Saturday, March 30, 2013

(Re)living the Principle: Re-Rereading Mormon Polygamy

This is a paper I wrote in 1998 for my demography seminar. It was originally going to be a chapter in a dissertation which took a cultural approach to early Mormonism. Part of it did end up in my dissertation. I first read Bitton's 1977 historiographic essay on the state of Mormon polygamy research referred to in this paper sometime in the early 1990s, the period of my greatest interest in Mormon Studies, and decided to update Bitton's famous essay for my Sociology graduate class at SUNY Albany. I have corrected mistakes, infelicitous writing--I hope so anyway--and have updated lightly the bibliography. Ironically this essay itself probably needs updating by someone more knowledgeable than me of the current state of Mormon Studies and the study of pre-manifesto Mormon polygamy. I haven't really kept up with the field as I have moved on to other things you see. Should any of you out there in cyberspace feel like updating this essay, go for it.

In 1977 historian Davis Bitton wrote an article reviewing studies of Mormon polygamy through 1977. [1] Since then a host of studies on Mormon polygamy have appeared and have, in some instances, changed the landscape of the study of Mormon polygamy since Bitton wrote his paper. In this paper I want to look again at some of the terrain Bitton did in his seminal 1977 article and to extend the review of Mormon polygamy into areas Bitton did not as well as to review studies on Mormon polygamy that have come out since Bitton wrote in 1977. [2]

Polygamy has been for non-Mormons probably the most controversial aspect of a church that has been, to say the least, very controversial in general. Polygamy has also likely been the doctrinal and gender practice associated with Mormonism that has been the most difficult for the faithful to follow.

There has been a lot of mystery and silence surrounding “the Principle”. In fact, we don’t even know precisely when the practice of “the Principle” began. Historian Daniel Bachman argues that the “the Principle” goes back to Kirtland in the 1830s though his evidence for this position is largely circumstantial. Bachman notes that during this time Smith was engaged in the study and “revision” of the Bible and that during his “translation” of “restored” sections of the Old and New Testaments, “the Prophet” tried to make sense of the practice of polygamy by Hebrew Patriarchs like Abraham and Jacob. It was at this time that Smith may have taken Fanny Alger as a second wife. Then there is the fact Smith made statements suggesting that plural marriage would be restored to the earth one day. These combined with the issuance of a statement by the Church reiterating their support for monogamy in the midst of accusations that they were practicing polygamy seem to point to the fact that polygamy was in the air if not in the flesh of that small Ohio town. [3]

While we may not know when Mormon polygamy began we do know the biblical and theological rationale behind it. During his study of and revision of the Bible Smith was struck by the practice of polygamy by the biblical patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David and Solomon and God’s commandment to these patriarchs to undertake the practice of “the Principle" of polygamy. Moreover, as Smith’s Bible study and analysis continued over the years and “revelations” apace came to him he became convinced that that humans progressed from a material spirit existence, to a “fleshly tabernacle”, and back to a material spiritual existence in which, if one had followed the doctrines and precepts set out in the revelations given to the Church, one achieved godhood. Plural marriage was central to this “eternal progression” because families were eternal “beyond the veil” and the more wives you had the more children, and the more power you had. Plural marriage accelerated “eternal progression”, the process to godhood, in other words. It fulfilled the promise of numerous progeny made by God to Abraham and reunited family members around the Patriarch-God in the afterlife. Smith believed that in the afterlife the whole process began anew as the Patriarch-God and his wives (“Mothers in Heaven”) gave birth to spirit children. These spirit children, in turn, cycled through the stages from pre-fleshly existence to godhood and worshipped as God the one who had given them life. [4]

We also know that polygamy was not for everyone. Only “worthy Saints” who had received permission from the highest of Church authorities were given permission to practice “the Principle”. This meant that there was an inherent inequality in the Kingdom of Priests whether in time or in eternity. Plural marriage bound elite “worthy” Mormons to each other in webs of intermarriage and kinship relations. [5]

The practice of “celestial marriage” had consequences for the Church’s relationship with the “Gentile” world. With the official announcement of the practice of polygamy in 1852 already difficult relations between the Saints and the “Gentile” world were exacerbated even further. Many influential reformers regarded Mormon polygamy along with slavery as one of the “twin relics of barbarism” and fought to end both. Anti-polygamy fervour reached even into the halls of Congress and the White House as the federal government made a number of efforts to end the barbaric practice of polygamy among the Saints. 1857 saw Federal attempts to establish its control of the recently acquired Utah Territory. And while the United States managed, with some difficulty, to establish its hegemony in Utah it was unable to end Mormon polygamy. [6]

US dominance of “Zion” did not end tensions between Mormons and “Gentiles”, however. Antipolygamy groups and individuals began to lobby Congress for an end to polygamy and urged the federal government to take action against the recalcitrant Saints. These efforts resulted in the passage of a federal law, the Anti-Bigamy Act, which made plural marriage illegal in 1862 [7]

During the Civil War federal action against either “the Principle” and Mormon theocracy was not forthcoming. After the war, however, continued lobbying by antipolygamy groups would lead to a tougher antipolygamy measure in 1874, the Poland Act. This act extended federal jurisdiction over criminal and civil cases, such as “bigamy”, which had heretofore been prosecuted in courts controlled by Mormons. [8]

The “Saints” decided to test this law. George Reynolds, a polygamist, was chosen by the Church as the guinea pig. After Reynolds was convicted of violating the anti-polygamy laws passed by the Congress, the test was appealed to the Supreme Court. While Church lawyers argued for freedom of religion, the court decided on 6 January 1879 that the anti-bigamy laws were constitutional. The Court concluded that polygamy was a threat to national health. If unchecked, the justices argued, plural marriage would undermine the nuclear family structure on which a “civilized” and “healthy” nation like the United States was built. [9]

While the second great Mormon prophet Brigham Young would die in 1877, plural marriage would not. John Taylor succeeded Young and continued to preach the necessity of “practicing the Principle” even while he was “underground”. In 1882 Congress would again pass another antipolygamy act, the Edmunds Act. The Edmunds Act made bigamous marriages and polygamous living (“unlawful cohabitation”) illegal, allowed the President of the US to grant amnesty to those who entered such marriages before 1 January 1883, made children born in such marriages before that date illegitimate, denied anyone engaged in polygamous activities the right to vote or hold office, and allowed federal marshals to arrest and imprison polygamous “cohabiters”. Once again this act failed to end “the Principle” so in 1887 Congress passed the Edmunds-Tucker Act which compelled wives to testify against their husbands, limited jury duty to those who obeyed the anti-polygamy laws, disenfranchised polygamists, mandated that polygamists could not run or serve in the government, and subjected church property in excess of $50,000 dollars to escheat proceedings. [10]

In 1887 LDS prophet and President John Taylor died while hiding on the polygamy underground and was succeeded by Wilford Woodruff. Woodruff, a polygamist himself, would finally bow to federal pressure on 24 September 1890 and issue a “manifesto” stressing that the Church no longer sanctioned the doctrine of plural marriage. At the same time the Church also disbanded its political party, putting an end to the “Zionist” theocracy that offended so many “anti-Mormons”. The Church began to urge its members to join, preferably in equal numbers, the Democratic and Republican parties thus moving the Church toward the American political “mainstream”. And they put an end to the “gathering to Zion”. With these acts the period of overt Mormon civil disobedience was over. [11]

External pressures weren’t the only ones affecting Mormons living “the Principle”. Practicing polygamy wasn’t easy for any Mormon at any stage of their life cycles during the height of its practice. Within the church many Mormons, including Emma Smith, Joseph’s wife, opposed polygamy. Apostle Brigham Young remembers Emma being so angry with the 12 July revelation (Doctrine and Covenants 132) commanding plural marriage that she burned the document. William Law was so disillusioned with Smith after he learned that “the Prophet” was not only preaching but practicing plural marriage (he thought it adultery) that he exposed “the Practice” in his independent newspaper The Nauvoo Exponent precipitating a major crisis that would begin with Smith’s closing down of that newspaper and the destruction of its printing press and end in his death. [12]

Other members of the Church had different reactions. Some, like Apostle Orson Pratt, came gradually to accept it after much soul searching though his wife Sarah never did. Others left the Church because of it unable to square their more traditional Christian understandings of Mormonism with Smith’s ever more Judaic version of the faith. Many who remained in the Midwest after the Exodus westward, for example, and who later helped organize the Reorganized Church in Illinois and Missouri, never bought into the more Jewish elements of Smith’s restoration and continued to deny that the Prophet ever practiced polygamy for the rest of their lives, his wife Emma among them. [13]

Many studies of Mormon polygamy have focused on how many of the faithful practiced “the Principle”. Some analysts of Mormon polygamy have tended to downplay the importance and incidence of the practice of polygamy in the early Church arguing that very few of their forebears actually practiced “the Principle” in significant numbers. Noted Mormon historians Leonard Arrington and Davis Bitton, for instance, argue that the rates of the practice of “the Principle” among Mormons, even during the heyday of Mormon polygamy, was around 5% for Mormon men and 12% for Mormon women. This is hardly, they argue, something to write home about.

Such a position, of course, strongly implies that the emphasis Mormon leaders placed on the practice of “the Principle” as part of God’s eternal plan paled in the face of economic and political realities and costs associated with polygamy, specifically the opposition it met from Americans in general and from politically powerful Americans in particular. [14]

Recent investigation of Mormon polygamy rates, however, have raised questions about Arrington and Bitton’s estimates of Mormon polygamy rates, however, foregrounding, in the process, the question of whether they underestimated the practice of polygamy among Latter-day Saints in the nineteenth century church as a result of the Mormon ideological climate in which they wrote, a post World War II ideological climate in which the Church, concerned with its image particularly in non Mormon circles, was de-emphasizing polygamy and even forcefully combating it. [15]

While Arrington and Bitton may have tried to shut the door on “the Principle” as ideology and practice they didn’t get the door closed entirely. Toward the end of their discussion of “the Principle”, in fact, they offered, almost as an afterthought, an intuition that further study would show that polygamy rates varied both historically and regionally among the Latter-day Saints. Rather ironically this contention would play an important role in opening the door to a revived study of Mormon polygamy among a host of “New Mormon” historians and social scientists in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, who, using state of the art methodologies, began to reanalyze earlier data or probe heretofore untapped sources. In almost every instance these new studies led analysts to conclude that Arrington’s and Bitton’s estimates of Mormon polygamy rates were far too low. [16]

Though his analysis preceded that of Arrington and Bitton and hence preceded the rise of the “New Mormon history”, Stanley Ivins study of Mormon polygamy rates set the scholarly standard for estimates of polygamy rates in the Mormon Culture Region between the mid- and late nineteenth century. Drawing on a sketchbook of Mormon families by Frank Esshom and histories and biographies from Emery and San Pete counties, Utah, Ivins found that 15% to 20% of the population were practicing “the Principle”. Ivins asserted, however, that polygamy rates weren’t static: they rose and fell depending upon particular circumstances. During the years of the Mormon Reformation (1855-57) [17], 1869, 1882, and 1884-85, all periods when Mormons and their practices were under attack from outside the “practice of the Principle” rose. Rates fell during years of relative peace with the outside world (1852, 1858, 1881, and 1890). [18]

Several analysts have taken Ivins polygamy rates to heart. Julie Roy Jeffry accepted Ivins's 15% to 20% estimate uncritically. Eugene and Bruce Campbell, reanalyzed Ivins’ data and came up with a rate of 18%. James Smith and Phillip Kunz likewise using the same data as Ivins but adding contemporary census data to their study estimated the polygamy rate to have been 8.8%. [19]

Recently a number of “New Mormon historians” began to exploit other forms of data in their attempt to understand the “practice of the Principle”. “Ben” Bennion, utilizing the manuscript census and LDS family groupsheets submitted to the Church Genealogical Department, found polygamy rates in 1880s Utah of 30% in the St. George region, 30% and 75% in Orderville, 30.4% in Kanab, and 21.8% in Davis County [20]. Larry Logue utilizing the 1880 census data, LDS family group sheets, and the 1870 settler's list, in his study of Mormon polygamy in the area around St. George, found general male plural marriage incidence rates of 30% in 1870 and 33% in 1880. [21] Marie Cornwall, Camela Courtright, and Laga Van Beek, utilizing census data from 1860, LDS Ancestral File data, and LDS Family Histories and biographies, found polygamy rates of 43% in the Salt Lake Valley’s 13th Ward found a plural marriage rate of 43%, 33% in the 20th, and 58% in the Mill Creek Ward. [22] Jan Shipps, Cheryl May, and Dean May found a polygamy rate of 28% in Salt Lake City’s Sugar House Ward in 1870 [23]

The practise of “the Principle” caused problems for practicing believers in the church. Two of the unique aspects of Mormon polygamy, in particular, that caused problems for believers, as Jessie Embry notes, were time-sharing and economic distribution ones. Some plural wives felt treated unfairly by their husbands. They felt that their husbands were devoting more time and economic resources to their “sister wives”. Wilford Woodruff, the fourth President of the Church, did not, according to Thomas Alexander, equally distribute his time or his material goods, to each of his wives and their children. Rather Woodruff favored some wives and their children with his time and money while virtually ignoring one of his wives in particular. The wife he ignored, and the children she bore him, ended up living most of their lives in poverty. Orson Pratt’s wife Sarah resented the time he spent with her sister wives. Olive Andelin Potter recalled that her husband simply did not have the money to support her as his plural wife. Her life in plural marriage became one of unending poverty. In the end, however as Embry notes, each polygamous family established their own household rules. This fact, combined with high levels of Mormon commitment to “the Principle” and cultural norms stigmatizing divorce made most Mormon plural marriages work. [24]

Another problem involved the necessity of getting the first wives permission before a husband could take another wife. While Campbell and Campbell and Jeffry have stressed that the permission of the first wife was necessary before a husband could take another wife, B. Carmon Hardy has noted that this was an ideal not always carried out in practice. There were, as he notes, numerous instances of a husband ignoring his first wife's opposition to a plural marriage, and taking another wife anyway. [25] Not all Mormon males ignored the first wife’s opposition to further marriages, however. One St. George Elder said that he was unable to “practice the Principle” because his wife would not allow him to take plural wives. His wife claimed to have had a revelation to “shoot any woman who became his plural wife”. Nevertheless, women who opposed plural marriage, however, were often publicly condemned for their failure to follow the brethren. In 1856, for instance, Brigham Young urged wives to “[l]et the father be the head of the family…and say amen to what he says and be subject to his dictates…” In this way women like Sarah Pratt who asserted that the first wife “should be it” came reluctantly to accept the “practice of the Principle”. [26]

One of the central academic debates surrounding Mormon polygamy centers around the question of whether “the Principle” liberated women, allowing them to create a “female world of love and ritual” or whether Mormon plural marriage represents the ultimate instantiation of a patriarchal marriage system. Jeffry, Lawrence Foster, and Joan Iverson have argued that polygamy gave women engaged in it a degree of autonomy and independence, in sum, a degree of real power they did not have in monogamous relationships. Women were allowed to do jobs that had been previously closed to them. Polygamous women assisted in the support of their families. “Sister” wives helped each other in good times and bad times. And “the Principle”, as Iverson claims, offered a limited critique of the romantic love that imprisoned women within the Victorian cult of domesticity. [27]

Other studies lend support for this liberatory view of Mormon polygamy. Beecher notes that a female elite that paralleled the male elite of the Mormon Church and which dominated Utah women's organizations. Virtually all of these elite women were engaged in “the Principle”. Shipps, May, and May found that the majority of the workers in the Sugar House Ward in Salt Lake were female heads of households engaged in the practice of plural marriage. And finally, Utah was the second territory to extend suffrage to women. Several commentators have attributed the passage of this law to a female activism promoted by the practice of polygamy. Others have tied it to a Mormon strategy to maintain their power in Utah Territory. [28]

Others have given little credence to the notion that polygamy liberated Mormon women. Instead they have seen polygamy as a strongly patriarchal institution. B. Carmon Hardy, for instance, argues that plural marriage was a device by which husbands and fathers tried to maintain male dominance in nineteenth century America. Women were regarded as inferior to men and as the property of the “Patriarchs” they wed. Julie Dunfey, though noting that polygamy did create notions of sisterhood, argues that Mormon polygamy was a repressive sexual ideology and that it created a culture of loneliness and emotional distance in women. It was, she writes, a “trial” for the women who lived it. [29]

A few scholars have taken a middle ground. J.E. Hullett, for instance, has argued that while polygamous women could own property, vote, control their own children, and command their own home affairs, they were still financially and spiritually dependent upon their husbands. [30]

While the issue of whether polygamy liberated or imprisoned Mormon women within the iron cage of patriarchy may never be settled, it is clear that plural wives were at a disadvantage in legal terms. As Carol Cornwall Madsen makes clear, plural wives, given the illegality of the institution of polygamy in the United States, had no legal right to any of their husband's property upon his death. While a husband could make provisions for his additional wives, only the first wife had standing in court. If a husband died in testate or made no provision whatsoever for any of his plural wives, these plural wives had no recourse of which they could avail themselves of to recover an equal share of their husband's worldly goods. The Church did tried to counter this legal nightmare plural wives were in. They urged husbands to be fair with wives in life and in death. Moreover, Mormon legislators tried to pass legislation protecting plural wives in inheritance matters. Federal laws, however, made sure that no such provision would be made for these harlots of barbarism. The federal state, in other words, had become the enemy of large numbers of Mormon women. [31]

Few scholars have concentrated on the role males played in the institution of polygamy. J.E. Hullett argued that polygamous men experienced frustration and ego insecurity in their lives as a result of feelings of guilt that arose from their violation of the moral norms of a monogamous society within which they were still ideologically embedded. According to Hullett, polygamous males went from residence to residence, were sometimes away from home on Church business, and had little interaction with their children. All of these took a toll on their psyches, or so Hullett contends. [32]

Embry notes that polygamous (and monogamous) Mormon men played the role of economic provider in their family or families. Polygamous men visited each of their wives for a week or a night at a time. They engaged in Church and family activities. They took an active role in the Church. However, these men were not as close to their children as were their mothers. [33]

Further tensions resulted from the relationships between plural wives. While polygamy could, and for some did, create sisterhood amongst polygamous wives, it could also divide them. Jealousies, rivalries, and competition among plural wives tore apart extended families. Ada and Vady Hart, were jealous that they had to share their husband with each other and attributed this jealousy to “…the work of the devil who was trying to destroy the Lord’s work”. In the end the illegality of “the Principle” combined with these interpersonal dynamics, made it almost impossible for polygamous wives to have good relations with their husbands. [34]

A number of Mormon women have written about how difficult it was to live “the Principle” under such circumstances. Emmeline B. Wells, wife of Daniel H. Wells a member of the First Presidency, wrote in her diary of the unhappiness of her marriage. Martha Hughes Cannon, physician and later the first female state senator in the United States, and third plural wife of Salt Lake Stake President Angus Wells, wrote of the difficulties the illegality of polygamy and U.S. government attempts to end it made her marriage. [35]

The difficulties associated with plural marriage perhaps can be most clearly seen in Mormon divorce rates. Foster notes that there were 1645 divorces granted to Mormons between 1847 and 1877 in a Utah which contained 86,706 people in 1870. Most of these, he writes, were divorces of those engaged in the practice of "the Principle". Campbell and Campbell point out that LDS marriages were quite unstable and that the lenient divorce laws of Utah territory made it easy for them to end their marriages. They note that of 72 Church General Authorities engaged in polygamy, 39 got divorces, 54 had broken marriages, and 26 were involved in separations. [36]

Despite the difficulties associated with the “practice of the Principle”, Mormon plural marriage continued, however. Martha Hughes Cannon, for instance, wrote to her husband from Europe that it was her conviction that “the principle for which we are battling and striving to maintain in purity upon the earth comes from Him [God] and that we are chosen instruments in His hands to engage in so great a calling”. If it weren’t for the fact that plural marriage was essential to “associate with the elect in eternity”, she wrote, she would “have given plural marriage a wide berth except perhaps as first wife”, she wrote. The reality that so many “worthy” Saints were practicing what their religion preached (embodiment), or defending the practice though they weren’t engaged in it, gives one the clear sense, if only from one vantage point, of how important plural marriage and, by extension, Mormon ideology, were in the lives of individual Mormons. In the end nearly 970 Mormon men, including Apostle and Congressman George Q. Cannon and Rudger Clawson, and a few women were convicted of unlawful cohabitation by the American state. Most were held in the Utah Territorial Prison. [37]

While Arrington and Bitton would like us to think that polygamy was an unimportant aspect of life in the pre-manifesto Mormon Culture Region, clearly, if new studies of the practice of “the Principle” are to be believed, this wasn't the case. Larry Logue has estimated that polygamy took up one-half of a polygamous husband's time, three-quarters of a polygamist's wife time, and one-half of a child's time during his or her childhood years. Despite the significant numbers of Saints “practicing the Principle”, however, Mormon polygamy never had a real chance to prove whether it would succeed or fail. Federal laws made sure of that. When the government of the United States forced the Church to give up polygamy it had been in effect on a substantial scale for less than fifty years. As Hullett has noted, the experimental qualities of the whole enterprise combined with federal persecution and prosecution of the institution itself, meant that Mormons never developed a systematic set of rules, regulations, practices, strategies, and norms for the enterprise. While the approval of Church leaders and the first wife were, at least ostensibly, were required before one could engage in its practice, few other general rules, strategies, and norms relative to “the practice” evolved. “The Principle”, because of problems within and outside of the Mormon community was, in other words, never fully integrated into Mormon life. [38]

On another level, however, modern academic studies of “the Principle” have shown how important culture was to the rise of and construction of Mormon identity and polygamy. Yes, pressure from the America’s powers that be and polygamy’s foes impacted the practice of “the Principle” in many ways and affected the Church in many ways as well. However, despite the difficulties of living “the Principle”, despite federal government opposition to plural marriage, despite anti-polygamy attacks by evangelicals and reformers, and despite the fact that plural marriage was never fully integrated into Mormon life Saints of all ethnic, class, and status background had embodied this important ideological component of Mormon identity in their bodies, their thoughts, their memories, and their lives and were practicing and defending “the Principle” in significant numbers. They were marrying and multiplying just as Joseph Smith taught that they should. [39]

End Notes
1. The study of “the Principle” is not without its problems. First, the study of Mormon polygamy is problematic given the secretive nature of the Church with respect to its practice. The Mormon hierarchy engaged in a campaign of disinformation because of the animosity plural marriage engendered among neighbouring non-Mormon communities as well as in the halls of political power in the United States. Additionally, the Church did not record data on plural marriage in an official manner because of the illegality of the practice. Hence it is difficult to come up with the exact numbers of polygamists. And, finally, many of the commentators who have focused on the statistics of Mormon polygamy have used different measures to get at it. Some scholars have focused on the incidence of plural marriage among men, others on its prevalence among women, still others on the rates of polygamy among households. These operational differences make comparison of perspectives rather difficult on occasion. For an excellent review of the problems associated with the study of Mormon polygamy see B. Carmon Hardy; “Lying for the Lord: An Essay” Solemn Covenant: The Mormon Polygamous Passage (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992), pp. 363-388. Needless to say this chapter is based on a selective review of recent historical and social scientific writing on Mormon polygamy not a comprehensive one. The revelation on polygamy can be found in Doctrine and Covenants section 132.

2.Davis Bitton, “Mormon Polygamy: A Review Article”, Journal of Mormon History 4 (1977), pp. 101-8.

3. Daniel Bachman, “New Light on an Old Hypothesis: The Ohio Origins of the Revelation on Eternal Marriage”, Journal of Mormon History 5 (1978), pp. 19-32, For an early Mormon apologia for polygamy see Udney Hay Jacob; The Peace Maker, or the Doctrines of the Millennium (Nauvoo, IL: J. Smith, 1842). On the issues surrounding Smith’s plural marriages see Todd Compton; “A Trajectory of Plurality: An Overview of Joseph Smith’s Thirty-three Wives” Dialogue 29:2 (Summer 1996), pp. 1-38.

4. Book of Commandments, Doctrine and Covenants, and Lyndon Cook and Andrew Ehat (eds.); The Words of Joseph Smith (Orem, UT.: Grandin, 1991). For the revelation on plural marriage see Doctrine and Covenants 132. This revelation, of course, like many in the Doctrine and Covenants, is grounded in biblical exegesis and explicitly mentions Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, and Solomon. On eternal progression see the King Follett sermon in Cook and Ehat. On the biblical bases of Mormon polygamy see Charlotte Haven: “Letter 8 September 1843” in William Mulder and A. Russell Mortensen (eds.); Among the Mormons—Historic Accounts by Contemporary Observers (NYC: Knopf, 1958), pp. 126-127, Udney Hay Jacob; The Peace Maker, and The Catechism for Children Exhibiting the Prominent Doctrines of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints published in 1855 (Liverpool: F.D. Richards). On the Jacob pamphlet see Larry Foster; “A Little Known Defense of Polygamy from the Mormon Press in 1842” Dialogue 9 (Winter 1974), pp. 21-34. The Catechism contains references to Old Testament polygamy to justify Mormon practice. Rather ironically the Book of Mormon had condemned plural marriage (Jacob 1:15, 2:24). Also see Richard Bushman; Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984), Thomas Alexander; “The Reconstruction of Mormon Doctrine: From Joseph Smith to Progressive Theology”, Sunstone 10:5 (May 1985), Lyndon Cook and Andrew Ehat (eds.); The Words of Joseph Smith (Orem, UT: Grandin, 1991.

5. D. Michael Quinn; The Mormon Hierarchy: The Origins of Power (SLC: Signature, 1994), Quinn; The Mormon Hierarchy: Extensions of Power (SLC: Signature, 1997).

6. On this period in Mormon history see Edward Leo Lyman; Political Deliverance: The Mormon Quest for Statehood (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986) and Richard Poll; “The Mormon Question Enters National Politics, 1850-1856” Utah Historical Quarterly 25 (April 1957), pp. 117-131. On the Utah War see Norman Furniss; The Mormon Conflict, 1850-1859 (New Haven, CT.: Yale University Press, 1960) and Richard Poll; “The Move South”, BYU Studies 29:4 (Fall 1989), pp. 65-88. It's worth noting that the federal attacks on Mormonism were amongst the first instances where the federal military apparatus was used against someone other than “savage” First Peoples. The notion that slavery and polygamy were “barbaric” probably aided the feds and others in rationalizing their actions and receiving public backing for them. For presidential speeches on the evils of Mormon polygamy see Ulysses S. Grant; “Annual Message to the Congress of the United States” (4 December 1871) in James Richardson (ed.); A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents 1709-1908 (Washington, DC: Bureau of National Literature and Art, 1909), Rutherford B. Hayes; “Annual Message to the Congress of the United States” (2 December 1879) in Richardson (ed.); A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents 1709-1908, James A. Garfield; “Inaugural Address” (March 1881) in Richardson (ed.); A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents 1709-1908, Chester A. Arthur; “Annual Message to the Congress of the United States” (1 December 1884) in Richardson (ed.); A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents 1709-1908, and Grover Cleveland; “Annual Message to the Congress of the United States” (8 December 1885) in Richardson (ed.); A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents 1709-1908.

7. See Julie Roy Jeffry; Frontier Women: Civilizing the West? 1840-1880 (NYC: Hill and Wang, second edition, 1998), pp. 179-213, Julie Dunfey; “'Living the Principle' of Plural Marriage: Mormon Women, Utopia, and Female Sexuality in the Nineteenth Century”, Feminist Studies 10:3 (Fall 1984), pp. 523-536, Joan Iverson, “A Debate on the American Home: The Antipolygamy Controversy, 1880-1890”, Journal of the History of Sexuality 1:4 (1991), pp. 585-602 , and Stanley Ivins, “Notes on Mormon Polygamy. On the antipolygamist accusations of incest see Jessie Embry; “Ultimate Taboos”, Journal of Mormon History 18:1 (Spring 1992), pp. 93-113. For an interesting analysis of Protestant women’s mission groups in the West, one of the goals of which was to “save” Mormon women from the horrors of polygamy, see Peggy Pascoe; Relations of Rescue: The Search for Female Moral Authority in the American West, 1874-1939 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), pp. 20ff, 61 ff. Fanny Stenhouse's Tell it All: A Woman's Life in Polygamy (White Fish MT: Kessinger, 1875) is a prominent ex-Mormon's story of life in polygamy.

8. E.B. Long; The Saints and the Union (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1981).

9. On Reynolds v. the United States see Reynolds v. the United States cited in Cases Argued and Decided in the US Supreme Court, October Term, 1878, Book 25 (Rochester, NY.: Lawyer’s Cooperative Publishing Company, 1926), Sarah Gordon; The Mormon Question: Polygamy and Constitutional Conflict in Nineteenth Century America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002), Edwin Firmage and Richard Mangrum; Zion in the Courts: A Legal History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988), Edwin Gaustad; Proclaim Liberty Throughout the Land: A History of Church and State in America (NYC: Oxford University Press, 2003), and Nancy Cott; Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), pp. 113-114. The decision of the Supreme Court, of course, was influenced by ideologies which sanctified monogamy and which were grounded in a generalized American Protestant discourse.

10. On the antipolygamy campaigns see Joan Iverson, “A Debate on the American Home”: The Antipolygmy Controversy, 1880-1890,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 1:4 (1991), pp. 585-602. The Edmunds-Tucker Act can be found in “US Reports, Senate”, 98.

11. Critics of Mormonism believed that the Saints practiced a form of political, economic, and cultural tribalism. They waxed conspiratorially about a Mormon totalitarianism that brainwashed the minds of its own citizens and which was conspiring to take over the universe. On claims that Mormons were engaged in a host of conspiracies see David Brion Davis; “Some Themes of Countersubversion: An Analysis of Anti-Masonic, Anti-Catholic, and Anti-Mormon Literature”, Mississippi Valley Historical Review 47 (September 1960). The manifesto ending polygamy can be most conveniently found in the Doctrine and Covenants as the first of the “Official Declaration”.

12. On Emma, including her opposition to polygamy, see Linda Newell and Valeen Tippetts Avery, Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith--Prophet's Wife (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, second edition, 1993). For Young’s reminiscences see Journal of Discourses, 17, 9 August 1874, (London: Latter-day Saints Book Depot, 1854-1886), p. 159. William Law’s attack Smith can be found in the Nauvoo Expositor 7 June 1844. Newell and Avery's sympathetic biography of Emma Smith provides detailed information on her flip flops toward “celestial marriage”.

13. On Pratt’s response see Thomas Lyon: “Orson Pratt—Early Mormon Leader” (Master’s Thesis, University of Chicago, 1932), pp. 34-44. On Sarah Pratt’s struggles with her husband polygamy “Orson Pratt’s Harem” New York Herald, 18 May 1878, Anti-Polygamy Standard, February 1882, p. 81, and Orson Pratt. Letter to Sarah Pratt, 18 September 1878. LDS Archives, Salt Lake City, Utah. On the early history of the RLDS (now the Community of Christ) see Roger Launius, Joseph Smith III: Pragmatic Prophet (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988), and Baleen Tippetts Avery; From Mission to Madness: Last Son of the Mormon Prophet (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1998).

14. Leonard Arrington and Davis Bitton; The Mormon Experience (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, second edition 1992), p. 199. Arrington’s and Bitton’s analysis of Mormon polygamy can be found on pp. 194-205.

15. To counteract the growing Fundamentalist movement the Church, a twentieth century sectarian movement which placed the practice of “the Principle” at the center of its restoration of true Mormonism, the Church began in the1930s to actively excommunicate “Fundamentalists” and deny them access to Church Temples. Under the leadership of second counselor in the First Presidency Reuben J. Clark and later, Elder Mark E. Peterson the Church, in fact, went so far as to demand a loyalty oath from select members in which members assured the authorities that they weren't practicing “the Principle”. The hierarchy asked “worthy Mormons” to denounce both the idea and the practice of polygamy. The sacred had become profane. Monogamy was now the sole sacred marriage pattern for God's Latter-day Saints. By the 1940s and in to the 1950s the Church's position on plural marriage had changed to such an extent that it was now actively helping state and local law enforcement agencies in the Mormon culture region target Fundamentalist polygamists and raid their communities and residences. This opposition to polygamy within the very institution that had once argued for its divine origin and centrality to eternal life seems to have been aimed, in part, at counteracting the Church's negative public image. The anti-polygamy rhetoric and anti-polygamy actions of the church almost certainly have their roots in a concern over public relations and church growth. Mormon leaders have always been conscious of how the public has viewed their faith if for no other reason than that they have always seen themselves as part of the only one true form of the Christian faith. This has given impetus to active and vigorous proselytization by the Church all around the world. Church officials presumably believed that there was a tension between the continued practice of “the Principle” and church growth, at least in the early and middle parts of the twentieth century. Interestingly, despite the antipolygamy campaigns of the Church's enemies between the 1850s and early 1900s, Church growth was not hurt (probably largely because Saints were “gathering to Zion” from overseas). The demise of Zionist rhetoric was likewise in part related to public relations concerns. Like the supposed death of plural marriage, however, the demise of prompting for Mormons to gather to Zion was more rhetorical than actual since some 70 plus percent of the population in Utah remains LDS. This was the broader social and cultural context in which Arrington and Bitton wrote. On Mormon Fundamentalism and the Church campaign against them see Martha Bradley; “Changed Faces: The Official LDS Position on Polygamy”, Sunstone 14:1 (February 1990), pp. 26-33 D. Michael Quinn; Elder Statesman: A Biography of Reuben J. Clark (SLC: Signature, 2002), Merrill Singer; “Nathaniel Baldwin, Utah Inventor and Patron of the Fundamentalist Movement”, Utah Historical Quarterly 47:1, pp. 42-53, D. Michael Quinn; “Plural Marriage and Mormon Fundamentalism”, Dialogue 31:2 (Summer 1998), pp. 1-68, and Martha Bradley; “The Women of Fundamentalism: Short Creek, 1953”, Dialogue 23:2 (Summer 1990), pp. 15-38.

16. Leonard Arrington and Davis Bitton, The Mormon Experience (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, second edition 1992), pp. 199 and 204.

17. The Mormon Restoration was a purifying movement in the Church to return the faith to its original fervour. In other words, it was a sectarian moment in institutional Mormonism.

18. Stanley Ivins, “Notes on Mormon Polygamy,” Western Humanities Review 10 (Summer 1956), pp. 229-239.

19. James Smith and Phillip Kunz, “Polygyny and Fertility in Nineteenth-century America,” Population Studies, 30 (1976), pp. 465-480. Smith and Kunz's sample included 792 monogamous families, 257 two-wife families, and 193 three-wife families. Four wife plus families were excluded from their sample because of the small number of families in this category.

20. Lowell “Ben” Bennion; “The Incidence of Mormon Polygamy in 1880: “Dixie” versus Davis Stake”, Journal of Mormon History 11 (1984), pp. 27-42. Bennion also found that there were variations in polygamy rates in the regions themselves. In Davis County, for instance, rates of polygamy ranged from 5% to 32%. Bennion believes that even his more sophisticated analysis probably underestimated the extent of plural marriage in the regions he studied. Orderville also happened to be the most communal of the “United Order” cooperative settlements established in Utah. Mormon communes were regarded by many of the faithful as a return to the commands made to the Lord’s People in the revelations received by their Prophet Joseph Smith. The connection between communal living and polygamic practice would not have been a surprise or a mystery to them.

21. Larry Logue; “A Time of Marriage: Monogamy and Polygamy in a Utah Town”, Journal of Mormon History 11 (1984), pp. 3-26. When analyzed in purely household terms, Logue's rates rose to 34% in 1870 and 38.5% in 1880. Like Bennion, Logue also found variation in incidence rates within Utah's “Dixie”.

22. Marie Cornwall, Camela Courtright, and Laga Van Beek; “How Common the Principle? Women as Plural Wives in 1860”, Dialogue 26:2 (Summer 1993), pp. 139-153. Cornwall studied the incidence of polygamy among Mormon women by drawing on the 1860 US Census supplemented with Ancestral File information. The study analyses three Salt Lake City wards: the urban 13th Ward, the urban 20th Ward, which had a significant percentage of foreign born members, and the rural Mill Creek Ward.

23. Jan Shipps, Cheryl May, and Dean May; “Sugar House Ward: A Latter-day Saint Congregation”, in James Wind and James Lewis (eds.); American Congregations: Volume I, Portraits of Twelve Religious Communities (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994, pp. 293-348).

24. Thomas Alexander; Things in Heaven and on Earth: The Life and Times of Wilford Woodruff, a Mormon Prophet (SLC: Signature, 1993) and Olive Andelin Potter. Autobiography of Olive Andelin Potter. Typescript. Harold B. Lee Library, BYU. Sarah Pratt’s concerns can be found in Elizabeth Ivins. Elizabeth Asby Snow Ivins Statement. Anthony W. Ivins Collection. Utah State Historical Society Library.

25. Eugene Campbell and Bruce Campbell, “Divorce among Mormon Polygamists”, Utah Historical Quarterly 46 (Winter 1978), pp. 4-23.

26. On plural marriage rules necessitating the permission of first wives see the book by the non-Mormon, William Hepworth Dixon; New American (Philadelphia: Lippencott, 1867). The reminiscences of the St. George elder and his wife is found in Kimball Young; Isn’t One Wife Enough? The Story of Mormon Polygamy (NYC: Holt, 1954), p. 123. Brigham Young’s quote is from Journal of Discourses 4 21 September, 1856, p. 55. Sarah Pratt’s feelings are expressed in Elizabeth Ivins. Elizabeth Asby Snow Ivins Statement. Anthony W. Ivins Collection. Utah State Historical Society Library.

27. Carroll Smith Rosenberg has written extensively about the nineteenth century female world of love and ritual in her Disorderly Conduct: Visions of Gender in Victorian America (NYC: Oxford, 1985).

28. Maureen Ursenbach Beecher; “The 'Leading Sisters': A Female Hierarchy in Nineteenth Century Mormon Society”, Journal of Mormon History 9 (1982), pp. 26-39 and Lola Van Wagenen; “In Their Own Behalf: The Politicization of Mormon Women and the 1870 Franchise”, Dialogue 24 (Winter 1991), pp. 31-43.

29. Julie Dunfey; “’Living the Principle’ of Plural Marriage: Mormon Women, Utopia, and Female Sexuality in the Nineteenth Century,” Feminist Studies 10:3 (Fall 1984), pp. 523-536.

30. J.E. Hullett; “Social Role and Personal Security in Mormon Polygamy”, American Journal of Sociology 44:4 (January 1940), pp. 542-553.

31. Carol Cornwall-Madsen; “At Their Peril': Utah Law and the Case of Plural Wives, 1850-1900.” Western Historical Quarterly 21 (November 1990), pp. 425-43.

32. J.E. Hullett; “The Social Role of the Mormon Polygamous Male”, American Sociological Review 8 (June 1943), pp. 279-287.

33. Jessie Embry; Mormon Polygamous Families: Life in the Principle (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1987).

34. Ada and Vady Hart are quoted in Jesse Embry; “”Effects of Polygamy on Mormon Women”, Frontier—A Journal of Women Studies, 7, 1984, pp. 56-61.

35. Emmeline B. Wells. Diary, 30 September 1874 and 10 October 1874. LDS Archives. Salt Lake City, Utah and Martha Hughes. Letter to Angus Wells, 3 February 1888. Martha Hughes Cannon Collection. LDS Archives. Salt Lake City, Utah.

36. As Foster (Lawrence Foster; "Polygamy and the Frontier: Mormon Women in Early Utah", Utah Historical Quarterly 50 (Summer 1982), pp. 268‒89) note, the Church hierarchy did not condone divorce but made it relatively easy to obtain. Utah had one of the most liberal divorce laws in the United States by 1852. One simply had to be a resident of Utah or want to be a resident of Utah to file for divorce in the territory. Generally divorces were granted by LDS Church Courts to its members after a year of separation or when reconciliation between husband and wife was impossible. Divorce was easier for women than men. Church leaders repeatedly counseled husbands to live up to their marital obligations, while they routinely granted women divorces on the grounds of incompatibility. According to Campbell and Campbell Mormons were granted 1645 divorces between 1847 and 1877 in a Utah which contained 86,706 people in 1870. Of 72 Church General Authorities engaged in polygamy, 39 got divorces, 54 had broken marriages, and 26 were involved in separations. Jessie Embry is highly critical of Campbell and Campbell's analysis of divorce among Mormons in Utah. She notes that their data set is based on the assumption that 2% of LDS males were practicing polygamy, a percentage that now seems way too low. She also notes that since men were married to more than one wife, one cannot simply look at the number of divorces per the number of men. While Embry (Jessie Embry; Mormon Polygamous Families: Life in the Principle (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1987)) does not explore divorce rates in her sample she does refer to a study by Kunz drawn from a random sample of family group sheets which indicates that 2.7% of plural marriages (counting each wife as one marriage) ended in divorce as compared to 2.5% of monogamous marriages. On divorce in Utah Eugene Campbell and Bruce Campbell; “Divorce among Mormon Polygamists: Extent and Explanations,” Utah Historical Quarterly 46 (Winter 1978), pp. 4-23 and Phillip Kunz; “One Wife or Several: A Comparative Study of Late Nineteenth Century Marriage in Utah” in Thomas Alexander (ed.), The Mormon People: Their Character and Traditions (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press, 1980), pp. 53-73.

37. Martha Hughes Cannon. Martha Hughes Cannon Collection. LDS Archives, Salt Lake City, Utah and Tim Heaton; “Vital Statistics” in Ludlow (ed.); Encyclopedia estimates that between 1830 and 1840 30% of Mormons were practising polygamy. Heaton argues that between 1855 and 1859 the percentage declined to 12% while after 1880 it was rare as a result of American government action against the Saints. What all of the data on plural marriage suggests is that further study of “the Principle” is necessary and that analyses need to be more operationally compatible. For a first hand account of the penitentiary experiences of a Mormon male see Rudger Clawson. “Penitentiary Experiences”, LDS Archives, Salt Lake City, Utah.

38. J.E. Hullett; “Social Role and Personal Security in Mormon Polygamy”, American Journal of Sociology 44:4 (January 1940), pp. 542-553.

39. In terms of “the Principle” and ethnicity Logue (Larry Logue; “A Time of Marriage: Monogamy and Polygamy in a Utah Town”, Journal of Mormon History 11 (1984), pp. 3-26) and Bennion (Lowell “Ben” Bennion; “The Incidence of Mormon Polygamy in 1880: “Dixie” versus Davis Stake”, Journal of Mormon History 11 (1984), pp. 27-42) found that 40% of polygamists were foreign born. Native-born Mormons, hence, had higher polygamy rates, though we do not know how significant this difference was. Cornwall and her colleagues (Marie Cornwall, Camela Courtright, and Laga Van Beek, “How Common the Principle? Women as Plural Wives in 1860,” Dialogue 26:2 (Summer 1993), pp. 139-153) detected a 35.2% foreign-born population in the 13th Ward, a foreign born population of 95% in the 20th, and a foreign born rate of 67% in Mill Creek Ward. This data suggests that there was no correlation between polygamy and ethnicity. On the other hand, the highest rate of plural marriage was in Mill Creek, the district with the second highest foreign-born rate.
In terms of the relationship between Mormon polygamy and wealth Quinn notes that high status Church leaders practiced polygamy at impressive rates (Quinn; The Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power (SLC: Signature, 1994), and Quinn; The Mormon Hierarchy: The Extensions of Power (SLC: Signature, 1997) See particularly the biographical information on church leaders (including their marital status) in the appendices of Quinn's books). Logue (Larry Logue; “A Time of Marriage: Monogamy and Polygamy in a Utah Town”, Journal of Mormon History 11 (1984), pp. 3-26) found that among the men who took a plural wife while in their 20s, one-quarter of these had significant wealth. Those who married early in life had an average of $2590 in personal property. Those who waited before they engaged in plural marriage had an average $1975 in personal property. There is, however, counterevidence to the importance of wealth and status to the practice of polygamy, however. Logue's data shows that between 1870 and 1880 the practice of “the Principle” among unskilled workers in the St. George area increased from 18 to 57. These were hardly wealthy, high status individuals. Shipps, May, and May (Jan Shipps, Cheryl May, and Dean May; “Sugar House Ward: A Latter-day Saint Congregation”, in James Wind and James Lewis (eds.); American Congregations: Volume I, Portraits of Twelve Religious Communities (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994, pp. 293-348.)) note that the average value per household in Sugar House Ward was $544 and that these individuals had an average of $100 in other property. There was only one wealthy individual in this ward, a mill owner whose mill was worth $40,000 and personal property worth $10,000. However, 28% of the households in this ward were polygamous. Cornwall and her colleagues Marie Cornwall, Camela Courtright, and Laga Van Beek, “How Common the Principle? Women as Plural Wives in 1860,” Dialogue 26:2 (Summer 1993), pp. 139-153.) also raise questions about the link between polygamy and wealth. In their study of three Salt Lake Valley wards, they found that the elite 13th Ward had real wealth worth $1672 and a polygamy rate of 43%. The 20th ward had real wealth worth $958 and a plural marriage rate of 33%. Real wealth data in the farm dominated Mill Creek Ward was unobtainable. This ward had the highest incidence of polygamy at 50%. If one only looks at the 13th and 20th Wards the data seems to suggest a link between wealth and plural marriage. The wild card, however, is Mill Creek Ward. This farm-dominated ward was certainly not as wealthy as the 13th yet it had a polygamy rate of 50%. Embry (Jessie Embry; Mormon Polygamous Families: Life in the Principle (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1987)) who perhaps more than anyone else raises questions about the link between status and the practice of plural marriage. She found that polygamous and monogamous husbands had similar religious activity rates and that they held basically the same “callings” or positions in the Church on the local level. Given that her analysis focuses on provincial patterns, however, one wonders if these patterns would be the same if her focus was on the general Church hierarchy instead. Nevertheless, Embry does raise questions about the proposition that polygamic practice was linked to high status levels on the local level. However, her data, which shows that there were a higher proportion of polygamists in regional offices like the stake presidency, does point to a relationship between status and “the Principle” on the regional level, while Quinn's data suggests its importance in the Church wide level.
The relationship between plural marriage and urban versus rural areas of the Mormon Culture regions is ambiguous. Logue (Larry Logue; “A Time of Marriage: Monogamy and Polygamy in a Utah Town”, Journal of Mormon History 11 (1984), pp. 3-26) and Bennion (Lowell “Ben” Bennion; “The Incidence of Mormon Polygamy in 1880: “Dixie” versus Davis Stake”, Journal of Mormon History 11 (1984), pp. 27-42) found that there were higher rates of polygamy in larger towns than in rural areas. Cornwall and her colleagues found contrary evidence, however. They detected a higher rate of polygamy in the most rural of the wards they studied in the Salt Lake Valley, Mill Creek Ward.


  1. Very interesting. I enjoyed it. While reading it, I wondered if there have even been made comparisons between Mormon polygamy and the Chinese concubine arrangements.

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  4. Not that I know of. It would be interesting to do the comparison, however, particularly with respect to the whole issue of patriarchy. You could also compare notions of sisterhood in Mormon polygamy with that in women's colleges.