Mormon history often has an “I’ll-believe-it-when-I-see-it” quality for faithful Latter-day Saints. So much, it often seems, depends on the interpretive strategy of the historian that readers’ own perspectives are hard to change with anything other than direct reference to surprising or under-considered primary sources. Indeed, during the aftermath of the Hofmann forgeries, even primary sources — especially surprising ones — were suspect for many Mormons. Fortunately for us, that time of historical nihilism is largely past, but the broad skepticism of many Mormons that things were ever substantially different than they are today seems to persist.
How to make a contribution in the face of such a paralyzing worldview? Many researchers have in recent years found a kind of solution to this dilemma in the documentary history. Thus, while Dan Vogel may not persuade too many Mormons with his ingenious, sympathetic, but fundamentally skeptical recent biography of Joseph Smith, he has reached and influenced a substantial, diverse audience through his Early Mormon Documents series, which collects and briefly comments on most of the important primary sources involving Mormon history during the period before Kirtland.
B. Carmon Hardy adopts a similar, if less comprehensive, strategy with his new documentary history of Mormon polygamy, Doing the Works of Abraham: Mormon Polygamy: Its Origin, Practice, and Demise. Obviously, Hardy could scarcely aspire to reprint every major document related to polygamy in a single volume. In comparison with the New England Mormonism that preoccupies Vogel, a much larger group of people practiced polygamy, for a much longer period of time. While necessarily selective, then, Hardy’s volume is nonetheless intelligently selective, covering most of the centrally important topics regarding Mormon polygamy from various perspectives.
Hardy’s first chapter collects documents regarding the origins of Mormon polygamy during Joseph Smith’s life. Of the topics addressed in the volume, this is almost certainly the most familiar to potential readers. Indeed, these stories are told in many other places, notably in Todd Compton’s In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith. In Hardy, nonetheless, the story is competently told from multiple perspectives. As one would expect, the chapter includes texts of Joseph Smith’s relevant revelations, letters, autobiographies, and other statements from several of the faithful Saints who entered polygamy during Smith’s lifetime, and newspaper articles by opponents of polygamy (both Mormon and non-Mormon). Each of these sources is framed with careful contextualizing discussion; the reader is never left to guess who the people in a document are, why the primary source was written, or what the broader circumstances were. Hardy’s historical craft is uniformly graceful and efficient.
These positive traits persist through the rest of the volume, in which Hardy presents sources related to aspects of Mormon polygamy that may be much less familiar to modern LDS readers. I was particularly fascinated by Chapters 2 and 3, which collect 19th-century Mormon explanations of why polygamy was important. While modern Latter-day Saints often regard polygamy as the exception and monogamy as the rule, Mormon discourse during the polygamy period was markedly different. The highest LDS leaders emphasized what they saw as the inherent corrupting influences of monogamy, which they saw as producing rampant infidelity, prostitution, female assertiveness, socio-political decline, and even physical decay.
Consider the 6 April 1857 remarks of Heber C. Kimball on the health effects on men of entering polygamy:
I would not be afraid to promise a man who is sixty years of age, if he will take the council of br. Brigham and his brethren, that he will renew his age. I have noticed that a man who has but one wife, and is inclined to that doctrine, soon begins to wither and dry up, while a man who goes into plurality looks fresh, young, and sprightly. Why is this? Because God loves that man, and because he honours His work and word. Some of you may not believe this, but I do not only believe it but I also know it. For a man of God to be confined to one woman is small business; for it is as much as we can do now to keep up under the burdens we have to carry; and I do not know what we should do it we had only one wife apiece. (available in Hardy, pg. 130)
Evidently, for Kimball, age is an effect of monogamy. Other Mormon leaders saw monogamy as producing birth defects, excessively lustful children, and even the decline in human lifespan from the centuries-long lives of Old Testament patriarchs to the mere decades of recorded history. Also, of course, polygamy was taught as necessary for exaltation:
Some people have supposed that the doctrine of plural marriage was a sort of superfluity, or non-essential to the salvation or exaltation of mankind. In other words, some of the Saints have said, and believe, that a man with one wife, sealed to him by the authority of the Priesthood for time and eternity, will receive an exaltation as great and glorious, if he is faithful, as he possibly could with more than one. I want here to enter my solemn protest against this idea, for I know it is false. (Joseph F. Smith, 7 July 1878, available in Hardy, pg. 113)
Hardy’s document collection does an admirable job of recounting these and other fascinating and profound differences between 19th-century and current Mormon understandings of the purposes of, and effects of, polygamy. Chapters 2 and 3 are the most theologically rich in the volume, and of potentially great value for Saints not yet exposed to 19th-century Mormon thought about marriage.
Chapter 4 is also useful, although perhaps somewhat less surprising. This chapter shows Mormon men and especially women struggling with the social and emotional consequences of polygamy. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many or most of the born monogamists who entered polygamy were subsequently unhappy. Hardy’s documents movingly chronicle the difficulties of loneliness and jealousy that attended celestial marriage, while also noting Mormons’ expectation that the second and third generations of polygamists would suffer much less.
My biggest disappointments regarding the book involve this chapter, however. Hardy provides very little information about the economics of polygamy. Was in the case that one husband was economically productive enough to support various wives (along with their children), who were not involved in productive work, as many modern Mormons believe? Or was productive work relatively universal for both sexes and most age groups, as in most largely agrarian societies? Were polygamous wives required to be more economically productive than monogamous wives, as one might logically expect? Were polygamous families in the Mormon kingdom richer or poorer than monogamous families? Did the Mormon practice of polygamy require that each wife have her own house, as a couple of documents in Hardy’s volume claim, or did wives routinely share a single dwelling, as some other documents assert? Hardy shows little interest in these questions, even though they are issues central to the reality of polygamy about which many 21st-century readers entertain marked misconceptions. In a related vein, and of at least equal importance in light of current Mormon ideas of the family, Hardy seems largely uninterested in child-care and child-raising in polygamy. Obviously, no volume can cover every aspect of polygamy. Yet, aside from the basic theological questions, these omitted themes speak more directly to current LDS identities — rooted as they are in our self-definition as a family church — than much of what Hardy does choose to address.
Hardy also provides useful document collections regarding Mormon rhetorical defenses against non-Mormon critiques of polygamy, the Manifesto and the end of polygamy, and three wonderfully entertaining chapters recounting the increasingly hostile non-Mormon response to polygamy over the course of the 19th century. The book is, in part, a crash course in how much Mormons were once hated, and thus a salutary dose of perspective for those of us who feel especially persecuted when the media ask funny questions about Mitt Romney.
Overall, this is a book that I highly recommend, especially to readers who are not yet familiar with the voluminous existing literature on Mormon polygamy. Hardy shows us the primary sources in an informative, clear, and credible way, leading us into the strange and foreign world our ancestors inhabited just over a century ago. If there is a better first book to read about polygamy among the Saints, I don’t know what it is.