Fifty Years in the Wilderness

[This post is part of a series on Joseph Smith’s Polygamy. To read from the beginning or link to previously published posts, go to A Faithful Joseph.]

1997 Jubilee Celebration

The Mormon exodus and pioneer period tends to be well understood by Mormons. However as we typically don’t focus on the history of polygamy as part of that history, I feel it is useful to trace the impact of polygamy in the pioneer history between Brigham Young’s departure from Nauvoo until we see the Mormon Church denounce new plural marriages in 1890 (and again in 1904).
For purposes of this discussion, the Fifty Years I presume we agree that Mormons were in the wilderness stretch from their exodus from Nauvoo and the state of Illinois (starting 4 February 1846) to Utah’s admission as a state of the United States (January 4, 1896).

1846 – Winter Quarters

Winter Quarters by C.C.A. Christensen

Brigham Young had urged each family to gather a year’s supply of food, expecting it would take the entire summer growing season to reach safety in the Rocky Mountains. But not everyone prepared the requested supplies, and by the winter of 1846/1847 the Mormon refugees had only gotten to Nebraska, where they established Winter Quarters.

Concerned with the crushing poverty facing the people and the Church, emissaries to Washington D.C. arranged for a battalion of 500 to be raised from among the Mormons. The funds from the service of these 500 significantly helped those left behind.

Numerous plural marriages were solemnized at Winter Quarters, as single women without supplies attached themselves to the able men who had not left with the Mormon Battalion. Babies born to women who had contracted plural marriages in Nauvoo make up a portion of the 300 who died that terrible winter, including the babies of Joseph’s widows Emily Partridge and Elvira Annie Cowles.

1847 – This is the Place

The original 1847 fort (Old Fort) in Salt Lake Valley was quickly expected to the north and south to accommodate expected wagon trains

The pioneers did not reach the Salt Lake valley until late July, 1847. The crops they got planted did not yield significant food. The likelihood of a second winter of crushing illness and death loomed.

The Mormon Battalion was ordered to remain in California to avoid increasing the stress on the meager supplies available. Again, the pressure of pregnant wives caused great concern and the presence of “Europeans” in the valley caused the local Indians to become ill.

The Indians came to John Taylor, asking him to heal the Chief’s boy, who lay near death. John Taylor blessed the boy, then came back to the Old Fort, praying that the Lord would bless the child to live. Shortly thereafter the Indians approached the fort again, this time bringing gifts of sego lily bulbs, thistle root, and a nutty mash. Weeks later, when the nutty mash was exhausted and the pregnant women were again suffering, John Taylor traveled to visit the Indians again. The Indians were happy to share more of the nutty mash, which they revealed was made from ground up roasted crickets (a local pest) drizzled with honey.

John returned to the fort with the mash. He refused from that point to partake of the stuff, but did not tell the others what they were eating. Had he told the truth, it’s likely some of the pioneers would have refused the life-saving food. If your ancestor was born in 1848, it’s possible their life was saved by the Indians and John Taylor’s “lie.”

1852 – Preaching Polygamy from the Pulpit

Orson Pratt and Family, circa 1850, by Frederick H. Piercy

In August 1852 Orson Pratt was asked to deliver a sermon explaining the Mormon doctrine of polygamy. 1 As Orson explained,

…it is rather new ground to the inhabitants of the United States, and not only to them, but to a portion of the inhabitants of Europe; a portion of them have not been in the habit of preaching a doctrine of this description; consequently, we shall have to break up new ground.
It is well known, however, to the congregation before me, that the Latter-day Saints have embraced the doctrine of a plurality of wives, as a part of their religious faith. It is not, as many have supposed, a doctrine embraced by them to gratify the carnal lusts and feelings of man; that is not the object of the doctrine.

Orson Pratt had notably been the apostle whose wife had been seduced by John C. Bennett, and Orson’s original refusal to sustain Joseph Smith as innocent of the seduction Bennett had accused Joseph of attempting had caused great turmoil in the Quorum of the Twelve while Joseph was in hiding during 1842.

In the wake of the open acknowledgement that Mormons practiced polygamy, opposition to the Mormons and their beliefs intensified. It is widely presumed that the open preaching of polygamy ended any chance for Utah statehood when the attempt was made in 1856. The number of individuals gathering to Utah declined in the wake of this announcement. In 1852 thirty-five companies traveled to Utah. Two years later the number was less than half as many. 2

1856 – Arrest and Handcarts

"Mormon Hand-Cart Train - History of Iowa" by Published in above-mentioned work, which was by Benjamin F. Gue - Image:History of Iowa From the Earliest Times to the Beginning of the Twentieth Century Volume 1.djvu. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons -

Handcart Pioneers – 1903 illustration from History of Iowa

A couple of years after the 1852 announcement, an unknown reporter for Putnam’s Magazine secured an interview with the US Marshall, Mormon Joseph Leland Heywood, and two of his three wives. According to the article that appeared in the magazine the fall of 1855, this was “the only instance in which I have seen two wives of the same man together…” The reporter ended his piece predicting the imminent demise of Heywood’s original wife, for he had “detected in her countenance, while in repose, a look so gloomily sad, that her whole heart of agony lay bare before me. Poor, poor wife! Her days are destined to be few, and full of trouble.” 3 A month after the article was published, the 40-year-old Heywood married his 16-year-old ward, Mary Bell, 4 and proceeded to Washington DC.

Once in DC, Heywood was notified he had been fired from his position as US Marshall. Further, Heywood was put on house arrest under suspicion of stealing five dollars (a charge that was later found to be false). Reeling from the twin blows of being fired and arrested, Heywood visited Senator Stephen A. Douglas, who he had known when Heywood was a successful merchant in Quincy, Illinois. When Senator Douglas received Heywood, he inquired after Heywood’s wife, who he had known, asking “if she was living.”

Meanwhile those who were willing to embrace Mormonism in the face of polygamy had only the most meager economic resources. As most who had traveled to the Salt Lake valley walked most the way, Brigham Young decided that these impoverished converts might be able to walk, pushing their few belongings in hand-drawn carts. Each handcart company would be accompanied by a wagon company to carry the food and supplies needed by all to succeed in the journey. The three initial handcart companies made the journey successfully, leaving Iowa City in June, and departing Florence Nebraska roughly six weeks later, in July. These three arrived in Utah nine weeks after leaving Florence, in late September or early October.

Two more handcart companies arrived in Florence roughly a month after the initial three. After deliberation, a majority of these pioneers decided to press on to Utah, hoping the warm weather would hold through October. But the snows arrived early that year, trapping the two handcart companies and their accompanying wagon companies at Devil’s Gate. Over a hundred of the handcart pioneers died that snowy October. The immediate cause of their deaths was the decision of the local Florence authorities (headed by Franklin Richards) to urge the pioneers forward despite the late date. Brigham Young, as the one who developed the handcart plan, was also condemned for the disaster. But it bears noting that the poverty that had inspired the handcart plan and the animosity of the individuals in Florence that made a late departure seem desirable were both caused in large part by the Church’s stance regarding polygamy. 5

Unaware of the terrible weather ahead, Heywood left Washington DC in October to travel to Utah with the mail party. Delayed by weather, the mail party reached Devil’s Gate the day after Christmas, 1856. They spent the rest of the winter snowed in at the horrible landmark, where the bodies of the recent dead had been left. Despite the starvation conditions, the members of Heywood’s party refused to eat wolf meat. Eventually they were able to escape Devil’s Gate, arriving in Salt Lake valley on March 23. 6

1858 – The Utah War

Johnson’s Army in the Snow, illustration in Harper’s Weekly, April 14, 1858.

In 1857, the United States decided to act on its paranoia about the potentially seditious activities of the Utah Mormons. Secretary of War Floyd was a Southern sympathizer and was anxious to prevent the US government from using military force against a rebellious South. The possibility that polygamous Utah was in rebellion served as a convenient pretext for sending an army thousands of miles to the west.

The army began to form in May 1857. That same month well-loved Mormon apostle Parley P. Pratt had been gunned down by the husband of Eleanor McLean, an alleged drunkard and violent man. 7 After years of abuse, Eleanor had escaped her former marriage and sought to free her children from the man she’d so feared, aided by Parley P. Pratt, who she now regarded as her husband.

Word of Parley’s death arrived with word that an army was forming to march on Utah. Brigham sent out word that no one was to interact with the various wagon trains passing through Utah. But failure to interact meant inability for these wagon trains to obtain necessary food and water. Tensions rose, resulting in the Mountain Meadows Massacre on September 11, 1857, where a group of Mormons in Iron County attacked the Baker-Fancher wagon train headed for California. Only children too young to report on the massacre were spared. 8

Brigham required the saints to gather in Provo, a settlement south of natural topography very similar to Saratoga, where the embattled Americans were finally able to turn the tide against the British during the Revolutionary War. A few men were left behind in the settlements, ready to destroy all “improvements” on the land to prevent them from falling into the hands of the Army.

Once the Army approached Utah, negotiations ensued to avoid what was anticipated to become a bloody and damaging interaction. It wasn’t until late June that terms were established, and the Army marched peacefully through the valley. By early July, when the Mormons began to return home, they had lost yet another growing season. Worst, the bodies of unfed livestock littered fields throughout the Mormon settlements. By some accounts, the Mormon economy would not recover for as much as ten years.

The Utah War, prompted in large part by outsider concerns revolving around polygamy, created horrific economic conditions that further increased the need for leading men to reach out to protect Mormon women in the community.

Meanwhile Congress passed the 1862 Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act. 9 However given the US involvement in Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln decline to use the act to interfere with the Mormons so long as they left the United States alone. The act would not be upheld by the Supreme Court until 1879.

1870 – Women and the Vote

Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton celebrate Utah’s Success in Getting the Vote for Women, circa 1870

By 1870 various conditions had combined to make polygamy a marital fact for fully half of all Mormon women – they either were or had been married to a man with more than one wife.

Not obviously related, Brigham Young didn’t want anything to do with outside economies. By demonizing trade outside of the Mormon community, Brigham Young alienated merchants, particularly William Godbe. Godbe and his supporters began publishing in the Utah Magazine, a periodical that would later become the Salt Lake Tribune. In time Godbe became convinced that getting the vote to women would contribute to Brigham Young’s downfall. Godbe worked to get women the vote in Wyoming towards the end of eventually getting Mormon women the vote.

An amazing thing happened next. Both Mormon opponents and Mormon proponents decided it was in their best interest to secure the vote for women. Opponents thought the “oppressed Mormon women” would reject the political involvement of their men, and proponents saw that awarding women the vote would counter the image that Mormon women were oppressed.

While Wyoming’s fledgling vote for women got tied up in the courts, Utah’s decision to award the vote to women was celebrated by all. The size of the Mormon electorate swelled to three times the previous male-only Mormon electorate. And the women voted the way their men did.

As the opponents of Brigham Young realized their error, taking the vote away from the Mormons became the highest priority.

1882 – The Edmunds Act: Taking Away Mormon Rights

George Manwaring

George Manwaring, author of the hymn “Oh How Lovely Was the Morning,” died of pneumonia contracted while in prison under the Edmunds Act

By 1879 the Supreme Court had upheld the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act. Congress next moved to strip Mormons of the vote. The Edmunds Act 10 increased the penalties for bigamy, expanding the coverage of the law to include any case where a couple was determined to have been living together as man and wife, even if no marriage certificate could be found. This act of living together was termed co-habitation. During the weeks preceding passage of the act, the non-voting representative to Congress was denied his elected seat in Congress because he was a polygamist. 11

Ironically, a man keeping a mistress was not considered co-habitation. Thus the non-Mormon politicians of the day could continue carrying on as they wished. This included legalized prostitution near the army barracks, in Salt Lake City around second street, and in Ogden. 12 These legal brothels were populated with non-Mormon girls brought in to satisfy the sexual needs of non-Mormon men in the region.

From the time polygamy had been formally announced as a doctrine in 1852, Mormon apologists had argued that polygamy reduced the need for prostitution. Men commonly think this reduction was due to men being able to “get enough” at home. Women usually realize that the reduction came from women having no need to resort to the oldest profession to support their children. Even the many women who didn’t choose to marry into polygamy had vast extended families by virtue of the polygamy of others.

In an effort to destroy the Mormon influence in the region, the Edmunds Act denied the vote not only to “cohabs,” but to anyone who would not publicly recant the right of individuals to cohabitate.

1886 – John Taylor Seeks Revelation

1886 Revelation.jpg
1886 Revelation” by John Taylor – Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

In 1885 the hunt for the Mormon leadership had intensified to the point that John Taylor, Mormon President and prophet, decided he had to go underground.

As pressure mounted on the Church, John felt the will of his people requesting that he seek revelation on tha matter. Apparently he inquired how far the New and Everlasting Covenant was binding on the members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Apparently in John’s mind, polygamy was synonymous with the New and Everlasting Covenant. Given the way he had learned of “the Principle” in Nauvoo, this was an understandable mistake, a mistake Brigham Young and Heber Kimball might not have made, had they still been alive.

The response John got demanded that the New and Everlasting Covenant remain in place. By this, John understood that he was not at liberty to end the practice of plural marriage.

Two men in the safe house where the revelation was received would play a large part in advocating polygamy after the death of John Taylor. One was John’s son, Apostle John W. Taylor. The other was the owner of the safe house, Lorin C. Woolley.

1887 – The Edmunds-Tucker Act: Taking Away Mormon Property

Sophia Whittaker, wife of Mormon Prophet, John Taylor

Four events occurred in 1887.

Sophia Whitaker, wife of John Taylor, suffered a serious stroke. As she lay near death, federal agents surrounded the home and bed where she lingered, expecting to thus entrap the Mormon Prophet. They would invade her bedroom whenever it was possible John Taylor had returned to comfort his dying wife. Sophia’s son, at the time still a monogamist, stood at her side, witnessing these indignities. Sophia would die without ever seeing her husband again, to their mutual pain. 13

David Patten Rich, son of noted polygamist Charles Coulson Rich, was arrested for robbing a bank. His example as a moral degenerate produced by Mormon polygamy became an important part in the lobbying to pass the Edmunds Tucker Act, which would confiscate the property of the Mormon Church, leaving it with no more than $50,000 in assets. 14 David Rich was convicted of felony by the law and excommunicated by the Church. His wife, Alice Ann Kimball, divorced him and married Mormon apostle, Joseph F. Smith. 15

The Edmunds-Tucker Act passed. The assets of the Mormon Church became subject to seizure. 16

Heartbroken by the death of Sophia and passage of the Edmunds-Tucker Act, John Taylor died roughly two months after receiving news of these twin disasters in the same day. 17

Before John Taylor’s death, advisors had suggested the Mormons flee to Mexico. However John did not act on this advice. Instead he had moved to transfer as much Church property as possible into private hands.

1890 – Mormons Renounce Polygamy (Part 1)

Wilford Woodruff

Wilford Woodruff, Fourth Mormon Prophet

With the death of John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff became the Mormon Prophet. 18 Woodruff had not been in Nauvoo during the final period of Joseph Smith’s life, as he was heading up the Eastern States Mission at the time. Woodruff had not become a polygamist until the fall of 1846, as famine threatened the Mormons at Winter Quarters. The two young women Woodruff married would not submit to his request to avoid staying out all night with other men, so they were sent back to their families. It is not clear if these plural marriages had been consummated, nor is it certain that the women had engaged in sexual activity with the men with whom they had spent their nights.

As federal scrutiny intensified and the leaders of the Church went underground, Woodruff had ceased living with all but one of his plural wives.

In 1890 Woodruff faced the realization that the Edmunds-Tucker Act would result in the loss of the temples, the location where Mormons performed saving ordinances on behalf of their dead. He felt inspired that it was more important to retain these properties and the ability to perform the saving ordinances than maintain the practice of polygamy in mortality.

In September 1890, President Woodruff issued the Anti-Polygamy Manifesto, advising that Mormons should not enter into any future plural marriages prohibited by the law of the land. 19

Four years later, Woodruff’s revision of the Mormon understanding of temple ordinances took another dramatic turn. From the time of the 1846 temple ordinances in Nauvoo, it had not been possible for many saints to seal themselves along family lines. And so the practice had grown up of sealing people to Church leaders. In April, 1894, Wilford Woodruff stated that sealings should be performed linking individuals to their actual parents. 20 Shortly thereafter the Utah Genealogical Society was formed.

1896 – Utah Becomes A State

The Salt Lake Temple in 1897, draped with the U.S. flag used in the 1896 statehood celebration. Source: George Reed Collection, University of Utah.

With Mormon polygamy renounced, the United States cautiously considered making Utah a state.

One major question was whether women would be allowed to vote in the new state. Initially advocates of statehood desired to separate women’s suffrage from the matter of statehood, concerned that opposition to giving the vote to women would further delay statehood. But support of the women led to inclusion of their right to vote with the language making Utah a state. Despite the long history of female suffrage in Utah and denial of the vote to Mormons, only Wyoming and Colorado had granted the vote to women by the time Utah became a state. Female suffrage would not be granted throughout the United States until 1920.

In the minds of many Mormons, it was unclear whether the Manifesto affected their ability to practice polygamy in other nations. Although polygamy was illegal in Canada and Mexico, those countries had not decided to take a hard stance against Mormon polygamy. Various communities, such as Colonia Juarez, Mexico, sprung up just outside the US border, filled with plural wives and their children.

Though the majority of Mormons shrugged off polygamy willingly, a select few clung to the doctrine, believing it was a critical component of the restored gospel. The days of defiance were about to begin.

Future Planned Posts:

Days of Defiance
God’s Strange Act: A Legacy


  1. Orson Pratt, Celestial Marriage, delivered in the Tabernacle, Great Salt Lake City, August 29, 1852.
    Reported by G. D. Watt. Available online at, retrieved 20 July 2014.
  2. See Mormon Pioneer Overland Travel – Chronological Company List, available online at, retrieved 20 July 2014.
  3. Putnam’s magazine, Vol. VI, September 1855, No. XXXIII p. 265-266, reprinted in Ipson, Ever Faithful: The Life of Joseph Leland Heywood, pp. 220-221.
  4. It appears the marriage was more of an engagement intended to secure Mary as his wife upon his intended return a year later. Apparently Heywood married his ward at the request of his other three wives, as “they all loved her she did much to lighten the work load.” Besides this, Mary was the effective “mother” to the Paiute Indian boy Heywood had adopted.
  5. Various sources, including Mormon Handcart Pioneers, available online at, retrieved 20 July 2014.
  6. Ipson, Ever Faithful, pp. 198-202.
  7., retrieved 20 July 2014.
  8. See Mountain Meadows Massacre, available online at, retrieved 20 July 2014.
  9. See the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act, available at, retrieved 21 July 2014.
  10. See Edmunds Act, available online at, retrieved 21 July 2014.
  11. This elected representative was George Q. Cannon, a high-ranking member of the Mormon hierarchy.
  12. Hal Schindler, The Oldest Profession’s Sordid Past in Utah, available at, retrieved 21 July 2014.
  13. Samuel Taylor, John Taylor: The Last Pioneer.
  14. Personal account conveyed to Meg Stout.
  15. Joseph F. Smith Marriages and Family, available online at, retrieved 21 July 2014. Mormon prophet, Spencer Woolley Kimball, later opined that his cousins, the children of Alice Ann by David Patten Rich, should not have been sealed to Joseph F. Smith.
  16. See Edmunds-Tucker Act, available online at, retrieved 21 July 2014.
  17. Samuel Taylor, John Taylor: The Last Pioneer. If the news of Sophia’s death and passage of the Act wasn’t received exactly the same day, the twin disasters were relayed close together.
  18. See Wilford Woodruff, available online at, retrieved 21 July 2014.
  19. See 1890 Manifesto, available online at, retrieved 21 July 2014.
  20. Wilford Woodruff Sermon, available at,%20Wilford/WoodruffW_LawOfAdoption.html, retrieved 21 July 2014.
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About Meg Stout

Meg Stout has been an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ (of Latter-day Saints) for decades. She lives in the DC area with her husband, Bryan, and several daughters. She is an engineer by vocation and a writer by avocation. Meg is the author of Reluctant Polygamist, laying out the possibility that Joseph taught the acceptability of plural marriage but that Emma was right to assert she had been Joseph's only true wife.

38 thoughts on “Fifty Years in the Wilderness

  1. Meg, I am guessing there is a word missing or a typo here:

    “Brigham required the saints to gather in Provo, a settlement south of natural topography very similar to Saratoga, where the embattled Americans were finally able to turn the tide against the British during the Revolutionary War.”

  2. Interesting: “From the time polygamy had been formally announced as a doctrine in 1852, Mormon apologists had argued that polygamy reduced the need for prostitution. Men commonly think this reduction was due to men being able to “get enough” at home. Women usually realize that the reduction came from women having no need to resort to the oldest profession to support their children. Even the many women who didn’t choose to marry into polygamy had vast extended families by virtue of the polygamy of others.”

  3. Meg, can you flesh out a bit “the way he [John Taylor] had learned of ‘The Principle’ in Nauvoo”?


  4. Could an argument be made that sexual relations played a large part in polygamy? I’ve been researching Heber C. Kimball because one of his wives bears a surname in my family line (alas, I was hoping for some pioneer stock, but no luck.) Once he passed the Abramic test with Joseph asking for Vilate, he accepted the principle, and Vilate was given a vision affirming it. You noted on the other post that he married several of Joseph’s widows, and according to a biography, he went on the marry many more sisters either arranged by Vilate or on his own. He ended up fathering 65 children with 17 of his 39 wives, and though 22 of his wives didn’t bear children (mostly because they were past child bearing age), I would have to assume he still had sex with them. Thirty nine wives is a pretty good variety of women for having sex. I can hardly imagine a night gone by without being able to have sex with at least one of them, if not two or three. Maybe it’s the romantic in me, but I would like to think Heber and his wives “made love” as opposed to just having sex relations to produce children. I think all of us know there is a huge difference between being intimate and a wham bam thank you ma’am. I still haven’t quite processed the plural marriage aspect of a woman being taken care of because I can’t imagine a man being able to provide for the temporal needs of more than 2 or 3 wives unless the man had a ton of money. So when you say it kept them from prostitution (which hopefully a faithful LDS woman wouldn’t have engaged in, anyway) I’m still trying to understand how the temporal needs of so many women was being met by relatively few men.

  5. In a polygamous family the housework, childcare and home manufacture and farming were often sorted out in such a way that even, and especially if the husband was called to serve a mission there was an efficiency not available to monogamous families. Our family purchased one of Heber C. Kimball’s homes. It is a duplex with a cottage in the rear. One wife could cook and clean while another cared for the children and the third produced items for trade or sale or worked at a job such as teaching or midwifery.
    Three or four wives living in close association along with their children who usually had meaningful tasks at an early age, constituted an economic unit that could be virtually self sufficient. My grandmother was raised in such a home where her mother worked as a dressmaker during the summer and a teacher or librarian during the winter while her fellow wives took care of the home and farm. Their husband served a mission to Australia and later left them as widows. They managed the home, the farm and brought up a large family, all educated to college level, several of whom rose to prominent positions with no recourse to outside help.

  6. No typo:

    “Brigham required the saints to gather in Provo, a settlement south of natural topography very similar to Saratoga, where the embattled Americans were finally able to turn the tide against the British during the Revolutionary War.”

    Point of the Mountain is very similar, topographically, to Saratoga, where the Americans were able to prevent the British from advancing because they had command of the heights over a narrow pass.

    At Point of the Mountain, north of Provo, it was possible to command the pass between Salt Lake City and Provo with the use of the few cannon the Saints possessed (on had been brought across the Sierra Nevada mountains by the Holmes Thompson Company, for example). This put Brigham in a position to defend his people with authority, and therefore he was able to negotiate from a position of power until the US Army was reduced to meekly marching through without firing a single shot.

  7. Hi JimD,

    You wrote: Meg, can you flesh out a bit “the way he [John Taylor] had learned of ‘The Principle’ in Nauvoo”?

    John Taylor was an apostle in Nauvoo, and so he was privy to many of Joseph’s teachings. However he was apparently not privy to the information about how sexual predators had corrupted plural marriage, at least not to the extent Brigham Young and Heber Kimball had been informed.

    John had been one of the apostles of whom Joseph demanded his wife – as I believe, this was to give them insight into the torment Orson Pratt was suffering.

    The other “problem” with John is that he loved his wives and his wives loved him. They lived together in Taylorsville in astounding harmony.

    In all this, John had no reason to understand that the New and Everlasting Covenant wasn’t synonymous with plural marriage. Hence the way he formulated his question, when he came to believe he had to request a cessation of plural marriage of God.

  8. Hi IDIAT,

    I’m not arguing that all plural marriages were celibate “home teaching” arrangements. I’m just pointing out that if there is no indication of sex, it is possible that there wasn’t sex. This is particularly true in the cases where a high Church leader stood proxy for a woman who already had a legal husband, as in some of the cases involving married women who had been sealed to Joseph Smith before his death.

  9. Meg, many thanks for the explanation.

    I’ve thoroughly enjoyed your “Faithful Joseph” series, but I have to confess that an awful lot of it seems very scattered and hard for me to keep track of (that’s more of a reflection on me than you, I suspect). I very much look forward to seeing your ideas synthesized in print (and indexed!).

  10. I’m not sure if I accept the answer that Pres. Taylor was just confused about the concept of plural vs eternal marriage and misinterpreting the answer. I realize this is very much possible on small things, but this was THE issue. He received an answer that the covenant can not be broken or done away with and it was not and will not be, for those who were part of it. But as the OD makes plain, the practice was ended because it was no longer practical as it would lead to the destruction of the saints – probably from within as much as without.

    Does that mean well all be in plural marriages In the eternities? I have no authority to speak on such things, but from what I understand about the teachings of the prophets, the answer is no. Will a handle of worthy patriarchs and matriarchs be organized in such a way? It would seem so…

  11. There were several versions of marital relationships in various religions in the eighteenth century ranging from the required celibacy of Shakers to the communism of the Oneida Community. Most westerners, heirs of the Graeco-Roman tradition of monogamous marriage, are unaware that more than 70 percent of the world’s cultures considered polygamy as a normal form of marriage, particularly among men in leadership positions. In times of serious attrition on males because of war or youthful daring, it had the positive aspect of providing the opportunity for women to bear and raise children in relative respectability. One of the great drawbacks of polygamy in peaceful times can be seen in the ‘fundamentalist’ communities in southern Utah and northern Arizona where many young men are literally driven away because they have no future. A number of studies have shown that women are more likely to be religious. This may be reflected in the demographics of Heaven, but for now I’m not particularly concerned about it.

  12. Hi Pat,

    I love having you explain the marital situation of mankind. Your years of study of anthropology show.

    To Aaron and JimD, we need to remember that Joseph Smith is known to have expressed the idea that he was required to restore plural marriage, and that he did so despite knowing that he would be giving his life. John Taylor was the one who was there when Joseph Smith and Hyrum were killed because of their willingness to champion the possibility of plural marriage.

    Over the years, John Taylor and the others involved in Utah Mormon polygamy made it clear that it wasn’t about the sex, per se. It was about this New and Everlasting Covenant.

    Wilford Woodruff’s genius was being able to turn the corner from the hard-line belief that the New and Everlasting Covenant was about plural marriage to the modern view (consistent with Joseph’s original teachings and numerous revelations) that the New and Everlasting Covenant was about turning the hearts of the children to the fathers, sealing the children to the fathers (and by fathers, we mean the parents).

    John Taylor, present at Carthage, would have had a more difficult time than most accepting that polygamy was simply a procedural footnote to the great work of sealing mankind together. How could that one small aspect of the work have required the sacrifice of “the best blood of the nineteenth century?”

    But the insistence on monogamy as the only valid form of marriage had to be broken, else the great sealing work would fail. The plural wives of 70% of mankind’s cultures would have forever been cut off, along with their children. The women who married widowers would have been cut off.

    Because women are the ones who produce children, there had to be a way for every woman to be sealed into the family of mankind. This, then, was why it was worth allowing Joseph to give his life, to ensure a mechanism for posthumously saving the billions of mankind. Surely a culture that was willing to kill over polygamy would not have willingly birthed an understanding that a man could be eternally sealed to more than one woman.

    To JimD, I’m not sure if you mean that my entire series has seemed very scattered, or if this post was scattered. I do look forward to taking this rough material and revising it into a more consistent whole (along with an index).

  13. Not much of a fan of having to click the next page, read a little, click the next page, read a little, click the next page, read a little, click the next page, read a little, click the next page, read a little, click the next page, read a little, click the next page, read a little. Can’t it all be put on a single page?

  14. Sister Chiu “Most westerners, heirs of the Graeco-Roman tradition of monogamous marriage, are unaware that more than 70 percent of the world’s cultures considered polygamy as a normal form of marriage, particularly among men in leadership positions.” I’ve heard this factoid mentioned before. Do we actually have written records on a large scale reflecting this? I ask because as we try to do temple work across the globe, it seems written records of births, marriages and deaths were mostly kept in those Graeco-Roman cultures where monogamy was prominent. Why would it be so important to introduce plural marriage when, as a practical matter, the sealing work for that 70% can’t be done because of a lack of record? Certainly the doors and lines of communication will be flung open during the Millennium, when (I think) a huge amount of actual temple work will be done. But for now, I’m not sure why God couldn’t have turned the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the children to the fathers, by having sealing policies that we use today, implemented in 1842. After all, we’re monogamous today, and we take part in the new and everlasting covenant. Why make a mess of things with plural marriage practiced during mortality when He could have revealed it the way we do it today?

  15. Meg:

    I have found this series fascinating, thank you for writing it. One thing that I think you are missing, whether it be as issue of emphasis or something else, is the idea that the Lord could very well have instituted polygamy for multiple reasons. It didn’t have to be just one reason.

    You have presented a good case for polygamy being introduced for genealogical reasons (for lack of a better summary word). Additionally, there is a case for it being done as part of a system to care for the victims of the Strikers.

    But we also know that polygamy is introduced to raise up a righteous posterity. How many prophets and apostles can trace their lineage back through a polygamous marriage?

    For me, I did my substantative paper (the law-school version of a thesis) on Reynolds v. Sims, and the positive and normative consequences of the case. It became clear to me that just about every normative piece of legislation strengthening the family over the last century owed its legality and efficacy to the anti-polygamy cases. Even as a faithful member of the Church I think, as a culture and society, more good than harm was done by the anti-polygamy cases because of the ability that it gave society to regulate moral behavior in positive ways. Only today are we seeing the last remnants of that being swept away, but I have often thought that the Lord (even if He had no other reason) might have introduced polygamy for the purpose of strengthening the capacity of society through government to regulate sexual relations in a positive way.

    Long story short, I think when we get to the other side of the Veil and sit around the Celestial campfires and ask the Lord, “why polygamy?”, His answer to us is likely going to be much longer and more detailed (and with many more independent reasons) than we might imagine.

  16. Idiot, I’m sorry that my study of polygamy, written for a class in my anthropology major in 1983, is no longer available to provide footnotes to exact sources for the seventy percent statistic. However both Chinese and Muslim cultures have a history of polygamy that extends into our day. Most other polygamous cultures are somewhat smaller but still significant in numbers, not to mention the women married by widowers in our Western culture where childbearing was the most common cause of death for women before modern methods of obstetrics changed the statistics. There is a deep ethnocentric aversion to polygamy in Western culture, but most, if not all of us are descended from a second or third wife of a widower. As we try to seal our families together the prevailing prejudice would cut us off and leave us orphaned. As the Church expands throughout the world we have more converts with a family history of polygamy, and because polygamy was usually practiced by elites, elevated to leadership because of intelligence and other positive traits, the descendants of polygamists in any culture are often, if not always, valuable contributors to the community. Polygamy provided many challenges to the nineteenth century church, some of which extend down to our day, but there were also benefits, some of which have eternal consequences.

  17. Addendum
    I married a man from China and my children and grandchildren have married into African, Polynesian, and Muslim cultures so my perceptions of the ethnic variety of modern Church membership are skewed from the norm of most Utah Mormons.

  18. No offense. I knew when I picked that moniker it would open the door wide for some good natured, as well as some not so good natured, creative spelling. I know that being able to seal women who marry a widower is important. And though Meg and I might go round and round on the efficacy of sealing a woman to more than one husband, I think that’s a good thing, too. (Note to Meg – I checked on a few of Joseph’s widows who were then married off to Heber C. Kimball. They, in fact, have been sealed to Heber, too. Therefore, I presume, they will have to choose between Joseph and Heber.) So I’m all for the current status of sealing policies and the way things are handled. My question was meant to spark discussion along the lines of Jonathan Cavender’s observation that perhaps polygamy was not just instituted for the purpose of sealings. Why? Because God could have simply revealed the principle of eternal families, kept everyone in serial monogamy like we are today, then had sealing policies that we have today that would have allowed plural sealings. Instead, the only real reference we have to the “why” of polygamy is the reference in Jacob 2:30 about raising seed. Of course there were many other good and great things that happened because of polygamy, but the primary gift of seed is perhaps the most important. When I read internet comments questioning whether polygamy was a man made doctrine or of God, I really don’t know how a member can reconcile a belief in modern day revelation and at the same time condemn plural marriage as an uninspired work of darkness.

  19. AMEN! I hesitate to refer to a study I read in the early sixties that indicated that the descendants of Mormon polygamists excelled in several significant areas such as obtaining college degrees, longevity, and professional accreditation. I found the study in the stacks of the BYU library back when it was housed in the Maeser building and since it was not relevant to my research at that time, I kept no record of the author. It may have been a dissertation or a thesis with no chance of being internet searchable. Hardly hard evidence from today’s perspective.

  20. There are many potential reasons for polygamy, but the one scripture that occurs over and over again, including in the initial visit the Angel Moroni made to Joseph Smith, is the warning that the hearts of the children must turn to the fathers, etc.

    I am hesitant to stress the “raising up seed” aspect because some analyses indicate there wasn’t a net increase in the number of children, etc. Not that I’m unhappy to be a product of Mormon polygamy (all those smarts, gumption, and cool relations) but the case for this aspect as being the result of the 1840-1890 institution of polygamy isn’t sufficiently strong to be persuasive.

  21. “where a group of Mormons in Iron County shot and killed all mature members of the Baker-Fancher wagon train headed for California.”–There were at least 17 children murdered in this attack. That is just counting the victims 12 yrs. old or younger. Some as young as 7 yrs. of age. I’m not so sure they would be considered ‘mature’. Just sayin.

  22. The idea that polygamy helped alleviate problems (like prostitution) wasn’t limited to just Mormons, interestingly. There were some non-Mormons that were somewhat sympathetic.

    This tidbit might interest you. I had a post here at M*

    that quoted from an obscure (now, not back then) 19th century utopian novel. You can read the whole post for the context, but here’s the interesting excerpt that pertains to part of this post (the author is not Mormon):
    While observing . . . West rebuffs the advances of a prostitute. This prostitute refuses to leave, however, and instead engages West in a conversation over the evils of nineteenth century society . . . The prostitute asks West about a political rally that had been held earlier in the day: “Did you hear that one who was so down on the Mormons?” and West replied, “No; I don’t recollect any thing of that kind.” The lady then gives him a lecture that functions as a sort of defense of Mormonism:

    “Well, there was one; and he is the worst man in the city; a worse than Mormon. But what I was going to say is, the real question is, not whether Mormonism will destroy civilization by increasing the number of men having more than one wife; for the tendency isn’t that way. The question is, will bachelors destroy it through having no wives, but one or no wife, is what should come before the country as a serious question. You have no idea of the utter loneliness of the good and virtuous but poor woman in this city. They live lives of constant temptations; struggle on with the utmost heroism, year after year, and with no sign of getting their natural rewards for it; for husbands are not forthcoming.”
    [From A Leap into the Future, or How Things Will Be: A Romance of the Year 2000 by Donald McMartin, “Member of the Fulton County (N.Y.) Bar”]

    For what it’s worth.

  23. Thank you so much for accomodating my request. It is so much easier to read now. As with all the articles in this series, fascinating review of historical information with some interesting alternate ways of interpreting the events and comments of those who were there. I have appreciated this series very much.

  24. Hi Minjae,

    Happy to oblige – I’m glad you have found this series of interest.

    Jane, I will update the description of the Mountain Meadows Massacre to clarify that all but a few children were killed. I think their gruesome logic was they wanted to destroy the evidence that a Mormon group had attacked the wagon train, so that indicated that even “mature” children had to be silenced according to their logic.

  25. Meg – “I am hesitant to stress the “raising up seed” aspect because some analyses indicate there wasn’t a net increase in the number of children…” You are referring to quantity. I was referring to quality.

  26. Ah, but is this “quality” metric something that can be objectively measured? I don’t disagree that allowing the top 3-5% of men (measured by whatever qualities made one a Church leader) to have access to several wives for procreation would improve the incidence of offspring with qualities of the leading men and the women the leading men were attracted to. However it does sound very eugenic of us to argue that as the primary reason for polygamy.

    I suppose in the chapter where I talk about the why, I will compile a list of purported reasons, which will include the seed bit (quantity and quality) and the widows bit. But I still personally like the destruction of the perceptional barrier regarding allowing all to be sealed (and therefore per force baptized).

  27. There is no doubt in my mind that many of Brigham Young’s 50 grand children, 204 great grand children, and 745 great grand children felt a tremendous responsibility to the live up to their heritage.

    It’s no more “eugenics” than it is to remind someone they are a child of God. While the latter should be sufficient in theory, sometimes we need something a little closer to home to inspire us.

    As to why Include everyone else, it was obviously a refining and strengthening process for all involved, and the effects on that down through the generations are so incalculable it’s overlooked to this day and just taken for granted.

    I would not be surprised that without polygamy, the church would not be a shadow of what it is today.

  28. Ah, but it would be hard to run those alternate universes in fact and determine where we end up. God can do it, and I assume at some future time one can ask Him and get all the answers.

  29. @Aaron, according to “A Book of Mormons” by Wagoner and Walker, BY fathered 56 children, page 404. He had 56 wives, page 136. But it doesn’t say how many of them bore his children.

    Also from page 136, Heber C. Kimball fathered 65 children by 17 wives (out of 43 wives total), Christopher Layton fathered 64 with 10 wives, and John D. Lee fathered 60 with 19 wives.

    The book is copyrighted 1982, so subsequent scholarship may have adjusted the numbers.

    I was gifted the book at my baptism, and it served to innoculate me somewhat to Nauvoo polygamy and MMM.

  30. It’s an interesting concept, being inoculated against X.

    That is the challenge for our day – to embrace the full history and develop a narrative consistent with history. I’m attempting to do this, obviously.

    In the past it was possible to avoid the hard bits of the history. It no longer is possible to avoid those hard bits. But as we look at scripture, the stories include all manner of terrible stuff. They were able to capture these difficult historical bits, clothe them in a story that fit their paradigm, and include them.

    I’m kicking around in my mind a post talking about ablative history/belief – an idea that there are many non-core ideas about the Church and gospel that, if found to be untrue, should be allowed to ablate or be removed. Thus a child-like mythology of the Church should be able to transform into a mature and deep knowledge of the Church through a natural process of ablation, wherein simplistic tales of events become replaced with increasingly nuanced versions of events.

    Various folks, including apparently B. H. Roberts, have held so tenaciously to minor points as originally understood that when these minor points are discovered to be incorrect, this lack of correctness constitutes a challenge to the worldview that had sustained a believe in the Restoration. But this doesn’t have to be.

  31. Meg,

    Your comment #127110 is the best explanation of the rationale for polygamy in a few paragraphs I have ever seen. Thank you very much for this.

    The whole series of articles is fascinating and enlightening.

  32. “(Note to Meg – I checked on a few of Joseph’s widows who were then married off to Heber C. Kimball. They, in fact, have been sealed to Heber, too. Therefore, I presume, they will have to choose between Joseph and Heber.)”

    I have a vague recollection that one of the apostles — it may even have been Kimball, ironically — spoke in the Tabernacle about several sisters in polygamous marraiges who had shared with him revelations they had received that they would have their very own husband, all to themselves, in the world to come. He was sympathetic to these sisters, not condemning. I can’t find the reference now; does anyone else recall this?

  33. I don’t recall this (an account of women having revelations that they would have their own husband in some future time), but neither do I doubt it.

    In that day when we know as we are known, in a heaven where marriage has a divine and eternal purpose, I imagine a loving God might allow us to become partnered for eternity with a spouse with whom we will be delighted to spend eternity.

    Inasmuch as God will be able to accommodate our desire to cleave to the spouse with whom we covenanted in life, He will. But if that spouse has self-selected non-participation in the heaven where marriage is germane, God can’t force them. Then there is the matter of the demographics of heaven (the subject IDIAT and I love to spar over). I’ll just say that if shifts must be made to ensure all have a chance to participate in that highest heaven, I can’t imagine any of us who have become one with God leaving a soul to remain without spouse if we have it in our power to allow them to have a spouse.

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