Doing the Works of Abraham

Mormon history often has an “I’ll-believe-it-when-I-see-it” quality for faithful Latter-day Saints. So much, it often seems, depends on the interpretive strategy of the historian that readers’ own perspectives are hard to change with anything other than direct reference to surprising or under-considered primary sources. Indeed, during the aftermath of the Hofmann forgeries, even primary sources — especially surprising ones — were suspect for many Mormons. Fortunately for us, that time of historical nihilism is largely past, but the broad skepticism of many Mormons that things were ever substantially different than they are today seems to persist.

How to make a contribution in the face of such a paralyzing worldview? Many researchers have in recent years found a kind of solution to this dilemma in the documentary history. Thus, while Dan Vogel may not persuade too many Mormons with his ingenious, sympathetic, but fundamentally skeptical recent biography of Joseph Smith, he has reached and influenced a substantial, diverse audience through his Early Mormon Documents series, which collects and briefly comments on most of the important primary sources involving Mormon history during the period before Kirtland.

September_2007_abrahamB. Carmon Hardy adopts a similar, if less comprehensive, strategy with his new documentary history of Mormon polygamy, Doing the Works of Abraham: Mormon Polygamy: Its Origin, Practice, and Demise. Obviously, Hardy could scarcely aspire to reprint every major document related to polygamy in a single volume. In comparison with the New England Mormonism that preoccupies Vogel, a much larger group of people practiced polygamy, for a much longer period of time. While necessarily selective, then, Hardy’s volume is nonetheless intelligently selective, covering most of the centrally important topics regarding Mormon polygamy from various perspectives.

Hardy’s first chapter collects documents regarding the origins of Mormon polygamy during Joseph Smith’s life. Of the topics addressed in the volume, this is almost certainly the most familiar to potential readers. Indeed, these stories are told in many other places, notably in Todd Compton’s In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith. In Hardy, nonetheless, the story is competently told from multiple perspectives. As one would expect, the chapter includes texts of Joseph Smith’s relevant revelations, letters, autobiographies, and other statements from several of the faithful Saints who entered polygamy during Smith’s lifetime, and newspaper articles by opponents of polygamy (both Mormon and non-Mormon). Each of these sources is framed with careful contextualizing discussion; the reader is never left to guess who the people in a document are, why the primary source was written, or what the broader circumstances were. Hardy’s historical craft is uniformly graceful and efficient.

These positive traits persist through the rest of the volume, in which Hardy presents sources related to aspects of Mormon polygamy that may be much less familiar to modern LDS readers. I was particularly fascinated by Chapters 2 and 3, which collect 19th-century Mormon explanations of why polygamy was important. While modern Latter-day Saints often regard polygamy as the exception and monogamy as the rule, Mormon discourse during the polygamy period was markedly different. The highest LDS leaders emphasized what they saw as the inherent corrupting influences of monogamy, which they saw as producing rampant infidelity, prostitution, female assertiveness, socio-political decline, and even physical decay.

Consider the 6 April 1857 remarks of Heber C. Kimball on the health effects on men of entering polygamy:

I would not be afraid to promise a man who is sixty years of age, if he will take the council of br. Brigham and his brethren, that he will renew his age. I have noticed that a man who has but one wife, and is inclined to that doctrine, soon begins to wither and dry up, while a man who goes into plurality looks fresh, young, and sprightly. Why is this? Because God loves that man, and because he honours His work and word. Some of you may not believe this, but I do not only believe it but I also know it. For a man of God to be confined to one woman is small business; for it is as much as we can do now to keep up under the burdens we have to carry; and I do not know what we should do it we had only one wife apiece. (available in Hardy, pg. 130)

Evidently, for Kimball, age is an effect of monogamy. Other Mormon leaders saw monogamy as producing birth defects, excessively lustful children, and even the decline in human lifespan from the centuries-long lives of Old Testament patriarchs to the mere decades of recorded history. Also, of course, polygamy was taught as necessary for exaltation:

Some people have supposed that the doctrine of plural marriage was a sort of superfluity, or non-essential to the salvation or exaltation of mankind. In other words, some of the Saints have said, and believe, that a man with one wife, sealed to him by the authority of the Priesthood for time and eternity, will receive an exaltation as great and glorious, if he is faithful, as he possibly could with more than one. I want here to enter my solemn protest against this idea, for I know it is false. (Joseph F. Smith, 7 July 1878, available in Hardy, pg. 113)

Hardy’s document collection does an admirable job of recounting these and other fascinating and profound differences between 19th-century and current Mormon understandings of the purposes of, and effects of, polygamy. Chapters 2 and 3 are the most theologically rich in the volume, and of potentially great value for Saints not yet exposed to 19th-century Mormon thought about marriage.

Chapter 4 is also useful, although perhaps somewhat less surprising. This chapter shows Mormon men and especially women struggling with the social and emotional consequences of polygamy. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many or most of the born monogamists who entered polygamy were subsequently unhappy. Hardy’s documents movingly chronicle the difficulties of loneliness and jealousy that attended celestial marriage, while also noting Mormons’ expectation that the second and third generations of polygamists would suffer much less.

My biggest disappointments regarding the book involve this chapter, however. Hardy provides very little information about the economics of polygamy. Was in the case that one husband was economically productive enough to support various wives (along with their children), who were not involved in productive work, as many modern Mormons believe? Or was productive work relatively universal for both sexes and most age groups, as in most largely agrarian societies? Were polygamous wives required to be more economically productive than monogamous wives, as one might logically expect? Were polygamous families in the Mormon kingdom richer or poorer than monogamous families? Did the Mormon practice of polygamy require that each wife have her own house, as a couple of documents in Hardy’s volume claim, or did wives routinely share a single dwelling, as some other documents assert? Hardy shows little interest in these questions, even though they are issues central to the reality of polygamy about which many 21st-century readers entertain marked misconceptions. In a related vein, and of at least equal importance in light of current Mormon ideas of the family, Hardy seems largely uninterested in child-care and child-raising in polygamy. Obviously, no volume can cover every aspect of polygamy. Yet, aside from the basic theological questions, these omitted themes speak more directly to current LDS identities — rooted as they are in our self-definition as a family church — than much of what Hardy does choose to address.

Hardy also provides useful document collections regarding Mormon rhetorical defenses against non-Mormon critiques of polygamy, the Manifesto and the end of polygamy, and three wonderfully entertaining chapters recounting the increasingly hostile non-Mormon response to polygamy over the course of the 19th century. The book is, in part, a crash course in how much Mormons were once hated, and thus a salutary dose of perspective for those of us who feel especially persecuted when the media ask funny questions about Mitt Romney.

Overall, this is a book that I highly recommend, especially to readers who are not yet familiar with the voluminous existing literature on Mormon polygamy. Hardy shows us the primary sources in an informative, clear, and credible way, leading us into the strange and foreign world our ancestors inhabited just over a century ago. If there is a better first book to read about polygamy among the Saints, I don’t know what it is.


  1. John Turner says:

    Thanks for the recommendation. I hadn’t heard of the book yet but now look forward to getting my hands on a copy.

  2. I noticed a somewhat critical tone in Comptons book, as well as in Mormon Enigma. Is this book in that same vein?

  3. Thanks for the review, J. I haven’t gotten as far into it as I would like, but have enjoyed what I have read. I can also see how some economic and sociological data would be quite helpful.

  4. John, great! If the publisher sees this thread, please note that BCC has sold at least one copy!

    LifeOnaPlate, I’m not sure that I agree that there is a critical tone in those two books — or at least I’d need to be specific about what was criticized. Both books seem to have had a negative take on Joseph Smith’s dishonesty toward Emma and many other Saints regarding polygamy. I don’t object to that, although others might. Yet I think both books are fundamentally quite sympathetic to Mormons and Mormonism.

    Hardy’s book covers a much broader scope. Joseph Smith does not loom as large. Yet Hardy’s treatment of him seemed to me to be even-handed and sympathetic. So also his discussion of 19th-century Mormons and their anti-Mormon contemporaries. So I don’t feel that the book is fundamentally negative or critical in tone.

    J., you’re welcome!

  5. J, I agree, a nice read. I’ve enjoyed my copy.

  6. Kevin Barney says:

    I’ve been looking forward to this book, but I don’t have a copy yet, so I very much appreciate this preview.

  7. Other Mormon leaders saw monogamy as producing birth defects, excessively lustful children, and even the decline in human lifespan from the centuries-long lives of Old Testament patriarchs to the mere decades of recorded history.

    Interesting that that was the ‘official’ view, considering this:

    Emily D.P. Young, “Autobiographical Sketch,” quoted in Van Wagoner, Mormon Polygamy, 230.
    “While in Nauvoo I had kept my child secreted and but few knew I had one. But after I started on my journey it had become publicly known and some have told me, years after that he was the handsomest child they ever saw. One woman told me he was the smartest spiritual child she had ever seen. I said don’t you think they are as smart as other children. She said no she did not think they were. There was a good deal of that spirit at that time and sometimes it was very oppresssive.”

    Smith, George D. ‘Nauvoo Roots of Mormon Polygamy, 1841-46: A Preliminary Demographic Report.’ Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. Vol. 34, no. 1&2, Spring/Summer 2001. p. 123-158.

  8. Norbert, there was certainly a great deal of debate in the 19th century about whether children of polygamy were better, worse, or about the same as children of monogamy. Anti-Mormons routinely emphasized the alleged physical and mental degradation of Mormon children as a danger of polygamy, while Mormons claimed that polygamous children were as good or better than any other. This debate is amply recorded, from both perspectives, in Hardy’s book.

  9. JNS, I think you’re talking past people. both Loneliness and the Emma biography rather pointedly criticized Joseph Smith hagiography. For people who feel that their faith tradition is based in the miraculous prophethood of Joseph Smith, these books will feel quite destructive to faith, and I think it’s worth acknowledging that rather than talking past it.

    All that said, I thought they both were excellent books and am glad to have read them and own them. But I think it’s fair to admit that they are not a part of the hagiographic worldview of early Mormon prophethood and this should be acknowledged.

  10. Sam, I think your statement that the books in question are “not part of the hagiographic worldview of early Mormon prophethood” is just perfect. The “hard to imagine” remark was in response to the idea that the books are not “sympathetic to Mormons and Mormonism.” I think that statement is fully justified — these books are profoundly sympathetic to both subjects, and would have been quite clearly different had they been written by individuals antagonistic to the faith of the Saints. There may be those for whom hagiography is the essence of faith; for these people, professional history of virtually any flavor will feel disruptive. That’s fine, of course, although I personally don’t have any faith in that view. But I don’t think that John Fowles, for example, is such a person.

    I’d also note that both books are basically compatible with a view of Joseph Smith as having “miraculous prophethood.” In particular, Mormon Enigma seems to me to have been carefully constructed to offer a narrative in which all the miracles may be construed as genuine. All that these books are obviously incompatible with is a view of Joseph Smith as perfect, a position that defenders of orthodoxy regularly disavow.

  11. Bringing this conversation back around to the Hardy volume, this book is also not hagiography of Mormons. Neither is it muckraking. Hardy’s agenda, on my reading, is the typical historian’s nirvana: bringing modern readers in closer contact with people who thought differently, acted differently, and lived in a different and now difficult to imagine world. Readers will certainly find statements in the book that they disagree with, but those statements are mostly those of 19th century actors (Mormon, non-Mormon, and anti-Mormon) with interests and worldviews that we may not share. Obviously, anything whatsoever may potentially be disruptive of some reader’s faith. Even so, I don’t think there is a significantly less disruptive starting point for serious learning about 19th century Mormon polygamy than this book.

  12. J: agreed. All the books are clearly written by authors who care a great deal about the early Mormons, both in a scholarly and in a personal way.

    And I think that Hardy’s book is quite good as an introduction to what the participants had on their minds during the experience of polygamy.

  13. Note: a lengthy discussion on the relative merits of Todd Compton’s work on polygamy took place on this thread. That discussion was allowed to play out, but has now been removed so that the comments on the Hardy volume will be more readily available to future readers.

  14. Re: comment 8;

    My anecdotal experience shows that the children of polygamists tend to be very bright, extremely respectful, well-behaved, and generally a notch or two above their monogamously-reared counterparts.

    The K-8 charter school in Centennial Park, Arizona, for example, has some of the best standardized test scores in the state, consistently ranking near the top of the heap.

    In my interactions with plural families, I have always witnessed a certain special “something” about the children; something that is hard to put into words. I have seen large groups of these children playing together and nary an insult or taunt have I heard. Contrast this with watching children on the playground of any elementary school, even in Utah, where children seem to behave like we expect “normal” children to behave: somewhat course, rude toward one another, and not get alonging nearly as well as the children in the polygamous families and communities.

    As stated, this is merely my observation. But then again, that’s what most of the material in Hardy’s book is, I suppose: the observations and opinions of certain persons.

    Incidentally, I have not yet picked up this book but would like to. Will BCC get a cut if I buy it from the link in this post?

  15. Ben, unfortunately, we don’t get a cut. But it’s a good book and is well worth the purchase, even if it doesn’t benefit your favorite Mormon blog…

%d bloggers like this: