Margaret Toscano on Polygamy

When I started finding out some of the things that Joseph Smith actually did and said, I think he was struggling with trying to bring together spirituality and sexuality. And quite frankly, Christianity has been really bad at this, and most major religions have been really bad at spirituality and sexuality.

You’re supposed to be spiritual on Sunday, sexual when you’re in bed with your partner — your legal husband or wife (right? no-one else!) — and then yet you’re supposed to deny your sexuality in all of these other contexts.

Well, it doesn’t make sense!

Once we avoid the reduction of polygamy into the “sacralization of Smith’s adultery” (Ken Clark, I’m looking at you), then the expansive vision of family, sealing, and eternal lives offered by Joseph’s theology — of which sexuality is an unashamed component — is an intriguing one.

If polygamy was not about Joseph’s sex, was it about sex at all? Are there ills of sexual monogamy that sacral polygamy was intended to overcome? (Did 19th century pro-polygamy apologia ever make such an argument?)


  1. I think some would find it counter-intuitive that a feminist can speak so wistfully about polygamy, as if Joseph was really trying to achieve some social and spiritual good with it.

    I cannot reach into Toscano’s head, but what was supposed to be the possible spiritual-sexual benefit of polygamy? A reform of the sexual and domestic insularity of monogamy? A “moral” avenue for the (stereotyped?) male sexual proclivity for multiple partners (i.e. no prostitutes in Zion)? What would the benefit to female sexuality be?

    Certainly it’s not all about sex — I think polygamy (and adoption) turns families into clans in an obviously non-sexual way — but still…

  2. Matt W. says:

    All I could think of was J. Stapley rolling over in his anti-vivaporous grave on this one…

  3. I thought that was one of the more interesting quotes on the topic.

    Did 19th century pro-polygamy apologia ever make such an argument?

    Yes. If I remember right, in his speech that announced the practice, Orson Pratt argued that the practice would reduce prostitution and adultery.

  4. Did 19th century pro-polygamy apologia ever make such an argument?

    Yes, though I can’t give you a reference, I distinctly remember reading some apologetic stuff by one of the leaders of the Church at the time talking about how the leaders of America all had their mistresses, but that polygamy was much better because the wives were actually taken care of and give equal status with one another, or something along those lines. It’s been lik 7 years since I read it, though, and it was while perusing BYU’s stacks, so it’s probably lost forever to me…

  5. Sam MB says:

    R–hopefully my chapter on death transcendence and the redefinition of family via polygamy will shed some light on this. I’m almost done.

    Yes, this was a very common argument by apologists, turning the Victorian sensibility on its head. It had the advantage of honestly expressing what the Mormons believed and being a pretty sweet way to stick it to the prudish and obnoxious Victorians chasing them.

    Pace Toscano though I get the sense that the ideas about the body were more about immortality and resurrection than they were about New Age sexuality. They were as nervous about prurience as the neo-Victorians, so you’ll not get much factual traction with that line.

  6. Hegemony says:

    Interviewees on the Frontline special made a case for why polygamy wasn’t the easiest way to satisfy a sex drive, but one could argue that for some individuals, the hunger for power is greater than the hunger for sex. You can only sleep in one house at a time, right? Then why do many people own more than one? Unfortunately, polygamy smacks of treating women metephorically as property (more than as sex slaves).

    On another note, I was very saddened to hear about how Margaret Toscano was treated. I haven’t read her works, but from the titles presented on the special, I can tell you I’ve had many discussions on similar topics–who knew that such speculation was apostate! Until last night, I thought that women, who don’t even obtain the same status as a 12-year-old boy in the Priesthood, could not be excommunicated, only disfellowshipped. What a horrible thing. All I can say is that I feel that Margaret rocks!

  7. Sam,
    Right. So Mormons were prudes, just polygamous prudes.

  8. Proud Daughter of Eve says:

    If I remember right, Todd Compton covered that angle (polygamy vs. Victorian prostitution) pretty thoroughly in “In Sacred Loneliness.” Yes that was a very common assertion by 19th century polygamists.

    The benefit to female sexuality from polygamy would be not being your husband’s sole source of sexual gratification. In general, women have much less of a sex drive than men so having the “responsibility” spread out would benefit those with low desire in the first place.

  9. Justin G says:


    Margaret sought to change doctrine and a long-standing practice in the church. I certainly hope that you aren’t advacating a policy that flies in the face of our Prophet’s words and the practice of the church.

  10. Matt W. says:

    I was really surprised that Todd Compton didn’t show up in the PBS program, now you mention him…

  11. Justin, it’s at least somewhat unclear whether Toscano sought to change doctrine, or merely advocated currently-disfavored aspects of the historical corpus of Mormon belief. This is, at the least, a troubled and unclear area…

    A range of people in the thread have offered sources for the very common Mormon defense of polygamy as a rational means for combining sexuality and spirituality, as Toscano argued. I just wanted to tell a quick parallel anecdote. When Terryl Givens was in the middle of his monologue about Mormon dancing (making essentially the same point as Margaret Toscano’s comment about polygamy, by the way), Taryn and I had an interesting conversation about Mormon attitudes toward sexuality. On the one hand, we share a lot of the baggage that other religious people have in this regard. Too many stories to teenagers about becoming chewed gum or brownies made of dog dirt. Yet, on the other hand, we also regard sexuality and our physical bodies as affirmatively sacred, as components of what makes us like God rather than aspects of humanity’s fallen nature. The broader Christian tradition generally lacks such an affirmative commitment to sacral sexuality and physicality. I think that’s an aspect of Mormonism worth celebrating, and I’m glad the documentary took the time to portray it.

  12. Grand Inquisitor says:

    Justin, that comment #9 is just the type of commentary I like. Could you please re-post it on my site,

  13. This is my take on polygamy, which did not make it into “The Mormons” (though I was interviewed by Helen Whitney).

    Since 1830, untold thousands of people have started businesses, and foundations, and charities, and churches, and political parties – you name it. Our Church is one of the few of all of those that has succeeded so brilliantly during that time. If Joseph Smith was not receiving revelation, and if Brigham Young and all the modern prophets were not receiving revelation and implementing inspiration given to them by Jesus Christ, the head of the Church, how did they manage that?

    What if … setting up an organization that must succeed in that way requires tough challenges? hard ideas? What if it requires that people be separated – I mean, literally separated – from the people around them for a time? Polygamy very effectively separated members of the Church from the rest of this country (and the world) for a long, formative period. It was a religious separation, and then when people waged war on the Saints and they left for what became Utah, it became a physical separation. It was as if Mormons were a new race, and everyone else was “racist.”

    We can sometimes get so sick of trying to answer for polygamy, wishing it would just go away, wishing that it just had never been any part of our history. What if – without it – the Church could never have succeeded at this level? What if – without it – you would never have known the truth, never had the gospel? What if you didn’t know where you came from, why you’re here, what the point of life is, where you’re going after you die? What if you didn’t know how to repent so as to feel good about yourself after making a mistake? Where would you be? Without polygamy – as strange as it was – where would the Church be? It’s too bad that some (not you guys, but …) are too quick to adopt the world’s judgment of some of our doctrines, of some of Joseph Smith’s revelations. Some see all that as weakness. I think it is instead proving to be – over and over again – a rather astonishing strength.

    Ken Kuykendall

  14. Did 19th century pro-polygamy apologia ever make such an argument?

    Here’s an 1857 example from George Q. Cannon’s pro-eugenics article, “The Improvement of Our Species:”

    Which is the better? The Mormon, or the Christian practice in relation to this matter? There is not a whore in Utah, neither is there a single female but what can find a husband and a home if she so desires: whereas in Christian cities harlots are numbered by the thousand. The genius of Christian monogamy is to encourage prostitution; because it forbids plural marriages, yet compels no man to marry, and thus debars thousands of females from gratifying the strongest instincts of their nature, which are comprehended in the sacred names of “wife” and “mother.”

    Marriage is more general in the United states than in nay other part of Christendom: yet even here there are thousands of men that refuse to marry, under the plea that it would interfere with their ambition, business, or convenience. The result is, the country is cursed with that most readful of all curses, prostitution. It is folly to say, that women should preserve their virtue and not throw themselves away; it is not what they should be, but what they are. Human nature must be taken as it is. Legalize polygamy, abolish whoredom by the strong arm of the law, and punish adultery with death, and numberless evils both physical and moral would disappear from the land.
    Wives who are now sickly and wretched, and who are giving to the world children filled with evil passions fastened upon them by the inordinate indulgence of their begetters, would become healthy and strong, and their offspring would grow up free from many evils which now taint them. …But as long as monogamy is the law, bastardy, whoredom, and degeneracy will exist; and also their concomitants, irreligion, intemperance, licentiousness and vice of every kind and degree.”

    George Q. Cannon “The Improvement of Our Species.” Western Standard, August 7, 1857, 2. (full article on-line)

  15. mmiles says:

    The idea that women have less of a sex drive than men is more myth than reality. I have an extrememly hard time seeing how sharing a husband with sometimes 30 women could at all benefit women sexually. Do you really see it as a benefit that a women maybe gets to share her husbands bed once a month at best? It is inherently sexist to suggest a woman would not have to be the sole gratification to her husband, but not the other way around.

  16. Since 1830, untold thousands of people have started businesses, and foundations, and charities, and churches, and political parties – you name it. Our Church is one of the few of all of those that has succeeded so brilliantly during that time. If Joseph Smith was not receiving revelation, and if Brigham Young and all the modern prophets were not receiving revelation and implementing inspiration given to them by Jesus Christ, the head of the Church, how did they manage that?

    Interesting. So the Seventh-Day Adventists and the Jehovah’s Witnesses are also receiving and implementing revelation from Jesus Christ? And also Soka Gakkai — perhaps the fastest-growing religion currently on Earth? Not to mention Microsoft, the various petroleum companies, the television and cable networks, military-industrial companies, etc.

  17. Ken (#13),

    I agree with J. Nelson here- Polygamy was a good doctrine because the isolation it caused was responsible for our temporal prosperity? I think H.W. did you a favor by not including your argument in the show.

  18. In my opinion, Margaret Toscano means that Joseph Smith’s polygamy was progress compared to the usual denial of sexuality in Christianity.

    Rather than condemning sexuality, Joseph embraced his libido with polygamy. That can be the beginning of a healthier relationship between faith and body.

  19. I think Toscano is mostly wrong. In my mind, though uneducated on the deep ins and outs of polygamy, polygamy is more about power than sex. So saying that JSJ was trying to unite sexuality and spirituality seems like she’s trying to make JSJ’s ideas hip. Sexuality is hip, power not hip. It’s funny also because if polygamy is about power and not sex then not having prostitutes etc (also about power in my mind) is meaningless.
    I haven’t decided how I feel entirely about JSJ’s polygamy, but if we see current polygamy as male domination then it seems impossible that that desire for power didn’t exist somehow in the early days of polygamy as well.

  20. Well then, Amri, we should be glad that we have apostates who think Joseph was hip! (We have really friendly apostates, IMO.)

  21. Seriously.

    A few years ago, Harvard Div School did a huge seminar on Women’s Studies in Religion and Margaret Toscano was asked to speak.
    You can watch it online here just scroll down and look for her name and pic. She talks about her excommunication etc, it’s interesting. Though she says nothing about Joseph’s hip sexuality. Sorry to threadjack.

  22. R: the documents support polygamous prudes. how much of that is conditioned by their environment isn’t entirely clear, but they were adamant that they were Biblical primitivists living out a new family pattern, NOT sensual metaphysicians cherishing the body for its sexual power. I wouldn’t be bothered by such an interpretation, I just don’t see it in the documents.

    for people interested in the broader environment of strangely prudish behaviors in utopian experiements, Laurence Foster’s recycled dissertation is useful in any of its instances.

  23. More Ann Poelman and less Margaret Toscano on the treatment of women would have made the second night more balanced in my mind. Bbell’s excellent commentary in #21 pretty much sums up thoughts.

  24. A. Nonny Mouse (#4), I don’t have this at my fingertips like Stirling’ s George Q. Cannon citatation, but I think Orson Pratt’s “The Seer” stouches on some of the things you remember reading in the BYU stacks. I’ll look it up later tonight and let you know.

  25. Rather than condemning sexuality, Joseph embraced his libido with polygamy. That can be the beginning of a healthier relationship between faith and body.

    Well I don’t know. Based on Elizabeth Rollins diary, which I have, JSJ’s polygamous marriages were sometimes not sexual at all. Rollins, in fact was never even asked to share Joseph’s bed. That’s odd behavior for a sex maniac.

  26. Davis Bitton had a good essay about pro-polygamy arguments in his book The Ritualization of Mormon History.

    #16 and #17
    I actually like both of Ken’s comments about revelation and polygamy. I don’t see him as saying that revelation is necessary for long term institutional survival, but it surely has helped the LDS church. It would be fun to compare the elements that helped other institutions achieve longevity as well. But Ken’s remarks are mirrored in Flake’s online interview about revelation: “Mormonism could not exist without revelation. The Bible is not enough for them. … It is revelation or nothing for these people, and if they ever lose that, then they have no reason for being. Their whole message is “God speaks today.”

    I believe that the isolation created by polygamy also helped Mormonism thrive. I can’t stop people from engaging in counterfactual speculation though. A common factor to successfully growing religions is that a moderate level of tension needs to exist between a denomination and the rest of society. Without polygamy, I doubt that the LDS church could have distinguished itself from the Protestant restorationists. I give the RLDS/CoC dwindling success and immersion with Protestantism as a case in point.

  27. Bob W. says:

    It has been a postulate that no motives are pure. Given JSJ’s basic maleness, it would be unthinkable for him not to have mixed sexuality with his position as prophet and leader.

    From what we read of Jesus in the gnostic gospels the same thing could have been said about him with regard to Mary M.

    I am not at all surprised. Especially since the idea keeps recurring, i.e. David Koresh, etc.

    Anyway, according to Henry Kissinger, power is the best aphrodisiac. So, there may have been a lot of volunteers, regardless of anything else, n.b. Clinton.

    Given all of this it is hardly a wonder that a young man in a powerful spiritual position would have mixed motives.

    As to whether polygamy was necessary for social isolation, it must be possible. I have long thought that. Even now it is an isolator. It also helps get rid of those damn intellectuals who condemn JSJ for it. ;-)

  28. re: #4 and #24:

    “Some of the nations of Europe who believe in the one wife system have actually forbidden a plurality of wives by their laws; and the consequences are that the whole country among them is overrun with the most abomi[na]ble practices? Adulteries and unlawful connections prevail through all their villages, towns, cities, and country places to a most fearful extent.” (Orson Pratt, The Seer 12)

    “This law of monogamy, or the monogamic system, laid the foundation for prostitution and the evils and diseases of the most revolting nature and character under which modern Christendom groans.” (Orson Pratt, Journal of Discourses 13: 195)

    “The one-wife system not only degenerates the human family, both physically and intellectually, but it is entirely incompatible with philosophical notions of immortality; it is a lure to temptation, and has always proved a curse to a people.” (Millennial Star 15: 227)

  29. RE: 28
    This makes no sense to me. It basically says men are unable to control themselves sexually so the solution is to let them have sex with as many women as they want to legally. This does not work for me.

  30. #16

    And Pentecostalism, probably the fastest growing movement among Christian groups.

  31. Karen: I think that is a misread of those quotes. Pratt and others engaged in an apology for the practice of polygamy that included, among other arguments, the fact that there was less likely to be a problem of adultery among polygamist males because they had more than enough oulets for their sexuality.

    Personally, I don’t think that is a compelling argument for the practice, primarily because there was never a time that the majority of the male population in the church were allowed (or were able) to practice polygamy. If the reason for polygamy was primarily to cure the ill of adultery, it would have been prescribed for virtually all males in the church. In my view, however, that was never the primary reason for the practice, nor was it even among the important reasons.

    To repeat myself, JSJ did not have sex with some of his plural wives. That would not be true if sex were one of the primary motivating factors for polygamy.

  32. To non-Mormons – documentary-makers or the literate viewing public – placing the Mormon religion in its historical context is necessary to make the connection between their own perspective and that of an unfamiliar faith. I think Mormons need to keep in mind that their faith was founded during a time of enormous religious and social ferment and experimentation in American history, on par with the generations of the 1890s, the 1920s, and the 1960s. In the 1820s through the ’40s, polygamy was not an especially unique experience. Other communities in the United States, religious and social practised comparable or even more radical experiments.

    New Harmony in Indiana was a religious community that practised an interesting mix of celibacy and sexuality, and was later transformed into a anarcho-communitarian community where family duties and child-rearing were shared among all adults. At Brook Farm in Massachusetts, transcendentalists practised Fourierism, a form of utopian communism in which, among other features, women were given equal social and economic status, and the right to initiate sexual and marriage unions with men. Another Fourier community, La Reunion, was established in Texas. And John Humphrey Noyes’ Oneida Community practised “complex marriage”, where every male was married to every female, most women had sexual encounters (called “interviews”) three times a week, older women were encouraged to train teenage men in a form of tantric sex, and the community regarded both complex marriage and sex as part of a ritualistic path to spiritual perfection called “ascending fellowship”.

    There are other major examples from the period, and Mormon polygamy fits within that corpus – with the very significant difference that it, and the church, survived in various forms down to the present day. Which is why Mormon polygamy was often singled out and compared to institutions like slavery later in the nineteenth century, and curiousity about the practise remains a central issue in Mormon/non-Mormon relations. So to a thoughtful non-Mormon looking into the culture and history of Mormonism, satisfying carnal desire or providing for the welfare of unattached women or the spiritual survival of men of appetite might be possible motives. But more important motive might be common context of experimentation and social and religious dissent in which Mormonism was born – where the enormous impact of industrialization, urbanization, and other changes unhinged traditional perspectives. And Pratt and other Mormon leaders speak about polygamy from that context. Certainly that was a major theme of the documentary Toscano was commenting in.

  33. The problem with polygamy is that it makes women dispensable.

  34. Sorry, Karen, I don’t understand that assertion in the context of how it was practiced by those we are discussing – nor in light of the doctrine of exaltation as couples and not individuals. Will you please elaborate?

  35. Cami Mortensen says:

    I find it strange that so many theories of the “Why?” of polygamy have arisen. Some of them are really quite bizarre. Who is man to explain the mind of the Almighty? We certainly do not know His mind. Polygamy was a practice required of Joseph Smith. He did not invent it.

    That being said, I find it curious that the rather obvious mortal explanation of “why polygamy?” has not been discussed. It had nothing to do with sex, power, social isolation, or any of the other ridiculous reasons that have been presented. The only thing that was truly accomplished by polygamy was the populating of the early church. Only certain men were asked to participate in the practice. Those men were ones who were strong in their faith, strong in character, and obedient to God and their Prophet. They had good genes. Their genes have run through their descendent lines and have provided a strong foundation upon which the Mormon church functions today. They were good men. They were not perfect men. To achieve success in the practice of polygamy, one must be incredibly unselfish, humble and pure in spirit and mind. It is a celestial principle, not an earthly principle, which explains why it has never been understood by most. Though the early church members did not succeed in the emotional aspects of the practice of polygamy, they certainly accomplished the task of populating the church. Perhaps that is what God intended. It really isn’t that hard to understand.

    I feel PBS has done a great disservice to the Mormon Church in their Documentary. If I wanted to know about what Jews really believed in and were about, I would ask a Jew, not an Arab.

    I do not agree with anything that Margaret Toscano has said. I do feel extremely sad that she was not allowed to participate in her sister’s funeral proceedings. That was wrong and cruel. Everyone on this earth is at a different place along their journey. No one is perfect, and no one is perfect even in their own beliefs. Though mistreated by her family members who are Mormon, the church itself is not responsible for its members actions. Forgiving them will be the only way she will ever find peace. Otherwise, she is the one who continues to bring the suffering on herself. The act, though wrong, was over and done with years ago. Her suffering and sadness is optional. It is a choice.

  36. Though the early church members did not succeed in the emotional aspects of the practice of polygamy

    Huh? What emotional aspects?

    I feel PBS has done a great disservice to the Mormon Church in their Documentary. If I wanted to know about what Jews really believed in and were about, I would ask a Jew, not an Arab.

    You seem to have quite a distorted view of the film.

    In fact, Cami, they did “ask a Jew” so to speak. Many of those interviewed were faithful members, including some apostles and the church’s historian.

    I do not agree with anything that Margaret Toscano has said.

    Not anything? She said quite a few positive things about the church. Focusing on the issue regarding her sister’s funeral seems silly: that was a very small part of her interview and it did not seem to me that she blamed th church for that incident.

  37. Cami Mortensen says:


    HUH? Asking what emotional aspects of polygamy is like asking what emotional aspects of marriage. DUH! You can’t be serious.

    The amount of time spent by the General Authorities or faithful Mormons talking was minimal compared to the other. The faithful members they choose were a bit odd. Most Mormons do not homeschool their children. Obviously some do, but certainly not the majority. That was misleading, among the many, many other items presented in the Documentary that were exceedingly misleading and distorted. My view of the film is far from being distorted. I know who and what Mormons are and what they believe in, and it certainly was not accurately portrayed in the Documentary.

    Margaret Toscano’s comments did not seem positive to me. There was no need for her comments on the funeral if indeed she was not meaning any malice towards the church as a whole. Her inference was definitely there.

    My comments were addressed mainly to the why? of polygamy. Perhaps you missed that part.


  38. Steve Evans says:

    Cami: “That was misleading, among the many, many other items presented in the Documentary that were exceedingly misleading and distorted. My view of the film is far from being distorted. I know who and what Mormons are and what they believe in, and it certainly was not accurately portrayed in the Documentary.”

    Cami, the fact that many Mormons are disagreeing with you on this should be an indicator to you that perhaps you don’t “know who and what Mormons are and what they believe in” as much as you say you do. Whether your view of the film is distorted or not isn’t a question you can answer objectively, now, is it?

    p.s. Using words like “DUH!” as an insulting substitute for clarifying yourself isn’t acceptable.

  39. Steve, using “p.s.” for rhetorical effect in this age of instant editing isn’t acceptable. There is no need for post scripts on a blog comment. I know this because I am an award-winning commenter. DUH!

  40. Steve Evans says:


  41. Cami Mortensen says:


    “Many” are disagreeing with me? I must have missed something. Have you checked the Meridian Magazine site responses? Comments by the thousands have poured in that are likeminded to mine.

    Yes, I can say my view is not distorted. All opinions of men are subjective, are they not? Perhaps you have a new definition of an objective opinion? I did not think it existed, since it would have to come from a person.

    DUH! was in direct answer to the Huh? Certainly no more insulting than was his. My comment needed no clarifying.

    “Acceptable?” Is that not subjective, also? My, we have cleared up a lot of things, have we not? If I am not mistaken, my emphasis was on the “why?” of polygamy. That must have been missed somehow.


  42. Kristine says:

    Cami, actually your focus is quite difficult to discern. Perhaps you could narrow your comments a little.

    Also, the fact that most of the responses at Meridian are “likeminded” demonstrates only that readers who enjoy the airbrushed, backlit history regularly presented there are unlikely to appreciate an approach that is not primarily apologetic. That is not a terribly useful data point from which to generalize about church members’ responses.

  43. Steve Evans says:

    Cami, yes you’ve quite clearly missed something. I don’t care what people say at Meridian Magazine — you haven’t read this thread, or any of the other threads here or on other Mormon blogs besides Meridian regarding The Mormons, or you’d know enough about the varying opinions of the documentary to have not pretended to speak for all of Mormondom. Incidentally, have you read the official view of the Church regarding the PBS documentary? Have a look at the Newsroom at – you might be surprised to see that the Church itself (which one would think to have more of a claim to speak for members than, say, you) is quite evenhanded about the documentary, and is quite laudatory overall.

    You say, “I can say my view is not distorted. All opinions of men are subjective, are they not?” Do you not see the inherent contradiction in your sentences?

    Your comment did indeed need clarifying. MCQ did not understand what you’d meant by the “emotional aspects” of polygamy, a phrase that is not in common parlance and which is not entirely self-evident. Your defensiveness about your abusive language speaks ill indeed of your capacity to explain your thinking on the topic.

    Finally, if you think being insulting is a subjective matter, permit me to suggest that here at BCC there is an administrative body that determines what’s insulting and what’s not — and you fail that test, however gracious you believe you’ve been.


  45. Latter-day guy says:

    gst, that may be the funniest thing I have ever read.

  46. Steve Evans says:

    He didn’t earn that award for nothing.

  47. Cami Mortensen says:

    “FINISH HER!” Is that actually what this blog is all about? I have read some brilliant comments in other sections, regarding other topics and at other times in the past. That is certainly not what I have encountered here.

    When one disagrees with the “BCC administrative body” is this what one incurs? How magnanimous, indeed. Certainly THESE responses are very gracious and acceptable. I just thank God that the “body” will not be those presiding at the judgment bar. Wasn’t this site supposed to be an open minded, a discussion site? Apparently not. Not unless one agrees with the “body.” How intellectually stimulating and conducive to alternate or varying opinion.

    Yes, Steve, I have read other “threads” and blogs and the official church site. You are not the only one who does. Do you really think the church would publish anything other than a laudatory response to the public? Come on. Be serious. Are you really naive enough to believe that what was said there truly represents what the Prophet and the Apostles feel and think? Would that be what they actually said to their own families while watching the Documentary? Of course they published a “positive” comment. It was imperative. Anything negative would have been inhaled by our very negative, ultra-liberal media, then spewed forth in rants and ravings against the Church.

    The fact that you do not care what Meridian Magazine reports says volumes about you. It is read by millions of Mormons. Can this, or should I say, your, blog claim the same? I care what Meridian says. I also care what is said here, and in other blogs, and in other public sites, as well as the official church site. I like to be informed from ALL corners of the church. Apparently, you do not? And I NEVER purported to speak for all Mormondom. That was an intention YOU gave me.

    Steve, WHOSE language is abusive? “DUH?” It is slang, and in the dictionary. Its meaning is precisely what was meant. You actually consider that abusive? That was said in humor, which is part of its definition, unlike the multiple abusive comments that you have said to me, which have contained no humor nor good will whatsoever. Since you are a regular contributor to this blog, does that really make you judge of acceptability, particularly when the commentary says something disagreeable to you? Or maybe it is not acceptable when the “right” language is not used, language that you prefer. No Steve, YOU have failed the test. When you can accuse me of abusive language by merely saying “DUH!”, and then proceed to inflict verbal blow after blow, which were unfounded, then perhaps you need some self introspection.

    I dare not clarify on the subjects of objectivity of opinion, nor the emotional aspects of polygamy. I do not see the need in the first place, and in the second place, apparently all you dicipher from what is said is not its meaning and pertinence, but only its acceptability and literary prowess. It reminds me of a scripture in 2Nephi27:32 “And they that make a man an offender for a word,…”

    Kristine, my focus was quite narrow in the beginning. You and Steve have altered that course by yourselves. I am saddened that you think Meridian Magazine is apologetic. I don’t. I now think this site is rather caustic, attacking and intolerant. Perhaps that is a requirement of intellectualism of which I am unaware.


  48. Latter-day guy says:

    You know, I really enjoyed Elder Holland’s last talk in General Conference.

  49. Cami, I have refrained from commenting on this part of the discussion because I don’t like catfights – and I don’t mean that in ANY way as a gender-related comment. However, you said something that blew me away with its audacity.

    You said, “Are you really naive enough to believe that what was said there truly represents what the Prophet and the Apostles feel and think? Would that be what they actually said to their own families while watching the Documentary?”

    You accused the Prophet and the Apostles of allowing a statement onto the newsroom section of the official Church website that they knew was untrue and merely a publicity maneuver. You presumed to know what the Prophet and Apostles say in the privacy of their own homes. I would NEVER make that leap – accusing the brethren of lying and manipulation by publishing one thing publicly while teaching their families the opposite privately.

    I don’t think the brethren are infallible. Far from it. I believe they make mistakes and are wrong just like the rest of us imperfect sinners. I accept them as prophets and apostles and seers and revelators, and I think they are honest and sincere in their beliefs, actions and statements. I, unlike you, do not label them as hypocrites – the worst slur possible in the words of Jesus.

    This site is open to anyone with divergent views, but accusing the brethren of such repugnant behavior crosses the line. I might expect it from my hard-core anti-Mormon friends (and I have many), but I would never expect it from someone who claims to be speaking for the Church.

    I try hard to keep my beam from condemning others’ motes, but this is one I can’t ignore.

  50. Ugly Mahana says:

    Congratulations BCC. You have now been dubbed intellectual.

  51. Steve Evans says:

    Cami, in other words you believe Meridian is a better reflection of what Mormons believe than the Church itself, and you don’t trust what it says to be an adequate reflection of what the Brethren think? It’s their church. You’re an apostate of the highest order!

    Cami, I hope you never come to BCC again. You started the attacks here and have been unable and unwilling to justify the substance of your remarks. When others have pointed out the inappropriate tone of your language, you sought to offend further rather than attempt to understand what others have been trying to say to you.

    You ask, “Since you are a regular contributor to this blog, does that really make you judge of acceptability, particularly when the commentary says something disagreeable to you?” The answer is yes. This is a private forum, not a public square for you to vent your close-minded idiocy. Perhaps you are new to The Intraweb. Allow me to explain it to you — you’re a guest on a site that is not your own. Smash the china and spill wine on the rug, and your hosts need not tolerate your behavior. Mocking the admins of a site is really in poor taste, but I’ll keep your comment up, ALL CAPS ABUSE AND ALL, so that people can witness for themselves.

    Believe it or not, people are interested in what you have to say when you are able to articulate your thoughts intelligently and behave like a civilized person. You’re unable to do either. One of the original mottos of BCC is that “we tolerate dissent, but not stupidity.” Hence I say farewell to you, Cami. You are more stupid than anyone should have to tolerate.

  52. Cami Mortensen says:

    Exactly, Latter-Day-Guy. What a stellar comment! Thank you

    Sorry Ray. I did not label them as liars, nor hypocrites. Those are your terms and your definitions. Do we call Abraham a liar because he told the princes of Pharaoh that Sarai was his sister? No!! Because he did it to preserve life. And so do the brethren. Repugnant behavior? I think not. What a slanderous term to use. Good work on that beam, though.

  53. Cami,

    I feel bad saying this after your compliment, but in the interests of full disclosure, my comment was directed equally in your direction.

    I just fear that we often type things that we would never say in person; if you have to look someone in the eyes it makes a difference. Compounding the problem is the fact that having no vocal inflection or body language to help clarify remarks. Of course, I struggle with this as much as anyone; for example I would never call Al Sharpton a “nappy-headed ho” to his face, but would love to type it.

    All that being said, you must admit that “FINISH HER!” was freaking funny. ;-)

  54. Cami Mortensen says:

    Steve, you amaze me. You started the attacks, not I. You are not able to do exactly what you accuse me of doing. Incredible. Are my words too hard for you?

    No, you don’t tolerate dissent. You label it as idiocy and stupidity. What a cop out.

  55. Second paragraph, second sentence: grammar = bad. “Having” should read “we have.”

  56. Cami Mortensen says:


    Yes, I know what you meant. Thank you just the same. It was a great talk, and my words have not always been kind. You are right. They have been on the defensive. A little verbal warfare, I’m afraid. That was never my intention in writing. Perhaps it would have been better to have never tried to defend my opinions and thoughts. Apparently they are not civilized enough for this blog.

    “Finish Her!” Yes, that was funny in one context, but not in another. It was a humorous way to say what was actually meant, I believe. Perhaps it is more funny to someone if it is not directed at him, or her in this case. It just cemented what I felt was being done to me by Steve. And I was right in thinking just that.

  57. No, Cami. You said explicitly that the Prophet and the Apostles published something to the world that they do not believe – that they lied to the press AND to the Church members who look to the official site for guidance. To compare that to Abraham lying to Pharoah to save his life is preposterous. Abraham did not say one thing publicly and preach another thing privately. He lied to save his life.

    I have made mistakes in posts that I have submitted here and in other places. I have been wrong factually, and I have typed one thing while meaning to type another. I made a HORRIBLE omission in a recent post that radically changed the central point I was trying to make. When it was pointed out to me, I re-read the message and realized what I had done. I posted an apology and moved on. I did not respond with sarcasm, nor did I attack the person who pointed out my error to me. I am trying hard in this case to approach this the same way – calmly and with an open heart and mind.

    I re-read my response, and there was not a trace of sarcasm or belittling in it. I obviously disagreed with you, and I stated that disagreement forcefully, but there was no condescension and no attempt to stereotype you as a person. What you said the brethren did is a perfect example of hypocrisy – exactly as defined in the dictionary and as condemned my Jesus. Hypocrisy is repugnant, and in pointing that out I was in no way “slandering” you.

    I am not perfect, and if I mis-interpreted what you MEANT to say, I apologize – sincerely and truly. I have re-read your message and my response twice, and I simply do not understand your explanations. You deny what you posted and say I put words in your mouth – but they are your own words I am putting there.

    I don’t want you silenced and prohibited from this site (honestly and truly and sincerely), but your messages carry a tone of spite and contention and animosity that is palatable. “Them’s fightin’ words” is a good summary. I have read hundreds of dissenting comments here, and not one of them has elicited the responses yours did. That alone is instructive. If you re-read your messages and don’t see that, then we simply will have to agree to disagree.

  58. See, I messed up again and forgot to add the following:

    As it stands now, I am done commenting on this aspect.

  59. Cami Mortensen says:

    Thank you Ray.
    “That alone is instructive.” Indeed.
    I appreciate your imput, and thank your for your comments. Them are fighting words? Yes. I would have to agree. But, please go back and review just when those words began. It was not with me. Whatever happened to polygamy, anyway????? Twas not I who changed the focus.

    We will agree to disagree.

    I do appreciate your thoughts. I have grown weary of this discussion, though. It has taken on a life of its own, and needs to end.

  60. What a stunning series of comments, Cami. We have your assertion that the Brethren lie for PR gain, then we get your clannish, myopic, ridiculous criticism of the PBS doc, capped by your cheer-leading for Meridian as the One True Voice of Mormonism.

    But what most amazes me is this one:

    The only thing that was truly accomplished by polygamy was the populating of the early church. Only certain men were asked to participate in the practice. Those men were ones who were strong in their faith, strong in character, and obedient to God and their Prophet. They had good genes. Their genes have run through their descendent lines and have provided a strong foundation upon which the Mormon church functions today.

    Holy eugenics, Batman! I hope you realise that the idea of genetic righteousness is about as ridiculous as the disgraceful notion of cursed blood and belongs in the Victorian bin of ideas along with “taking the waters” as a cure for the “rheumatik.” You also inflate the reality of polygamy as a means of “populating.” And lastly, you are setting up a two-tier church in which I, as a Mormon gentile, will forever be a second-class member. Unless you are a descendant of polygamy with all these “good genes” you are not fit for high office in the church, eh?

    Oh, and BTW, most of us don’t find “intellectual” to be a slanderous term. Thanks for the compliment!

  61. Cami Mortensen says:

    And they do twist and distort.

  62. a random John says:


    You might find the response of the Church to Under the Banner of Heaven to be an interesting example to contrast with the reaction to The Mormons.

    The Church put out a press release that was at least a dozen pages long listing inaccuracies in Under the Banner of Heaven. They made it clear that they felt that it distorted the religion and pointed out how.

    Note that this was not the reaction to The Mormons. Yes there were some minor factual errors in it. But much of what people object to are the aspects of the production that boil down to a matter of opinion.

    I think it provided a reasonable but incomplete overview of our religion. Too bad they didn’t have five nights instead of two. Of course I find the Meridian site repulsive and think it is distorted, so I’m obviously biased and my opinion should be tossed out.

  63. Cami Mortensen says:

    No,no. I love your opinion. I find it most interesting. Why do you find Meridian so repulsive?

  64. *the Brethren lie for PR gain

    Cami: “Do you really think the church would publish anything other than a laudatory response to the public? Come on. Be serious. Are you really naive enough to believe that what was said there truly represents what the Prophet and the Apostles feel and think? Would that be what they actually said to their own families while watching the Documentary? Of course they published a “positive” comment. It was imperative.”

    [How else are we supposed to read your comment?]

    *clannish, myopic, ridiculous criticism of the PBS doc

    Cami: “many other items presented in the Documentary that were exceedingly misleading and distorted.”

    [What, like the considerable airtime given to faithful Mormon scholar Terryl Givens, or the Mormon homeschooling (gasp!) family from Colorado who demonstrated the considerable power for good Mormonism had in their lives, or the laudatory comments by Harold Bloom, or the generous, balanced portrayal of the contributing factors to Mountain Meadows, etc., etc.?]

    *your cheer-leading for Meridian as the One True Voice of Mormonism

    Cami: [Meridian] is read by millions of Mormons. Can this, or should I say, your, blog claim the same?

    [By millions I presume you mean at least two million. That would mean over half of all English-speaking active Mormons read Meridian. To be that popular, Meridian must be capturing the One True Voice of Mormonism.]

    *the idea of genetic righteousness

    Cami: “They had good genes. Their genes have run through their descendent lines and have provided a strong foundation upon which the Mormon church functions today.”


    I am prone to rhetorical hyperbole, but I really don’t see how much “twisting and distorting” is going on here, Cami. Honestly, I’m not looking to fight, but I would like to engage your arguments. You make interesting points (for example, that PR says one thing, but the Brethren think another, or that polygamy was an exercise in eugenics), but we should be able to debate them rather than have you pretend you didn’t say them.

    So, let’s clean the slate and debate! I think the PBS doc is old hat now, so let’s pick Meridian, polygamy-eugenics, or PR spin. I promise a level-headed response.

  65. a random John says:


    I find the bombardment by ads (and thus the reminder that it is a commercial venture) repulsive. I don’t appreciate ads that pose as articles. I find the one sidedness of some of the articles to be a distortion. I guess I prefer the lack of professionalism of the blog format and the ability to interact and share opinions. What interaction it features is constrained by the letter to the editor format. In my opinion much of the reaction to The Mormons that Meridian hosted did not reflect well on the readership. Of course this is hard to explore given the limitations I mentioned.

    Even given the fact that the blogs are not professionally produced I think the quality of many of them is amazing. No offense to those that contribute to Meridian, but I haven’t found the content to be that interesting to me. Perhaps I should make an effort to read it more, but I’ve got a pile of The Economist that I’d like to read too that isn’t getting any smaller. And the ads in The Economist don’t bug me nearly as much.

    So Cami, what do you like about it? Do you find it superior to the blogs? Are the airbrushed ads appealing?

  66. Meridian it is then!

  67. funniest.thread.ever.

    If the leadership’s public comments re The Mormons earn Cami’s praise for being savvy PR, what does she make of all the asinine comments posted just as publicly by the rank-and-file?

  68. Cami,

    I’ve only just read through the last two days of this thread — I had thought it died off a bit ago. Can I respond to a couple of your key points here?

    Regarding the justifications for polygamy, many members don’t realize that (a) polygamous wives during the Utah pioneer period gave birth to fewer children each on average than did monogamous wives, and (b) the church had a large number of faithful single men who couldn’t find wives during the polygamy period. Brigham Young’s many and vigorous injunctions to men to hurry up and marry within the faith were demographically mooted by the practice of polygamy. These two facts suggest that the Mormon population would have grown more quickly had polygamy either been sharply restricted or eliminated.

    On the idea that the genes of polygamists were especially valuable and form the genetic heart of the church, I think there are a number of things that could be said. One thing worth pointing out is that, since the missionary push really began during the 1970s, multi-generation “DNA Mormons” have fallen sharply as a proportion of the church. The large majority of people on the church membership records are now not related to polygamists; this suggests to me that the church doesn’t value its genetic purity as much as your argument implies that it should.

    As a final point on the PBS documentary, is it perhaps worth pointing out that at least half of the airtime was given to faithful Mormons? Terryl Givens was a major voice in the production, as were several other faithful Mormons. The most frequently-quoted non-Mormon, Ken Verdoia, spoke as a highly supportive outsider. In fact, if the film had been more positive toward us, it probably would have succumbed to the problem that many think the Joseph Smith conference at the Library of Congress did: a total lack of credibility or persuasive power to outsiders.

  69. The large majority of people on the church membership records are now not related to polygamists;

    Then why did I have such an impossible time finding guys to date in Salt Lake I wasn’t related to?

  70. Kristine, you’re kidding, right? Utah remains highly interrelated, of course.

  71. Steve Evans says:

    JNS, it’s pretty clear Kristine’s kidding.

  72. Steve, I thought Cami was kidding when I read her first comment. Just goes to show that, whenever we joke, there’s someone in the world who would seriously say the same thing.

  73. JNS, I think we should be a bit cautious about point (a). Carmon Hardy has noted that “in just the last few years, evidence is emerging that in some communities, specifically St. George and Cedar City, polygamous wives displayed a fertility pattern fully on a par with and in some instances greater than that of their monogamous neighbors.”

  74. kristine N says:

    I was kidding. Sort of. There really weren’t many guys in utah I wasn’t related to somehow, which was one (among many) reason I married outside the deme.

  75. kristine N says:

    Getting back to your serious comments JNS, I knew about women in Polygamous unions having fewer children with more space between them, and I thought that was a serious benefit to women at the time. Even with modern medecine childbirth is one of the most dangerous things women do, and the danger level was much higher before abundant, cheap antibiotics and sterile procedure. I can imagine having a little more space between kids would increase health and satisfaction with life for these women.

  76. Cami believes that the newsroom comments are a PR move that do not reflect the bretheren’s actual views.

    Let me point out (with a great sense of irony) that some people believe the bretheren’s 1890 manifesto was a PR move that did not reflect their actual views . . .

  77. Justin, right. It’s also the case that the collateral evidence drawn from contemporary African polygamist societies has turned out to be weak; many plural wives there are on their second marriages and have earlier children that make them more comparable with monogamous wives in terms of fertility. So I should be more cautious with my point (a). On the other hand, the argument really only requires that polygamous wives not be more fertile than the same women would have been under monogamy. If polygamous wives were more likely than the average to have been committed Mormons, and if we believe that committed Mormon women of the 19th century may have been especially likely to have large families, then we have what’s statistically called a confounder. If religious devotion was related to childbirth decisions in the 19th century, then even evidence that polygamous wives had the same number of children as monogamous wives would — statistically speaking — imply that polygamy decreases fertility rates. The reason being that the same faithful women would have been more fertile than the mean in monogamy, but are only as fertile as the mean in polygamy.

    In any case, given the surplus of faithful single men, it strikes me as hard to argue that polygamy was needed to maintain the population. It may or may not have reduced growth rates, but it seems hard to support a claim that it increased them.

    Kristine, I have no objection to the idea that having children in a more gradual way might have been better. Indeed, I’m not in any way prepared to pass moral or pragmatic judgment against polygamy. I just find Cami’s arguments difficult to accept on factual grounds.

    CE, that’s a great point — the continued practice of polygamy with sanction from the highest church leadership for more than a decade after 1890 tends to support that position. It seems that sometimes PR becomes revelation, and our strategic outward self-presentation becomes our true future direction.

  78. a random John says:

    So eventually we believe our own PR? Ugh. Not a pleasant thought.

  79. In the case of polygamy and the Manifesto, John, I look at it a little differently. I think the Manifesto (“PR”) was true revelation for that time and place. I think Wilford Woodruff really did see the destruction of the Church and was allowed to understand that giving up polygamy in order to survive was OK with the Lord. It took some years for the leadership to fully accept it and change their practices to follow it fully, but that was the case with the Word of Wisdom, as well as other instances too numerous to site here.

    The case of the “PR” statement in the newsroom section of the church’s website, “Approaching Mormon Doctrine” is fascinating in this regard – and it applies here because it was crafted directly in response to the PBS documentary. (I know this is hyperbole, since it probably won’t have an immediate impact on many members who won’t see it – or think much about it even if they do, but I see it (at least doctrinally) as almost a mini-Manifesto.) I would like to see a contributor write something specifically about it, since I think it has enormous implications and potential ramifications – all for the good, IMHO.

  80. Polygamy is a hard thing for me to come to terms with. I mean I have a very difficult time wrapping my head around the fact that the leadership would go against what the Book of Mormon itself states. But let’s just put that aside for the moment.

    I, for one, do not believe that the church would have survived without polygamy. After JSJ’s death the church was in a bad state, also a lot of people had lost faith after that whole Kirkland Safety Society thing of which Heber C. Kimball had said, “there were not twenty persons on earth that would declare that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God.”

    The trek out west under Brigham had claimed the lives of many men. Polygamy was not only a quick way to have a population boom, but also a good way to ensure those born were mormon. If it had not happened the church, very possibly, could have died out or become a small and dwindling religious group such as the Shakers and the Quaker and the mennonites.

    I’ve heard it said “It was for the sake of the widows.” Which just makes me laugh. Oh sure, the young pretty widows perhaps. I didn’t see Brigham wedding an 80 year old woman. While it did happen that widows were married, they were by far not in the majority.

    That being said. I also think that the church could not have survived with continued polygamy. I know for an assurity that my parents and I would never have been mormons if it was still practiced. Also the church would have been destroyed or again put down to a minor religious group. I don’t view the menifesto as “PR”. I view it as God’s will. You cannot honestly tell me that the church would have spread worldwide and have as many members if polygamy was still being practice. At the same time I don’t think you could convince me that the church would have survived without it.

  81. J. N-S, however polygamy affected the fertility of the church overall, it certainly increased the number of descendents of male church leaders. That probably had a role throughout the 20th Century in connecting members to the church. Even converts unrelated to polygamists would end up with some grandchildren who were.

  82. Ugly Mahana says:


    There was a discussion on T&S regarding the statement. I do not think its effects will be as profound as you suggest – and I think that is a good thing!

    Basically, I think the statement serves as a useful reminder of ideas already extant, and could not become more without a much more formal announcement than that contained in the statement itself. While it is true that both the manifesto and the revelation on the priesthood were announced as essentially press releases, they were both promulgated directly by the FP and Q12. This statement is not even close to being in the same league. As I said on the other discussion, I don’t think we should make more of the statement than what it claims to be: a clarification for journalists.

    Finally, I think that the fluid understanding of doctrine is important. As individual disciples of Christ and as members of His Church, we do not really believe that any mortal organization holds all truth – even the LDS Church. Rather we believe the Church holds the keys to the mysteries of God, and that by obedience we may come to know Christ, and that He will reveal all things to us. More formal statements of belief that are not given by revelation imply that we, as a group, know much more than we actually do. And statements promulgated outside of the revealed channels dilute our ability to recognize what is scripture and what isn’t.

    I agree that the statement may be quite useful for many. In fact, it is useful for me. But, as pointed out on the T&S thread, it fails its own test as doctrine, even if it contains correct principles. I am loathe to accord it any higher value because doing so confuses the issue as to where we should look for truth, i.e. general revelation through recognized channels and personal confirmatory revelation and revelation related to our individual stewardship.

  83. Norbert says:

    however polygamy affected the fertility of the church overall, it certainly increased the number of descendents of male church leaders. That probably had a role throughout the 20th Century in connecting members to the church.

    What role would it play? Sorry, but that sounds a trifle bizzare.

  84. We actually agree completely on this one, Ronito – at least as far as has been explained here. I put “PR” explicitly in parenthesis and quotations in regard to the Manifesto specifically to emphasize that it sometimes is called that. I thought my comments made it clear that I saw it as revelation, not “just PR”.

    I happen to believe that there was a core theological vision that had to be embedded deeply into the hearts and minds of the church membership – and that the persecution that accompanied polygamy, even if it was practiced for a relatively short time, probably was the only way to embed it properly. I think the very nature of the way we view eternity would have had a hard time surviving without the embedding that occurred as a result of the practice of persecution for polygamy.

    That discussion would require much more time than we can devote here, so I hope I am not leaving confusion in my wake. If so, please forgive me and focus on the fact that I believe the most critical reason for polygamy was theological – not practical.

  85. I agree, Mahana. I don’t think it will have a direct and immediate impact, and I agree that it is a reiteration of what the official doctrine always has been. I just think it is more important in what it says about the way the church leadership is phrasing and framing the issue now – and the abuses that have occurred in the past by individual leaders and members. As I said, I know my statement was hyperbole.

  86. Ugly Mahana says:

    Ok, Ray. If I understand you correctly, you are saying that the ideas themselves, and the summation provided, will be useful to help people understand how to recognize doctrine, then I’m on board with you. If you meant that the statement, as an announcement, is itself similar in significance to the manifesto, then I disagree most strenuously. I gather that you meant the first…

    I also should clarify that when I said that we come to Christ by obedience, I meant by faith and obedience. When I wrote, I mentally included faith as part of obedience, but should have been more explicit.

  87. John Mansfield, I have to say that I really doubt that relationships with 19th-century church leaders served much retention purpose during the late 20th century. In Utah, many people are and have been related to them, certainly. Outside of Utah, not so much. By the late 20th century, when roughly half of on-the-books Mormons are outside of the US, it’s not even true that most converts will have grandchildren who are related to 19th-century church leaders. Indeed, even among people who have lived in Utah, it’s possible to get carried away about this. I’m not aware of a direct lineage connection in my family to 19th-century church leadership, for example.

    But, even where such a connection exists… So what? We’re all related to a bunch of people. Certainly everybody has good and evil ancestors. But how many of us are deeply connected to the counties in Great Britain where some of our 19th-century ancestors are from? I’d guess not many.

    In fact, my instinct is to say that there may be a correlation between how much people care about 19th-century church leader ancestors and their commitment to the church. But the causation is probably reversed; I’d guess that commitment to the church makes leadership ancestry seem more important for some folks, rather than the other way around.

  88. Ugly Mahana says:


    I really respect what you are saying, but I want to push back just a little. In Genesis God tells Abraham that Abraham will be blessed because of how he will teach his children. Could polygamy have had a similar effect- perhaps not in creating massive numbers, but rather in creating a core group of faithful families that preserved the Church until missionary work provided the numbers necessary to do the same thing?

  89. UM is right at what I’m getting at.

    How many of us know staunch Mormons that if they had been born Methodists would be staunch Methodists? I know plenty. Perhaps that’s why initally polygamy was only practiced by the leaders, who would be known to raise their kids in staunch mormon ways. After reading JNS’s posts more carefully I do see that perhaps the whole population argument really is flawed. However, the fact that the population raised could be tightly controlled is not.

  90. My children are a good example of what both John and J have said.

    My children, from my wife’s ancestry, are 7th-generation descendants of the first native Italian convert to join the church in Italy. He was baptized by Lorenzo Snow’s companion after witnessing a miraculous healing. We have shared that with my children, and it is one of their most cherished stories from church history. It means a lot to us and to them. It also means that they are tied into the early church leaders by marriage, but, frankly, we never discuss that aspect. It simply isn’t relevant to us; we really don’t care.

    However, they also have great-grandparents who joined the church outside of Utah – as the only members of their family and with no blood connection whatsoever to the 19th Century pioneers. We share that conversion story with them, but it doesn’t have the historical impact of the other one. There is a tendency for my family to attach ourselves to the “great” stories, but, in reality, the familial ties to leadership don’t mean a thing to us.

  91. Ugly Mahana, it’s a tricky concept. We have to be talking about the teaching provided by men, because the same women would have been having children and teaching under either polygamy or monogamy. Yet in 19th-century Mormon life, men were often not present due to missionary work and other callings. Furthermore, polygamous fathers were almost by definition less available to each child than monogamous fathers. The idea here would have to be that church leaders in the 19th century were so far superior to single rank-and-file faithful men that much less contact with the church leaders would produce better Mormons than more contact with the other men. Bear in mind that the men we’re talking about are pioneer heroes, too…

  92. Starfoxy says:

    I’d be very curious about the mortality rates and causes of death for plural wives compared with monogamously married women. As Kristine mentioned child birth was incredibly dangerous at the time, and I imagine that the plural wives who had fewer, more widely spaced children might have enjoyed better health and fewer deaths as a direct result of childbirth. This could have the effect of allowing women who might otherwise have died to remain alive and raise their children into adulthood, more specifically raise their children as active members of the church into adulthood.

  93. Starfoxy, interesting idea! Obviously, recommending that families have fewer children would meet the same goal — but the church did exactly the opposite throughout the 19th century.

  94. One last thing before I leave for a while:

    Ronito, it bothers me just a little when members say that polygamy is contrary to the teachings of the Book of Mormon. That assertion is made in reference to Jacob 2:27-29, but verse 30 explicitly allows for an exception (“to raise up seed unto me”) to the general rule. Yes, polygamy is not the rule as taught in the Book of Mormon, but it is not excluded as an acceptable practice when commanded.

    I personally have never read verse 30 to mean “cause more births.” I like the flow of comments here regarding a higher percentage of children who were taught by a spouse of a church leader and, more generally, in an atmosphere of intense persecution – and, therefore, were more likely to internalize loyalty to the church, believe in its core principles and sustain it through a hellish time.

  95. Ray, your comment about how more children would be taught by a “spouse of a church leader” bugs me a bit. The woman who is married to a church leader would presumably be just as good at teaching her children if she was instead married to a faithful rank-and-file man, wouldn’t she? I mean, women aren’t exactly wholly defined or determined by their husbands…

  96. Ugly Mahana says:

    Thank you, JNS. You make a good point. Still, though, I wonder if there may have been more than just teaching in play. Kinship ties are strong, and may have strengthened group identity as well as providing opportunities for teaching.

  97. I agree with you in principle, J. I did not mean to imply that rank and file members cannot teach their children as well as the spouses of leaders. I certainly do not mean in ANY way to define women solely by who they marry – as if their existence is a competition for the “best” men. If that impression came through, I apologize. At most, I meant that “blood runs thicker than water” – and polygamy did create familial ties that would not have existed with it. having said that, it is the persecution angle (the entrenching that accompanies attack) that I was trying to emphasize.

    Now I really do have to get going.

  98. Ugly Mahana says:

    Also, commitment to plural marriage and access to leaders may have changed the kind or level of instruction the mothers provided to their children.

  99. Ugly Mahana says:

    (Recognizing that this was not necessarily a universal experience…)

  100. Should have read: “polygamy did create familial ties that would not have existed WITHOUT it.” (What Mahana said.)

    Sorry; I’m gone.

  101. Regarding the idea that polygamy created familial ties that would not have existed without it… Well, really, it changed the structure of familial ties, but Mormons in Utah were going to be substantially interrelated in any case. Polygamy created a kinship structure that is more radially connected with a set of very active polygamists — in particular notoriously much-married men like Heber C. Kimball and Brigham Young. But since Mormons mostly marry other Mormons, the kinship and ethnic component of Mormonism would have happened anyway: most Utah Mormons were going to be heavily related to other Utah Mormons, polygamy or no. We have to remember that the ethnic component of Mormon identity would pretty much have existed in any case.

    On the idea that polygamy was necessary so that Mormons would be persecuted, it’s clearly the case that polygamy was the cause of much persecution, and the instrument for substantial amounts of persecution actually caused by political fears. So the teleological argument that God instituted polygamy in order to increase persecution can’t really be contradicted. It does create an irony, though, that polygamy was ended because of high levels of persecution. Perhaps it worked too well?

  102. Ugly Mahana says:


    I’m sorry to keep hammering away. I really appreciate what you are saying, and hope that I’m not being too critical. You identify the radial kinships, and state that “most Utah Mormons were going to be heavily related to other Utah Mormons, polygamy or no.” Would polygamy have moved the amount of such interrelationships up a generation? Could this increased level of kinship, combined with its radial nature, possibly be one reason why plural marriage was commanded, and then also explain why it was no longer necessary after so few generations?

  103. Norbert, I’ll try to flesh out my notion that you think bizarre. It’s a pretty frequent thing to learn that some fellow Latter-day Saint has polygamist ancestors, often some notable leader. When a pioneer story comes up, it’s not a rare thing for someone to pipe up that her great-great-great-grandparents were involved. When a newspaper notes that Steve Young is a descendent of Brigham Young, we think “Yeah, him and about half a million other people.” In contrast, I rarely hear anything about current living descendents of famous 19th Century Americans. In a discussion about the U.S. Civil War, no one adds in that he’s a descendent of Abraham Lincoln or Robert E. Lee, because Lincoln’s died out and Lee, though he had seven adult children, only had four adult grandchildren. That sure didn’t happen to the posterity of Brigham Young and his peers.

  104. Ugly Mahana, the answers here obviously depend on how we measure Mormon interconnectedness. I’d propose a measure based on how many ancestors in a given generation were Mormon. On that measure, polygamy doesn’t change the level of Mormon connectedness at all; all that matters is the level of endogamy, i.e., the rate at which Mormons marry within the fold. If we adopt a metric instead involving the number of generations back before a pair of Mormons has a common ancestor, then the answer becomes pretty unclear. Most randomly-selected pairs of Utah Mormons even today probably don’t have Mormon common ancestors; our movement just isn’t that old. But polygamy could have affected the odds, or not. It’s just hard to say.

    I think we’re better advised to look to the 19th-century revelations for an account of why polygamy was important for 19th-century Mormons. There we see an account in terms of polygamy’s necessity as a part of the restoration of all things, needed to fully restore the religious practice of the Old Testament church. We also see polygamy as a gateway (the new and everlasting covenant) to the highest level of exaltation. These are the reasons most often offered by 19th-century Mormons for polygamy, and they’re the reasons offered in the revelations that commanded the practice. I can’t see why we shouldn’t take those revelations at their word.

    Things are different for us, and we’re not asked to practice polygamy in order to receive exaltation. That change in the family economy of the celestial world does demand explanation — but I doubt that the explanation will be found in macro-historical terms, since the puzzle involves pathways to exaltation for individuals and families rather than entire peoples.

  105. John Mansfield, again, I think your argument is putting the cart before the horse. I think people probably care about connections to Brigham Young or Ephraim K. Hanks or other 19th-century icons because the 21st-century people in question are deeply committed Mormons; the many thousands of Brigham Young descendants who aren’t faithful Mormons likely don’t care that much about their famous ancestor, right?

  106. Ugly Mahana says:

    JNS: I agree that we should not look to historical arguments to explain what essentially was a spiritual truth for those who practiced plural marriage. Likewise, I agree that we must understand 19th century polygamy in terms of 19th century revelations, and that macro-history has less explanatory power. Thank you for your patience and for excellent and lucid explanations.

  107. Although polygamist wives might possibly have had fewer children, I think a case could be made that they had them under even more than the usual difficult circumstances. Men high in the church weren’t home often, whether polygamous or monogamous. A lot of the women had to support themselves and their children without any practical assistance from their husbands.
    I’m thinking of the tiny duplex cabin I visited in the coldest place in Northern Utah, where Wilford Woodruff moved his young wife into one room, and his son (by an older wife) and the son’s wife into the next. W. Woodruff would visit during the summer for a couple of weeks on his way elsewhere, and she would be left, pregnant, to get through winters with 3 feet of snow and next to no available timber and trying to run a farm with an impossibly short growing season, while he would be living with the other wives elsewhere. If I remember rightly, the son’s wife had two children and she had four during the first six years they were there.
    Then there’s Emma Lee, left to run a ferry alone while her H. was in SLC. She wrote of how she sent her five year old twins and younger child out to play far away from the house for a day, so that, with only the assistance of her 7 year old son, she could deliver her baby.
    Or there’s Samuel W. Taylor, who wrote of how his mother owned a dressmaker’s shop, a farm, and a boarding house to support her children, and how he could count on one hand the number of times he saw his father.
    Maybe the difficult circumstances polygamous wives lived under outweighed any health benefits of having fewer children (if indeed they did).

  108. btw, just for clarification: I provided those quotes (#28) merely to answer the previous questions about what arguments were made during the 19th cent. in defense of polygamy. no endorsement implied.

  109. I guess in the end there are only three possibilities.

    1. The institution of polygamy was practical.

    Be it to raise up more seed (which according to some studies posted seems not likely). Or to raise up more faithful members quickly.


    2. The institution of polygamy was a theological one.

    I don’t practice polygamy, I don’t have a testimony of it I know some do. I don’t. I will say this however. Theology doesn’t really change, at least not when we’re talking about celestial law. Still though, you cannot argue with this if someone beieves/doesn’t believe it as you can’t prove/disprove it.


    3. Perhaps it was just folly or started for sex and power.

    Again this one is as easy to prove as the theological argument. Sure you can provide all kinds of quotes on either side of the argument. But you can’t prove it.

  110. Ugly Mahana says:


    Since Jacob (Nephi’s bro) said that polygamy is only permissible (a) when God commands it, and (b) that God will command it to raise up seed, I don’t think that your (1) and (2) are easily divided.

  111. Maybe I should be a bit more direct as to what I alluded in #84. Here is the most relevant sentence from that comment:

    “I think the very nature of the way we view eternity would have had a hard time surviving without the embedding that occurred as a result of the practice of persecution for polygamy.”

    As an institution, the church still believes in polygamy to this day, in much the same way it was taught back when it was practiced but without the “necessary” component – and with a focus on the afterlife rather than this life. Just as not everyone practiced it here when it was instituted, there is no “official doctrine” stating what percentage of celestial unions will be polygamous. Also, just as there were many “looks” of mortal polygamy (number of wives, number of children, work situations of wives and husband, etc.), there is no “official doctrine” stating what those unions will be like in the hereafter. We have not been told how spirit children are created, so we have little if any idea of what a celestial marriage (monogamous or polygamous) will actually entail – other than that we will live as partners with our spouses.

    My question: Could any of us accept this construction (that eternal marriage for some will – or even might – include polygamous relationships) if polygamy hadn’t been practiced in our history? Many of us, like myself, who hope and pray with our current understandings that our eternal relationships are monogamous still manage to accept the possibility of it existing for some.

    To re-frame the point, the concept that full eternal progression con be found only in a union of male and female (“neither is the woman without the man, nor the man without the woman in the Lord”), added to the concept that no individual will be denied that progression simply because they were unable to make that connection in this life, almost guarantees statistically the existence of polygamy – in some form or fashion – in the hereafter. (I know that constitutes speculation, but I think my point is valid, nonetheless.)

    I believe what JNS said about how the actual practitioners talked about polygamy – as a restoration of a gateway to the highest level of the Celestial Kingdom. What I’m saying is that the eternal belief can survive without continuing the earthly practice, but I doubt it could do so if the earthly practice had never occurred – if it had not been burned into our ancestral souls by the furnace of affliction the early saints endured to practice it.

  112. Can we back up a minute here?

    And John Humphrey Noyes’ Oneida Community practised “complex marriage”, where every male was married to every female, most women had sexual encounters (called “interviews”) three times a week, older women were encouraged to train teenage men in a form of tantric sex, and the community regarded both complex marriage and sex as part of a ritualistic path to spiritual perfection called “ascending fellowship”.

    Every male and every female who weren’t related to each other, right?

    I can see why they’d call that complex.

  113. StillConfused says:

    Woah. Complex sex sounds like West Virginia

  114. Not that this has anything specifically to do with a thread on polygamy, but Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover series hypothesizes a society started by a band of stranded humans, and to achieve the most genetic diversity possible they practice complex marriage. To prevent children accidentally mating with a parent, all intergenerational unions were prohibited. Obviously not a real situation, but I do always find it fascinating to see science fiction writers embracing lifestyles that would (and did!) horrify most people.

    Day–those kinds of stories make me admire pioneer women. Those women had to be incredibly strong and independent to deal with so much hardship. I complain about only seeing my husband for a few weeks at a time (he’s in grad school a couple of states away), and I can’t imagine only seeing him once a year. It may be that benefits of polygamy were primarily for more urban (if there was such a thing in the intermountain west) wives, who would have had neighbors to help with situations like, oh, giving birth. The near total isolation you describe for Emma Lee and for Woodruff’s wife would surely have been nearly intolerable. Did either of them keep journals of the experience?

  115. Connell O'Donovan says:

    -“Was it about sex at all?”
    Of course! However, in the triple Aristotelean model, it may have only been about sex in poiesis and praxis, but not in theoria. In poiesis, it was about sex because one important end of polygamy was certainly the production of offspring (and that in large numbers). In praxis, the large numbers of pedagamous relationships (when an adult male marries a teen girl younger than 18, and there is at least a decade gap in their ages) that Mormon culture sanctified (especially once Young established a theocracy in pre-1869 Utah), strongly indicate that heterosexual male lust for youth and beauty was central to polygamy.

    Joseph Smith, of course, set the standard for pedogamy by having six (18%) of his 34 documented wives be aged 14-17, while he was in his 30s.

    My own unpublished demographic study of pedogamy in the 1856 Martin Handcart Company indicates that 55 (31%) of the 137 girls who survived the handcart disaster entered into pedagamous relationships once they arrived in Utah. The data also confirms that 12% of those pedagmous girls had conceived a child prior to their marriages, indicating that premarital sex was rather common among the Saints (especially since not every sexual encounter results in pregnancy).

    -“Are there ills of sexual monogamy that sacral polygamy was intended to overcome? (Did 19th century pro-polygamy apologia ever make such an argument?)”

    YES. In 1879, George Q. Cannon vigorously defended his own polygamous orientation against the perils of monogamy. Cannon solemnly testified in April General Conference that monogamy shortens a nation’s existence. He claimed that, “[i]t is a fact worthy of note that the shortest lived nations of which we have record have been monogamic. Rome…was a monogamic nation and the numerous evils attending that system early laid the foundation for that ruin which eventually overtook her.” Cannon also said that, “crimes against nature [homosexuality] were justified by some of the best and most noted of Greek philosophers, and were practiced by Sophocles, Socrates, and others; and yet this is the philosophy that has come down to us” from monogamous cultures.

    He continued that the “false tradition” of heterosexual monogamy is “one of the greatest evils at the present time”, passed on by Greeks and Romans, and ultimately leads to “crimes against nature”, as well as prostitution, courtesanship, and early deaths of said women from sexually-transmitted diseases. Thus, for Cannon, socio-political, religious, and cultural pressures to be monogamous were the cause of homosexuality, prostitution, and venereal disease. (See Journal of Discourses vol. 20, p. 200)

    Ironically, this echoes the Anglican apologia of 16th century English theologian John Bale, who theorized in his two tracts “Apology Against a Rank Papist” and “The Parade of Popes” that (Catholic) celibacy caused homosexuality, prostitution, venereal diseases…AND POLYGAMY!

  116. Connell, thanks for the GQC reference. It is an interesting complement, two decades later, to his article referenced in #14.
    Speaking of GQC, who was editor of the Deseret News in the 1870s, an interesting development is that his great-grandson Joe Cannon recently was appointed DN editor.
    Moving farther afield, I’ve found your article “The Mormon Priesthood Ban and Elder Q. Walker Lewis…” to be very useful, thanks.
    You may have noticed that in a recent BYU Studies book review of Black and Mormon, Elder Emmanuel Abu Kissi(an area seventy) wrote: “…Despite these external social forces, one African American Latter-day Saint [Elijah Abel] received the priesthood during Joseph Smith’s lifetime.”
    I think your article will quickly become an important source for reminding us that there were other African American saints who received the priesthood.

  117. Connell O'Donovan says:

    Thanks for the props Stirling!

    I believe that at least four men were ordained to priesthood during Smith’s life. Certainly Elijah Abel and Q. Walker Lewis were. There’s evidence forthcoming in a publication that “Black Pete” held at least Aaronic Priesthood, since he was allowed to baptize people into the LDS Church. And lastly, some evidence suggests that William McCary held priesthood by 1846 (not strictly in Smith’s time, but close).

    I think it’s becoming clear that Smith approved of ordaining free black men to priesthood. The ban was certainly instigated by Brigham Young between 1847 and 1852, after dealing with William McCary’s apostasy in early 1847 and the inter-racial marriage of Walker Lewis’s son, Enoch, to a white Mormon woman in 1846 – which Young didn’t find out about until December 1847 – and it horrified Young to such a degree that he told the eight Apostles then at Winter Quarters that he would have the two newlyweds killed if they only lived far away from the Gentiles rather than in Boston.

    Santa Cruz

  118. The full cite:
    Connell O’Donovan, “The Mormon Priesthood Ban and Elder Q. Walker Lewis: “An Example for His More Whiter Brethren to Follow.” John Whitmer Historical Association Journal 26 (2006): 48-100.

    It can be found online here.