Review: Revelation, Resistance, and Mormon Polygamy

Merina Smith’s Revelation, Resistance, and Mormon Polygamy: The Introduction and Implementation of the Principle, 1830-1853 (USU Press, 2013) does a very nice job summarizing scholarship on the LDS practice of polygamy during Joseph Smith’s lifetime and for the decade following his death. The focus of the narrative (which is based on the author’s recent PhD dissertation) is on the development of a theological narrative to support and justify the early practice of LDS polygamy. The author makes the point that a convincing theological narrative or justification was a necessary prerequisite for the acceptance and practice of polygamy by Joseph’s associates and of course by the women who participated. Later the practice was broadened to a much larger percentage of the membership of the Church. And this is a key point: it took years for Joseph to develop that theological narrative and to get others to accept that theology. This book tells that interesting story.

Here is the author’s summary of that process.

In practical terms, it was possible to integrate polygamy into the Mormon marriage culture for three reasons: first, because Mormons were able to assert control over domestic relations by resacralizing marriage in the 1830s and assuming for themselves the power to say which marriages were valid; second, because as Mormon theology developed, family and polygamy became connected to salvation; and third, because polygamy was implemented into Mormon society through secret practice. (p. 8)

There is far too much material to adequately summarize, and the book itself is often something of a review or summary of the existing scholarship on the topic. So I will just quickly highlight a few of the better points covered in the first half of the book.

  • Practice drove the theology as much as the reverse: “Theology and practice came to have a kind of contingent and symbiotic relationship in which the two grew together: resistance spurred an already-developing theology, which in turn provided support for the practice of polygamy” (p. 55).
  • The death of Joseph Smith, Sr., as a key transition: “The heady days after the approval of the Nauvoo charter were followed by the death of Joseph Smith’s beloved father, Joseph Smith Sr., in 1840. It is quite possible that this loss had two effects on the son — it impressed on him the importance of eternal family connections, but perhaps it also removed an obstacle to polygamy, for most members of the Smith family were initially firmly opposed to it” (p. 65).
  • The Book of Abraham and Freemasonry helped, in 1842, to lay a foundation for polygamy, Abraham being “well known as a polygamist” and Freemasonry “helped lend a sense of moral rightness to secrecy …” (p. 91, 92).
  • Rumors, scandal, and the exploits of John C. Bennett roiled Nauvoo in 1842. To publicly acknowledge the practice would have had dire consequences for the Church, but continuing the secrecy was almost as bad. “The evils of continued secret practice, however, were also very great. The damage from rampant rumors and from the growing resistance of some informed leaders high in the church’s hierarchy was gradually tearing the church and the city apart” (p. 128).
  • The review of how William Clayton was brought into the practice showed “the close connection between polygamy and priesthood” (p. 143). But as the theology developed, everything became linked to polygamy: the endowment, second anointing, the Quorum of the Anointed, salvation and exaltation (p. 165-68). The practice of polygamy was like a black hole that sucked in every developing LDS doctrine.

The second half of the book covers events and developments less familiar to many readers. Chapter 5 reviews how Joseph’s presidential candidacy, combined with continued internal resistance which eventually led to the printing of the Nauvoo Expositor, led to his murder; and how the King Follett discourse (which “completed the theological narrative undergirding polygamy”) contributed to the continuation and expansion of polygamy after Joseph’s death. Chapter 6 examines the succession crisis, which was messier than is generally depicted, and polygamy, which was still part of “secret Nauvoo” rather than “public Nauvoo.” The future of polygamy turned on the succession. Short story: the secret polygamists won the battle, then migrated themselves and those who unwittingly followed them (not necessarily aware they were voting for polygamy with their feet) to Utah; dedicated monogamists stayed behind.

Chapter 7 looks at how polygamy continued to evolve as the Twelve and a good chunk of the Saints exited Nauvoo and, over several years, relocated to the West. It was a mess, as the practice became gradually more public, as secret polygamists and their wives were scattered across hundreds of miles of trails and camps, and as leaders lost contact with Mormons scattered along the trails and consequently could not easily manage or direct them. There were no accepted rules or customs to govern the cultural and social practice of Mormon polygamy; these only evolved over the years as the practice became more widespread and more public. The author looks at John D. Lee’s difficult experience in some detail. He took his first polygamous wife in early 1845 (p. 201). By the time he got to Winter Quarters in 1846, he had ten wives, and added four more while living there. Difficulties, unhappiness all around, several wives left John D. Lee, and suddenly divorce was casually granted on request, a contrast to Joseph’s refusal to grant divorces for “eternal” sealings.

In conclusion, I will add a few of my own comments. It is worth noting that post-Nauvoo but pre-Utah (and pre-1852 public announcement) polygamy doesn’t get much discussion in most treatments of polygamy, which tend to focus on Joseph Smith and Nauvoo or on the flowering of the practice in later Utah under Brigham Young and his successors. So the last part of the book is a real contribution. It also reinforces the author’s point, made at several places in the book, that the theology and the practice of polygamy developed in tandem, at times rather haphazardly. It simply was not the case that polygamy was first revealed, then slowly implemented. So many explanations and justifications were variously offered that they each begin to lose particular credibility. The practice developed its own momentum. Over time, it seems the justifications became largely irrelevant to the practice. “In Utah the theological narrative continued to evolve and develop” (p. 246). It’s still developing.

9 comments for “Review: Revelation, Resistance, and Mormon Polygamy

  1. FarSide
    June 10, 2015 at 1:43 pm

    Dave, thanks for this review. And just in time for Father’s Day! I’ll put this book on my Amazon “wish list.”

  2. June 10, 2015 at 1:53 pm

    Yeah, the book’s been out about two years but hasn’t been noticed much. It is about as neutral an approach to the controversial polygamy topic as I have seen.

  3. Clark Goble
    June 10, 2015 at 2:19 pm

    I’ve seen others over at JI mention the significance of Joseph Smith Sr’s death as well.

  4. Old Man
    June 10, 2015 at 11:31 pm

    I haven’t read this one yet. But I already find one issue possibly problematic. John D. Lee makes for a goofy case study. A true zealot, Lee always seemed to magnify any concept or principal to its most extreme state. He had to be reined in on adoptions and he (with a few others) obviously should have been reined in on plural marriage. Did the author effectively handle the analysis of this zealot?

  5. June 11, 2015 at 7:17 am

    OM, I guess you’ll have to read the book yourself to make that judgment. If you really think that John D. Lee was “a true zealot” and therefore should not have been entrusted with the permission to practice plural marriage or with power and authority within the Church such as being made a member of the Council of Fifty, then your question probably ought to be why Brigham Young gave him such trust and power in the first place.

  6. Fred
    June 11, 2015 at 10:09 am

    It’s seems that polygamy will never be justified adequately, theologically, because it was always something other than what some wished it was.

  7. June 11, 2015 at 10:09 am

    Was there any mention of treatment of the “strikers” in this book?

  8. June 11, 2015 at 11:29 am

    Frank, some discussion, which I summarized above with: “Rumors, scandal, and the exploits of John C. Bennett roiled Nauvoo in 1842.”

    For a bit more discussion on the topic, see this earlier post at Millennial Star:

  9. Pacumeni
    June 11, 2015 at 6:44 pm

    I read the book and thought it handled John D. Lee and others well. One of the main things it points out is that there was no ready model of how life should be conducted in a polygamous family. Lacking clear guidelines (and the initial secrecy certainly exacerbated the problem of paucity of successful models), each family had to work things out on their own. The structure of Lee’s family reflected his personality (and those of his wives) as did the structure of John Solomon Fullmer’s family and the other families discussed. Some folks did polygamy well, others badly. It wasn’t easy for any of them.

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