Polygamy, Courtship, and Dating

Every once in a while, my wife Mardell and I get into a discussion of polygamy. We occasionally speculate about what would happen if the church officially began to practice polygamy again. (This assumes a lot of things, like anti-polygamy laws being struck down). Mardell has consistently stated that she would not like polygamy, but that if it had to be done, she thinks that she would be able to tolerate it. On reflection, I think that I could probably tolerate it as well. (It would certainly be really, really weird). But I also think that, despite that attitude of potential reluctant acceptance (which is, I think, widespread among members), reinstituting polygamy would never work. Here’s why:

As noted, my hunch is that if I had to marry a sister-wife, we could find some sort of marital equilibrium. (Probably both women ganging up against me and making me do the dishes . . .). But what would be the strangest — something I doubt that I could pull off — would be the courting.

Modern marriage conventions are different from what folk did a hundred years ago. Even if I wanted another wife, I couldn’t just go up to a brother in the ward and ask for his daughter’s hand in marriage. Nowadays it requires dating and courtship — going to dinner, holding hands, going to the movies, calling each other to chat, making out in the parking lot.

And that’s the part that would be (1) incredibly weird and uncomfortable for me, and (2) almost certainly intolerable for Mardell. As much as she thinks she could tolerate having another wife, I am certain that she could not tolerate the idea of her husband out on the dating market, flirting with random single members, asking for their phone numbers, and potentially, eventually, marrying them.

And I think that this feeling is universal, or close to it. Many members are descendants of polygamists, and they may say to themselves “My great-grandma Edna did it, I could do it too.” But it’s not just marriage that would be involved — it would necessitate dating, flirting, and courtship. And I just don’t think many LDS women would go along with that. Plural marriage may look like what great-grandma Edna did, but married men hitting on cute singles looks like a run-of-the-mill tawdry affair.

And it seems to me that it is this shift in marriage and dating conventions that truly ensures that polygamy can never be reinstituted.


  1. “Even if I wanted another wife, I couldn’t just go up to a brother in the ward and ask for his daughter’s hand in marriage. Nowadays it requires dating and courtship — going to dinner, holding hands, going to the movies, calling each other to chat, making out in the parking lot.

    And that’s the part that would be (1) incredibly weird and uncomfortable for me . . .”

    HAHA, that is the understatement of the year! Hilarious. I wish there were some way I could link to this post but I’m afraid that my non-Mormon readers would think that we are still a little wacky, just for considering this possibility. But I guess polygamy is, and always will be, a haunting spectre of our Mormon legacy that we just can’t avoid.

    I think the reason polygamy will never be reinstituted is because, as others have hinted at in their comments, the definition of marriage has changed greatly over the last hundred years. In fact, love means something different today than it did in the days of polygamy. I believe others who have written about this subject have called this change something like, “the romanticization of love.” It’s not that people didn’t believe in romance before the 20th Century, but it was usually a bonus feature of a marital relationship or it was something to be feared – an abnormality, as Romeo and Juliet attests. Romance certainly wasn’t the central feature of a good marriage. Now that romance has become such an important part of the marital institution, it’s hard to imagine that we could return to a society where romantic partners willingly shared one another (not just sexually but emotionally). The two ideas – romance and polygamy – are incompatible.

  2. Anonymous says:

    About the courting thing, Kaimi, it all comes down to sociological habit. If polygamy were introduced suddenly, it would be very awkward for everyone used to the old ways, certainly people already married.

    But if polygamy were a given as you grew up, it would seem that much easier. As you meet and court Mardell, she’s aware that you are courting other women, as well. Perhaps she introduces you to her best friend, so she’ll be “partnered” with her two favorite people, forever.

    I think polygamy then and now is just a lifestyle choice, only slightly less natural than what we currently employ.

    Have you ever read “The Moral Animal,” by Robert Wright? He suggests that homo sapiens is slightly monogamous, slightly polygamous, and that polygamy would actually help the situation of a lot of single women today — women always get the worse end of the stick in a divorce, apparently (I’m not a lawyer, obviously).

    Though we don’t practice polygamy today, we do have what Wright terms “serial” polygamy, men like Johnny Carson marrying women in their prime child-bearing years, and then tossing them aside for the younger girl, every 7 or 8 years. The women themselves (in Carson’s case) aren’t able to find second husbands, even though he’s had 5 or 6 wives.

    Wright has suggested changing the law, removing permanent divorce, as a cure for this particular sociological ailment. Men and women can separate, and men can marry again, without reducing the original wife’s economic partnership one cent. She continues to live in the same house, raise the children the same as always. She’s still married to him, though he has a second wife, too.

    It’s an interesting solution.

  3. As one not related to Heber J. Grant, I feel a bit out of place on this thread, but I’ll press forward nonetheless.

    For men, I think polygamy was like cliffdiving. (This is entirely hypothetical–I have done neither.) Looks interesting from down below. Looks really scary at 60 feet staring down. But once you take the plunge, it’s a scream.

    For women, I think they just endured it.

    Of course modern Mormon men say “no, the idea makes me very uncomfortable.” That’s what early Mormon male leaders said too . . . for about five days. IMHO, that’s just one of many self-deceptions about polygamy practiced by modern Mormons.

    Let’s be honest–the men thought it was great, the women thought it was terrible, and it persisted only because 19th-century women were largely powerless. It ended only because of the concerted efforts of the US government, and it won’t happen again (as an institutional practice) because women are no longer powerless and (I think) modern Mormon men care a good bit more about their (first) wives than did early Mormon polygamists.

    Note — I enjoyed reading earlier comments; my views aren’t directed at any particular poster or their views. I’ve found those with polygamous ancestors get very, very touchy on this topic. Nothing personal intended.

  4. CHECK it OUT: dead polygamist Milo Andrus is still doing missionary work!

    To: MiloAndrus@yahoogroups.com
    Date: Fri, 16 Apr 2004 17:06:49 -0600
    Subject: [MiloAndrus] My Milo Andrus Story

    Hello everybody,
    I just want to share my story with every one.
    I started my genealogy research 2 years ago when I bought my PC. As long as I can remember I have had this desire to know who my ancestors were.
    My dad was raised LDS and my mom was raised Catholic, they later joined the Seventh Day Adventist Church but always let me and my brother know that we were free to choose our religion. In high school I decided that I wanted to be Catholic, I studied the religion and felt that it was the right religion for me.
    When I started on my family tree, I intended to do my paternal grandfathers side first, but I could find no information, so in frustration I started on my grandmothers side. Knowing my great grandmother, whose maiden name was Andrus, and the names of her parents made it so much easier.
    When I came to Milo Andrus, I thought there had been a mistake, because he had 11 wives listed under his name. And then I thought, how could 10 women die so fast. So I looked him up and not until I read his biography, did I realize he had practiced polygamy. Anyhow, I was fascinated by Milo and I spent hours trying to find anything at all I could about him and his life.
    My grandmother died when I was 2, and I’m sure she would have told me about him if she had the chance. I never knew that her family was so much a part of Utah or the Church of Latter Day Saints.
    One night I had a dream, I was with Milo and he was talking to me. He told me that he wanted me to belong to his church, and that he wanted all his descendants to practice his religion.
    He was kind and gentle and showed me a wonderful place, where everything was glowing white.
    I pondered this dream for a couple weeks, thinking it was a nice dream, but I still wanted to be Catholic. But the dream kept nagging at me, so, in frustration I prayed to God and asked him to help me, I told him to send me a sign so that I could know which religion I should be. The next day, two missionaries, for the first time ever, knocked on my door. I know that missionaries don’t usually come by unless they are asked to, unlike the Jehovah’s Witness’s.
    Just a few days ago I learned what significance dreams have in this religion. But what I find more fascinating, is that even in the afterlife, Milo is still doing his duty that was bestowed upon him by the church, as he did while he was living on earth.

  5. D. Fletcher,

    Deja vu! In case you don’t know, we just had a big conversation at one of the threads at T&S, with Heather Oman also commenting on being a descendant of Heber J. Grant’s plural wives and her gripes with the whitewashing in the Church manual. You should go check it out (I’m too lazy to provide the link).

    “…though I do think the current practictioners have distorted it improperly — marrying young girls, for instance.”

    How is this a distortion? Are you saying that too much salacious emphasis is put on the age of some of the younger wives, or are you denying that any were underage at all?

    Aaron B

  6. D. Fletcher: I wonder, how did Heber and Emily meet? Were they in love before mariage? How did he court her?

  7. Didn’t Elder Scott’s wife die and she made him promise not to remarry?

  8. For what it’s worth, Eugene England has written a famous essay on why he believed polygamy would never be reinstated among the Saints. I believe it’s called “On Fidelity, Chastity and Celestial Marriage,” or something like that. Maybe Kristine knows?

    Anyway, you can find it anthologized in Brent Corcoran’s “Multiply and Replenish” volume from Signature Books.

    Aaron B

  9. For what it’s worth: a while back I came across a website containing polygamist personal ads (and, strangely, only a couple were mormon-related polygamists; most were evangelical Christians). Almost all of them were “joint” ads–that is, the husband and wife were both participants in the “courtship” aspect of plural marriage. It was kind of like they were looking for a new drummer for their rock band or something.

    And just so you know: the site was two clicks away from the “fruther reading” page of the SL Trib’s recent special edition on polygamy. I don’t go looking for that stuff (but once I find it, I can’t pull myself away!).

  10. D. Fletcher says:

    Heather and I are first cousins. My mother is a Bennett, sister to Senator Bob Bennett, who is Heather’s Dad.

    And Rosemary and Bob Bennett are children of Frances Grant, and Wallace Bennett, and Frances was the youngest daughter of Heber.

    Yes, I think the practice has become distorted, partly because the community is small enough that younger and younger girls are spoken for.

    Heber was not at all keen about polygamy, but was essentially ordered to take other wives. He said in one letter that he and his first wife (Lucy) knelt in prayer before he went out to the dance to meet women. And both of his other wives were women well into their twenties when he married them (although he had been childhood sweethearts with Emily).

  11. D. Fletcher says:

    I completely disagree that romance and polygamy are incompatible. Heber and Emily were totally in love — all you have to do is read their letters.

  12. I couldn’t do it. Not unless the second wife was more like a maid – did all of the cooking and cleaning, and then stayed discretely out of sight. The moment I saw her with my husband, IÂ’d lose it. Somehow, I think thatÂ’s not how plural marriages worked.

    Though, I do think it’s strange the way that Mormons postulate on this topic. A friend was telling me one time that her and her husband had talked about it, and decided that if they had to, they could take another wife into their marriage. And she put this rather smugly- like it proved she had a greater testimony or something! Quite the opposite I think- how warped is it that within a seemingly normal relationship this couple is seriously considering those types of things? (not that your marriage is warped Kaimi) This is the same person who really believes that polygamy is really coming back – which gives me the willies even more.

    Look, a lot of groups have polygamist backgrounds- but IÂ’m not sure that anyone besides Mormons sit around and think about it so much. Is this because it was so recent? Tied to doctrine?

  13. I didn’t mean to double post, and didn’t mean to suggest Kaimi’s post isn’t good. It is. This is stuff I’ve thought about. It’s the fact that I’ve thought about it, and Kaimi and Mardell have thought about it, and that other people have thought about it, that makes me crazy. These aren’t things that most people spend any time wondering/worrying about.

    Alex Joseph, who was an independent polygamist (ie, not associated with any FLDS sect) had a bunch of interesting, feminist wives, one of which I met. They made a big deal of the fact that the existing wives had to approve any new wives, and most of the new wives were actually women that were recruited by existing wives. That’s a potential, partial solution to the courtship/dating weirdness issue.

  14. I don’t think married mormon men would have a hard time flirting and dating. Many of them are already doing it.

  15. I have a great uncle who decided that polygamy was for him. He came home from one of his many suposed business trips and asked his wife of 13 years if she would join his other two wives in Colorado. Needless to say she divorced him. He is now has three wives and is in the Colorado state pen for fraud. Althought the fraud has nothing to do with his poligamist behavior. I often wonder what motivated him to practice poligamy. He told us that God has asked him to like in the old days of the church.

  16. D. Fletcher says:

    I have a huge amount of prepared material on this topic, and no time at the moment.

    My great-grandfather was Heber J. Grant, and contrary to what you may think you know about him, he was a polygamist with 3 wives. His 3rd wife, Emily Wells Grant, is my great-grandmother, and she is never mentioned in any Church publication, partly because of the stickiness of the issue, and partly because she died in 1908, before he became President of the Church.

    Only one of his wives survived long enough to support him during his Presidency, and she is the wife listed in all the Ensign articles and old Improvement Eras.

    The letters between Heber and Emily are voluminous, enormously touching, and surprisingly candid and supportive of the polygamist lifestyle. My sister wanted to have a book published defending the original practice of polygamy, but since it wasn’t a polemic, she was rejected outright.

    I don’t think it is as black-and-white as defenders and critics would have us believe, though I do think the current practictioners have distorted it improperly — marrying young girls, for instance.

    More later.

  17. It’s a less flammable alternative, Lynne, and Sumer goes for the dramatic.

  18. Just life experience and reading LDS history, Tom. The problem with public statements of LDS leaders on polygamy (in my humble opinion) is that pretty much nothing they said on the subject from 1831 to 1905 was truthful.

  19. Mardell, “great” uncle indeed! “Incredible”, or “unique” are other adjectives that come to mind, along with “crazy” and “criminal”.

  20. Not sure if I should post this here or on the “Push My Buttons” thread —


    Ok, I feel better now. Will return for rational comment later.

  21. Ok, my two bits ….

    First, if you read D&C 132, obviously the women court each other and the current wife(s) audition the others and decide whether or not to add them.

    Read the text. Now, think of a friend of mine whose wife really, really, really wanted to add another woman to the household. Her 390 lb roommate from college whose hobby was cleaning house (true story).

    I’ve had that image ever since the wife mentioned she wanted polygamy so she could bring her friend on board.

    I could set up a system like that. Women would administer it, second wives would need to be people in what are now the “special interests” group (i.e. the older singles whom the Church is working towards making provision for).

  22. REALLY? I hadn’t heard that, Lynne. Interesting stuff, though! My wife has made me take a similar promise… although it’s a little different in that I won’t get remarried because I will be burned upon Sumer’s funeral pyre.

  23. Section 132 of the D&C is a big part of why people still think about it, I think. In it, God says that he will destroy the wife that refuses to go along with polygamy (see verses 64 & 65). So it’s something to at least think about once in a while — would I rather be a polygamous wife, or be destroyed by God?

  24. Anonymous says:

    Sorry, wrong information (I’m getting very old).

    Jedediah M. Grant died when Heber was 9 days old.

  25. Steve E: Tell your wife she could also consider burying you Smithers style, at the foot of her (Burns) casket! That would keep you from remarrying!

  26. Thanks for the tip, Aaron. I had the book but hadn’t read the essay before. It was good. The author thinks that polygamy as practiced by the early saints was inspired by God, but that polygamy will never be reinstated, *including in the afterlife*. I definitely argue with England that the assumption that there will be polygamy in the next life is destructive now in a variety of ways. Some clarification on that issue from the prophet and/or GAs would be crazy welcome. Right now everyone is left to draw inferences from the fact that men are sealed to multiple women, the fact that Oaks has referred to his second wife in talks as his “eternal companion”, and other scraps of evidence.

  27. Anonymous says:

    The story of Heber Grant and Emily Wells is pretty amazing, here’s just a brief bit:

    They grew up together, and fell in love in high school. She was one of the daughters of Daniel H. Wells, and he was the only son of Rachel Ivins Grant, who was sealed to Joseph Smith. Rachel had a child by Jedediah, but Heber didn’t know his real father, who died when Heber was 6.

    Heber was precociously spiritual, and everyone knew he would be a GA (Eliza Snow prophesied it when he was a little boy) so he presumed that meant polygamy. Emily didn’t believe in polygamy, so they broke off and he fairly hastily married his first wife, Lucy. After being married for 8 years, the brethren told him to marry again, so he went to the churchwide dance to meet women.

    Emily, meanwhile, had dated other people, including someone, er, I think Heber Kimball, or somebody like that. Anyway, she said she didn’t believe in polygamy, and he said, if he could convince her that it was a divine principal, would she marry him? and she said, no, when I’m convinced that this is a divine principal, I’m going to go look up Heber Grant! Heber Kimball convinced her anyway, and sometime soon after, she went to the dance and who was there but Heber Grant. She became his third wife.

    His second wife, Augusta, was a bit of a wallflower who he courted and married, and then he married Emily the next day. Augusta went home to mother because she didn’t know about Emily.

    By the way, the three wives and their children lived in separate homes — it wasn’t one big happy family. He took the wives separately on his missions, one to Japan, and one to Europe.

    Both Lucy and Emily died before he became President of the Church, and Augusta remained his wife all during that time.

  28. The thought of Kami dating again is funny. He barely had enough guts to ask me out.

    If polygamy was reinstituted today the women of the church would take over. The women would decide who they would let their husband marry. The first wives might even go as far as setting their husbands up on dates.

    I know that I would not let my husband marry anyone I did not get along with, and know well.

    But just for the record I would never share my husband.

  29. Uh, do you have anythign to back that up Dave? All the comments I’ve read are quite negative, such as BY wishing he were dead for three days. (Of course, that was when he was introduced to “the principle,” so maybe you’re right.)

    Source hunting, Tom

  30. i am a 29 year old man who is curious about poligamist beliefs. sometimes i feel that the only way i could truely be happy is with moe than one woman. however i am very faithful. i would just rather have an abundance of love and support. there should be no limit to love.

  31. Well let me tell you this. Dating into a polygamy life is not what you think. you don’t really make-out and ask for phone numbers and go on single dates with this random other girl. Your first wife should also be involved cause she is marrying her too. You get it