My ancestors were polygamous. My family moved from California to Salt Lake City when I was ten, and I quickly found that some of my classmates were distant relatives as polygamous family trees spread very wide. From one man springs many wives and children, so my classmate could be from some great-great-great-grandfather’s third wife while I was from the second.
While writing a blog post about the commonality between the black churches and the Mormons in bullying gay people, I realized most Americans don’t know much about Mormon polygamy beyond some cartoon image. The HBO series Big Love has done a lot to familiarize people with the workings of polygamous families (yo Dustin Lance Black!), although as that show makes clear, there is a big distinction between fringe modern polygamists and the official church in Salt Lake City.
A couple of quick things to know about Mormon polygamy:
- Life was hard for all of the Mormon pioneers. Persecuted in the eastern United States well before polygamy became common, they fled to Utah precisely because it was so desolate and isolated. It was the biblically metaphorical flight to the desert. (There is even controversy over whether founder Joseph Smith ever taught polygamy, most scholars think he did.)
- Not all Mormons were polygamous, in fact most were monogamous. It was considered a serious responsibility to take on a larger family. But as a sex obsessed society (in religions and pornography) it is polygamy that makes the news.
- Life for polygamist families was hard. Survival in the Great Basin could be grim, and the men of the family often had church duties requiring extensive time away from home, as all travel was slow before the railroads. Often the men would even leave for years at a time to do missionary work abroad. The multiple wives then banded together to care for the household, a practical solution in harsh times.
- More men died on the trek west than women. I did two month long survival trips in the Utah deserts. From my experience in brutal outdoor situations, men have more burst strength, able to pick up the sick person and carry them over the next hill, but women have more fundamental strength, getting up the next morning and not only fixing breakfast but fussing with their hair and clothes in a way I could not do. Pushing oxcarts and pulling handcarts across the continent killed a lot of men, leaving more women than men in pioneer Utah. In an age when every woman needed a man in a way we little understand now, polygamy was again a practical solution.
- I don’t know how 19th century Mormons managed their sex lives and intimate relations, but its probably pretty close to the tangle of love and complexity portrayed in Big Love. Managing multiple wives would tax any man, and loving a husband with multiple affections would tax any woman. We can still drive around Salt Lake City and see in the homes of my progenitors how they arranged their households: “This was the house of the first wife, the one around the corner was for his third, the second lived down the hill…”
For the roots of polygamy, see my post on Biblical Polygamy. It’s not like the Mormons made this stuff up.
Polygamy makes family trees complex, and Mormon marriage practices make it weirder still. Take Brigham Young. Brigham had many wives, but no one agrees how many, partly because the Mormon concept of “marriage” was so weird, like everything else about them. Also, because polygamy was so persecuted, there was a lot of hiding. Visitors of that time report the Mormon wives were very hidden, and spotting them was a bit of a triumph.
Mark Twain was the rudest commentator, as he always skewered the pious wherever he found them, but of course the most funny. He said he felt called to criticize the Mormons and Brigham Young in particular,
Brigham Young had wives he lived with and had sex with, may have had wives he was married to and lived with but did not have sex with, definitely had wives he was married to but never lived with or had sex with, and had wives he had sex and children with but because the woman was a widow when she married Brigham her first husband was considered her spirit husband so the children generated by Brigham’s little swimmers were considered to actually be the children of the first husband in the eyes of God and church. Got that? Plus there may have been women spiritually married to Brigham who he may not have met or even known about. Six of the women he was married to were already married to other men, and for another six we are not sure of their marital status when they took up with “The Lion of the Lord.” Rawrrr! (For more details see Jeffery Ogden Johnson’s Determining and Defining ‘Wife’: The Brigham Young Households)
…until I saw the Mormon women. Then I was touched. My heart was wiser than my head. It warmed toward these poor, ungainly and pathetically “homely” creatures, and as I turned to hide the generous moisture in my eyes, I said, “No–the man that marries one of them has done an act of Christian charity which entitles him to the kindly applause of mankind, not their harsh censure–and the man that marries sixty of them has done a deed of open-handed generosity so sublime that the nations should stand uncovered in his presence and worship in silence.
Brigham’s case is particularly colorful because he was such an imperious figure, but he certainly illustrates the point. Brigham’s Grand Total: around 55, but with marriage defined in such a slippery way, who knows.
(To save my family’s honor, the women did somehow get more beautiful over the years. To prove it, here are my grandmothers.)
Modern Mormons and Polygamy
These are the people now leading the country in the last great fight in defense of traditional marriage, which is the point of this post. While Mormon polygamy is fascinating, it is the persecution complex that developed from that period that I find most interesting.
Mormons were forced out of the practice of polygamy by the US government. They never changed their theology, gave it up reluctantly, submitting to secular oppression. I have never met a modern Mormon who can speak intelligently about the current implications of the abandoned religious teachings they held as pivotal in their founding decades. They usually collapse into this vague, “Well that was then, it is part of our history, and we just don’t know God’s plan.” In the 19th century polygamy was “celestial marriage,” meaning of the highest possible realm. There was no higher manifestation of living God’s truth than to be plurally married, and it was literally considered to be the divine order of the universe.
Mormons assume God to be married, as that is how we come to be God’s children. He is literally our Father in Heaven, the parent of our spirits as our earthly father is the parent of our body, and of course that requires a mother too. God’s wife is never discussed in Mormon theology, as she is considered too sacred a topic, so must be protected. The Mormon God’s wife is a veiled woman, permanently kept hidden and beyond comment out of respect. As polygamists, Mormons would have believed God’s marriage was polygamous, so God had multiple wives. This is not official church policy, as this was way too touchy a topic to make public pronouncements about, but I commonly heard this kind of talk while growing up.
The Persecution Complex
Few Americans get the extent of anti-Mormon persecution in the 19th century based on those polygamous practices:
- The largest military action in US history before the Civil War was against the Mormons, in The Utah War. The Americans believed the Mormons were plotting armed rebellion and attacks against the United States. (At the time America only controlled Northern California and north up the coast. Mormons moved to an area claimed but not controlled by Mexico, and Brigham Young envisioned a great Mormon empire called Deseret that would become a state of the United States.) The Mormons responded by abandoning their settlements ahead of the approaching battalions, taking their stored food and burning their fields so the troops had to rely on supplies from the East. The US forces finally reached Salt Lake City, and found it abandoned but for young men standing with torches ready to burn the city rather than surrender it. Brigham Young had ordered all 30,000 Mormons to take their families and possessions and retreat farther south. It is a complex story, but in the end the Mormon’s strategy of passive resistance worked, and the commanding officer realized these people were not in active rebellion. A peace was negotiated, beginning federal control over the Mormons and the Utah Territories.
- The US government made it a felony to be a polygamist, or even to be suspected of being a polygamist, which allowed them to deny Mormons the right to vote or hold office, and block Utah’s attempt to become a state. The US even made it a felony to profess belief that polygamy was righteous, whether or not one practiced it. So that’s denial of due process, free speech, and freedom of religion, all for believing in biblical marriage.
- To force Mormon sexual compliance, the US Congress of 1887 authorized the government to seize control of the church and the US Attorney General moved to take over the church and all its assets.
- Under threat of complete destruction by the US government, the Mormon Prophet gave in and revoked the practice of plural marriage in 1890. His handwritten statement declared that the church would follow the laws of the land, submit to the US government, and not even teach polygamy, although his statement never admits to an actual change in their beliefs. This proclamation is now part of the Mormon scriptural canon.
The Implications For Today
Although the official Mormon Church began excommunicating polygamous members in 1910, the effects of these actions reverberate to this day. One of my mother’s great-grandfathers spent time in Federal prison for being a polygamist. Mitt Romney’s father was born in Mexico because his family fled there to avoid American persecution.
Modern Mormons practice active denial about their polygamous history. They fully acknowledge and even celebrate their history, while giving no consideration to modern implications. As an example, the Mormon church now exists in countries that allow polygamy, and where it is in fact the local custom, as in many African nations. So the church sticks by its “we don’t do that anymore” pledge, when it would now be perfectly legal to re-instate this higher order of marriage in those jurisdictions. I can tell you, today’s BYU students are not spending much time thinking that one through.
The heritage of Mormon polygamy lives on in the taunting. It is humiliating to modern Mormons, trying so hard to appear as the most normal of Americans, that the main thing they are known for is the aberrant family patterns of their 19th century past. There is nothing they want more than for people to let it go, and yet there is nothing more titillating than other people’s sex habits that seem a little, um, queer.
Why are Mormons the most fanatical of all groups in the US about “family values” and “traditional marriage?” Because that is what they get teased about. They will do anything to prove the bullies wrong. The result is… they become the bullies themselves.
(All oldey timey pictures are of my ancestors, except for Brigham Young. The Youngs are cousins.)