Title: The Persistence of Polygamy: Joseph Smith and the Origins of Mormon Polygamy
Editors: Newell G. Bringhurst and Craig L. Foster
Publisher: John Whitmer Books
We usually just want the unvarnished truth. Tell us the facts. Drop the spin. Lay it all out on the table. State your case objectively and we’ll decide to believe you or to reject your views. Give us some easy bullet points, a quick overview, a succinct argument, and the jury will return shortly with the verdict. The problem is that we all too often forget we’re all incapable of constructing, let alone judging between, contrasting claims about our past in an “objective” way. This is my non-comprehensive way of explaining our persistent interest in history, of course. “History speaks not only of the past but also of the present.”1
So it is with books about polygamy, one of the most debated subjects within the history of Mormonism. Not merely about Mormonism, but within it. And this has been the case from the very start, as several essays demonstrate in a new book called The Persistence of Polygamy. From the shadowy beginnings of the controversial practice by Joseph Smith to the prolonged debate between the “Brighamite” (Salt Lake City-based) and “Josephite” (the former RLDS church) branches of Mormonism, Mormons themselves have debated the origins and purposes of the peculiar principle. (These two issues in particular are handled impressively by Don Bradley and Newell Bringhurst, respectively.) And historians of the movement have published dozens of dozens of books on polygamy, which the editors of the present volume helpfully explain by including the best references to past works in their Introduction (2). If you’re not caught up on the ongoing debate about plural marriage, this book provides a steady bedrock of references from which researchers—casual and professional—can confidently wade into the depths.
Persistence is the first of a projected three-volume collection of essays by various scholars approaching the study of polygamy from a variety of methodological approaches. (As Richard Bushman notes on the book’s back cover: “Polygamy will not die.”) In addition to the two essays mentioned above, it also includes essays examining the age and marital status of Joseph Smith’s plural wives, dissecting the contents of Smith’s revelation now canonized by the LDS Church as D&C 132, and the question of whether Smith sired any children by wives other than Emma, his first. This question is approached by Ugo A. Perego using rigorous DNA analysis, demonstrating the strengths and weaknesses of such an approach to determining paternity. It’s highly technical, but Perego manages to make the science fairly accessible to an amateur like me, although a few of his conclusions won’t satisfy those seeking definitive answers. He ably demonstrates that several of the alleged offspring couldn’t have been Smith’s, including several whom Fawn Brodie and others had alleged.
Two other essays reach Perego’s level of complexity. Both approach the question of the ages of Smith’s brides. The first, by Craig L. Foster, David Keller, and Gregory L. Smith, seeks to place the ages in the social and demographic context of early-to-mid 19th-century frontier America. In the most polemical-toned section of the entire volume, they begin their essay by confronting the criticism of commentators and writers like Lawrence O’Donnell and Jon Krakauer who label Smith a pedophile based on marriage to a girl as young as 14. They call for greater sensitivity in not imposing present values “upon another place and time” when marriage patterns were different (157). They trace long-term marriage trends in a variety of cultures noting legal, geographic, economic and cultural elements which help shape marriage age expectations. They zoom in on 19th century America and argue that—especially in a frontier context like that of Nauvoo—the marriage ages of brides were neither normal nor abnormal, but similar to other relatively newly established frontier settlements (179). They also note the lack of evidence that Smith consummated marriage with the youngest, Helen Kimball, following the analysis of historian Todd Compton who identifies the girl as part of a “dynastic” marriage—that is, a marriage thought to unite the Kimball and Smith families more generally (157).
Their calculations are complex, their analysis cold, as acknowledged by Todd Compton’s own essay which follows it, “Early Marriage…What Was the Norm” (184). Compton covers a bit of the same ground as the former essay regarding economic and cultural factors of marriage age, but he elects to confine his statistical comparison to “nineteenth-century New England and northeastern America (the cultural background for Mormonism)” (186). Like Compton and the other authors, I’m neither a social historian nor a trained statistician (187), but I think Compton’s reliance on statistical data from areas said to “root” Mormonism overlooks the immediate relevance of the actual location, the immediate circumstances, of the frontier community in which plural marriage arose, a point noted by the former essay and even within Compton’s (229). More interesting is Compton’s continued analysis of marriage ages in the Utah territory through the end of the 19th century, where he argues that increased competition for wives due to a male/female imbalance led to lower-aged wives than elsewhere in the United States.
A deeper comparison of these two essays could result in its own fascinating essay, as the authors are tip-toeing around a highly sensitive subject, one which remains fairly volatile today. If the former essay is highly attuned to the intellectual side of the argument regarding the brute statistical facts the latter is slightly more attuned to the affective aspects of the debate.1 Even when Compton argues that Smith’s marriage to nearly-15-year-old Helen Kimball was “dynastic” and thus consummation was postponed he is careful to add “I find dynastic marriages of teenage girls problematic, even if sexual consummation is delayed” (231). He acknowledges Smith, et. al.’s cautions against presentism (projecting our values onto peoples of the past in judgment) but also agrees with Smith that “a caution against presentism is not to claim that no moral judgments are possible about historical events” (232). They all seem to agree with Compton that “finding the correct balance in avoiding presentism, yet not condoning very early marriages for young women, may be difficult,” and that caution is needed especially considering that some polygamous Mormon offshoots may be impacted by such historical arguments (232). Publishing these essays side-by-side is an excellent maneuver on the part of the editors to present contrasting though somewhat complementary approaches to a complex historical situation.
All that being said, leave it to Linda King Newell, who wrote the volume’s Foreword, to point out that “This volume represents an impersonal treatment…Polygamy affected women most profoundly and their voices are nearly absent in this anthology” (ix-x). Even Brian Hales’s contribution, which determines that Smith’s marriages to already-or-previously-married women sometimes constituted “eternity-only” sealings, doesn’t focus directly on the views of the women involved. And Jessie L. Embry’s Afterword reads like the resigned sigh of a historian doubtful of the fruits of ongoing studies. “The authors demonstrate the problems in answering questions because there will always be disputes over what sources to trust” she notes (285). She sees the conversation as largely being bogged down by the same old questions, following Jan Shipps’s view that by generating new questions (as this volume attempts) “Mormon history could be ‘researched’ and ‘reinvestigated’ and not just ‘retold,’ defended, or attacked” (289). She fears that the “old questions will continue to dominate,” even though volumes like the present “show the variety of opinions.” Her parting words: “There is no one easy answer” (289).
Following the Afterword is a useful Appendix listing and annotating a comprehensive list of Joseph Smith’s plural wives, with an explanation of the reasons for these marriages and the compilation’s method for the inclusion of each of the thirty-three women. Two more volumes in the series are slated to follow, which ought to delve more deeply into the views of women, the growth of polygamy after Smith’s death, and the emergence of twentieth-century Mormon Fundamentalism (13). Perhaps the most remarkable detail about the series is that it comes from John Whitmer Books, a fruit of the Community of Christ organization, which for decades denied Joseph Smith’s involvement in polygamy, circumstances which Bringhurst explores in detail in his essay. The openness and rigor of this volume bodes well for the series as a whole and for the folks at John Whitmer Books who facilitated its production.
The volume’s editors, Craig Foster and Newell Bringhurst, hope this series will “stimulate discussion and debate, and more importantly encourage further scholarly research” (12). Yes, this is a rather boilerplate statement for a collection of essays, but if the book serves any particular purpose above all, it ought to stand as a firm reminder that reasons for the origins and persistence of polygamy remain contestable. Obviously there are easy and reductionist explanations (“it was instituted by direct revelation” or “it was instituted because of sexual appetite”). Such claims will likely remain the psychological place-holders in the minds of foes and friends of Mormonism for the foreseeable future. But this volume again invites us to tread a bit more carefully when handling fragmentary historical sources, while digging through the past for our own contemporary reasons and with our own contemporary perspectives. Anyone who is seriously interested in researching polygamy in the Mormon tradition should be willing to discover and analyze contrasting methods, competing questions, mutual problems—all of which directly bears on the resources themselves (census records, family histories, diaries, etc.) from which we piece together a story about the past. As a collection of essays, it doesn’t offer an easily-accessible smooth narrative. It’s more of an analytical workbook with examples of different methodologies, and as such serves as a reminder that there are still many more questions to ask. Here’s to hoping along with Linda Newell that this volume will evoke “a healthy skepticism for glibly drawn conclusions” like the kind we instinctively adopt from various bullet points and sound bites (xiv).
1. Bernard Lonergan, Method in Theology (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1971), 220.
2. These categories are borrowed from Clifford Geertz’s “Religion as a Cultural System,” in The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books, 1973), 104.