“A Diabolical, High Pressure Marriage”

Prior to the 1940s, fundamentalist plural marriage looked a lot like 19th-century Mormon plural marriage, in that participants chose their own partners, based on personal attraction, principles of faith and in general the same sorts of considerations that lead anyone to choose a marriage partner. While this open market style continues to obtain among most polygamous groups, it does not among the FLDS, which practices what they call placement marriage, in which marriages are arranged, and wives and children are sometimes reassigned to other men, as a sign of absolute submission to priesthood authority. Originally when a young girl in the FLDS tradition felt ready for marriage, usually between 16 and 25, she would discuss the matter with her father, who would let the priesthood council know and they would assign her to a male to marry, which would take place either immediately or within a week or so. But under Warren Jeffs this has evolved to coercing younger and younger girls into marriages without their first presenting themselves voluntarily.

It is helpful in understanding the development of FLDS placement marriage to consider the secret 1948 marriage of Louis Barlow, a tale which Marianne Watson recounts based on the journals of her grandfather, Joseph Lyman Jessop (she has changed the names of most people still living, except for public figures like Warren Jeffs.)

In September 1948, Lyman, a polygamist himself with three wives, was shocked when his 15-year old daughter Christine told him she had secretly been married the previous weekend to Louis Barlow. Barlow was then 24 and already a practicing polygamist, with two other wives and three or four children. He was the son of the presiding fundamentalist leader John Y. Barlow, and also a nephew of Lyman’s, making him Christine’s first cousin. Lyman was deeply disturbed at such a marriage being performed without his knowledge and consent. On the way back to Salt Lake the new groom flagged Lyman down along the road, and they talked about the marriage for a tense hour. Barlow said he had been commanded to do it, but refused to say by whom. But he maintained he did exactly right. Lyman responded “No person on earth has a right to tell you to take my daughter without my knowledge or consent, and this you have done.”

Lyman suspected that this “divine command,” if one were given at all, must have come from Barlow’s father. He did not think it right, as it violated the agency of others, namely Christine herself, his and her mother’s. Barlow then came to see Lyman in SLC and tried to talk about the marriage some more, and then resorted to threats against their salvation. (“Pretty cocky, I call it” Lyman recounted in his journal.) Lyman soon learned that his own brother, recently called to the Priesthood Council, had performed the wedding.

Lyman sought advice from Joseph Musser, then second in authority on the council. The elderly Musser agreed with Lyman that he was right in this matter. He advised Lyman that no action was needed to annul the marriage, and to simply ignore it. This was almost the last straw, he mused, wondering “what will they do next?” But it was impossible to simply ignore, as Louis Barlow continued to press his claim on Christine. Once, when Lyman was away, Louis came to the home and took Christine 12 miles away to the ranch of a polygamist friend, telling both Christine and her mother Winnie that Lyman had consented. Winnie was furious that Lyman would have done so without discussing the matter with her, but when he returned at the end of the week, he assured her he had given no consent whatsoever.

The next morning, to their surprise Louis and a couple of other men brought Christine home, stating his intention to take Christine as his wife to Short Creek. Lyman appealed directly to Christine, saying he would rather she didn’t go. Realizing from this that Lyman had not given consent and that she had a choice in the matter, Christine said “no.” Louis continued to press his case for more than three hours, but eventually he and the two others left without Christine. But Louis didn’t give up, and the tense situation continued. Winnie fretted almost to the point of a nervous breakdown. (It was in the course of trying to reassure her that Lyman referred to this as a “diabolical, high pressure marriage,” which is the source for the title to this post.)

Lyman was heartened that his own father, Joseph Smith Jessop, said he agreed with him (although he refused to blame his other son Richard for performing the marriage.) The elder Jessop called a family meeting to resolve the matter. Lyman said the marriage was invalid because Louis pressured Christine into it and had done so without his knowledge or consent. He was especially adamant because Christine “says she don’t want Louis at all and felt all the time that He was not the one for her, tho she yielded to his stubborn will and persuasions.” Louis, his father and Lyman’s brother argued for the other side, that the marriage was valid, arguing that when an authorized man used that ceremony, it was binding, no matter what the conditions were. Of the six men present, four were in favor of seeing the marriage as binding, Lyman’s father remained neutral, leaving only Lyman arguing against it. The meeting lasted 2-1/2 hours without resolution. (Lyman was amazed that Louis still wanted Christine after she had made it clear how much she didn’t want him.) The matter remained in limbo for another year, with Lyman refusing to budge. It was the death of John Barlow that opened the door for a resolution.

By this time Christine was now 17, and still adamant that she did not belong to Louis and his family. Lyman went to see Joseph Musser, who was now first in seniority on the priesthood council. Musser asked him to bring Christine in for an interview and talked with her. He agreed to release her from her obligation to Louis, but said it would be best to do so with the support of the full council.

The council convened on 25 February 1950. Lyman said he considered the marriage void under priesthood law because “I didn’t know anything about the marriage until it was all done….I am not trying to say that the girl has no blame in this, but the hurry and rush was urged by Louis; and tho [Christine] said ‘I do’ to the marriage covenant, there was undue pressure put upon her and it was not done of her own free will and choice.” He said he would yet give his consent if Christine wanted him, “but she does not.” Lyman related that he had been present when Lorin C. Woolley advocated the necessity for getting consent and approval from the parents of girls entering into plural marriage, and that he had emphasized the point with a fist pounded on the table.

Louis argued that his father had supported him at every step of the process, and that if he had it to do over again he would do the same. He said that since he hadn’t had a chance to live with Christine as husband and wife, he should be given that chance. Several on the council related precedent where girls had been released from marriage covenants where it was felt they had been pressured into them and the girl had not had a chance to express her own views on the subject. Musser became sick and the meeting ended early, but sometime within the next six months the council released Christine from her marriage to Louis, and in 1950 she married a man clearly of her own choice, whom Lyman described as “one of the great characters” of their day.

Less than a year after Christine’s marriage, the fundamentalist community fractured over various issues of doctrine and practice, protocols for entering into plural marriage being one of the main ones. Men like Musser and Lyman, who insisted on the old ways of agency and consent for a girl entering into polygamy, were increasingly becoming a minority voice.

[Note: As I have read the recent commentary on FLDS polygamy, it has seemed to me that commenters would greatly benefit from a read of Marianne T. Watson, “The 1948 Secret Marriage of Louis J. Barlow: Origins of FLDS Placement Marriage,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 40/1 (Spring 2007): 83-136. The above is my attempt to give some sense for what is in this 50-page article; obviously, I highly recommend that those interested read the actual article. Back issues are available for sale at the Dialogue website. It looks like you can also read this article for free if you register; see here.]


  1. Wow, this is absolutely fascinating stuff, Kevin. How interesting that the “sensible” ones (advocating for free choice and willingness on the girl’s part) were becoming the minority. The question is, how could they as a community let this — the forced marriage policy — happen? It’s a also a great illustration on how doctrines can become changed and distorted in a very relatively short time. Reminds me of so many scriptures where that very thing seems to happen over and over.

  2. Kevin, thanks for writing this up. It’s distressing to see what was happening in this one case – to see the pressures that were put on this young girl. She’s fortunate that her father was adamantly supportive of her free agency in her choice of marriage partner and that she had a defense against these other men who wanted to pressure the marriage through to reality.

  3. Kevin, thanks for the summary and all the updates. I had some trouble getting the article through your link but was able to cut and paste the following address into my browser and pull it up in a pdf format.

    Click to access q760877m12548351.pdf

    Do you have any other books or articles you can recommend to gain perspective on this whole sorry business?

  4. Kevin, how do you see the Barlow FLDS marriage in comparison with the Zina Diantha Huntington Jacobs marriage to Joseph Smith (of the sword wielding angel story)? Zina was 2 years older, but both included coercion, secrecy, and parental upset.

  5. Fascinating, Kevin. Thanks for the history lesson.

  6. Kevin Barney says:

    Sanford, for more resources see this recent BCC post.

  7. Kevin Barney says:

    Randall, Joseph’s early marriages by definition involved secrecy and, given the necessity to overcome conventional Victorian mores, a certain amount of religious coercion. But the two cases don’t seem particularly close to me. Christine was 15 when she was married; Zina was 19 when Joseph proposed to her and 20 when she was sealed to him. I just reviewed quickly Todd’s treatment and didn’t see anything about upset parents. Also, Zina refused Joseph’s proposals three times. That Joseph pursued the matter after she had refused him is not a pleasant fact, but the three rejections demonstrate that she felt free to refuse him. Apparently she only assented when she studied the scriptures and received her own revelation of the principle. So when she married Joseph, she did so willingly. And of course, Zina’s marriage involved the complication of polyandry, which was characteristic of Joseph’s early marriages but not of fundamentalist polygamy (that I know of, anyway).

  8. Thanks for the feedback. By my estimation, polyandry does enter into fundamentalist marriages, especially when the priesthood authority makes claim to another man’s possessions and family and re-assigns them to a more worthy man. They would probably claim that the first marriage was annulled, but as they’re not typically legally formalized the line is murky.

  9. Fascinating, Kevin. Thanks.

  10. Kevin Barney says:

    Good point, Randall, I hadn’t thought of that, but you’re right that that would be a form of polyandry.

  11. Kevin, thanks so much for this. I’d been poking around looking for an exploration of this exact topic for a bit now. Sure appreciate the quick intro.

  12. Greg Smith says:

    Zina DH Jacobs was in favor of her marriage to Joseph; the woman in the case here under discussion was not.

    She could (and did!) say “No,” to Joseph, and nothing bad happened to her.

  13. Kevin, thank you for this summary. It really adds context to what is happening.

    I do think we need to be careful not to make too many conclusions about marriage practices among this particular group. One former FLDS member made this comment about how she viewed the process:

    When a girl thought she was ready to get married, she would tell her father that she was ready to move on. Her father would turn her over to the prophet (Rulon or Warren Jeffs) to be placed in marriage. I saw Rulon many times tell the girl that she needed to be 18 before she was married, and I saw some girls ask to be married anyway, and sometimes he would give in to their request. It was not a common thing to see a girl younger than 15 get married, but if they did, it was always the result of her father putting a lot of pressure on Rulon or Warren to do something about their daughter. No one was ever forced. I saw several girls tell the prophet that she didn’t want to marry so and so and that was the end of it (I know this because word really got around). Rulon and Warren always asked a girl if she had anyone in mind before she was placed with someone. Sometimes they would ask for an older guy with several wives already.

    Just a little bit of a different slant on the inner workings of it all…

  14. Eye opening. Thanks for posting this.

  15. I agree that not everything is clear about this group, but isn’t there a documented pattern of accellerating strictness under Rulon and especially under Warren, as opposed to the rule of Roy and earlier leaders?

  16. BiV, do you have a citation for that quote? It’s interesting.

  17. Josh Smith says:


    I don’t think too much care is required in making conclusions about the marriage practices of the FLDS. Your quote does nothing for me.

    First, we have no idea who the source is or the motives for making these comments.

    Second, even if they are completely true, it does not assuage the fact that young girls are marrying old men based on celestial promises. Assume the following played out in your home ward:

    15 year-old girl: Bishop, I want to marry Brother Jessop.

    Bishop: Brother Jessop is 50. Have you really thought this through? Is it really your desire?

    Girl: Yep.

    Girl’s Father: Well, I’ve tried to convince her otherwise but she won’t have any of it. Will you perform the ceremony Bishop?

    NO WAY! In the 21st century we don’t marry 15 year olds to old men. Period. Those who do, even at the girl’s request, should be put in jail.

  18. iV – I’d also appreciate a citation or source.

    The full text of Marianne T. Watson’s excellent paper is available without registration. (If that link doesn’t work, go to the Dialogue homepage, click on Electronic Articles, then Spring 2007)

    Barb – Yes, read the full paper.

    Josh – Marriage at 15 is illegal, and IMO that’s a good thing. But “in the 21st century”? This is a (very recent and non-religious) cultural more.

  19. Josh Smith says:


    I’m not sure I understand your question, so I’ll just try and clarify my comment.

    I accept that in a different era 15 was an acceptable age to marry, even 15 year olds to older men: shorter life expectancy, high mortality rates for women bearing children, different economic situations where marrying may provide the basics for a girl that would not otherwise be provided for.

    Also, I can almost wrap my mind around a world where women were more of a commodity, where an economic structure clearly dilineated roles for women and men and marriage was more “functional.” I’ve never lived in that world, but I can imagine it. I would pause before applying my own moral notions on a completely different economic landscape.

    But the 21st century in the U.S. is not that world. The underlying assumptions of that world are gone–death in child birth is rare, people can expect to live into their thirties, people can even have children in their forties. And the economics has changed. No longer is it necessary for a girl to go from her father’s house to her husband’s house.

    In the 21st century, I can think of no reason for a 15 year-old girl to marry. (That is, other than some pervert can’t convince an emotionally and physically mature woman to marry him.) I have zero tolerance for this practice.

    That is what I meant. And my views on this are horribly tainted by own role as a father of daughters. Yesterday one of my young daughters was pretending to marry her younger sister. So dad had to intervene. “Well, is she done with college? Surely she can’t marry before college. Can she take care of herself? Does she pay her own bills? How old is she? Six? Good heavens, she can’t marry until she’s at least 25.” There you go. Dad poopooed a perfectly fun game because of his own fears that his daughters will marry too young.

  20. s'Pater says:

    Josh said In the 21st century, I can think of no reason for a 15 year-old girl to marry.

    That’s just a rehash of current pop culture. Not compelling, and personal anecdotes do not make good public policy.

    Why not rephrase it to say ‘In the 21st century, I can think of no reason for anyone to marry.’ ? You have made no argument —in the reasoning sense— for your claims, and just saying something over and over doesn’t make it so.

    It’s personal prejudice; not biology, science, or reason that produces outbursts like “I have zero tolerance for this practice.

    I am not arguing that 15 is the ideal age to marry, but you state it’s intolerable . . . somehow due to this century. What!? Perhaps you have it backwards, because with modern medicine it is now safer to marry and have children at a young age.

    Modern medicine has not been as successful preventing maternal age effects like Down Syndrome, and only moderate success with reduced fertility and STDs; adverse effects exacerbated by delaying marriage.

    Please don’t try to disregard biology and defy our Creation.

  21. Steve Evans says:

    s’Pater, I’m putting a stop to this silliness. Anyone who argues that 15-year-olds should be able to be married will be summarily deleted here.

  22. Researcher says:

    I agree with Josh Smith. I don’t want my kids marrying before their mid-twenties.

    And despite what spater says (and thanks for not letting him run on) there are deleterious effects to women bearing children early and not having a say in marriage and childbearing. For examples, look at www dot endfistula dot org.

    A repressive, patriarchal society injures women.

    I will state here that I agree with Marlin Jensen’s editorial for the NYT saying, among other things, that early Mormon polygamy was not one of these repressive patriarchies. Dr Dayne’s research into the Utah divorce laws proves this point as much as any other single argument.

  23. s'Pater says:

    Steve Evans writes: I’m putting a stop to this silliness. Anyone who argues [about what half the world practices] will be summarily deleted here.

    Thanks for being so clear about rationality and reason.

  24. s’Pater, go away now. No creepy discussions of marrying underage girls here. Try some pedophile board.

  25. Good job, Steve – now I know that you mean business. I will never test you again.

  26. :) I had to, JT!

  27. Thanks for ending the paterphilia.

  28. Steve Evans says:

    Pater was getting a little too familias, if you get me.