Polygamy in Pieces: Part 3 - Participation (Doctrine & Covenants 132)

Wednesday, November 10, 2021


Transcript for this episode by the wonderful Heather B!

Works Cited for this episode:

Channing: Hi, friends! I’m Channing.

Elise: And I’m Elise.

Channing: And this is The Faithful Feminists podcast.

Elise: [00:00:12] But this is not just any Come Follow Me podcast. We do things a little differently here. We offer approachable feminist interpretations of the Come Follow Me manual for those who want to study and understand the scriptures in a framework of equality, social justice, and sisterhood. We are here to show you all the really good ways faith and feminism work together to illuminate and deepen the gospel experience. 

Channing: We’ve saved you a seat on the soft chairs, so join us today for a conversation about Doctrine and Covenants sections 129 through 132 for November 8th through the 14th. This week, it's going to be a little different.

[00:01:03] Because there is so much content and so many feelings and so many resources about this week’s sections, especially section 132, we've decided to do a miniseries titled “Polygamy in Pieces.” Each day we'll release a new episode covering a different aspect of early Mormon polygamy. We hope that this series is a deep dive but comes to you in manageable parts.

[00:01:31] Today, we'll be exploring various reasons why women may have participated in polygamy by sharing women's voices contemporary to the time. Here's your content warning for our polygamy episode, because of the social dynamics of this particular topic, there are going to be some conversations or references to sexual abuse and incest, so we encourage you to listen with care. We also felt like it was really important to share some of the voices, just like Fannie’s of women who were experiencing polygamy at the time that it was instituted and practiced in the church. I came across a fantastic article from Kahlile Mehr and this article’s titled, “Women's Response to Plural Marriage.”

Elise: [00:02:17] The author begins the article by saying, “Plural marriage was a complex phenomenon in both theology and practice. It was no less complex psychologically. Some LDS women ardently accepted it as a divine principle. Others viewed it as an unwelcome but necessary sacrifice to achieve salvation. A few loathed it. There were women who coaxed reluctant husbands to take an additional wife. Others quietly acquiesced, either in initial discussions or when presented with a fait accompli and still others left the household rather than accept a sister wife. Sometimes the inner and outer persons were in conflict; inwardly repelled, and outwardly obedient. Many women faced a struggle that for some led to triumphant self control and Kahlile others to shattering disillusionment.” 

Channing: [00:03:05] So Kaleel spends a very, like, the bulk of his article is sharing the voices from women at the time to show all of the different motivations or the reason that women agreed to participate in polygamy. And he picks out about five, I think, five or six main themes or justifications. And I do want to say here, because we will be using the word consent over the next couple of sections, and I just want to say, we will talk about consent and the issue with the usage of the word consent here. But yeah, just to make it clear, I don't ever really think that women consented to polygamy, but we'll talk about that.

[00:03:44] So the first and very primary reason for women agreeing to participate in polygamy was religious obligation. The author quotes, “Leonard Arington and Davis Bitton’s 1979 article titled “The Mormon Experience, a History of the Latter-Day Saints” saying, “The primary justification and motivation for polygamy practitioners was religious obligation. No one who has examined the diaries and letters of the time can deny it.” Mehr continues to say that though religious obligation was a primary motivation, “not everyone accepted the principle full-heartedly and without qualm. This was particularly true during the early years in which it was practiced clandestinely [or that means secretly and illicitly].

[00:04:33] A prime example of this can be found in the words of Eliza Partridge Lyman, who was a plural wife of Joseph Smith. She wrote, “A woman living in polygamy dare not let it be known and nothing but firm desire to keep the commandments of the Lord could have induced a girl to marry in that way. I thought my trial was very severe in that line and I am often led to wonder how it was that a person of my temperament could get along with it and not rebel. But I know it was the Lord who kept me from opposing his plans although in my heart I felt that I could not submit to them. But I did, and I am thankful to my Heavenly Father for the care he had over me in those troublest times.”

[00:05:12] Mehr concludes that “the primary motivation in this is obedience to divine revelation.” 

Elise: [00:05:18] This religious obligation was rooted in women's concerns about eternal salvation. Mehr writes, “as a woman contemplated plural marriage. She had to come to terms with its centricity to salvation.” In the Mormon view, we see this show up in verse four of section 132, and also in many other places that basically talk about this law being a new and everlasting covenant, and an eternal covenant.

[00:05:44] The author continues to write, “Although the 20th century church interprets the new and everlasting covenant as celestial marriage, the 19th century church most often understood it as plural marriage. Not only did one have to be married in the temple (celestial marriage) but it had to be done plurally for each male and his wives to reach the highest degree of celestial glory.”

[00:06:07] Annie Clark Tanner remembers, “It was taught that the second wife opened the door of salvation in the Celestial Kingdom, not only for herself, but for her husband and his first wife.” I don't have a better word except for wild. Before we recorded the episode Channing and I had many, many Marcos back and forth and many, many phone calls back and forth in absolute rage. 

Channing: Yep. Yep. 

Elise: I just feel it coming up here, how this commandment and this covenant gets twisted and manipulated to say, “well, we have to have plural wives. We have to have plural marriage or else none of us are going to get to the Celestial Kingdom. In fact, you know, it's that second wife. I need that second wife, because she's the one that's going to open the door for all of us to enter into the highest degree of glory.” Get out of here. 

Channing: [00:06:51]  Like ladies, you have the priesthood to open the door, but not the keys. *laughs*

Elise: [00:07:01] Wow, good job! 

Channing: [00:07:04] Maniacal laughter! Oh my gosh. So yeah, from these examples, we can really see, like, that centrality that plural marriage took from the time that it was, like, written about in 1843 until well after it was supposedly ended in 1890. It's only going to get worse, Elise, I just promise you now. 

Elise: [00:07:22] And everyone else. Heads up, it gets worse.

Channing: [00:07:24] Okay. The second compelling reason for women, um, agreeing to participate in polygamy was ecclesiastical advice. And all of these quotes come from the same article written by Kahlile Mehr. Mehr writes, “the council of ecclesiastical superiors was often decisive for women entering plural marriage. In 33 instances where a motive is mentioned, 30 attribute their decision to the council of church authorities.” That's significant. An overwhelming percentage. And I'd like to point out here, it's probably obvious to everyone listening, but these church authorities were all exclusively male. So that's important to know. 

Elise:[00:08:04] So, it serves them, right? Like it serves them. Of course, that's going to be the recommendation that they give or the advice that they give to these women who were coming, who have nowhere else to go, because all of their leadership is male. They have nowhere else to go to try and sort these churchly spiritual things out. They're already trying to sort this out amongst themselves, but they don't have any power to make change. So they have to go to their church leaders. And what will their church leaders say? “Well, you know, God said so. Well, you know, it's really important for your salvation. Do you believe in the prophet? Do you believe in God? Then, sorry. This is what you have to do. So deny all of those feelings of disgust and sadness and sorrow and just have a little bit more faith.” 

Channing: [00:08:44] Yup. Yup. So we have these examples. This one says, “ecclesiastical leaders preached plural marriage consistently from the pulpit. Catherine Pond, who married Brigham Pond in 1885 as his second wife, explained to her son that her “principle motive was to follow the council of church authorities.” She said that she had been taught by these authorities to accept the proposal of a worthy man if he asked her to enter into polygamy. Mehr also includes another account which showcases this ecclesiastic influence on decisions regarding plural marriage. In this example, “Brigham Young advised a man to marry a specific immigrant girl of 16 before he departed to the Dixie mission. The girl refused since her parents had not yet arrived. Brigham had the girl brought to his office where he explained that it was a commandment, that they would be blessed if they kept it and condemned if they did not. His counsel had the desired effect and the two were wed.”

Everyone take a deep breath.

[00:09:47] There's another example of a woman named Emily Crane from Fillmore, Utah, who is engaged to a man named George who was single. But then a man who was already married approached her and asked to marry her and she felt really conflicted. So her parents were like, “okay, well, why don't we go get a patriarchal blessing?”

[00:10:05] And in her patriarchal blessing, it said that she was supposed to marry pluraly. And so she approached her single fiance and she was like, “Hey, would you ever consider this?” And he was like, “no way, Jose.” And she was like, “okay, well, toodles.” And then she ended up marrying the polygamist guy. 

Elise: [00:10:24] Yeah. Which is wild. She probably loved... well, this is an overly romantic reading. We can hope that she probably loved the single guy, George, but then after receiving such explicit direction in her patriarchal blessing, she probably had, like, a crisis and had to say, “oh my gosh, I need the highest salvation, and it's in my patriarchal blessing. I guess I have to break it off with this guy so I can marry this other man polygamously.” 

The third reason that women may have been motivated to participate in polygamy was because of power and status for women that they could gain indirectly through their husbands. Author Vicky Burgess-Olson writes, “An unmarried woman may have been attracted to a polygamist man because polygamous husbands were usually better off occupationally than their monogamous peers and they also held higher positions in the church.” From Mehr’s article: They write, “Frequently when men were given positions of leadership, a church leader would request that a man, and by implication, his wife, entered the principle of polygamy.” In fact, Wilford Woodruff, well, he was an apostle, complained in the October conference in 1875 that, “we have many bishops and elders who have but one wife. They are abundantly qualified to enter the higher law and take more. But their wives will not let them.” As if to say like,” oh, what a shame. What a bummer. These guys should have more than one wife.” Mehr continues on, “one son reports hearing his father tell his mother that the authorities threatened to release him from the Bishopric if he did not take another wife.” So the mother reluctantly consented. 

Channing: [00:12:00] Some other reasons why women might've been motivated to participate in polygamy because of this social status was for social elevation. So we have an example here of a woman named Sarah. She was a maid in a household where a woman was already married to her husband. And the wife basically told Sarah, like, “Hey, if you work in the house for seven years, after your service is done, you can marry my husband polygamously. And like, you will have access to all of our, like, riches and status.” And so she was like, “all right, I'll take you up on that.” And after seven years, she got married to this woman's husband polygamously. Of this Mehr writes that she “shared the home and the goods of the well-to-do husband.”

[00:12:45] We also know that “a first wife might find some short term economic advantage if her husband married a domestic worker who would continue her service to the family.” So basically this means that the first wife would say yes, because she understood that they wouldn't have to hire out help anymore because it would be the wife now performing all of the housework.

[00:13:08] And finally, we also know from the article that usually it was implied that the first wife had the most status among all of the other plural wives. And so this might have been another reason why women might have agreed to participate in.

The fourth reason is that there was a lot of social pressure for people to participate in polygamy. There's quite a few stories about women who were already pregnant by their husband and their husband wanted to take another wife. And they were like, “oh, I don't want to do this.” And their moms would be like, “well, like I had to do it. So you, you're not better than me, so you better do it.” And so they're like, “okay, well, like my family says I should do it so I will.” And there's also stories about girls receiving different, like, we heard before, like different proposals, one from a single guy and one from a polygamous guy, either the ecclesiastical leaders or the people around her in her community encouraged her more toward the polygamist marriage.

Another reason that we know of is romance if we can even really call it that.

Elise: [00:14:12] This passage comes from an anonymous third wife who writes, “I don't think I thought anything about the principle when I married. I fell in love with my husband and married him just as a girl would today only it was in polygamy. He was 20 years older than I was but he never seemed old. I think I loved him even when I was a little girl.”

And another passage from Sarah Crossley who was baptized as a child in England and who knew many of the missionaries. Sarah immigrated with the Willie handcart company at the age of 13 and suffered severely. One of the missionaries took her into his Bountiful home, cared for her and when she was 18 married her. She relates, “I think I had loved him from my very childhood. And although I was his fourth wife and many years younger, I was the happiest woman in the world.” 

 Channing: [00:15:01] Yeah. So I get this sense here, especially with, like, this really large age difference, like this almost like childlike infatuation called romance. And I do think that that's, that's very, very interesting.

And finally, our last reason that was presented why women might have agreed to participate in polygamy was mostly for reasons of practicality. So that would be: more help with childcare, childbearing, economic benefit, which we talked about earlier, and then like health care and elderly care.

[00:15:35] And that actually sums up the bulk of Mehr’s essay is the experiences from those women, which I also found really, really interesting.  

Elise: [00:15:46] What I appreciate about the article that you're sharing with us is that it outlines many different reasons why women may have participated in polygamy, but I'd like to read a firsthand account from Fannie Stenhouse on kind of the sentiment of women participating in polygamy.

[00:16:02] She writes, “It has been frequently said to me in my travels, both in Eastern and Western states, that gentleman from Utah had been asked how the ladies submitted to polygamy and that they had answered, “oh, very well. They are perfectly happy for, they look upon its practice as a religious duty and are satisfied and contented with it. Those women,” and then she writes in parentheses. “(If there be any) who prefer this state of things are few and far between and wherever such a woman may be found I am certain that it will be discovered that the husband is some worthless fellow or else so disagreeable in his family, that the wives have no affection for him and they therefore seek the companionship of each other. So here, she's basically saying, first of all, “Sure. Show me a woman that is happy and content in a polygamous marriage. And if they are, it's probably because the guy is so awful, he's worthless. And they just want to, like, have the companionship of the other wives.”

[00:16:57] She continues to write, “Women who tell the world that they are happy and contented if they would only express themselves freely would tell of their heartaches, of their sleepless nights, and of their loneliness. Others could tell that in spite of their husband’s kindness to them, their hearts knew no joy or happiness. If a woman in this condition of mine were asked if she did not love her husband as formerly very probably she would answer, “oh dear, no. If I did, I could not live. The greatest trouble I had was to withdraw my affections from my husband and fix them on my children. If I had not done this, where would my children be with their mother in the grave?” Oh, how true this is. I know it. Heaven help these poor women. If they could only know for themselves that this continued sacrifice was not necessary, their very hearts would sing for joy. I once said to a lady holding a high position in the church when she was trying to persuade me to give another wife to my husband, “what good will it do me to give him another wife?  I cannot do it with a good feeling. I know that I should loathe both him and her and how could I expect to get any blessing from God by doing so.” The woman answered, “if you had a loaf of bread to make, what would it matter how you felt while making it, so long as you did make it?” That is just what the church authorities have thought. No matter how many women were crushed or how many were sent to their graves in the effort to establish polygamy, if only they could establish it.”

So you see here Fannie kind of outlining, “Look, if the women are saying, “yeah, I'm happy in this polygamous relationship.” Another reason might be because she had to separate her emotions from her husband because it would have been too much to bear. She had to focus her attention and her care on her children.” But then this other wife who is, like, in a higher position of authority, like Channing outlined, maybe that's one of the reasons why this woman has a higher position of authority and basically says, “doesn't really matter how you feel. You have to do it anyway.” Which is such a heartbreaking thing like from woman to woman, especially. 

Channing: [00:19:10] Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. And something else that comes to mind for me, especially when I've been thinking about this polygamy conversation for awhile is I'm remembering back to last year when we covered Jacob in the Book of Mormon.

[00:19:27] If you don't remember, you haven't been around for that long, in the Book of Mormon, Jacob offers this complete condemnation of anything except for monogamous marriage. So he provides a really contrasting background for all of the justifications that we're seeing in section 132. And from all of these stories that we're hearing from people who are contemporary to the time.

[00:19:48] And so I wonder as I've come across some more of these women's stories, what would Jacob think of these examples? From the same essay from Kahlile Mehr, we have the following stories. “According to the son of Betsy Low Allen of Cove, Utah, when she found her husband spooning with her younger sister, Ellen, a year after her own marriage, she cried so long and so heartbrokenly that she could no longer produce milk for her baby.”

[00:20:17] One wife felt so strongly that her own glory would be lessened by her husband's refusal to be married plurally, that she divorced him after two years and became the plural wife of a man many years her senior. 

A heartbreaking account that Mehr includes is a story of Sarah Williams of Cedar City, who agreed based on the advice of church leaders to become a plural wife and then incurred the hostility of her family.

[00:20:43] Mehr writes, “When she left home to marry Benjamin Perkins, her father disgustedly said he had no desire to even wish her goodbye if she had to come back as a plural wife. When she returned married her mother scolded her. Sarah picked up her sister's baby, but the sister snatched it away and slapped her. Finally Sarah's mother gave her a quilt and blanket and asked her to leave permanently. Sarah felt though, since she had been advised by her church leaders to get married plurally, she was doing right and must take the consequences.”

And finally this incredibly disturbing story of 14 year old Anna Eliza Berry, who in 1879, “accompanied her mother and stepfather to St. George. She was under the impression that she would tend the younger children and she just enjoyed the ride there. Once while feeding the team of animals, she asked her stepfather why he was taking her to the temple. He said to marry her. “Well, I just felt horrid and thought, but never dare say, is that the way a woman gets married? Can't a woman say who she wants?”

[00:21:51] She went through the temple for her endowments. While she was in the sealing room, she writes, “I was looking at the pretty rooms and I remember akneeling on the altar and a man talking. Mr. HC said yes. And after they said to me to say yes, I whispered yes, not knowing what I was saying. On the return journey, the stepfather put his arm around her shoulder and called her “his little wife.” She was aghast and said, “Why? Be I your wife?” He said, “yes.” But I said, “well, I never knew that.” He said, “Don't tell a soul or we will have to be put in prison for living in polygamy.” And I did feel so bad. I wondered if all girls got married that way and would like to run away.”

[00:22:36] I'm, like, crying thinking about this girl, like, if all girls got married that way and would like to run away. Anna, I think that they did. And I'm sorry that that happened to you.

[00:22:54] Friends, thanks so much for joining us today as we explored these women's stories and their reasons for participating in polygamy. We're excited to share more with you tomorrow and continuing our series, Polygamy in Pieces. We love you so much. Thanks for joining us. Bye.

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