I know we already hit on polygamy, BUT

When I was in law school, I took a course on the history of women in the law (what history, you might ask!), and I got very interested in divorce in the church ranks during the height of polygamy 1860’s – 1880’s. It turns out that divorce was not only pretty high in Utah during this time, in fact, Utah became the Las Vegas of its time because of the ease with which one could obtain a divorce. Interestingly, divorce was not exactly frowned upon as a solution to unhappiness in those days in the church.

I propose that one reason for this acceptance of divorce stems from our earliest church history. As you may all recall, part of Joseph Smith’s introduction of the conception of celestial marriage was that members of the church who were unhappily living in existing marriages at that time could consider themselves “unbound” from each other because marriages sanctioned only by earthly authorities were null in the eyes of God.

I don’t recall how much divorce took place in those first years when only JS and a few others were practicing polygamy, but I do know that the figures rose astronomically as more and more members of the church took part in polygamous marriages. And I think part of the reason for this rise is fundamental to the way that at least Joseph Smith seemed to have taught (viewed?) marriage that was peformed outside the covenant.

I’m not going to get into the progression from polygamy to monogamy, I think we are all familiar with it, but I think the divorce phenomenon highlights yet another way in which our church views on marriage and the primacy of it to the practice of our religion, have changed over time.

Is there a way to reconcile these things besides invoking the idea that revelation is only fitting for each epoch (divorce and polygamy good for Eliza R. Snow and her counterparts but not for us)? And then it just all begs that other question of why marriage itself is so darn important to our current theology.


  1. “I was Anonymous”

    Sounds like a good title for an article in Dialogue.

  2. Kristine says:

    Actually, I think Sugar Beet already did a “biography” of Name Withheld, from all the Ensign articles about people with unspeakable problems like depression.

  3. VeritasLiberat says:

    Actually, it was an obituary. :) Name Withheld, after all it had been through for decades, finally couldn’t stand any more and took its own life, IIRC.

  4. Ah, er, um… sorry about that. Christina, do you want to provide some sort of bio comment? In the meantime:

    Christina is a fellow Columbia alum who works in the big city with Mat & I (well, not with us….). I don’t know what she did for undergrad, but it must’ve been something good because she is one of the smartest people I know. Unfortunately, her last name is super-tough: Taber-Kewene. Say THAT five times fast!

  5. Anonymous — Keep dropping sutble details about yourself, like you did above, and we’ll eventually discern your identity!!

    Aaron B

  6. Kristine says:

    Anonymous–I know. I got over it :)

  7. Kristine says:

    Christina, are you related to Susan (?) Taber, author of the cool book about a year in a Delaware ward?

  8. Christina: I love the dust jacket!! Don’t let them change a thing!

  9. Didn’t Brigham Young at one point announce a spousal trade-in day, where people who didn’t like their spouse could call it off and find someone else? See Clark’s comment at http://www.timesandseasons.org/archives/000314.html#002345

  10. ed, were polygamist wives formally divorced when the practice ended? I didn’t think such divorces would be necessary since they weren’t wedded in the eyes of the state.

  11. Edward Kimball, Camilla Eyring Kimball’s father, was married to two sisters. Although originally married to his first wife’s sister in Colonia Juarez Mexico post-Manifesto, he was considered a good enough church member to have a place on the high counsel when he later moved to Arizona. According to Spencer Kimball’s biography, he otherwise kept a low profile in Mormon-friendly rural Arizona. He lived openly with his two wives in a house that had a wing for each of them.

  12. Generally speaking people didn’t “dump” their polygamist wives after the manifesto. This created some legal problems. At one point, the federal prosecutor when to Lorenzo Snow and state that unless the Church backed off from some political position that it had taken, he would indite a bunch of prominent Mormons who continued to live with and/or support plural families after the Manifesto. Apparently, the USA was keeping files on people in his office for just such a contingency.

  13. Greg, I went to the liberty of cleaning up your messy posts :)

    Why did one wife settle in Bountiful and one in Salt Lake, esp. since (presumably) they were next to each other in Mexico?

    Also, are you the product of Mr. Bountiful or Mrs. SLC?

  14. Greg, you have this book? And you never shared?

  15. Hi, Christina! Who are you?

    Aaron B

  16. I come from the Bountiful wife. The two settled in different towns so that great grandpa could avoid being accused of cohabiting with 2 women, which he was in fact doing. I’ll have to ask my Dad if the Church requested he do that or not.

  17. I have it too — I got it on Ebay. It’s great.

  18. ctkewene says:

    I didn’t know Serge – his younger brothers were my older brothers’ age – but I hear he was quite a hunk.

    I agree that polygamy forced the early Saints into an entirely new social order, and of course the government was not as involved in family life then as it is now, so adoptions and such were likely more personal and private matters, but it is not as if divorce were something common in the mid-nineteenth century. Victorian sensibilities ran strong for these people, and I don’t think the nuclear family was born in the 1950s (though idealized then and that era itself could be to blame for our current obsession with the nuclear family, I recognize).

  19. Mathew, that is really interesting. Of course you mean Edward Eyring, not Edward Kimball. I looked him up in at FamilySearch, and apparently Edward and both his wives (the Romney sisters) lived into the 1950s!

    I wonder if this kind of thing was openly tolerated in Salt Lake?

  20. Nice comments. I’m interested in this because I never hear much about the church-approved practice of polygamy in the 20th century, even though many marriages must have persisted for decades.

    I guess I have a vague and unfounded suspicion that after a few years it was no longer polite to have these relationships too openly…perhaps this is why Greg’s great aunts had to settle in different towns?

  21. Ok personal anecdote time. My great grandfather, Willard Call, and his two wives were flushed out of Mexico by Pancho Villa (1910 or so?), so they had to deal with post-Manifesto Utah. No one was “dumped,” but one wife settled in Bountiful and the other wife (er, Auntie) settled in Salt Lake. Great grandfather travelled back and forth for the rest of his life. (Even in his 90s, my Grandpa would talk about the pain of being separated from his brothers and sisters upon their arrival in Utah.)

    Edited By Siteowner

  22. On that topic, Jim posted a nifty song to the tune of “We Are Family” (see http://www.haloscan.com/comments.php?user=rameumptom&comment=108285133699857858#29806 )

  23. On thing that you have to keep in mind about 19th century Utah law is that it was largely designed so that the Church would have maximum instititutional flexibility. For example, you had probate courts with expanded jurisdiction to insure that Mormon judges had increased power. (Although expanding the jurisdiction of probate courts was a pretty standard gambit of western territories unhappy with the quality of federal appointees)

    I think that to a cetain extent the unusually lax Utah divorce laws were created so that the Church could handle divorce internally with the minimum hassle in getting the state to rubber stamp the results. Hence, while there is evidence that 19th century Mormon attitudes toward divorce were different than 20th century Mormon attitudes toward divorce, you have to be cautious about generalizing based on Utah laws.

  24. D. Fletcher says:

    Ooops. I was Anonymous.

    Don’t know why it did that, normally it makes me fill in my name, email address, etc.

  25. Someone asked about the “divorce day” where people could all switch spouses if they were unhappy. I think this was largely frustration on Brigham’s part and partially hyperbole. The details as I recall are covered in a paper reprinted in _The New Mormon History_. I’m not at home to check though.

  26. Speaking of divorce, does Christina or anyone else know how common divorce was in the post-polygamy period? Specifically, I’m wondering if it was common for men to “dump” their extra wives when monogamy became the new ideal.

  27. Welcome aboard, Christina. It seems like Matthew 16 talks about both the power to bind in heaven and to loose in heaven, so there’s no scriptural bar to holding the power to divorce. And Brigham, at least, was willing to grant divorce to women (at least plural wives) liberally, as I recall.

    The puzzle is why the modern LDS practice is so rigid. I think it just came with the conservative social ethic we absorbed at the turn of the 20th century. Plus divorce doesn’t fit the “families are forever” idea that practically defines the Church at the present time. “Some families are forever” just doesn’t have the same impact. And we’d have to change the Primary song, too! Here’s my sad attempt to do so (in the spirit of good clean fun and intending to give offense to no person, living or dead):

    Some families won’t be together forever,
    Now that we grant divorce.
    I know I now can’t be with my first family,
    But I see Dad every other day,
    I see Dad every other day.

  28. Well, thanks to Wendy and Greg for not sharing with Steve!

    Christina, one possible explanation here is that the Church’s policies towards polygamy evolved and stratified over time, same as did our practices of baptisms for the dead. The divorces and policies of the early church were a bit symptomatic, I think, of a new religion trying to make sense of revelations fresh from the Prophet.

  29. ctkewene says:

    Wow, Kristine, yes, that is my amazing mother. Where did you run across that book? I’ve always thought that if we could just get a new book jacket put on (something without the 1970’s theme stripes) and push it with some good marketing, it would do well. Sadly, with the striped 70’s cover and the University of Illinois press as publisher, about four people have read it.

    So, you all can probably get my bio from that book, where I may be mentioned as a six-year-old … or at least learn what a kooky family I have, which is 98% of the way to getting to know any given person.

    Dave, I agree with you, the “puzzle” is why our current view of divorce is so rigid. I’m not pushing divorce here, I think we can all acknowledge that it is almost always a devastating occurence, so I can understand that the church isn’t pushing it either. But then, why was it not such a bad thing in 1865? Did the fabric of polygamous society provide a better social safety net than our society today does? Or were families so screwed up then that people were just resilient towards whatever befell them — death, tar and feathering, spouse away on mission for six years only to bring back accompanying second wife…?

  30. Kristine says:

    Well, Christina, I have to confess that I read the book partly because I thought it was interesting, and partly because I was desperately in love with SB, whose missionary farewell figures pretty largely in one chapter :>)

    To the subject at hand: it seems to me that the 18th/early 19th-century view of “family” was far more fluid in many ways than our current one. It wasn’t at all uncommon for children to be farmed out to aunts & uncles or grandparents if their parents couldn’t manage them (financially or otherwise); adoptions were more common and less regulated (think JS and Emma and the Murdock twins); a household often included extended families or servants or needy strangers of one sort or another. The whole “nuclear” family (when did people figure nuclei out?!) is a very recent development, and the notion of this kind of family as the “basic unit of society”–a private haven, self-reliant economic unit, etc.–is, for all our talk, pretty much a post-WWII American invention. Divorce would have fit far more easily into that earlier structure of family life, because adjustments and idiosyncratic arrangements of all kinds were the rule, rather than the exception. Add polygamy into the mix, and, well, wouldn’t it have seemed that “family” was an entirely situational term?

%d bloggers like this: