Episode 9: Big Love and Mormon Fundamentalist Polygamy Part 1

John DehlinMormon 29 Comments

Today’s episode is on HBO’s “Big Love” and Mormon Fundamentalist polygamy.

Panelists include: John Hamer, Ann Porter, Tom Grover and host John Dehlin.

Extra Readings Referenced in Podcast:

Comments 29

  1. I will listen to the podcast, and read these articles, unfortunately I dont watch Big Love or have HBO ( maybe thats actually fortunately) so I cant comment directly about the show, but after listening to the writers talk about the show and having seen the first episode, I have to say that I think that the writers presonal opinions and lifestyle are definately being reflected on the show, which I presonally dont neccessarily consider a good thing.

  2. Interesting, Andy. Exactly what “presonal [sic] opinions” of the writers do you object to?

    For that matter, what do you actually know about the writers’ “lifestyle,” as you call it? Do you object to what time they set their alarm clocks? Their choice of breakfast cereal? What cars they drive? The location, size, or decor of their homes? A “lifestyle” includes quite a multitude of things, after all. Can you be more specific—and for that mattter, tell us how this aspect of their “lifestyle” is reflected on the show?

  3. I beleive that they have an agenda.

    I’m a writer and have made some small films, so I know that most writers draw from thier personal lives. I aint shocked about that.

    But some writers live one way and tell stories that may or may not have anything to do about them.

    I think these guys have an agenda and those are the types of writers and stories that I dont care for, writers that are trying to get thier point across through thier stories. I think they shouldnt bother trying to disguise it with entertainment, write an essay about their bad childhoods as mormons or being gay…it would be more direct and probably more cathartic anyways.

  4. Andy:

    So you don’t agree with writers on a show you’ve never seen, and you don’t agree with them because they’re gay. Does that sum it up?

    I’d ask you if you make it a blanket rule to reject art by those whose lifestyles you don’t approve of, but you’ve already answered my question when you wrote “those are the types of writers and stories that I dont care for, writers that are trying to get thier point across through thier stories.”

    Not for nothing, but what do you read? As the main point of writing is for a writer to get his point across through stories, refusing to read “those types of writers” leaves you with things like cereal boxes and instruction manuals.

  5. As for Big Love, I missed the first season and am totally addicted to the second one. There are a few things that are “off”: Lois’ southern accent is one of them.

    Another is their “Mormon-speak”. When Bill ordained his son Ben, he said he was conferring upon him the priesthood “in the name of the Messiah”; in nearly 40 years in the church, I never heard of anyone–except John the Baptist–using that phrase. Since fundamentalists are big on proper protocol for ordinations, I doubt they’d use the phrase either. Their use of the term “Holy Spirit” also seems, for lack of a better term, clunky. I’ve always heard Mormons talk about the “Holy Ghost”, or “the Spirit”, but never “Holy Spirit”.

    But those are minor complaints, really, as the rest of the writing and character development seems spot-on.

    Andy shouldn’t worry about the writers’ agenda too much; the only male character that seems to be into other men–Roman’s son Albie– is a creep.

  6. John and the other panelists:

    I just want to post a comment and let you know that I am preparing for my own consumption a large portion of crow. I was a bit critical of the first episode of Mormon Matters. I am listening now to this episode, however, and am absolutely blown away. What a great panel. What a great discussion. I have been studying Mormonism fairly intensely for nearly 20 years (first from an academic, outsiders’ perspective as part of my religious studies curriculum in college, then as an “insider” convert, and now as a “disaffected” member with nominal membership in the church). I have learned in one hour today a host of things I never knew before (one example–that Apostle Richard Lyman’s “adultery” was actually with someone he considered a plural wife; I had read that he had had an “affair” with his secretary).

    The discussion of the 1886 John Taylor revelation and subsequent ordinations, I think it is fair to say that there is at least as much historical evidence to support the argument that the revelation and ordinations actually occurred as there is to support, say, the restoration of the Melchizidek priesthood (at least we have a date for the Taylor revelation and ordinations). As the panelists pointed out, it is a faith claim for the fundamentalists, but it seems to me it requires no greater faith to believe in the Taylor revelation and ordinations than it does to believe in the accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision, the delivery of the gold plates by the angel Moroni (or Nephi in the early accounts), the priesthood restorations, etc.

    I think one reason the revelation had such traction, as Tom observed, is that the revelation simply provided a gloss of additional authority for things that were already being taught, and taught repeatedly and quite forcefully, by the apostles. It wasn’t some new and different thing–rather, it served as an exclamation point on what Brigham Young, John Taylor, Jedediah Grant, Orson Pratt, et al. had been teaching for thirty years, and with increasing fervor in the 1880s. I could (but will spare you) trot out quote after quote from the Journal of Discourses in which the apostles are saying that polygamy will never leave the earth, that the church will not and cannot reject it, that no man can be exalted who does not accept the principle, etc. So, it should come as no surprise that the 1886 revelation would get traction, or that the Manifesto would be met with suspicion and disbelief.

    Anyway, thanks for a great great podcast.

  7. #3:
    You mean there are people who’ve watched Big Love who don’t already know the writers are gay?

    Every writer has an agenda. Otherwise, they wouldn’t write. Also, it would be a rather dull world if writers never used stories to get a point across. I guess that carpenter-turned-rabbi from Nazareth should have followed your advice. Dispense with those “parables!” Just tell it straight, or write it as an essay! It would be more direct!

    Feel free, btw, to tell us all how you think Big Love has some secret “gay agenda.” Especially since you’ve only ever watched one episode. Heck, I’ll even give you a small hint, just to help you out. If you really pay attention to comments here and there, you’ll see the heir apparent to the uber-fundamentalist Colorado City style group’s leadership is a closeted homosexual. And he’s SUCH a positive message about gay men—after all, he’s quite capable of intimidation, blackmail, revenge, etc.! It must be those gay writers promoting their “gay agenda!” LOL!

  8. #6:
    When Bill ordained his son Ben, he said he was conferring upon him the priesthood “in the name of the Messiah”; in nearly 40 years in the church, I never heard of anyone–except John the Baptist–using that phrase. Since fundamentalists are big on proper protocol for ordinations, I doubt they’d use the phrase either.

    Why would fundamentalists who are “big on proper protocol” follow the protocol of the LDS church, which most of them consider to be apostate? It made perfect sense for Bill to use the specific language from the D&C. It was much more in keeping with Mormon Fundamentalism than imitating modern LDS-ism would be.

  9. capt jack: have you had much involvement with Mormon fundamentalists, e.g., FLDS folk from southern Utah, northern Arizona? Many of them have a distinct southern accent, much like Lois.

    I find much of the show to be incredibly accurate with respect to fundamentalist beliefs and traditions, though occasionally the terminology is a bit off ( for example, the characters often say ” have a testimony for something”, whereas we would of course say we “have a testimony of something.”)

  10. BTW, Andy. Are you going to answer my question, and tell me about the writers’ “lifestyle?” You’ve told us that they are writers and that they are partners, but you really haven’t described their “lifestyle” at all.

  11. biscuit. I just got into work. Give me a moment. I know your all ready to go, but heck let me settle into the morning here.

    If you go to NPR and listen to thier interview they talk about their childhoods and exposure to the mormon culture.

    I’m in a good mood this morning and really dont want to get into it with some dude on the internet, and really I liked the concept of Mormon matters podcast to learn about whats going on in todays headlines, not to argue about this kind of silly stuff.

  12. Well said, Nick. I am impressed with how much the creators of BL have put into learning the fundamentalist ways, both “normal” fundamentalist, as well as FLDS-style fundamentalists.

    The peep stone and hat revelation with Alby in the last episode probably went over the heads of at least 99.44% of viewers. Of course this was a reference to the translation of the BoM, as was the “witness” who was called Martin Ferris (heh heh). The real FLDS and fundamentalists have no such peep stones and hats that I am aware of.

  13. Andy: whatever lifestyle issues you are getting at, the fact of the matter is that BL presents a unique view into the world of Mormon fundamentalism. Of course it is within the context of a soap opera TV drama with intrigue and plot lines and such. But aside from some small details, they have done a very fine job. As for an agenda? Not sure what you mean there. Are you saying that a show about Mormon polygamists is being aired to increase support for gay marriage? How do you make this leap of logic?

  14. Interesting comment about the accents, I never knew that. The ones I’ve seen interviewed on TV seemed to have a run-of-the-mill Utah accent..

    Nick, as far as the ordination protocol goes, are you saying when doing priesthood ordinations they do it “in the name of the Messiah”? I honestly don’t know, but from everything I’ve read it seems their ordinations are fairly similar to mainstream Mormon ordinations.

  15. I’m just saying that it’s not out of character for Mormon Fundamentalists to attempt to do things in some mythical “original” way, as supposedly given by Joseph Smith. The True and Living Church of Jesus Christ of the Last Days, located in Manti, claims to give the Endowment as originally done by Joseph Smith, despite the fact that there is very little documentary evidence upon which to reconstruct such a thing.

    Keep in mind also that Bill is an “independent” fundamentalist, not ascribing to any particular church or group. He’s doing his own thing, and it seems consistent that he would be following what he saw as scriptural patterns.

    I agree with you though, that there are always a few reasons to chuckle when we notice the writers or set designers have missed the boat on some detail (crucifix on the wall, anyone??). 🙂

  16. My own–admittedly limited–knowledge of fundamentalists has them diverging in a serious way after the Manifesto and especially after the Second Manifesto of 1904. They really get hostile after Heber J Grant became prophet. My guess, and it’s only a guess, is that whatever words they use are those used then.

    There’s a great website with all sorts of info about fundamentalists; it’s put together by a “mainstream” Mormon:

  17. Brian Hales, the author of that website, is a self-appointed crusader against Mormon Fundamentalism. Trusting him for a fair and accurate representation of Mormon Fundamentalism is much like trusting Ed Decker for a fair and accurate representation of Mormonism.

  18. How is he like Decker? I’ve read the website, and it seems to be a fairly straightforward collection of basic fundamentalist beliefs, albeit s summary of beliefs by someone who disagrees with them.

    I haven’t seen any wild, Decker-style accusations. Did he make some somewhere else?

  19. Most LDS I know will readily rant about how those who want to know what LDS believe should ask LDS persons, rather than non-LDS persons. They should grant the same courtesy to others.

    I read Hales’ The Priesthood of Modern Polygamy some time ago, when it first came out. It was not an even-handed examination. It was a religious tract. Most Mormon historians I know find his rendering problematic. Why would you trust a man who’s trying to prove Mormon Fundamentalism is evil and sexually perverted to give a fair, let alone sympathetic, portrayal?

  20. mormonfundamentalism.ORG is a better site, run by some members of the AUB.

    Most fundamentalists were members of the LDS church until the 1930s or so. Plural marriage was practiced with some level of church approval long after the manifesto of 1890, including by the prophets Wilford Woodruff (married at least once more after his own manifesto), Joseph F. Smith, and Heber J. Grant. The 1904 second manifesto was a stronger denouncement of the practice, but hardly the last word, as more plural marriages continued to be sealed by church authorities in Canada and Mexico. As late as the 40’s, one general authority is reputed to have said that the church had no problem with the fundamentalists if they could just keep their mouths shut and not draw attention to themselves or the church (sorry I don’t have the reference for that story immediately accessible).

  21. I’m no longer a Mormon, Nick; even when I was, I had no problem with non-LDS historians or authors describing church beliefs as long as they were even-handed in their descriptions. If Hales’ book is over-the-top, and I’ll take your word for it that it is, then he doesn’t meet that criteria and probably isn’t a good reference. Although I’ll say, again, I haven’t seen anything that biased on the website.


    Thanks for the link. I used to read the Messenger on the internet when I was bored at work back in the ’90s, right after my office first went on-line. I’d wondered what had happened to it.

  22. capt jack, I am also a former member of the LDS church. I had my name removed from the records early in 2006. I don’t have a dog in this race. I just happen to appreciate honest history. 🙂

  23. It seems Hales talked about fundamentalists at the recent Sunstone conference; Kevin Barney, in the Sunstone thread at BCC, talks about it.

  24. Nick,

    To Andy’s point, very early, probably the 1st episode, Roman was being interviewed by some journalists and he equated SS Marriage with Polygamous Marriage.

    Overall these last 2 episodes of Mormon Matters I found difficult, a discussion about Big Love with nobody on the panel even having watched the series? Also, though not claiming to have balance and all sides represented, this discussion would’ve been much better with at least one person representing the orthodox point of view, would’ve been a better discussion.

  25. It is said that Big Love was created as a challenge to the many people who seek for marriage to be defined as “One Man and One Woman” only. This leaves out the millions of homosexual couples who wish to marry and the others such as poly people (one man, many women / one woman, many men / many men, many women) who wish to be legally married.

    To make that challenge interesting they sought out to research underground polygamy. Seeing that homosexuals used to hide from the public like underground polygamists. (BTW if you didn’t know already the creators are a homosexual couple.)

    I was watching an episode when my 15 year old came it and asked what was happening on TV. I told him Bill was hiding the fact that he was married to more than one wife. He asked . . . why? I told him that it was illegal to marry more than one person. What he said kinda took me by surprise. He said. . . . . You mean you can’t marry more than one person? That’s not right.

    Some LDS people don’t like the idea of polygamy. I am not sure the reason why. But if it wasn’t for polygamy many of these same LDS people are only here on this earth because their 3rd or 2nd great grandfather took a second wife or more. And it is a fact that is self-evident that Polygamy is an eternal doctrine. If not on this earth then in the celestial.

    My wife and I were in our bishop’s office yesterday getting some clarification about what we needed to enter the temple. He read to us and said . . . And here where it gets interesting. Here is where he told us that a woman can only be sealed to one man but a man can be sealed to more than one woman.

    Driving home after that meeting my wife turned to me and said . . . If I die remember I am the first wife. To this I told her. “I don’t think I want a second wife. I don’t like Nikki. But Margene on the other hand.. . . ” With this she punched me in the arm. . . . Lovingly of course.

  26. I love the discussions on Mormon Matters, thank you ALL panelists for your great perspectives.

    I just listened to a great interview on Fresh Air from 8-1-07 where Terry Gross Spoke with the creators of Big Love Mark Olsen and Will Scheffer. Interestingly they referred to Sunstone Session SL06232 which included a panel of polygamists discussing Big Love. I recommend both the Sunstone session and the Fresh Air interview.

  27. Pingback: John Hamer in Mormon Podcasts « Saints Herald

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