(To see Cal Grondahl’s cartoon that goes with this post, click here) I spent some time re-reading the late Richard S. Van Wagoner’s excellent book, “Mormon Polygamy: A History.” The 19th century tales of harems and never-ending teenage-girl hunting were, of course, lies to excite Eastern U.S. readers. Polygamy was a contradictory doctrine, and extremely dysfunctional. Brigham Young once said that he wished it wasn’t a doctrine, but later also raged that those who disbelieved in polygamy — and even monogomous LDS men — were in danger of damnation. And polygamy led to divorce among LDS elite leaders in numbers that would shock today. According to Van Wagoner, more than 50 marriages of LDS leaders ended in divorce in the mid 19th century.
Indeed, two early wives of LDS apostle brothers, Orson and Parley Pratt, gave their husbands the heave-ho for their enthusiastic embrace of polygamy, and penchant for young, teenage brides. And not every faithful LDS elder with a feisty wife was brave enough to try polygamy. Van Wagoner recounts the tale of one husband who abandoned plans to take a plural wife after his wife informed him that she had received a revelation from God directing her to shoot any spare wife who darkened the family doorstep.
As Van Wagoner writes, though, there was a somber paradox to polygamy, particularly for faithful LDS women who reluctantly embraced the doctrine as a commandment of God yet suffered personal heartache and financial pain due to their husband’s extracurricular wives. Emmeline B. Wells, early Mormon women’s leader and feminist, wrote publicly that polygamy “gives women the highest opportunities for self-development, exercise of judgment, and arouses latent faculties, making them truly cultivated in the actual realities of life, more independent in thought and mind, noble and unselfish.” In her private journal, though, Wells despaired of how polygamy had robbed her of the love of her husband, Daniel H. Wells, member of the church’s first presidency.
Emmeline wrote, “O, if my husband could only love me even a little and not seem to be perfectly indifferent to any sensation of that kind. He cannot know the cravings of my nature; he is surrounded with love on every side, and I am cast out.”
“He is surrounded with love on every side, and I am cast out,” is an appropriate indictment of polygamy, and no doubt a reason that it has long been discarded by the LDS Church.
As Van Wagoner recalls, another LDS women leader, physician Dr. Martha Hughes Cannon, the first female state senator in the U.S., yearned in her personal letters for one husband who would be hers only to cherish. Despite these yearnings, she clung to her LDS faith in “the Principle.” Martha wrote her husband, Angus, that only her divine knowledge of the sacred principle of plural marriage made it bearable to endure. Nevertheless, Martha also wrote this scolding to Angus: “How do you think I feel when I meet you driving another plural wife about in a glittering carriage in broad day light? (I) am entirely out of money …”
For Emmeline Wells, there was a sort of happy ending that was denied many others. As Van Wagoner recounts, in his final years, her frail and aging husband, Daniel, seeking tender care and companionship, returned to Emmeline’s home and side, after mostly ignoring her for 40 years. In her eyes, that probably counted as a blessing due after decades of suffering.
Despite lurid tales and even the teenage bride races, sex was a distant reason for polygamy. It was the result of an odd doctrine, now mostly forgotten in the LDS Church, that taught that the more wives and children one accumulated on earth would increase one’s post-life eternal influence and kingdoms. Yet, one will rarely hear that explanation today.