Prior to the 1940s, fundamentalist plural marriage looked a lot like 19th-century Mormon plural marriage, in that participants chose their own partners, based on personal attraction, principles of faith and in general the same sorts of considerations that lead anyone to choose a marriage partner. While this open market style continues to obtain among most polygamous groups, it does not among the FLDS, which practices what they call placement marriage, in which marriages are arranged, and wives and children are sometimes reassigned to other men, as a sign of absolute submission to priesthood authority. Originally when a young girl in the FLDS tradition felt ready for marriage, usually between 16 and 25, she would discuss the matter with her father, who would let the priesthood council know and they would assign her to a male to marry, which would take place either immediately or within a week or so. But under Warren Jeffs this has evolved to coercing younger and younger girls into marriages without their first presenting themselves voluntarily.
It is helpful in understanding the development of FLDS placement marriage to consider the secret 1948 marriage of Louis Barlow, a tale which Marianne Watson recounts based on the journals of her grandfather, Joseph Lyman Jessop (she has changed the names of most people still living, except for public figures like Warren Jeffs.)
In September 1948, Lyman, a polygamist himself with three wives, was shocked when his 15-year old daughter Christine told him she had secretly been married the previous weekend to Louis Barlow. Barlow was then 24 and already a practicing polygamist, with two other wives and three or four children. He was the son of the presiding fundamentalist leader John Y. Barlow, and also a nephew of Lyman’s, making him Christine’s first cousin. Lyman was deeply disturbed at such a marriage being performed without his knowledge and consent. On the way back to Salt Lake the new groom flagged Lyman down along the road, and they talked about the marriage for a tense hour. Barlow said he had been commanded to do it, but refused to say by whom. But he maintained he did exactly right. Lyman responded “No person on earth has a right to tell you to take my daughter without my knowledge or consent, and this you have done.”
Lyman suspected that this “divine command,” if one were given at all, must have come from Barlow’s father. He did not think it right, as it violated the agency of others, namely Christine herself, his and her mother’s. Barlow then came to see Lyman in SLC and tried to talk about the marriage some more, and then resorted to threats against their salvation. (“Pretty cocky, I call it” Lyman recounted in his journal.) Lyman soon learned that his own brother, recently called to the Priesthood Council, had performed the wedding.
Lyman sought advice from Joseph Musser, then second in authority on the council. The elderly Musser agreed with Lyman that he was right in this matter. He advised Lyman that no action was needed to annul the marriage, and to simply ignore it. This was almost the last straw, he mused, wondering “what will they do next?” But it was impossible to simply ignore, as Louis Barlow continued to press his claim on Christine. Once, when Lyman was away, Louis came to the home and took Christine 12 miles away to the ranch of a polygamist friend, telling both Christine and her mother Winnie that Lyman had consented. Winnie was furious that Lyman would have done so without discussing the matter with her, but when he returned at the end of the week, he assured her he had given no consent whatsoever.
The next morning, to their surprise Louis and a couple of other men brought Christine home, stating his intention to take Christine as his wife to Short Creek. Lyman appealed directly to Christine, saying he would rather she didn’t go. Realizing from this that Lyman had not given consent and that she had a choice in the matter, Christine said “no.” Louis continued to press his case for more than three hours, but eventually he and the two others left without Christine. But Louis didn’t give up, and the tense situation continued. Winnie fretted almost to the point of a nervous breakdown. (It was in the course of trying to reassure her that Lyman referred to this as a “diabolical, high pressure marriage,” which is the source for the title to this post.)
Lyman was heartened that his own father, Joseph Smith Jessop, said he agreed with him (although he refused to blame his other son Richard for performing the marriage.) The elder Jessop called a family meeting to resolve the matter. Lyman said the marriage was invalid because Louis pressured Christine into it and had done so without his knowledge or consent. He was especially adamant because Christine “says she don’t want Louis at all and felt all the time that He was not the one for her, tho she yielded to his stubborn will and persuasions.” Louis, his father and Lyman’s brother argued for the other side, that the marriage was valid, arguing that when an authorized man used that ceremony, it was binding, no matter what the conditions were. Of the six men present, four were in favor of seeing the marriage as binding, Lyman’s father remained neutral, leaving only Lyman arguing against it. The meeting lasted 2-1/2 hours without resolution. (Lyman was amazed that Louis still wanted Christine after she had made it clear how much she didn’t want him.) The matter remained in limbo for another year, with Lyman refusing to budge. It was the death of John Barlow that opened the door for a resolution.
By this time Christine was now 17, and still adamant that she did not belong to Louis and his family. Lyman went to see Joseph Musser, who was now first in seniority on the priesthood council. Musser asked him to bring Christine in for an interview and talked with her. He agreed to release her from her obligation to Louis, but said it would be best to do so with the support of the full council.
The council convened on 25 February 1950. Lyman said he considered the marriage void under priesthood law because “I didn’t know anything about the marriage until it was all done….I am not trying to say that the girl has no blame in this, but the hurry and rush was urged by Louis; and tho [Christine] said ‘I do’ to the marriage covenant, there was undue pressure put upon her and it was not done of her own free will and choice.” He said he would yet give his consent if Christine wanted him, “but she does not.” Lyman related that he had been present when Lorin C. Woolley advocated the necessity for getting consent and approval from the parents of girls entering into plural marriage, and that he had emphasized the point with a fist pounded on the table.
Louis argued that his father had supported him at every step of the process, and that if he had it to do over again he would do the same. He said that since he hadn’t had a chance to live with Christine as husband and wife, he should be given that chance. Several on the council related precedent where girls had been released from marriage covenants where it was felt they had been pressured into them and the girl had not had a chance to express her own views on the subject. Musser became sick and the meeting ended early, but sometime within the next six months the council released Christine from her marriage to Louis, and in 1950 she married a man clearly of her own choice, whom Lyman described as “one of the great characters” of their day.
Less than a year after Christine’s marriage, the fundamentalist community fractured over various issues of doctrine and practice, protocols for entering into plural marriage being one of the main ones. Men like Musser and Lyman, who insisted on the old ways of agency and consent for a girl entering into polygamy, were increasingly becoming a minority voice.
[Note: As I have read the recent commentary on FLDS polygamy, it has seemed to me that commenters would greatly benefit from a read of Marianne T. Watson, “The 1948 Secret Marriage of Louis J. Barlow: Origins of FLDS Placement Marriage,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 40/1 (Spring 2007): 83-136. The above is my attempt to give some sense for what is in this 50-page article; obviously, I highly recommend that those interested read the actual article. Back issues are available for sale at the Dialogue website. It looks like you can also read this article for free if you register; see here.]