Book Review: Polygamous Wives Writing Club

HarlineOne of the perks of being a Mormon blogger is the opportunity to comment. Recently I was informed of a new book Oxford University Press will be publishing in June 2014, titled The Polygamous Wives Writing Club: From the Diaries of Mormon Pioneer Women, by Paula Kelly Harline.

Ms. Harline assembles stories of twenty-nine women who entered into polygamous marriages between 1847 and 1890. Ms. Harline wished to show the lives of regular women who remained faithful to Mormonism yet were not leaders themselves or wives of leaders.

Despite the title of the book, these women were not members of a club, though at least three of the women mention sharing their writings with other women. However Ms. Harline is able to group the women in sets of two or three as women experiencing similar circumstances during the same period of time. Thus we get a broad sense of the evolution of the practice of polygamy, or “the principle” from the time Mormons arrived in Salt Lake Valley until the days leading up to and following the Manifesto.

From the stories extracted from diaries and autobiographies, Ms. Harline demonstrates the heartache a first wife experienced when a husband took on other wives, almost always younger women. Similarly, we see the pain as a young woman marries an older married man, only to find that the first wife is downright hostile. Though we do see polygamist wives who form close bonds with sister wives, these twenty-nine women more frequently reflect on the disappointments in their marriages, with most the women’s sister-wives mentioned infrequently except in negative terms.

Early Pioneer Polygamy

The stories from the first portion of the book discuss polygamist wives who married during the early days (1847-1869), when men were aggressively encouraged to take on plural wives. During this time Ms. Harline writes that only 3 percent of the women remained unmarried by age 24, with 83 percent of women marrying in their teens and over a quarter (27%) by age sixteen. My own analysis of family members who married before coming to America on the Mayflower shows that the average age for a woman in that culture to marry was approximately 24 (i.e., 50% of women would have remained unmarried at age 24). Studies of mortality associated with childbirth shows there is a significant increase in maternal death when the mother is younger than 16. So Brigham’s emphasis on polygamy during the early Utah period resulted in women marrying at much younger ages than typical, and arguably resulted in avoidable deaths. Later in the book, Ms. Harline reflects on the Lion House and Beehive House – built with the vision of a great family of dozens of wives and their children living together in communal efficiency. Like the general experiments in communal living under the United Order, Brigham and numerous other men and women found that large groupings of humans rarely function well as “families.” We see the predictable frictions time and again in the stories of the individual women.

Many of these early stories reflect the pain women experienced when their polygamous reality was compared to the expectations these women had grown up with of monogamous family life. Though a striking 12% of sister-wives were biological sisters, the vast majority of early polygamous wives were not related, and were often from other countries, creating opportunities for clashes in cultural expectations, beyond the obvious difficulty with sharing a sexual partner with another woman.

Second-Generation Polygamy

By 1870-1880 we reach an era where polygamous wives have grown up surrounded by polygamous households. They know what to expect in plural marriage. There are still disappointments and quarrels, but the anguish of the women over their husband’s inability to satisfy monogamous standards of emotional closeness and material support is less than the earlier tales.

Polygamy Under Federal Scrutiny

Actions of the federal government cause hardship as early as 1856, directly contributing to the famine conditions cited in several stories. Though Ms. Harline does not explain, Brigham Young’s show down with federal troops in the late 1850s caused him to retain the Saints’ stronghold in Provo long into the summer, causing massive damage to untended cropland and a landscape filled with the rotting bodies of unfed farm animals. The Utah economy would be blighted for ten years because of that summer of resistance. However it was the polygamy persecutions of the 1880s and later that caused the majority of the pain for later polygamous families. Men who “cohabited” were sent to penitentiary, their plural wives forced to testify against them. The anger of men, the families of their birth, and their first wives often turned against the hapless young women who had agreed to become plural wives, persuaded that plural marriage was required to reach the highest heaven.

Polygamy and the Manifesto

The women’s stories highlight the terrible disruption the Manifesto created in many households. Men were told they must abandon their plural wives. Children born after 1883 were considered bastards in the eyes of the state.

The most disturbing story from this last set is the story of Annie, a nearly-illiterate child tricked into marrying her abusive and coercive step-father, Henry Chestnut. Annie’s story takes up a disproportionately large amount of the body of the book, and the story is further emphasized by being the last story, and a chapter that is devoted to one woman, instead of cutting between two or three separate women. When Annie was not yet a teenager, Mr. HC, as she referred to him, would say Annie would be his little wife when she got older. Annie wrote she would “get of the bench” and say “no you bet I wont Marrie a old man…” When a marriage ceremony was conducted, then-fourteen year old Annie wasn’t even aware she had become Mr. HC’s wife until the ride home. Annie eventually divorces Mr. HC, only to marry Thom Day, who beat her (physical abuse, we then realize, had never appeared in any of the stories of polygamous marriages in this book).

And Yet…

One of my ancestors is Joseph Leland Heywood, one of the three Nauvoo trustees, first US Marshall of Utah Territory, and bishop of the 17th ward (where the Conference Center now stands). So I was amused that Heywood’s third wife, Martha Spence [Heywood], was considered a “regular” polygamous woman. I have read Martha Spence’s diary and Kathryn H. Ipson’s exquisitely documented Ever Faithful: The Life of Joseph Leland Heywood. So I was able to see how Harline cherry-picked episodes from Martha Spence’s life that supported her thesis of a lonely, heart-sick woman deprived of the companionship she yearned for. 1 Ms. Harline never even mentions the name of Heywood’s fourth wife, Mary Bell, an orphan girl who had been in the Heywood household when Martha arrived in Utah, who appears in Martha’s diary by name, a girl Martha and the other two wives persuaded Heywood to marry “as they all loved her, and she did much to lighten the work load.” Mary Bell [Heywood] was the sister wife with whom Martha lived for the last several years of her life, belying the loneliness Ms. Harline depicts.

Another astounding lack is seen as Ms. Harline describes the struggle Mormon leaders faced as they tried to determine whether to implement, mandate, continue, and ultimately end the practice of polygamy, speaking of the challenges facing Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, John Taylor, and Wilford Woodruff, respectively. Ms. Harline never mentions the revelation John Taylor received on September 27, 1886. Taylor had apparently asked, “Can we end the New and Everlasting Covenant?” By which Taylor clearly meant “Can we stop practicing plural marriage?” But given the question asked, the Lord of Taylor’s revelation responds, “how can I revoke an everlasting covenant… I have not revoked this law nor will I for it is everlasting…”

This revelation is supremely germane to Ms. Harline’s narrative, as it demonstrates Taylor pleading to end polygamy, but due to lack of doctrinal understanding asking to end the New and Everlasting Covenant, which even Primary children in our day know is crucial to salvation and allowing families to be forever. The resulting almost sputtering refusal Taylor records in his revelation gave rise first to the defiant post-Manifesto plural marriages of Taylor’s son, Apostle John Whitaker Taylor, and then the militant “restoration” of polygamy by Lorin C. Woolley 2 starting in the 1920s, giving rise to the vast majority of modern “Mormon” fundamentalist sects that practice polygamy today.

Finally, I found it hard to keep track of the women, particularly as Ms. Harline rarely tells us enough about their birth family for us to infer a maiden name. They are referred to primarily by their first names only, and when a surname is given, it is always the surname of a husband. Given the dozens of other women (other wives, mothers, sisters, daughters) one finds it hard to track whose story we’re talking about anyway.

I read the book in a preliminary form, lacking all pictures and maps that I assume will appear in the final text. Similarly, it was not possible to easily determine which quotations were documented with end-notes.

In Summary

Paula Kelly Harline has assembled an intriguing set of lesser-known voices documenting the experience of Mormon women involved in polygamous marriages. For those convinced that polygamy could never be anything other than grindingly abusive, an institution to which prostitution is preferable, these narratives will seem too sweet. For those raised with stories of ancestor sister-wives who never quarreled, these stories will seem too harsh.

However, these tales, particularly the “transgressive writing” of Angelina [Farley], will cause modern diarists to reflect on whether they record a true history, when the act of writing is predominantly prompted by hardship, complaint and anger.

As for me, I think I’ll sit down and write ten reasons I treasure my beloved, describe in writing the sweet joy it is to be parent to my children, and other wonderful things about the life I lead.

Diarists and Autobiographers included:

Chapter # Order Name, Country of Birth (optional) Born Married
1 1 1st Rachel Wooley [Simmons] 1836 15 (1841)
1, 4 2 1st Mary Jane Mount [Tanner] 1837 15 (1852)
2 3 3rd Martha Spence [Heywood], Irish 1812 39 (1851)
2 4 2nd Jane [Hindley], Isle of Man 1828 28 (1856)
2 5 2nd Ruth [Rogers] 1823 30 (1853)
4 6 1st Elizabeth [MacDonald] 1831 19 (1850)
4 7 1st Eunice [Stewart] 1826 18 (1844)
5 8 1st Angelina [Farley] 1830 20 (1850)
5 9 1st Henrietta [Williams] 1827 20 (1847)
6 10 2nd Hannah [Nixon] 1845 31 (1876)
6 11 2nd Florence [Dean] ~1863 (~1883)
6 12 1st Laura [Thurber] 1859 17 (1876)
6 13 2nd Caroline [Hansen], Denmark 1859 19 (1878)
6 14 1st Ellen “Nellie” [Parkinson] 1863 15 (1878)
6 15 1st 3 Mary Ann [Maughan] ? ?
6 16 2nd Josephine [Chase] ? ?
6 17 3rd Ellen [Draper] ? (1862)
7 18 1st Lucy [Flake] 1842 16 (1858)
7 19 1st Lydia-Ann [Brinkerhoff] 1857 19 (1876)
7 20 1st Emma [Nielson] 1855/9 ?
8 21 2nd Mary Ann [Reber Hafen], Swiss 1854 17 (1871)
8 22 2nd Martha [Cox] 1852 17 (1869)
9 23 2nd Aggie [McAllister] 1867 18 (1885)
9 24 2nd Phrasia [Day] 1864 20 (1884)
9 25 2nd Lorena [Larsen] 1861 1880 or 1885
11 26 3rd Catherine [Rogers Nielsen] 1849 18 (1867)
11 27 2nd Olive [Potter] 1868 16 (1884)
11 28 2nd Lynnette [DeHill Black Conover] 1842 17 (1859)
12 29 3rd Annie [Chestnut Day] 1865 14 (1879)


  1. From my analysis of Martha’s diary, I am persuaded the reason she started writing her diary was the proposal from Heywood to join his household as a plural wife and bring her millinery skills to the valley as part of his family household.
  2. Lorin C. Woolley had been present when the revelation was received, either as owner of the home in which the revelation occurred or as a courier.
  3. Mr. Maughan was a widower when Mary Ann became his wife.
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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.

8 thoughts on “Book Review: Polygamous Wives Writing Club

  1. A popular blogger self identified as middle aged Mormon man reflected on the contents of his early journals:
    He discovered “Over the past few weeks, I have spent some time looking through my old journals. I was surprised to discover that I have had a miserable life, full of sadness, sickness, loneliness, and frustration. At least that’s what you would think if you read my journals. It turns out that my most prolific journaling times in my life were when I was going through important periods that had a higher degree of difficulty. And I was failing.” Later in the piece he admits: ” Here’s the problem: I have had a great life! I had a happy childhood. I had a wonderful, successful mission. So what gives? Why the deep, dark version recorded for my posterity?
    I think I have the answer:
    When I’m happy, and things are going great, I don’t bother writing it down, because I am too busy enjoying life to stop and write about it.”
    I contrast my early journals with the letters that I wrote to kin. In the journal I focused on my difficulties. In my letters I deliberately focused on the positive things. Neither alone gives a true picture of the reality I experienced. Often I express my positive emotions in prayers of thanksgiving. My prayers are never whines, but my journals often were until I learned about ‘gratitude’ journals. Now I try to capture the joy instead of just reflecting on the sorrows and difficulties.
    It is likely that the women in this book had a similar experience of letting their negative emotions dominate their journals, thus giving an unbalanced picture of their lives. Add to that the ‘cherry picking’ of an author who is supporting a thesis of loneliness and despair for polygamous wives.

  2. Speaking of the journal with which I am most familiar (Martha Spence’s record), she is so funny. Clearly she felt she ought to be recording things in her journal. When she renews her journaling attempts, it is almost always on a Sunday, her day of rest. Martha does a lot of whining about young women who come to “help” her. Ironically, you’d almost miss Mary Bell’s presence in the journal, because Martha never whines about Mary. Ms. Harline includes the story about Martha learning Heywood had been nearby but had not sent word, an event that angered Martha. But Ms. Harline doesn’t mention the sickness of Martha’s girl, and how Heywood miraculously shows up, so is able to be with Martha and comfort her as their daughter slips out of life.

    Perhaps I read Heywood’s presence on that day as a miracle because I know how insanely busy he was. I also see that heart tie that warns us of our loved ones’ grief because I have felt it myself, and have read the diary of Jonathan Holmes, recording how ill he felt in California on a day when he could not know his daughter had died in the arms of his wife in Winter Quarters.

    An interesting companion book to Ms. Harline’s effort would be the story of faithful female Mormon diarists and autobiographers of that era who were not involved in polygamous marriages.

    [Updated to add: I went through and linked each woman to her page at – this allows you to see the women and their husbands, sister-wives, children, etc.]

  3. Thanks for the heads up on this. I knew about this book, but didn’t know when it was coming out.

  4. Are there any exceptionally dramatic stories that would make a good Hollywood movie, like Raise the Red Lantern, or that Iranian movie Leila?

  5. I think the stories of Mary Ann Weston (23 in 1840) and Peter Maughan (29 in 1840) would make a great movie. You don’t get any of that in this book, since Mary Ann never bothered writing much about the polygamous wives, but each of them loses their first spouse after joining the Church, while in England. They didn’t know each other in England, though. Mary Ann’s first husband, John Davis, dies after being beaten up by foes of the Church. Peter Maughan’s wife, Ruth, appears to have died in childbirth, survived by her infant daughter by only a few weeks (Peter and the couple’s older five children bury the infant at sea).

    Both Mary Ann and Peter travel to Kirtland separately, among the first Mormon tourists, if you will, no doubt inspired by the affection missionaries like Wilford Woodruff had for the halcyon days in Kirtland.

    They travel together to Nauvoo, where they are married less than a month after their arrival in fall 1841.

    (cut, fade to black)

    Though not documented (yet), it seems possible they would have been affected by the stupid goings on associated with Bennett and his group. But they stayed faithful and received their endowments in Nauvoo on 2 February ’46.

    Peter is sealed to his first (deceased) wife after the public announcement that polygamy was embraced by the Church. He is sealed to Mary Ann and the widow Sarah Hobson in November 1861. In 1866, when Mary Ann is almost 50, Peter marries his fourth wife, a young girl from Mary Ann’s Gloucester. (someone finally got around to performing the sealing between Mary Ann and her first husband in 1979).

    There’s a terribly sad story about Mary Ann’s second child and Peter’s namesake, Peter Weston Maughan. He was sitting on the tongue of the wagon sandwiched between older children while the family traveled across the plains west of Ft. Kearney, Nebraska. Little Peter (being three) leaned forward, lost his balance, and fell under the wheels of the wagon. Mary Ann rushed to her child’s side, calling for her husband. What she didn’t know is Peter had seen the whole accident and collapsed. The other men in the party covered for Peter until he could be revived, and he was able to join Mary Ann at their son’s side before the child died, minutes later.

    I love that Weston, Idaho, was named after Mary Ann. It’s usually the guys who get towns named after them. Weston is a tiny place, but still it’s a cool thing.

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