Polygamy, what it really implies (Part Two)

Stephen MarshMormon, polygamy 20 Comments

Leaving aside the implications of polygamy as to the lessened value of males to society and to families, the other question that arises is just what is polygamy? While some are bothered by the fact that Joseph Smith engaged in polygamy, others are perturbed by the fact that he had so few children by anyone other than his first wife. As the recent DNA studies reflect, he and Emma buried more children than the other women had with Joseph between them.

Which of course highlights the fact that they had other children and felt free to marry after he died, with no criticism of their choices or directions. Not only were women free to marry others after the death of their husbands, it is notable that Brigham Young’s wives were able to easily divorce him, and that the rule for much of his life in Utah was that a woman could freely leave a polygamous marriage, though a man could not. That is an unusual double standard for a polygamous society (where the standard is usually that the men can divorce at a word and the women have few rights at all). But polygamy in LDS culture did not function as ownership of women, a dramatic change from the typical role polygamy has.

Instead, looking at the functional place of polygamy in early LDS culture, polygamy did several things. First, it prevented assimilation at a crucial point. Compared to the RLDS, the LDS remained a group that was peculiar for much longer. Without polygamy, the persecution of the LDS Church would have probably been much less of an isolating force.

Second, it changed the LDS Church into the Mormon ethnic group and it did that in a matter of generations rather than hundreds of years. Mormons as an ethnic group probably is what caused the Church to survive. After all, by 1960 or so, Sacrament meeting attendance was at about 10% of membership, the law of chastity was considered the 14th most important commandment, and missionary work was starting to seem irrelevant to many members.

Most bloggers seem to be from an age group when the LDS Church has left its ethnic identity behind, when activity rates are at around 50% and where the balance of observances has changed a great deal (the Word of Wisdom and the Law of Chastity, for example, being much more observed and important, ward basketball no longer being the primary sacrament of the faith).

But, without polygamy there is a good chance that the LDS Church could not have withstood assimilation, much as the law of Moses kept the Jews from assimilation to provide a people for the Christ to be born among.

But beyond the transitory application (one that Jacob addresses in passing in his sermon in the Book of Mormon as to why God will allow polygamy from time to time), when we deal with non-fallen humanity as we will be in the resurrection, polygamy (in the sense of people of both sexes sealed to multiple individuals) seems to be more of a social connection, binding us together, than a territorial sexual license.

Admittedly, that makes it seem that sex, like carnivorous activity, isn’t the same in the hereafter and that marriage is a superset of connections related to eternal bonds of friendship and association (not surprisingly, a constant theme in Joseph Smith’s personal writings), but then it does not yet appear what we shall truly be.

That vision of marriage — marriage as connection and relationship, not ownership or property — would account for polygamy being a principle that is appropriate from time to time, at the express command of God in this life, yet is also an eternal principle, while polygamy is a something that in our current state does not belong in our mortal lives, though is perfectly acceptable for those who have died (e.g. why there are women with two or more husbands sealed to them, for example).

That is what polygamy really implies.

Comments 20

  1. “it is notable that Brigham Young’s wives were able to easily divorce him, and that the rule for much of his life in Utah was that a woman could freely leave a polygamous marriage, though a man could not.”

    Well, at least one of his wives had a different experience with President Brigham Young than what you describe here, Stephen. When Ann Eliza Young fled from her home and filed for divorce, Young resisted any sort of support payments, and even argued that she couldn’t divorce him because, after all, they were never really married in the eyes of the law (which makes one wonder whether their sexual encounters were “legal and lawful,” but I digress). From http://historytogo.utah.gov/salt_lake_tribune/in_another_time/073095.html:

    “Once Ann Eliza bolted and dragged Brigham Young’s name through the courts in the late 1870s, newspapers around the world played hob with the story. After seven years of polygamous marriage, Ann Eliza charged Brigham with neglect, cruelty and desertion. She asked for huge alimony. “He is worth $8 million,” she announced, “And has an income of $40,000 a month!” Balderdash, retorted the church leader, his fortune did not exceed $600,000 and his income was but $6,000 a month.

    He offered to pay her $100 a month to settle. When she refused, he retaliated by pointing out his marriage to the former Miss Webb was not legal because in the eyes of the law he was the husband of Mary Ann Angell [first wife]. . .unless, of course, the courts would recognize Mormon plural marriage, something it had stubbornly refused to do for lo, these past 30 years!

    Ann Eliza, Brigham railed, was nothing but an extortionist and that was that. The case dragged on through the courts, but in the end it was found that Ann Eliza was not legally married to Brigham Young, so there could be no divorce–and no alimony. A judge tried to force Brigham to pay $9,500 alimony in arrears while the suit was being adjudicated, but he refused. Ann Eliza settled for court costs and $100 a month, Brigham’s original offer.”

  2. Very insightful Stephen. I can tell you’ve put a lot of thought into this subject. I’ve had some similar thoughts bouncing around, but you really put it into words for me and clarified my own thinking.

  3. >>> which makes one wonder whether their sexual encounters were “legal and lawful,” but I digress

    None of the Mormon plural marriages were legally recognized. The civil court system did not recognize the plural wife as anything but a mistress and her children as illegitimate. The men in a plural marriage had to take great care in their wills or else their first wife, the only legal one, would receive all the inheritance. The local state laws created did attempt to protect the children.

    Kathryn Daynes book does a good job going over the legalities here and I’m butchering it. Ignore me and read her instead.

    The bottomline is that the court system did not recognize plural marriages and that is why they didn’t recognize Ann Eliza as anything but a mistress with no legal protections.

  4. Stephen,

    You make me wish I were born in an earlier era, when basketball was the “primary sacrament of the faith”. Sounds like fun.

    Although I was born in the 1970s, growing up in the Church in Southern California I very much felt like I was part of the Mormon ethnic group. I think we still have residual ethnicity as Mormons as sociologists and anthropologists would define ethnos. Armand Mauss, the LDS sociologist from Washington State University, has written a book about the assimilation/retrenchment phenomenon you mention, but I would say that you seem to be diverging from his thesis a bit in an interesting way. I would see the 1960-2008 period as Mauss does, one of retrenchment, with increasing emphasis on “apartness” from the world, in terms of which movies to watch, which social and sexual norms to reject, etc. Talking about ethnicity at the same time as assimilation makes a certain kind of sense, but also muddies the waters a bit. I would argue that Mormon ethnicity is almost as strong today as it was in the 1950s.

    To return to my first point, I think that Joseph Smith was a regular Joe (pardon the pun). He liked to have a good time, parties, dancing, and talking with friends late into the night about all and sundry, etc. His idea of polygamy I see as different (and more based on binding everyone together in social relationships) from Brigham Young’s, which was open, public, more structured, with rules for divorce, and more Puritanical somehow. I think most Church members are used to Brigham’s brand of polygamy, but have a harder time with Joseph’s, because it was secret and paradoxically more socially oriented. Brigham’s style (and Heber Kimball’s and George Cannon’s, et al) seemed more intent on building a kind of dynasty or family empire.

  5. I’ve long felt that the Mormon ethnic identity was more important than the Mormon religious identity — at least to me, that’s always been the more interesting aspect of the movement. I was raised in the 70s with the (admitted naive) feeling that to be Mormon was more akin to being Jewish than anything else. This feeling was based, in part, on the perception that our family’s bloodline was literally Ephraimite (not just ‘adopted.’)

    I’ve also had impression that the ethnic identity was fading and that the LDS church was becoming “just another Christian church” (at least in contrast to the past distinctiveness). I’ve had long conversations with Jan Shipps on the subject of the fading ethnic identity and so I’m rather intrigued by John Nilsson’s counter assessment that it’s almost strong today as in the 1950s.

  6. Post

    Equality, I’m not sure I understand the point you are trying to make. She wanted an exorbitant amount of support, went to court, lost and he gave her a fair amount even after the Court said he didn’t have to pay her anything. Brigham Young wasn’t resisting her leaving him, only the money she was after. That doesn’t disagree with me at all.

    I’ve listened to Jan Shipps, and she is the one who put into perspective “the subject of the fading ethnic identity” for me — something I’d noticed for quite some time.

    when basketball was the “primary sacrament of the faith”. Sounds like fun if you were tall or had good vision. I’m currently 5’5″ — and I was 5’2″ when I graduated from high school. I am extremely near sighted and with normal glasses something can be as much as 25% away from where it looks (contacts have been a real delight that way). At 12′ a basket could be as much as 3′ away from where it looked to be. We would play six man half-court teams and had thirteen of us when I lived in Las Vegas. I would just bring a book.

    But the underlying structure of polygamy is why people remain sealed even after a divorce until they remarry. I’ve known men who were abandoned and not happy that their wives remained sealed to them until they remarried, and vice versa. But as a joining sacrament, reaching beyond the people involved, it makes sense suddenly.

    Appreciate the comments, guess the post didn’t connect that well for most readers.

  7. Marsh seems to suggest that the assimilation of the Mormon ethnic group into U.S. society was less desirable than what occurred. Why? Look at the Community of Christ, a group that deemphasized certain attributes of Mormon faith such as belief in the Book of Mormon as scripture and devotion to a particular form of leadership during a time when the LDS church was reemphasizing similar aspects of its tradition. I think that any intelligent person would conclude that the former RLDS church behaved in a more ethical manner and is a more admirable institution.

    The reasonable course of action for the LDS church in the late 1960s and early 1970s when it become obvious that its truth claims were wrong would have been to continue to emphasis aspects of community such as programs for the youth and concern for those in need, while distancing itself from and then repudiating the Books of Mormon and Abraham as well as the church’s traditional views and claims about priesthood authority.

  8. Post

    I think that any intelligent person would conclude that the former RLDS church is well on its way to losing any distinct identity.

    WestBerkeleyFlats I guess I disagree that the truth claims are wrong. /Sigh.

    My post presupposes that they are correct and then puts a doctrine into perspective from that.

  9. Stephen (#6):

    The point I was making was that the rosy scenario you paint of women being able to freely come and go in polygamous marriages in the Utah territory is not the picture painted by, you know, some of the women who actually had to live that life and not just write about it 150 years later. Ann Eliza Webb Young’s book is widely available on the Internet. Young’s system of plural marriage was anything but benign for the people who lived it. That was my point. Oh, and for the wealthiest man in Utah to offer $100 a month to his ex-wife, whom he had put through hell, ought only be characterized as generous by patriarchal blowhards, with whom I am confident you would not like to be numbered.

  10. Post

    It is interesting that there are those, as typified by Bishop Spong, who feel that the Christian religion in general has as the only reasonable course of action to repudiate Christ and his truth claims and move on into a post-Christian world.

    I disagree.

    For more (and more accurate summaries) of Spong, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Shelby_Spong


    Spong has also been a strong proponent of feminism, gay rights, and racial equality within both the church and society at large. Towards these ends, he calls for a new Reformation, in which many of Christianity’s basic doctrines should be reformulated. These beliefs are most fully outlined in his book A New Christianity for a New World: Why Traditional Faith Is Dying and How a New Faith Is Being Born. He briefly outlines these beliefs on his web site as follows:

    Martin Luther ignited the Reformation of the 16th century by nailing to the door of the church in Wittenberg in 1517 the 95 Theses that he wished to debate. I will publish this challenge to Christianity in The Voice. I will post my theses on the Internet and send copies with invitations to debate them to the recognized Christian leaders of the world. My theses are far smaller in number than were those of Martin Luther, but they are far more threatening theologically. The issues to which I now call the Christians of the world to debate are these:

    1. Theism, as a way of defining God, is dead. So most theological God-talk is today meaningless. A new way to speak of God must be found.

    2. Since God can no longer be conceived in theistic terms, it becomes nonsensical to seek to understand Jesus as the incarnation of the theistic deity. So the Christology of the ages is bankrupt.

    3. The biblical story of the perfect and finished creation from which human beings fell into sin is pre-Darwinian mythology and post-Darwinian nonsense.

    4. The virgin birth, understood as literal biology, makes Christ’s divinity, as traditionally understood, impossible.

    5. The miracle stories of the New Testament can no longer be interpreted in a post-Newtonian world as supernatural events performed by an incarnate deity.

    6. The view of the cross as the sacrifice for the sins of the world is a barbarian idea based on primitive concepts of God and must be dismissed.

    7. Resurrection is an action of God. Jesus was raised into the meaning of God. It therefore cannot be a physical resuscitation occurring inside human history.

    8. The story of the Ascension assumed a three-tiered universe and is therefore not capable of being translated into the concepts of a post-Copernican space age.

    9. There is no external, objective, revealed standard writ in scripture or on tablets of stone that will govern our ethical behavior for all time.

    10. Prayer cannot be a request made to a theistic deity to act in human history in a particular way.

    11. The hope for life after death must be separated forever from the behavior control mentality of reward and punishment. The Church must abandon, therefore, its reliance on guilt as a motivator of behavior.

    12. All human beings bear God’s image and must be respected for what each person is. Therefore, no external description of one’s being, whether based on race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, can properly be used as the basis for either rejection or discrimination.

    Spong’s work on the textual evolution of the role of Judas Iscariot as the betraying Jew of Jesus in the Gospels has garnered particular attention by social scientists concerned with roots of anti-Semitism in the New Testament. He holds fundamentally that the expanding detail given to Judas’ betrayal from the synoptic gospels through to the Gospel according to John is a result of active embellishment on behalf of the those authors postdating Mark and the Q document, as a result of ideological tension resulting from initially unforeseen and increasing hostility between Jews and Christians in the early history of the church.

    [edit] Criticisms

  11. There are a number of reasons why the RLDS experience isn’t very comparable to the LDS experience. I’m planning on having a general post on this in a couple of days.

    Stephen: I think your original point hits on one of the key differences. Polygamy was crucial in creating the Brighamite ethnic identity. Despite the secret practices of spiritual wifery in Joseph’s inner circle in Nauvoo, that didn’t translate into a broad ethnicity. Emma and her sons rejected the practice and thus polygamy was never a part of the RLDS experience. So I don’t think that they are “losing” an ethnic identity today. Rather, they were always more integrated into American society and they remain more integrated today.

    WestBerkerlyFlats: I agree with your point that the commitment of RLDS leaders to social justice (equality of opportunity for all regardless of race, gender, etc.) and also to historical honesty has been courageous and noble.

  12. I have often reflected that both Emma & Joseph founded major world religions (if you count Community of Christ as a major world religion), and that those two religions took on the fundamental character and flaws of their founders. Clearly, this is not a view that Community of Christ would share.

    Emma’s break with the church, IMHO, was a fundamental inability to surrender to personal revelation in the way that Joseph did. I make no judgment in saying that–it just wasn’t her way. She was far more educated than Joseph was which could have made it harder for her to accept such a flighty, subjective method of church organization. Her focus was always on service to others and charitable work, like the relief society.

    At the times in her life when she accepted polygamy, she was being charitable and full of love toward Joseph and the other women who were selected. But she never received a personal revelation that it was a true principle, which distinguishes her from the early church women who did accept polygamy.

    Not that I’m right. Just an opinion.

  13. Actually, the worst thing that the LDS church has done in the last 40 years, in addition to not honestly dealing with its historical problems, theological weaknesses, and racialist views and rhetoric, is encouraging the apologetic work of groups such as FARMS and FAIR. Their work is obviously a joke intellectually and not taken seriously anywhere beyond BYU, but by sanctioning such diversions church leaders demonstrate that they have no desire to deal honestly and responsibly with the church’s problems and instead just want to reassure the non-intellectual and non-scholarly element of the faithful.

  14. Post

    WestBerkeleyFlats, I appreciate that you are locked into invective, and hollow invective at that, but it really does not add to the thread or the analysis, other than stating that you dislike the LDS Church, don’t like FAIR or FARMS (which actually do have elements (though obviously only elements — though that also keeps them from being a complete joke) that have been widely accepted, even if other scholars are not ready to convert and become LDS). You are, of course, completely wrong as to what is a “desire to deal honestly and responsibly” but seem caught up in your own issues, which this thread will probably not help.

    How is what you are suggesting different than what Spong+ was suggesting for Christianity as a whole? Seriously, rather than trade invective and spin, lets go to content. Do you agree with Spong+ about Christianity as a whole, with the LDS Church as a sub-set? Do you have a testimony of the Book of Mormon and the LDS Church? Where are we starting in what should be a discussion and what are its implications. Yes, it is off-topic, but it does lead interesting places because many LDS Critics are quite comfortable with Spong+, others are not and it helps to analyze where they are coming from in those terms, then to discuss where we differ and why.

    As to the other response, Ann Eliza Webb Young’s book is widely available and has been completely debunked. Appreciate your citing to it, but the bottom line there is that she pursued Brigham Young, he married her and then she lived fairly far away from him with very little interaction (name their children). She wasn’t happy with that, so she filed for divorce. She was able to freely leave him and set up shop in down town Salt Lake, her biggest problem in leaving him was that she was just not able to obtain as much money as she wanted. I will note that the $100 a month fits in with times when Abraham Lincoln was charging $10.00 for a court appearance. Feel free to imply I’m a blow hard, and a patriarchal one, though I’d disagree as to the meaning of analyzing Ann Webb.

    Yes, she does have some florid writing, but she didn’t feel that she couldn’t stay in a public house in down town Salt Lake as she made her complaints, gave interviews and pursued litigation.

    There are a number of reasons why the RLDS experience isn’t very comparable to the LDS experience. I’m planning on having a general post on this in a couple of days

    That will be neat. I look forward to it.

  15. John,

    My ideas about Mormon ethnicity being almost as strong today as it was in the 1950s should probably be qualified and explained a bit more. Perhaps I’ll do a post on this topic next week. For now, I’ll say that that is my experience of Mormons in the United States, and does not reflect what I experienced on my mission in Germany nor my knowledge of how the Church has developed in Latin America, Asia, or Africa.

    In the United States, Mormons still have unique behaviors and customs which I would characterize as a sub-culture at the very least with strong residual ethnic markers in evidence. The film Napoleon Dynamite tapped into these ethnic markers which have taken slightly different forms in each generation. My thesis, informed by Armand Mauss, is that erosion of the Mormon ethnic identity had significant brakes applied to it by LDS leaders in their retrenchment efforts beginning in the early 1960s. My own lived experience and that of many of my family bear this out.

    Any anthropologists out there who can help us with terminology?

  16. Post

    John, I’d like your perspective, though I think that there were definite brakes put on assimilation.

    As for the general topic of polygamy, no one should mistake my post to indicate that it was rosy or that the writings of Eliza R. Snow and others are the last word on the subject. Experiences varied widely, but everyone agreed it was hard work. It is why I am grateful we do not labor under it in this world at this time.

  17. Thanks, Stephen. I realize re-reading my remarks that they came out more aggressive than I intended. I also neglected to say that I think your points about the way in which polygamy shaped the Mormon identity are thoughtful. I think there is no doubt that polygamy’s function as an isolating force helped define a Mormon consciousness (and self-consciousness) that survives to this day. I think the tension that today’s church faces as it straddles between the fundamentalists on the one side and mainstream Christianity on the other is defined by polygamy more than any other thing. The awkwardness with which the church addresses the issue is exhibit A in support of this proposition. Thanks for your thoughtful post (even if I disagreed with a couple points tangential to your principal observations).

  18. Post

    I think there is no doubt that polygamy’s function as an isolating force helped define a Mormon consciousness (and self-consciousness) that survives to this day. I think the tension that today’s church faces as it straddles between the fundamentalists on the one side and mainstream Christianity on the other is defined by polygamy more than any other thing.

    I think we have a lot in common on those points.

    And, I think we would agree that we are all glad not to have polygamy as a part of what we are living with in this life. It seems terribly difficult to me.

    BTW, for perspective:

    Union privates were paid $13 per month until after the final raise of 20 June ’64, when they got $16. In the infantry and artillery, officer was as follows at the start of the war: colonels, $212; lieutenant colonels, $181; majors, $169; captains, $115.50; first lieutenants, $105.50; and second lieutenants, $105.50. Other line and staff officers drew an average of about $15 per month more. Pay for one, two, and three star generals was $315, $457, and $758, respectively.


    That first lieutenant is an 0-1; his or her current pay would be 2543.40


    So a hundred dollars a month is roughly equivalent to twenty-five hundred dollars a month now.

  19. Wow, Stephen. Thanks for those numbers. Puts things in perspective for sure. By Brigham Young’s admission, his income was “limited” to “only” $6,000 a month. What is that in today’s dollars? $150,000 a month. Or $1.8 million a year. And that’s probably a conservative number, as it comes from Young himself in an alimony fight. Fascinating, indeed.

  20. Men, divorce should be considered as a last resort to fix a relationship problem. This type of procedure is very serious and it has to be a decision that is well thought out before attempting to start the process. When you are filing for divorce, you will want to notify the court that you are going to proceed with the dissolution of your marriage. You will file a summons and petition the court in your county. Before you decide to file for divorce, you will want to choose the proper state and county to file your papers. You must make sure that you are ready for the long haul in a divorce. There are going to be many different alternatives in a divorce proceeding. You will probably find it to be necessary to hire and attorney to take care of the proceedings in your divorce.

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