A Letter Concerning Mormon Polygamy
To whom it may concern,
First, I wanted to say how grateful I am to have you as my son’s teacher. He is very happy after school and has wonderful things to say about you and his classmates.
I have one concern though.
Preston was telling me he learned about polygamy in social studies and he was under the impression that polygamy was instituted by Brigham Young to help women find a husband because men were in short supply due to violence and the extermination order placed on Mormons. I’m not exactly sure how he came to this conclusion, but I just wanted to make sure he received accurate information.
Polygamy is a very important part of our personal family history and religion. I am sealed to Joseph Smith, via my paternal side. Drew’s fourth great aunt is Joseph Smith’s first plural wife, Fanny Alger. We both come from a very polygamous heritage.
Joseph Smith began the practice of polygamy in roughly 1833 when he took on a second wife, 15 year-old Fanny Alger. (Plural Marriage in Kirkland and Nauvoo, LDS.org) In the process of marrying 30+ more women, he ended up lying to Emma and making a few mistakes along the way that contributed to his unfortunate death. (Todd Compton, In Sacred Loneliness)
Joseph Smith also married women who were already married to other men. Zina H.D. Young, Joseph’s fourth plural wife, was already pregnant with her husband’s child, Henry Jacobs, when she and Joseph were secretly married. Polyandry, though less common, was practiced by some of Joseph Smith’s wives. Men were not in short supply.
Once Joseph died, Brigham and Emma were in great disagreement about the practice of polygamy. It caused Emma and Joseph many hardships in their marriage. (Linda King Newell, Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith) Brigham left Nauvoo with the majority of the LDS membership and settled the modern day LDS Mormon Church in what is now Utah. Emma and her followers later started the RLDS Church, now referred to as the Community of Christ.
Brigham strongly believed in the practice of polygamy. He married women who were already married, including teenage girls. There were plenty of men in supply, “Despite these observations and assertions, a close review of the numbers of women and men in Nauvoo and later in Utah shows that it was never a primary driving force in the practice. Concerning gender censes in the West, historian Donna Hill wrote, ‘The claim of surplus women is not valid, since the United States census from 1850 to 1940 and all available records of the Utah church show that men outnumbered women in the church and in Utah.’ ” (Donna Hill, Joseph Smith, the First Mormon (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1977), 360.)
Brigham Young, for whatever reason, ended polyandry and instituted polygyny—meaning only men could have multiple wives and women could no longer have multiple husbands, thus making polygamy much more patriarchal.
As the practice became more widespread, girls were being married off at younger and younger ages. The youngest documented wife was 10 years old. The youngest documented wife to become pregnant was 13 years old. These girls were not in desperate need of male companionship, they had plenty of time to find a husband. Census data also confirms that polygamous wives produced fewer children than monogamous women. “The research also revealed that while polygamous men had dozens of children, the practice of having multiple wives (and thus sexual partners) had the opposite effect on women: For every wife added to the fold, the average number of children per wife dropped by one. The more wives a woman's husband has, the fewer children she is going to have personally.” (Jacob A. Moorad, Daniel E.L. Promislow, Ken R. Smith, Michael J. Wade, Journal of the Human Behavior and Evolution Society, March 2011, Volume 32, Issue 2, Pages 147-155)
Polygyny and religious fanaticism perpetuated the mentality that the more wives a man could attain the more godly he became. Monogamy was considered a shameful practice.
Here are some quotes from prominent LDS sources on the practice of polygyny:
Heber C. Kimball said “I have noticed that a man who has but one wife, and is inclined to that doctrine, soon begins to wither and dry up, while a man who goes into plurality looks fresh, young and spritely. Why is this? Because God loves that man, and because he honors his word. Some of you may not believe this, but I not only believe it but I also know it. For a man of God to be confined to one woman is small business…I do not know what we should do if we had but one wife apiece.” (Deseret News, April 22, 1857)
Millennial Star, an LDS Church publication, “…the one-wife system only degenerates the human family, both physically and intellectually, but it is entirely incompatible with the philosophical notions of immortality; it is a lure to temptation, and has always proved a curse to a people.” (Millennial Star, Vol. 15, p. 227)
George A. Smith said, “We breathe the free air, we have the best looking men and the handsomest women, and if they envy us our position, well they may, for they are a poor, narrow minded, pinch-backed race of men, who chain themselves down to the law of monogamy and live all their days under the dominion of one wife. They ought to be ashamed of such conduct…” (Deseret News, April 16, 1856)
The motives of many of these men were not of an altruistic nature to help lowly widows. They cared about how “handsome” the women were while simultaneously believing the practice was assigned from God.
There is certainly nuance to each situation, but many church and secular historians have confirmed polygamy was not a product of nice men helping widows to produce more offspring. Polygamy was ultimately practiced because Mormon theology teaches that polygamy is required to attain the highest degree of glory in the Celestial Kingdom.
Preston and I have had a long discussion about the practice of plural marriage and the differences among polygamy, polyandry, and polygyny. I’m sure polygamy wasn’t a prominent part of the social studies lesson, however, I just wanted to make sure that he is receiving an accurate account of early Utah polygamy and his family heritage. Mormons certainly are a “peculiar people”.
Please let me know if you would like to discuss further or have any concerns, thanks so much! I greatly appreciate you being such a wonderful teacher to Preston.