Around the turn of the twentieth century, a eugenics movement developed in the U.S. (and elsewhere) –a formal movement complete with societies, annual congresses, lecture circuits, and multiple journals or magazines. Eugenics was considered the science of selective human breeding, and the express objective of the movement was “betterment of the race.” This was to be achieved through public policy initiatives (including marriage, sterilization and anti-immigration laws) and encouragement of private reproductive choices through public relations measures such as sermon competitions and “fittest family” and “better baby” contests.
English scientist Francis Galton coined the term “eugenics” in his 1883 book Inquiries into Human Faculty and its Development. He is considered by many to be the “father” of eugenics. Some date the beginning of the eugenics movement to that 1883 publication, others place it a couple of decades later, when the formal organizations began to gather significant followers. Galton published some initial speculations regarding human genetics in his 1865 MacMillan’s magazine article, “Hereditary Character and Talent.” With that brief background in mind, consider this:
George Q. Cannon was called to the Quorum of the Twelve in 1860. Three years earlier, in 1857, he was serving as the President of the California and Oregon missions, and from San Francisco he published The Western Standard, a Mormon newspaper. The August 7 issue contained an article he apparently wrote entitled “The Improvement of Our Species.” Here are some excerpts from that article (emphasis added):
“… Experience has long since taught mankind the necessity of observing certain natural laws in the propagation of animals, or the stock will degenerate and finally become extinct. But strange to say, in regard to the human animal, these laws, except in certain particulars, are more or less disregarded in these latter times. The inevitable consequence is, the race is degenerating, new diseases are introduced, while effeminacy and barrenness are on the increase: and worse than all, this evil condition of the body has its effects upon the mind…
Doubtless it is and ought to be the duty of legislators and conservators of our race, to introduce such regulations and laws, and enforce them, as are best calculated to develope [sic] our physical nature. A well formed, healthy, vigorous race should be the end sought. …The ancient Spartans acted upon this policy, and the happy result was the production of a nation of the noblest men and women the world ever saw. No diseased and effeminate person was permitted to marry and curse the world with a tainted offspring. The children of the entire republic belonged to the Government, which appointed competent persons to superintend their physical and mental training, and when the fit time arrived they married them as they saw fit, keeping constantly in view the improvement of the race. …A mal-formed man will have a mal-formed mind. A well developed intellectual brain will produce a philosophic mind.
…Notwithstanding these expedients, the moral sense of the people is being more and more blunted continually. This state of things must continue, until moralists and legislators find out that a true and effective reform must begin in the marriage bed. License to marry should not come from the priest but from the physician. It will be when the law forbids the unhealthy to beget children–when it compels every healthy man to marry–when a refusal to this will debar him from holding office-from voting-from sueing at courts of law-from making contracts-from following any learned profession-when it suffers no healthy girl to remain single after she beomes of proper age–when no whore shall be permitted to live–when illicit intercourse shall be punished with death, that we shall witness any improvement in the morals of the age. It is true, such a course would come in contact with the ridiculous sentimentality of the age, and heaven knows, if that could be overturned and rooted out it would be a substantial blessing. The question is not what will cross the notions of novelists, libertines and fools, but what will produce a superior race of men and consequently a purer state of society?
This is precisely what the Saints in the valleys of the mountains are endeavoring to accomplish. Joseph Smith had penetration enough to know, that so long as the bodies of men are weak, degenerate, and tainted with impurities inherited from their fathers for a thousand generations, it is impossible to accomplish with them any great moral improvement, or indoctrinate them with many divine truths. Therefore, being divinely aided, he introduced a system……He taught that none but healthy men should marry–that a man should know his wife for the purpose of procreation and for that only–that he should keep himself apart from her during the carrying and nursing periods–that it is lawful and right, God commanding, for a man to have more than one wife–that adultery should be punishable with death–that whoredom should not be tolerated under any consideration–and that by observing these roles and the general laws of health, their posterity would become healthy and vigorous…
This theory is reduced to practice in Utah Territory; and it is remarked by immigrants passing through Salt Lake City, that the proportion of children is unusually great, and they are uncommonly robust and healthy. Who cannot see that the mental vigor of those children will be in proportion to their physical perfection? And that a generation is rising in the American inteirior who will make their mark upon the history of their time? This is what the Gentiles with the priests at their head call “Mormon abomination,” and other hard names: but the question arises, Which is the better? The Mormon, or the Christian practice in relation to this matter? There is not a whore in Utah, neither is there a single female but what can find a husband and a home if she so desires: whereas in Christian cities harlots are numbered by the thousand. The genius of Christian monogamy is to encourage prostitution; because it forbids plural marriages, yet compels no man to marry, and thus debars thousands of females from gratifying the strongest instincts of their nature, which are comprehended in the sacred names of “wife” and “mother.”
…Human nature must be taken as it is. Legalize polygamy, abolish whoredom by the strong arm of the law, and punish adultery with death, and numberless evils both physical and moral would disappear from the land. Wives who are now sickly and wretched, and who are giving to the world children filled with evil passions fastened upon them by the inordinate indulgence of their begetters, would become healthy and strong, and their offspring would grow up free from many evils which now taint them. Then when the people have laid the foundation for a healthy generation, their efforts at moral and spiritual improvmenet may result in success. But as long as monogamy is the law, bastardy, whoredom, and degeneracy will exist; and also their concomitants, irreligion, intemperance, licentiousness and vice of every kind and degree.”
There were other interesting Mormon contributions to eugenics literature, think apostle and First Presidency member Anthony Ivins’ 1931 eugenics novel “Her Mother’s Daughter, or the various discussions of eugenics in the Improvement Era or other church publications. Utah, like many other states, adopted some of the policies encouraged by the eugenics movements (Utah’s sterilization law, passed in 1925, seems to be a clear product of the eugenics movement, though I’m not sure whether its 1888 marriage act (which included anti-miscegenation restrictions) can be described that way).
One aspect I find interesting about Cannon’s “The Improvement of Our Species” is its timing. It predates Galton’s first 1865 eugenics writings. And Galton’s early writing contained tentative suggestions about a thesis that he thought ought to be studied further. In comparison, Cannon’s article was confident, knowing. He advocated set public policies regarding marriage, sexuality, and family.
Cannon’s article is a demonstration that none of eugenics, the social motives behind the movement, or the public policies the movement came to adopt started with Galton. We Mormons didn’t evolve the wheel here, either; perhaps our only unique contribution was harnessing eugenic arguments to support polygamy and criticize monogamy.
As Hardy and Erickson write about Mormon leverage of eugenic arguments, Cannon was not alone in doing so (following quote from “Regeneration–Now and Evermore!…”):
“…Latter-day Saints so effectively turned the arguments of their critics to their own use that champions of monogamous marriage were placed on the defense. And Mormon spokesmen, sensing the strength of their claims, condemned monogamy with a sharpness that would astonish most Latter-day Saint church members today. Nothing, they said, had been so corrupting to society and health as Christianity’s departure from the divine economy of the sexes found in Old Testament polygamy. Joseph F. Smith, an apostle and counselor in the First Presidency, was uncompromising: “Our system of marriage promotes life, purity, innocence, vitality, health, increase and longevity, while the other engenders disease, disappointment, misery and premature death, that is the difference…. They are not alike at all.” And in an epistle of 1885, the church’s First Presidency described the consequences of adherence to the monogamous ethic as one where the “channels which God has provided for the lawful exercise of the appetites with which He has endowed man … have been dammed up, and the history of Christendom informs us with what terrible results—the degradation and prostitution of woman, and the spread of the most terrible scourge known to humanity, the social evil, with its attendant train of loathsome horrors.”
In a separate article (“That “Same Old Question…”), Hardy has written:
“As unlikely as it may seem today, we are learning that champions of Mormon plural wifery promised those who entered the order and lived it as they were told that they would have better health, would live longer and would produce healthier, more intelligent children than those in monogamy. While historians have sometimes referred to these claims, until recently they have never been given more than cursory attention.We now know that such promises were of enormous significance in the minds of nineteenth-century believers in the polygamous way. George Q. Cannon once said [in an 1869 speech] that the physiological advantages brought by polygamy constituted the most important argument in its favor.”
Fifty years later, B.H. Roberts was strumming the same chord:
“It was in the name of a divinely ordered species of eugenics that Latter Day Saints accepted the revelation which included a plurality of wives. Polygamy would have afforded the opportunity of producing from that consecrated fatherhood and motherhood the improved type of man the world needs to reveal the highest possibilities of the race, that the day of the super man might come, and with him come also the redemption and betterment of the race.” (Comprehensive History…5:297, 1930 ed., first published in 1912).
Hardy also points out some of the assumptions about sexuality and human development that were featured in some Mormon eugenics-based arguments regarding marriage and sexuality:
“Drawing on popular theories of the time such as acquired characteristics and the importance of spermatic continence, church leaders said that if sexual intercourse was employed only for reproductive purposes and if male and female partners could purge themselves of sensuous motivations both they and their offspring would be healthier and more long lived. It was the presence of lustful desire and accompanying sexual excess, Apostle Orson Hyde said [also in 1857], that accounted for the birth of so many cripples and idiots, ‘a puny set, a race of helpless, scrubby children.’ On the other hand, he said, if men and women would restrain themselves and procreate only with pure and holy intent they would produce a noble, long-lived and god-like race.”
One example of Cannon’s argument along these lines was his assertion in the “Improvement of the Species” article that “Wives who are now sickly and wretched, and who are giving to the world children filled with evil passions fastened upon them by the inordinate indulgence of their begetters, would become healthy and strong, and their offspring would grow up free from many evils which now taint them.”
Cannon, Hyde, J.F. Smith, and other Mormons didn’t invent theories of how lust or specific sexual practices affected human development, or the related Lamarckian assumptions, or the rhetoric of eugenics. And that we adopted these from the larger culture shouldn’t be any great surprise, though I was surprised to learn first about eugenics, and then about Mormon instances of it. Those instances, including our eugenic arguments against monogamy, do lead me to wonder in what ways I, today, have accepted or promoted ideas about sexuality, marriage, or human development that will seem odd or idiotic to someone looking back in 20 years, or 50, or 150.
- Cannon, George Q. “The Improvement of Our Species.” Western Standard, August 7, 1857 1857, 2. (full text here).
- Faux, Steeven. “Genetic Self Interest & Mormon Polygyny: A Sociobiological Perspective of the Doctrinal Development of Polygyny.” Sunstone 40 (1983).
- Hardy, B. Carmon. “That “Same Old Question of Polygamy and Polygamous Living:” Some Recent Findings Regarding Nineteenth and Early Twentieth-Century Mormon Polygamy.” Utah Historical Quarterly 73, no. 3 (2005): 212-24.
- Hardy, B. Carmon, and Dan Erickson. “‘Regeneration–Now and Evermore!'; Mormon Polygamy and the Physical Rehabilitation of Humankind.” Journal of the History of Sexuality 10, no. 1 (2001).
- Ivins, Anthony W. Her Mother’s Daughter. Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1931.
- Rosen, Christine. Preaching Eugenics: Religious Leaders and the American Eugenics Movement. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004
- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eugenics, http://www.wikimormon.org/en/index.php?title=Eugenics