This post marks the beginning of a series on the origins and historical development of what Mormons typically denote with the term “Correlation.” It’s a long and complicated story, one that will require a number of installments to adequately canvas. It’s also an incredibly interesting story, involving, among other things, polygamy, the Underground, manifestoes, post-manifesto polygamy, senators, aspiring senators, “courts of love,” monogamy, Fundamentalism, Church welfare, apostolic infighting, charts and graphs, minds and bodies, lying, truth-telling, bureaucracies, Navajos, and a plethora of John Taylors.
Since this is a topic for which I, like most Church members, lack any serious expertise (though not for a lack of curiosity), I have decided to consult an expert. And, much to my relief, it turns out that there is one. Daymon M. Smith might be the most important scholar of Mormonism that you’ve never heard of. He completed his PhD in Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania in 2007. Happily, his dissertation topic was the rise of the Modern, Correlated Church. I’ve actually read Daymon’s dissertation — twice, in fact. Unfortunately, like so much of today’s social science, Daymon’s very rich historical analysis and the unprecedented empirical data that underlie it are rather difficult to dig out of the disciplinary jargon in which they are couched. Reading it, as a properly initiated anthropologist, was an exercise in both illumination and despair — the conjoined awareness of the work’s significance and its inaccessibility to most of those who would find it most interesting (not unlike, it turns out, most dissertations, but whatever).
As an antidote to this dilemma, I offered, and Daymon graciously agreed, to record a series of extended conversations, the first portion of which is transcribed below (with much more to come). It’s a long conversation, one that stretches back to pre-Manifesto Mormonism. It’s meant to be a kind of prolegomenon to Daymon’s analysis and argument, a conversation about and engagement with the dissertation, though by no means a substitute for reading it. For those brave, tireless souls who are interested, the dissertation is available here in pdf form. Daymon is currently at work on two separate books drawn from the dissertation. The conversation that follows, it is hoped, provides a serviceable and accessible introduction to a complicated but relentlessly fascinating topic.
Brad: So we want to start the conversation by simply trying to pin down what “correlation” is—is it some kind of committee, is it an administrative or editorial process, is it a mysterious, occult power, is it a state of mind?
Daymon: What I would say to begin with about “correlation” is that it is first and foremost a word. I think where I want to start this conversation is tracking where this word comes from, leaving aside for a time the question of what it might mean.
Brad: And we’ll spend some time up front providing some important historical background for the emergence of correlation. You have argued—I think quite persuasively—that in order to construct a coherent narrative of where Correlation comes from, we really need to go back quite a bit; that the pivotal period in terms of historical transformations of Mormonism and the origins of what we might call Modern Mormonism is the 1880s. Our series of conversations will actually begin and end with John Taylor.
We begin with John Taylor on the Underground, evading arrest for plural marriage, and we’ll finish things off with a pretty detailed ethnographic description of the creation of the John Taylor Priesthood/Relief Society manual. You’ve had some fairly unprecedented access to documents relevant to the creation of that text, and I think it speaks directly to a lot of the key questions here.
First things first, though. The Underground. I think for a lot of readers, there is a vague sense that something like the Underground existed, that there was some kind of resistance movement among some Mormons in the 1880s. But I don’t think that very many of us have a particularly clear picture of what exactly it is we’re talking about here. It’s a very, very interesting story.
Daymon: “The Underground” is typically used to refer to Mormon resistance to federal raids against polygamous families, but the term itself is actually just as complicated as the word Correlation. First, there’s this metaphor from American history, a reference to slavery and emancipation. In this case, it’s Mormons being liberated from the onslaught of the federal government. During the early and mid-1880s Congress passed a series of anti-polygamy statutes, which led Mormons to consider a number of different possible reactions.
Brad: Now we should stop and point out something that’s particularly important here. By the 1880s there had already been various kinds of federal anti-polygamy legislation on the books for quite some time. Utah is still a territory—not a state—and therefore governed by Congress. The actual crime that was outlined by previous rounds of anti-polygamy legislation was the crime of “polygamy” or “bigamy.” The problem was that laws prohibiting this crime were actually incredibly difficult to enforce and violations difficult to prosecute.
Daymon: This opens up the possibility for getting at the question of where the Underground came from and what it became in 1880s Utah, as well as to the larger question of what this all has to do with Mormon culture. The problem essentially was that the wife of any man who was on trial—and this was a law that targeted men—was not allowed to testify in court in a way that might put her husband behind bars.
Brad: But that would only apply to the first wife, since she is the only legal wife.
Daymon: Right. And, of course, the laws governing spousal privilege were written with monogamy in mind. Once they try to actually prosecute polygamists, they’ve got problems. The principle one being that they can’t establish who the first wife is without one of the wives testifying. But as soon as they have established who the first wife is, her testimony is no longer valid or admissible. So there was a kind of paradox that prevented any of the pre-1880 legislation from being enforceable on Mormons.
Brad: It was a catch-22. A woman could be testifying in a courtroom, and the moment that establishes her as having first-wife status also disqualifies her testimony as evidence against her accused husband.
Daymon: And as long as the defendants could confuse the issue enough, so that it remained relatively vague who the first wife was, things were even harder for the prosecution. This was a legal strategy that Mormons became quite adept at taking advantage of, even including things like a man marrying wives on the same day in separate ceremonies, without either one actually knowing who, in fact, was first wife—for their own protection, really. As a result of that uncertainty, neither of them could provide legally admissible testimony against the accused polygamous man. This was a real dilemma for the US government. Of course the government really isn’t that interested in eliminating polygamy for, say, the sake of American values or something. There are larger political and economic reasons for putting polygamy into the crosshairs. My research here isn’t exactly original. Firmage and Mangrum’s book on the territorial courts, Sarah Gordon and Carmon Hardy’s work [Solemn Covenant] as well have explored the political, legal, and economic aspects of plural marriage and the anti-polygamy campaigns. My interest here lies more with respect to what you might call the cultural effects of these legislative acts.
Brad: Eventually the federal government is going to realize that existing anti-polygamy legislation and the efforts to enforce it are so ineffectual that they are, in fact, going to create, through legislation, a new crime and with it new evidentiary standards for prosecution.
Daymon: Right. The new crime is “Unlawful Cohabitation.” Now, it seems kind of redundant to have “unlawful” as part of the name of a crime, which might be part of the trick, but the new evidentiary standards are intentionally vague. It’s a form of “judicial activism” which leaves an enormous amount of interpretive discretion to the judge.
Brad: And the thing is, you no longer need to establish that something like a formal marriage ceremony has been performed. You’re not prosecuting polygamy—you’re not prosecuting a man for being married to more than one woman. They see plural marriage as a violation of a social norm, as a crime against marriage, against an entire institution. So the real crime has little to do with whether or not the marriage exists. The real crime is if there is a general public perception that a single person is married to multiple individuals or living with multiple individuals or has a relationship that is marriage-like with more than one person.
Daymon: This is the real trick. They invent this new crime of unlawful cohabitation and didn’t need any evidence of plural marriage. All they need is for anyone who is an American citizen to testify that either they themselves thought or they thought that someone else thought that the defendant was holding multiple persons in a marriage relationship. They didn’t even have to show that there had been a physical or intimate or sexual relationship. Mormons argued that this at least was necessary to establish cohabitation.
Brad: Yeah. Mormons wanted sexual relations to be a piece of necessary evidence for the prosecution. It raised the evidentiary threshold.
Daymon: And this argument was thrown out by Judge Zane, on the basis, really, of competing dictionaries. What cohabitation meant, when it came down to it, was simply that the territorial judge accepted the prosecutor’s fulfillment of what needed to be established. It was totally tautological, and it really began to break up what made this crime a crime. All they really needed to do was show that somebody thought that so-and-so was probably in a prohibited marriage-like relationship.
Brad: Because what really, really matters is the fact of public perception, of public scandal, of the violation of public morals. So something called “public perception” acquires a legal existence as the place where evidence is most relevant. “Is there this perception out there? Do people believe that the accused is married to more than one woman?” And the punchline of all of this is that the most relevant prosecutorial evidence for this particular crime was, by definition, hearsay.
Daymon. Right. So it was sold, certainly, as a crime against public morality and decency. Though this was really just a way of leveraging power, and the courtrooms became the space for the unfettered exercise of this power. Simply by someone declaring their own state of mind, or intuiting and pronouncing the state of mind of others, this could, and often did lead, to throwing someone into prison.
Effects of Unlawful Cohabitation: Strategies and Spies
Brad: Someone could be a key witness for the prosecution and have little if any direct relationship with the defendant, and he could testify that, as far as he knows, there exists a general belief or perception that the defendant is married to these women, and on the basis of that testimony alone the prosecution could be successful, someone could be fined, someone could go to prison.
Daymon: And the irony is that the anti-polygamy legislation was built on the SCOTUS ruling in the Reynolds case in 1879, which drew on the writings of Jefferson and others, declaring that the state has a governing interest in actions and practices—religious practices and actions, “laws are laws of action.” But the state has no jurisdiction over belief, over what is held in the mind.
Brad: Mormons can believe in polygamy.
Daymon. Right, but they can’t use their bodies as a demonstration of this belief. They can’t live it. They can hold propositions concerning polygamy in their mind true and right as robustly as they like.
Brad. The underlying idea here is that laws are about action and actions, and do not govern the realm of the mind. Which brings us back to the deep irony of the unlawful cohabitation prosecutions.
Daymon: The irony is that in the public space of the courtroom, these ideas, these things that exist only in people’s minds actually become things that are used against them.
Brad: Mind or belief is something that becomes concrete in the sense of having relevance to the case in question and producing real consequences.
Daymon: And this is really the starting point for this great transition in Mormonism, leading to what I am going to call Correlation or Correlationism. In summary, the realm of belief or of the mind was ostensible granted freely as a space where any religious person—and in particular a Mormon person—could enjoy non-intervention from the state.
Brad: “Believe whatever you want.”
Daymon: Contrastively, you could be thrown into the territorial penitentiary because somebody believed something, or believed that you believed something, or believed that someone else believed something.
Brad: So, there’s this new crime with new prosecutions, and it’s not about whether or not a marriage ceremony has been performed, they don’t have to establish that any real event or action has actually taken place, whether you’re actually living with or having sex with somebody—none of this stuff matters. What is relevant is: Is there a general perception that you, the defendant, are or might be married to more than one person?
Daymon: Right. That’s, I think, a pretty good summary of what’s at stake in 1880s Utah. And the Underground develops as a specific cultural response and resistance to this very peculiar set of social, legal, and linguistic circumstances.
Brad: So the kinds of evasive or defensive strategies that might have worked before, when you’re having to establish something more concrete like the actual performance of a marriage ceremony, or even someone living with or having sexual relations with somebody—it’s really easy to envision useful strategies for evading arrest and prosecution when we’re talking about these particular kinds of concrete, clearly defined criminal acts. Now we have this new crime with new evidentiary standards according to which an accused person is held criminally responsible for beliefs or perceptions that are held, or might be held, or are believed to be held, or the judge considers to be held, by some other person, that person being held to generically represent something called the Public. What strategies can work against such a thing? We need to see the Underground as a particular response to the creation and attempted enforcement of this particular, and particularly vague and mysterious, crime.
Daymon: If it was just a matter of evading federal marshals who needed to corral men who were, so to speak, in the act of the crime, this would have been pretty easy to resist.
Brad: All you’d have to do is just succeed in hiding people, in hiding bodies. Moving people from house to house, shuttling people to secret locations, sending people on missions out of the territory. There are all kinds of strategies that are basically just spatial.
Daymon: They certainly did send people on missions, but this tended to be a direct response for hiding people who had been subpoenaed or had a warrant for their arrest. Some people too would leave for the new colonies in Mexico, which they considered a “city of refuge.” Mormons were told in 1885 that anyone who might fall under this new category of unlawful cohabitation could make their way to the city of refuge. So they do have options, but mostly they involve trying to move their bodies physically beyond the physical, territorial boundaries that demarcate the jurisdiction of federal marshals, prosecutors, and judges.
Brad: Even something like hiding in someone’s house, in someone’s crawlspace, etc.
Daymon: These are usually the kind of quaint stories that people tell about the Underground. There were a number of oral history interviews done with people in which they describe these memories, and it almost makes it seem like it was just a game, like it was fun.
Brad: Wilford Woodruff hiding in plain sight by wearing a “mother hubbard” dress…
Daymon: Right, when he’s out hunting ducks or fishing he wears dresses. There was definitely some amusing confusion. You might see someone walking along who looks like an old woman, but on further inspection it turns out to be a prominent church leader and polygamist. You’ve got stories of men hiding in, for example, piano crates—even mailing themselves from one place to another. People being carted away in boxes, hiding in chimneys, everywhere.
Brad: But the point now is that hiding, even hiding in plain sight, can only do you so much good now that there’s a new crime and a new set of strategies that prosecutors and marshals are using to go after Mormons and that strategy primarily centers on the use of spies.
Daymon: Yes. So this is the most important strategic difference. Spies are a central part of the surveillance structure that the government puts into place in order to prove, for example, that someone might have spent the night at a plural wife’s house.
Brad: So a spy might be a federal marshal in disguise, but it might also be just a member of the community that the marshals have convinced to cooperate.
Daymon: And the whole problem here became, How do you know that somebody is a spy? The local newspapers, particular the ones run by Mormons, kind of ran away with this paranoia. The papers would report, or people would send in letters performing a public service by reporting, the presence of spies in a particular town or area; each report created a kind of syndicated channel of reports. You might get a report of spies in Salt Lake City, and this report might get genericized into a warning of potential spies in another city like Provo or Ogden. You get this sense that nobody really knew what a spy was. Of course the definition of a “spy” was someone who conceals their identity. Ironically, that became the definition of an undergrounder, as well.
The Undergrounder Creates The Underground
Brad: So gossip becomes a really powerful phenomenon during this time. There’s a rumor that there’s a spy in this town, so that heightens paranoia, and now any person you come in contact with that isn’t a close friend or family member is a potential spy, simply by virtue of the fact that you don’t recognize them. And there’s literally no way of ascertaining whether or not someone is a spy; and, as you noted, part of the very definition of being a spy or a spotter is spies and spotters deliberately conceal their identity as such.
Daymon: It’s really easy to identify that someone has been acting strangely when you just see them walking down the street in front of your house. You don’t recognize the person, you start to think he might be a spy, you pack up and leave for the night, just to be safe. These kinds of accounts emerge in all kinds of diaries and journals from the 1880s. So the Mormon response to the paranoia, to the suspicion that there are spies everywhere, didn’t exactly stop the runaway effect of this legislative surveillance.
Brad: There’s a powerful irony here, in that if you’re a Mormon, either a polygamist or concealing a polygamist, you know that the prosecution strategy of the government is to find someone who can serve as a witness, and that witness, in order to procure useful information, is going to pretend to be friendly and use that pretended friendliness as a cover for their true identity as a spy and a witness for the government. Your whole strategy for avoiding spies and spotters and evading prosecution is going to be simply to mind your own business. This becomes a well known Mormon creed: Mind your own business.
Daymon: This has been the creed for some time, but with the new strategies and the runaway paranoia they induce, this creed eventually becomes the only thing that Church leaders, via church owned newspapers, can really offer in the way of strategic advice to Mormon readers.
Brad: Don’t talk to anybody. Don’t talk to strangers, don’t say who you are. Never assume that someone is a friend or an enemy.
Daymon: Even if you trust somebody, you don’t know that somebody might or might not be listening in on your conversation, or that maybe this trusted person will inadvertently repeat sensitive aspects of this conversation, which could then reveal something about you to the wrong people. The problem became that Mormons weren’t really sure what, exactly, they were resisting. This is partly because of the shifting evidentiary standards, and the judges were very good at countering every evasive strategy that Undergrounders came up with.
Brad: Earlier, under previous legislative regimes, even if you were a known polygamist, you just had to figure out how to avoid the marshals. But now it’s different. You might be an unknown polygamist, but even if you know who the local marshal is, you don’t know who any potential spy or spotter is, and if you go to another town because you’re concerned that there are unrecognizable spotters in your town—a very common strategy—you’re going to be withdrawn, behave mysteriously, mind your own business—you can see how the efforts to respond to the problem of spy misrecognition end up actually magnifying and multiplying the problem. The paranoia just careens out of control because it induces behavior that, in turn, induces more paranoia.
Daymon: What you have in many of the journal accounts are men who are fleeing what they believe to be spies and marshals or reports of such (it was actually pretty rare that you would run into these guys). But the gossip chains just magnify the presence of any single marshal into fifty or a hundred spies or potential spies. So when they’re minding their own business, following the Mormon creed, being a good Undergrounder, they’re, in the process, actually generating widespread suspicion that they themselves might be spies.
Brad: You go to a neighboring town because of reports of a spy or someone acting suspicious in your town, and that person might be someone who came from another town for the same reasons, he’s minding his own business, keeping to himself, and now he might be a spy, gossip and rumors circulate, the polygamists in town want to leave for other towns, towns where they won’t be recognized, where they, in turn, will behave like spies by trying to mind their own business, lather, rinse, repeat.
Daymon: There you have it. And my interest here is what are the cultural consequences of all this. There are obviously legal and political questions involved, but what I found most interesting in all these reports was that it was basically expected that an undergrounder would lie by concealing who he was, his identity. If he wasn’t concealing his physical body somewhere, he was concealing his identity through language.
Next time, on a Very Special Episode of Correlation: An Uncorrelated History: Daymon discloses to me the identity of my secret twin. Also we talk more about minds, manifestoes, and meta-language. Don’t miss this bloggernacle Event!