In response to a recent blog discussion about plural marriage, several long-time bloggernacle participants and I got involved in a lengthy and spirited email conversation. We ended up deciding that a redacted, heavily edited, and anonymized version of our exchange would make for interesting blog fodder. The conversation started out by considering whether people today are more scandalized by the plurality of Joseph Smith’s wives, or by (some of) their ages. But it shifted rather quickly in a new, more general dirction, which is where we pick up here.
Wintermute: The outrage over plural marriages is not remotely modern (if anything it’s tame compared to what it was). The scandal over bride age, though, is much stronger now than it was.
Oswald: I’m a man and I consequently believe that things have to do with sex quite a lot of the time. That may not be the only thing going on but I have to say that I am very, very skeptical of arguments that downplay sex in favor of “dynastic sealing” or some such. I don’t deny the latter but I submit there would be no polygamy without the initial desire for other women.
Wintermute: Your marriage is also about sex, Oswald. Just not primarily so. I have no doubt that JSJ slept with (most of) his wives. But I also don’t think any serious analysis of the marriages would conclude they were primarily about sex any more than his marriage to Emma was.
Oswald: Wintermute, my marriage, especially at the beginning was largely about sex, or at least it felt like that. Marriage legitimized our sexual desire. I think that polygamous marriage did the same for JSJ. It’s more than that, of course, but it is primarily that. Or at least, that’s where it began.
Wintermute: Marriage legitimated our sexual desires too. But it still does a wild disservice to say that sex was the primary motivation. It’s a rhetorical move most of us would be loathe to brook in the case of, say, claiming that same sex marriage is just legitimating gay sex.
Oswald: Wintermute, that’s still not it. Marriage legitimized my sexuality because I was a Mormon and *not able to have sex otherwise*. That’s not a problem for most people in relationships, gay or otherwise, nowadays. Joseph also needed that legitimization at the start.
My hypothesis would be something like this: the Fanny Alger affair (or perhaps something that happened earlier) got him thinking about how he could sacralize such relationships . . . what we have in the end, of course, is so much more than that, but that’s God making good what man made bad. The truth and beauty of Mormon eternal sociality has its roots in a human frailty.
Wintermute: I have no problem with the idea that plural marriages are as much about sex as monogamous marriages. I think in a society with no taboo on multiple marriages most decent men would want to marry multiply and who they tried to marry would be partly about sex but more about a wide range of human intimacy.
The list of revelations and practices that define Mormonism that were also legitimations of Joseph’s own impulses—whether in the realm of theology, social engineering, paramilitary policy, finances, etc—is almost without end.
Oswald: Well, that I can agree with.
Reverend Maclean: Oswald, I’m willing to accept much of your claim, but it does not explain his marriages to women over 65. Yes, libido was involved, but something else was also involved. I suspect Wintermute’s observation about emotional intimacy has merit.
Oswald: Reverend Maclean, Fanny wasn’t 65 and this is where I suspect it all began. Once it had begun it became something else and more than just about sex. But I humbly suggest that if by some freak of nature all of the women around JS were 65 or over, we would not be having this conversation now. That explains the ick factor, I think: the age makes this so much more likely a sex thing. If an older man marries a teenager, it probably isn’t because he is impressed by her achievements in life.
Wintermute: The role of sexuality in these motivations is hardly all or nothing, and marital intimacy involves much, much more than sex, even at the outset.
Audrey Horne: “my hypothesis would be something like this…” FWIW, that’s what I’ve always assumed, Oswald. For whatever reason, Joseph was the one with the talents to pull off something as crazy as the Restoration. He was also all about teh ladiez. God had to work with the raw materials he had in Joseph, and make good things out of them.
Oswald: Wintermute, Fanny was all about teh sex, which is my starting point.
Zelph: “To me, that is so obviously the emperor’s new clothes here. If we were talking about anyone other than the beloved founder of our own religion, it would be obvious to all.”
I am probably an outlier, but that’s not how it is for me at all. I study a lot of fringe figures with sexual reforms, and while there is certainly a spectrum, I rarely interpret any of them in such frank terms. In this instance, even though I don’t think polygamy was inspired, I think Smith’s religious cosmology and biblicism had more influence on the introduction than mere sexuality. The latter played a part, sure, but it was part of a dynamic and multifaceted monster that belies simple categories.
Also, I don’t think Alger was about sex. In short, I think that was a direct result of the JST. The cosmology of Nauvoo polygamy wasn’t there, but my reading of his biblicism in early Kirtland makes me ask not, “why did Fanny happen,” but “why didn’t it happen sooner?” I think it was pressing on him since 1831, so it is somewhat remarkable that it didn’t happen until ’35/36. Also, one point that I wish could be emphasized more, is Kirtland polygamy =/= Nauvoo polygamy. Completely separate theological structure. (Which is actually something that puts me in a different camp than Sam Brown.)
Wintermute: Yeah, he was already working through non-victorian ideas about love and marriage well before they happened to crystalize in personal form around the Alger relationship. Also, I don’t think any conversation about JSJ’s unusual relationship with women is complete without addressing his also very unusual relationship with the men closest to him. They weren’t just loyal followers. They loved him more deeply than they loved anyone. These were men who shared profound kinds of human intimacy too. They lived and worked together, sat in prison together, were sick together, faced death together, cared for each other, ritually washed each other’s bodies, and confessed their sins to each other. I understand how outlandishly anachronistic the comparison is, but I would not be the least surprised if, by the time of Joseph’s death, most of the men closest to him registered, um, higher than expected on the Kinsey scale.
Zelph: I’d never thought of that, Wintermute. Interesting.
Oswald: You guys are cute. “Part of a dynamic and multifaceted monster that belies simple categories”: I call that obfuscation at its finest.
Reverend Maclean: Zelph, the plural marriages dropped off sharply starting mid 1843. Was JS moving away from polygamy at the end of his life, or are there other reasons?
Wintermute: He was terrified of 1) Emma leaving him and 2) being killed.
Zelph: What Wintermute said. Plus, I think he felt he achieved enough kinship for himself and turned his attention to spreading polygamy to others.
Oswald: Listen, Wintermute and Zelph—if you start a new religion and then marry lots of women, some of them young, and then tell me God told you to do it, not your libido, I shall tell you to stick your “multifaceted monster” up your ass.
Wintermute: What percentage of Mormons believe with absolute sincerity that God told them to marry their spouse, overflowing and unsatisfied libido notwithstanding? If a social science undergrad tried to explain away polygamy of any kind primarily in terms of the legitimation and gratification of libido, I’d tell him/her to switch careers to tabloid journalism.
Oswald: I know it’s complex, guys, but I think apologists for polygamy make it as complex as possible in order to muddy the waters. I’m not buying it.
Wintermute: But Zelph’s analysis does account for one critical fact: JSJ was not solely or primarily about gathering plural families to himself (although he almost certainly believed that priesthood based familial ties to him would place spouses and their kin under his seal and ensure their exaltation under the everlasting covenant), but about extending plural marriage to everybody. The bulk of plural marriage developments in the last year of his life involved expanding the practice to others. That it was, in its time and place, patriarchal is no more surprising than the fact that it was heterosexual.
Zelph: I don’t think saying sexuality wasn’t the primary motivation makes one an apologist for polygamy.
Wintermute: Apologists do try to leverage the complexity of polygamy to muddy the waters. But they are complex nonetheless, and reductivism is not the solution. Serious anthropological description and evaluation grounded in suspended moral judgment and sympathetic generosity—exactly what we would expect from a serious and fair analysis of, say, New Guinean highlanders—demands more than just a “men with boners” explanation.
Zelph: But I will add, Oswald, that I agree with your critique of some apologetic approaches. But I don’t think we should throw the baby out with the bath water.
Wintermute: Exactly. The worst damage that the apologists do by abusing the “it’s complicated” theme is delegitimizing that approach in critical discourse on the topic. It becomes a zero sum game. Either the relationships were purely “dynastic” and platonic, or else Joseph was an alpha male using PM as a treatment for too many 4-hour erections. If sex had anything to do with it, then it was all about sex, and if you don’t think it was all about sex, you’re discounting the role of sex altogether and treating Joseph with kid gloves because you’re incapable of/unwilling to look at him with the critical perspective you’d direct at _anyone_ else.
Oswald: If you are trying to convince me that polygamy was not solely about sex then I need no convincing. I concede that point and admit to earlier hyperbole. However, I remain of the belief that the primary motivation remains male sexual pleasure. I am a cynic like that and it goes for Guineans and Joseph Smith alike. Given that the modern church cannot countenance a sexually-driven Joseph Smith, it is the apologists’ job to make it as complex as possible. I do think you are playing that game, but I hope you won’t dislike me for saying that.
Wintermute: I agree that the modern church cannot countenance a sexually-driven Joseph, and I agree that he was sexually-driven. But I don’t think libido is the _primary_ motivation for his marriage to anyone. I think that if someone with his power and influence by 1841 had decided to use said power to maximize his sexual conquests and set for himself an endless supply of ass, and do it under the guise of revealed necessity, Nauvoo would have looked very different than it did. On the other hand, a shockingly powerful and influential man who was willing to use his position to try to expand the number of people with whom he had maximal human intimacy, including marital intimacy in all its forms, and to stabilize those relationships of intimacy with social permanence and treat the relationships as much like real marriages as possible without incurring the very real and widespread violence that their public exposure would have incurred, then you’d get something that looked virtually exactly like Nauvoo.
Oswald: Straw man, Wintermute. Even Joseph was not brazen enough to “set for himself an endless supply of ass.” My argument is not that if he wanted sex he would have ensured ready access to a harem. Come on, man.
Wintermute: Consider even the case of Alger: there’s a big difference between an illicit extramarital affair that is essentially a hook-up—easy sex with someone you have no serious feelings for—and an extramarital relationship that involves real love and commitment and emotional attachment. Both are motivated by sex, but in very different ways and to very different degrees. I don’t think even Emma thought that the relationship with Alger was just Joseph trying to score himself some (wait for it) Fanny.
Oswald: OK, sex + romance then.
Wintermute: I’m saying that if I accused a celibate gay mormon man of wanting to get married solely so that he could have legitimized gay sex, you’d call bullshit immediately. There are worlds of difference between Sex and Sex + Romance. That’s my biggest point. I’ve never argued that it wasn’t about—even primarily about human intimacy. Just that the desire for human intimacy that drove it was much, much more than libido.
Oswald: Joseph Smith’s libido really doesn’t interest me as much as I’m suggesting, I just want to tear the eyes out of people who downplay the sex. It smells of apologia. Maybe I’m overplaying the sex. I suppose I am hostile to “complexity” in this issue because I hate it when applied to things like the priesthood ban. Yes, there are complex issues surrounding birthright, believing blood, notions of the pre-existence, etc., etc., but when it comes down to it, Brigham Young was a racist.
Wintermute: Yes, but Brigham Young was a racist is a bad, bad historical and sociological explanation of where the ban came from or the specific form it took (excluding only non-whites of African descent). Did Brigham Young think Pacific Islanders were the social, intellectual, or spiritual equals of white Europeans? What about American Indians? Did the exclusion of blacks from Masonic lodges have anything to do with what was, in fact, a temple ban that excluded both men and women from Joseph’s gender integrated “lodge?” Was JSJ a racist? Why isn’t that the explanation? In other words, Brigham’s racism (which he shared with most around him and with his predecessor) was surely a factor. But it totally fails as a singular explanation. Virtually any explanation, no matter how complex, besides “it happened because God clearly and unambiguously REVEALED it from on high” will have to account for the racism of Church leaders. And a huge part of the reason Brigham’s racism fails as a primary explanation is that it indemnifies JSJ’s racism.
Oswald: By “Brigham Young” I mean “Brigham and the whole world of racism that preceded and surrounded him in 19th century America.” I just told my wife that if I ever leave her for a young woman, Wintermute and Zelph will have my back. “It was because he wanted to bond with someone who can do differential calculus in her sleep, so as to create the perfect field-equation crunching offspring and thereby solve the mystery of Dark Matter for the sake of science.” Your charity is going to help me out one day.
Wintermute: You seem to be begging the question here, Oswald, in the sense that your last comment simply presumes the inarguable moral wrongness of any kind of polygamous union. The fact is that if both you and your wife believed that polygamy was an arrangement that God sometimes countenanced and that you, Oswald, were God’s prophet of the restoration which included the restoration of biblical polygamy (even if it was something you could accept abstractly but were personally horrified by its implementation), then yes, the fact that you selected a plural wife (as opposed to just leaving your wife for someone else) on the basis of something more than the hiring criteria for an underwear model would, I think, make an enormous difference.
You do, though, bump up right against what I think is by far the most troubling aspect of PM (and of Joseph’s entire biography): lying to Emma about it.
Sofia Semyonovna: Wintermute, How is that worse than using the promise of salvation to marry another woman?
Wintermute: I don’t think there’s anything more intrinsically wrong with using the promise of salvation as the basis for making a marriage choice than for the choice to religiously convert, assuming the promise is made in good faith. Mormons the world over use the promise/threat of salvation or the jeopardizing thereof to influence the marital choices of their loved ones, children, friends, etc.
Sofia Semyonovna: I don’t know Wintermute, I might feel better as a woman if my husband was just doing another woman than actually in love with her. Also, I think the idea of JS trying to create intimacy and therefore marriage is pretty weak. He wasn’t around them enough to do so. He probably shared a much closer intimacy around with the men around him. Per your above comment, threatening salvation with marriage is far more problematic. Sure, lots of people do it—bishop did it to me—and I really do think a lie to hide affairs is not worse. The marriage one in my book is worse because it is coercive.
Wintermute: I don’t think it was possible for a powerful man in 1840 to purpose marriage to any woman without coercion. An awful lot turns on the question of whether the promise of an exalting bond was extended in good faith. I definitely think Joseph tried to cultivate intimacy and genuine marital bonds with his wives to the extent that it was possible to do so while keeping them secret. And I understand the one night stand affair being less painful than the emotionally committed, in-love affair, but to treat the relationships under consideration axiomatically as affairs is rather to put the morally evaluative cart before the horse, no?
Sofia Semyonovna: I agree, I cannot in any plausible context treat them as mere affairs.
Wintermute: And the threat of salvation/damnation as the basis of religious conversion, to the extent that it is extended and received seriously and sincerely, is definitely coercive.
Sofia Semyonovna: It wasn’t just the salvation, it was the begging and practically harassing sometimes to get them to consent to the marriage.
Wintermute: I absolutely agree that the proposals were coercive. I just think it would have been impossible for them not to be. I also think that there is something positive to be said for pleading with the women individually and trying to persuade them rather than simply arranging things through the men who already dominated their lives. He asked the women to marry him and worked hard to persuade them. He didn’t ask their fathers or even husbands. He didn’t treat them like they belonged to someone else or like he was entitled to them based on his position. Again, any degree of persuasive pressure was coercive, from any powerful man in that time and place but especially from him. But persistent persuasion directed solely at the women is better than an awful lot of what easily could have been. I honestly think the most important question is whether or not his claim that God wanted him to marry these women was made in good faith. Women are coerced in either case, and there’s a real mixed bag in terms of outcomes. But it really does make an enormous difference.