There is absolutely no way I will rationalize or justify polygamy to my 4 daughters, the oldest of whom is 14. I see a lot of damage control in my future if we choose to remain LDS.

  7. is all of this (church essays, seminary push, fair mormon, etc) the primer to bringing polygamy back? making everyone okay with it, especially our children and youth?

  8. “Anybody else upset about seminary lessons that justify polygamy?”

    Is anyone else upset about seminary lessons that justify calling Joseph Smith a prophet of God? Because whether comfortable with the practice or not (I have my reservations, to be sure) and whether understanding exactly why God would allow the practice or not (also difficult), if you accept Joseph as a prophet, the practice of polygamy was given to the church by Joseph Smith and cannot easily be dismissed. So it is not and cannot be out of bounds for the manuals of the church, in whatever format, to “justify” it.

    It was given, at the time, as a commandment. We aren’t told to live it now and I’m very happy about that, (I have 3 daughters myself), but I’m also happy I haven’t been asked to sacrifice my only son, as Abraham was. That doesn’t make me doubt the Bible or the prophet Abraham. Or the Father, for that matter, who did in fact sacrifice His own Son. Uncomfortable topics, such as polygamy, must be studied, pondered, and prayed about. Vilifying or ignoring that which we do not fully understand risks dismissing or avoiding potential truth, simply because it’s not comfortable for us. That is like damning one’s own spiritual progress, in a sense.

    I almost feel that this topic should only be discussed one on one, in a very sacred environment, to avoid pollution by the world’s ideas and philosophies. Discussing it online usually only results in people sharing their doubts and outright disgust on the topic, which I don’t feel is very useful at all and perhaps is actively harmful. That won’t change what people do, of course, but it is wiser, I feel.

  9. Eric, thank you. It is a relief to not be alone.

    J Town,

    I absolutely appreciate your sentiment. I’ve been LDS for as long as I can remember, and no doubt I’ve said exactly what you’ve said (in my own words) at some point in my life. Trouble is, I became a father of daughters. When I read the new seminary lessons, my still small voice–my trusted still small voice–becomes a blaring alarm. It says, “Josh, this is a very bad thing to teach kids! Trust me Josh. This is a bad idea.”

    Here’s the sticky wicket, as I see it:

    With the youth polygamy lessons (isn’t that what we’re really dealing with here? “Polygamy Is a Good Idea, for Youth”), members are being asked to accept that Joseph’s version of polygamy was commanded of God. My conscience will not allow me to do that. I would literally have to have a brain aneurysm before I would teach my kids that God was behind Joseph’s polygamy ideas.

    I’m not a theologian by any stretch, but it seems to me we have a lot of ways of dealing with things Joseph said. There are books and books that contain basically this sentence, “Joseph said that God said ____________.” We don’t treat all of these statements equally, no? I mean, as LDS don’t we have different methods for dealing with prophets saying “God said ________”?

    We also have David and Solomon. Does it do irreparable damage to your understanding of Joseph Smith to lump his polygamy with David? Kind of a leader-who-went-off-the-reservation interpretation?

    In short, I’m not going to teach my children Joseph’s version of polygamy was from God. Nope. Can’t go there. We need another plan.

  10. I hear what you’re saying Josh, but here’s the thing: It wasn’t just Joseph. It was also Brigham Young and others in the leadership of the church until the manifesto. So did ALL those men go off the reservation? Or is the idea one with some spiritual merit, even if improperly implemented? Those are questions that I think everyone should grapple with, including children. Including my daughters. And let’s be clear that the idea is by no means exclusive to Joseph Smith in scripture. So what scripture are we to ignore now?

    It’s a more dangerous road to travel, in my mind, to instruct our children to ignore “inconvenient” or “hard to understand” scriptural ideas as it is to tell them to just go do whatever they want. Our children should and MUST learn how to consider these ideas and take them to God to find out His will for themselves. The church, our church, accepted the practice of polygamy as from God and binding upon the children of the covenant, at least for the space of a time. To teach our children otherwise is to mislead them.

  11. The only thing I’m comfortable telling my kids about polygamy, is that our pioneer ancestors believed that God commanded it. I also mention that there were many negative consequences which eventually led to the church abandoning the practice. I tell them that I personally don’t believe that God commanded polygamy, but I can understand how my ancestors did believe it, and that they were devoted and committed to follow God.

    Saints have believed many things which we no longer accept as true today. Adam God, blood atonement, racist priesthood doctrine, etc. There will continue to be an evolution of thought on a multitude of church doctrines. We need to be humble enough to realize that greater truth and understanding will come our way and challenge our assumptions and paradigms. There is nothing worth holding up as divinely inspired about the polygamy doctrine. We need to accept it as a mistake and acknowledge that our early church leaders were committed to following what they believed was divinely inspired.

    The church has rejected the teaching that polygamy was a requirement for celestial exaltation, even though that was the original understanding of the principle. Why not just reject polygamy officially in its entirety. President Hinckley seemed to be moving in this direction in his Larry King interview. The Hales are trying to pull us back the other direction and retrench.

  12. I would just like to point out that teaching the youth about polygamy is not new. I was taught about polygamy in my seminary classes over ten years ago. There are two main differences that I can see in what I was taught and what is being taught in the new lesson: 1) They’ve now included Joseph Smith. When I was taught about it, Joseph only had the revelation of D&C 132 but did not practice it, it wasn’t until Brigham Young that they began practicing it. And 2) There is nothing that says plural marriage won’t be brought back. When I was in seminary there were adamant claims that polygamy was over and done with. This lesson seems to be saying that it could come back at any time. I have no problem with the new addition of number 1, I think it is more honest. The addition of 2 scares me a little, like they are prepping the youth for something. Everything else in the lesson was taught over ten years ago in my seminary classes, including that polygamy was a commandment of God and that it was good and happy and righteous for the Saints. I’m not saying this is the best way to teach it, just that it isn’t a change from what was taught “back in my day.”

  13. J Town (#13): “improperly implemented” —

    That’s a piece of language we can do something with. I’m interested in digging into the idea of a prophetic utterance being “improperly implemented.” That might be the ticket for some of us.

    I’m concerned about your second paragraph. No doubt the world becomes a bit more complex when prophets have bad ideas. One might have to consider rewriting some of the primary songs (i.e. “Follow the Prophet”). But, I can’t help thinking that God really wants us to exercise our moral muscles a bit, even if we sometimes have to conclude that a prophet was dead wrong, on some things. My hunch is that people can still live moral, good lives and completely reject a prophet’s teaching on some things. In fact, I think a moral life sometimes requires just such action.

  14. Thanks for the comments, everyone.

    People across the board seem to be grappling with pedagogical questions: What should we teach LDS youth about polygamy? What should LDS adults be taught about polygamy in the curriculum, in Sunday School, or at the pulpit? But logically prior to these important questions is getting the historical narrative right: What actually happened? What are the facts? My sense is that the more one understands about the historical practice of polygamy, the harder it is to come up with an adequate proposal for what to teach the youth or the adults in the Church. Which wasn’t much of a problem when the official LDS position on polygamy was “we don’t talk about that.” But now that the Church is talking (and so is everyone else) it has to face up to the historical questions (the essays are a start but there is a lot left to address) and the pedagogical issues. I just hope the rocky response to the polygamy essays does not dissuade the leadership from continuing the effort.

  15. dave, exactly! as an adult, i’m still not quite clear on polygamy — is it even a doctrine? are we going to be required to live polygamy in the next life or not? who has these answers?

  16. Josh (#7) Think about the audience a little more intently. Many of those seminary students have ancestors who practiced plural marriage. Some of these ancestors were stake presidents, relief society presidents, temple presidents and general authorities from the 19th and early 20th centuries. You are now their seminary teacher and you are discussing D&C 132 and plural marriage. How are you going to handle it? I don’t think disavowing the faith and testimony of student’s ancestor in a revelation from a prophet is going to get us very far.

    Have any of the above commentators who claim that plural marriage was NOT commanded by God really thought through the ramifications of their positions? Joseph, Brigham and many others taught that plural marriage was of God. Many of the truly great men and women in LDS history had a testimony of it, with some admitting the extraordinary difficulties involved in the practice. Plural marriage is intricately connected with celestial/eternal marriage. The revelations for the two are intertwined. I see no rational method for disavowing one without destroying the other. You can create a Mormonism without a history of God-sanctioned plural marriage if you wish, but you cannot be faithful to the figures of the past, nor can you really keep faith in prophecy, eternal marriage and temple ordinances intact.

    I view plural marriage as an Abrahamic sacrifice. I am thrilled I don’t have to live it. Honestly, most men are. Teaching teens and adults about sealings for eternity, sealings for time and eternity and plural marriage is NOT going to increase child or spousal abuse. Given Joseph Smith’s teachings on chastity and the treatment of women, the history of plural marriage only makes sense in a theological context. Joseph taught that sealings are vehicles for exaltation. In protecting the youth, we have a ready-made comparison to discuss, the comparison between plural marriage and John C. Bennett’s spiritual wifery. I hope that further discussions also include references to Brian Hales (especially his third volume) and Newell Bringhurst. Their work and ideas are a necessary addition to Hardy’s work.

  17. Dave,

    I’m sorry to have distracted from the original post. Honestly, the link in #5 is the first time I read the seminary lessons. I tried to post in the comment section there, and my comment was deleted. So, I’m afraid my full disdain was posted here.

    My position is simply that I’m one guy in Idaho who is unwilling to rationalize or justify D&C 132. And, I’m willing to stand up and say as much, for what it’s worth.

    I’ve said my fair share on this thread, so I’ll be quiet for the remainder of the discussion and read other’s thoughts.

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