For me, George D. Smith’s Nauvoo Polygamy: “…but we called it celestial marriage” is one of the most anticipated Mormon books of recent years. A great deal of Mormon Studies writing about the origins of polygamy suffers, in my view, from a serious limitation: it regards the story of polygamy as a story about Joseph Smith. Of course, Joseph is central to the story. No other person had a greater role in shaping the way Mormons thought about and talked about plural marriage.
Yet during the Nauvoo period some 900 other Mormons participated in polygamous marriages, while some indeterminate number of others were taught the doctrine but rejected it. These individuals are far more central to the story of Mormon polygamy than our literature seems to recognize. In the first place, polygamy obviously could not have occurred as a real-world practice if none of these people had chosen to participate. One imagines that most of them either felt some degree of dissatisfaction with prevailing marital customs or such a loyalty to Mormon religious belief and authority as to overcome their orientation toward mainstream marital practice. Research that carefully parsed out the extent to which various early participants in polygamy were motivated by ideas from each of these two categories — and which specific dissatisfactions with established family patterns were most important — would represent a real contribution.
As a second, subtler but perhaps more important, point, these hundreds of participants in polygamy clearly had a role in shaping the presentation and practice of Mormon plural marriage. How these individuals responded to the polygamous ideas of Joseph Smith or others after his death would certainly, through normal processes of persuasion and dialogue, have taught those leaders which ways of framing the doctrine were most useful and which were unhelpful or even counterproductive. Hence, these early participants’ thoughts and reactions have a sort of secondary authorial role in Mormon marital doctrine. This is perhaps clearest when thinking about Emma Smith; the Doctrine and Covenants revelation on celestial marriage is both directed to her and clearly at least partially shaped by an anticipation of the arguments she will find most persuasive. A similar role was almost certainly played by countless others, but the evidence is not yet as clear.
Nevertheless, the protagonism of these hundreds of Nauvoo polygamists is usually lost in historical narratives of Mormon plural marriage. Even classics of the genre, such as Lawrence Foster’s Religion and Sexuality, tend to narrate early polygamy as something of a one-man heroic quest, rather than an emergent social system. More comprehensive accounts are needed, and the framing of George D. Smith’s book as a general history of polygamy in Nauvoo led me to hope that it would address this problem.
Yet the text largely turns out to be a let-down. I doubt that I have been as disappointed by a book in any genre in recent years. This is partly a function of my expectations, but it also derives from certain weaknesses in Smith’s history itself. The biggest problem with the book is simply that so much of it is unnecessary.
Chapter 1, for example, provides a general overview of Mormon history up to the Nauvoo period. The author rehashes material as loosely connected with the theme of Nauvoo polygamy as Joseph Smith’s role as a treasure seer and the general apocalyptic outlook of early Mormonism. The book’s casual treatment of these subjects gave me an interesting idea about how to improve the Nauvoo Polygamy book: replace the chapters that contain less detailed accounts of material better covered by other books with hyperlinks to those other books.
In that spirit, I would replace Chapter 1 with links to D. Michael Quinn’s Early Mormonism and the Magic World View (a much better treatment of Joseph Smith’s participation in treasure digging and magic; an especially interested reader will also want to consult Dan Vogel’s Joseph Smith: The Making of a Prophet and the early chapters of Richard Bushman’s Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling); Grant Underwood’s The Millenarian World of Early Mormonism or Dan Erickson’s As a Thief in the Night: The Mormon Quest for Millennial Deliverance (both are more interesting sources for early Mormon apocalyptic expectations than is George D. Smith’s volume); and Steven C. Lesueur’s The 1838 Mormon War in Missouri (which provides a far better treatment of the events that serve as prologue to the Mormon Nauvoo experience).
It is of course unfair to expect a book on polygamy during the Nauvoo period to provide a treatment of these themes that compares favorably with that found in entire books devoted to the subject. Yet I wonder why a book on the Nauvoo period had to provide an extensive treatment of these topics at all. Out of Chapter 1’s 51 pages, roughly 10 (pgs. 12-13, 19-20, 23-28) are devoted to treasure digging topics. The analysis of this material does not link it with the development of polygamy, and it is not used at any later point in the argument. It is simply a distraction.
Chapters 2 and 3 are almost entirely redundant to Todd Compton’s In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith. In the 187 pages of text that George D. Smith devotes to the formation of Joseph Smith’s complex family, nearly none of the material presented is new in comparison with Compton’s earlier work. Lost in the transition from Compton to Smith is the rich interest in the lives of the women in question. Smith justifies his discussion as not redundant to Compton’s treatment as follows:
The present chapters, by contrast, focus on Smith’s marriages within the context of his daily activities. What interested me most was how Smith went about courting and marrying these women, unseen amidst his public life as a religious and community leader who would even become a candidate for the U.S. presidency. (pg. 55)
The material in Chapters 2 and 3 seems to be about equally divided between two objectives: establishing that each plural marriage in fact occurred, and adding chronological context to the marriage. The first topic is, of course, redundant to the efforts of Compton and others. The second is more novel, but it adds up to very little. Indeed, it strikes me as a step in the wrong direction: it pushes the focus for early polygamy more centrally back on the figure of Joseph Smith himself than it was in Compton’s work.
This would be fine if George D. Smith had some larger interpretive point to make on the basis of the chronology. Yet I can find no such point. The conclusion to Chapter 2 summarizes the material on a strictly mathematical basis: Joseph married such a number of wives. Chapter 3 concludes with a thin historical description of the connection between polygamy and Joseph’s death. The interpretation that would justify the chronology work — and make Smith’s chapters valuable contributions beyond what Compton has written — is not present in its natural location at the end of each chapter, nor is it evident in the middle of the text.
Chapters 4, 5, and 6 contain the genuinely valuable material in this volume; I will return to these 170 pages momentarily.
Chapter 7, on secrecy and deception related to Mormon polygamy, discusses an important topic. Unfortunately, its treatment of this material is not as powerful as that offered by B. Carmon Hardy in his essay “Lying for the Lord,” to be found as an appendix to his excellent Solemn Covenant: The Mormon Polygamous Passage.
Chapter 8 serves as a useful if somewhat elementary essay on some important primary sources for early Mormon polygamy. For those who are unaware of the central role that conflict between the LDS and RLDS churches played in producing documentation of polygamy during Joseph Smith’s life, this may well be a valuable chapter.
Regarding Chapter 9, I have mixed feelings. Most of the chapter recounts episodes of Christian polygamy prior to Mormonism. In treating this material, the chapter is an inferior reiteration of the discussion in John Cairncross’s After Polygamy Was Made a Sin: The Social History of Christian Polygamy. Yet many Mormons are probably unaware of this background and of Cairncross’s book. So this chapter may serve a useful popularizing function.
Let us return, then, to Chapters 4, 5, and 6, which I think of informally as the real book. The first two chapters provide a series of well-researched and -documented vignettes regarding several Mormon men’s journeys into polygamy, with disappointingly few women’s stories included. A few incidents of unsuccessful attempts at persuasion into polygamy are also provided. These are very useful texts, and are essential reading for anyone interested in polygamy or the history of the Nauvoo period.
These historical vignettes demand interpretation, and Chapter 6 provides some initial ideas. The chapter establishes the diversity of reactions to polygamy among Mormons, and also the multiplicity of persuasive strategies used by Joseph Smith and others. It does not adequately link the two questions, nor does it generally do enough to explore the motives that these Mormons had for accepting or rejecting polygamy. The chapter also provides a disappointingly thin analysis of what life in polygamy was like. Overall, this sequence of three core chapters would feel woefully incomplete without the analysis in Chapter 6, yet the discussion also leaves a great deal either unanswered or incompletely considered.
So, about 1/3 of this book’s length contains useful or important material. That is enough to make this an important book for many purposes, but it nonetheless renders the book a major disappointment. This reaction is heightened, for me, by pervasive problems of style and editing. Yesterday, I posted an overly hasty and ill-tempered satirical approach to some of these problems. As a more sober-minded treatment, let me here offer a few examples (many more could be provided, but there is little point multiplying instances).
The revivalist atmosphere of upstate New York in the 1820s coincided with Joseph’s reorientation from his commerce in seer stones and money digging toward a more orthodox expression of religion, although with many unique qualities, such as the millennialist emphasis, which had more in common with Anabaptist and other radical theological currents than with mainstream Protestantism. (pg. 24)
If these qualities of Joseph Smith’s religious involvement were in fact unique, how could they have commonalities with the Anabaptists? The comparison seems fruitful, but the word choice is simply incorrect. Later on, George D. Smith offers an unusual sideswipe commentary on the Anabaptists:
The arc of Smith’s life, including his many wives, paralleled in important ways the heretical Anabaptist movement of sixteenth-century Germany, which also included polygamy as part of its biblical “restoration.” (pg. 54)
Why, I wonder, is it necessary for George D. Smith to take sides in a centuries-old religious conflict in Germany, assigning the Anabaptists the pejorative “heretical”? Once again, composition and editing choices create a tone somewhat inconsistent with level-headed scholarship, and in this instance to unclear purpose.
Some passages express unnecessary hostility:
Beyond the issue of having more than one wife, Smith engaged in even more perilous anti-social behavior by indulging in sexual relations with the daughters and wives of close friends, albeit mostly in marital and religious contexts. (pg. 50)
I can see little content in this passage that would be lost if it were reworded as follows:
Smith’s doctrine of multiple marriages challenged contemporary morality by providing a religious justification for engaging in sexual relations with the daughters and wives of several of his close friends.
Another passage reflects a persistent stylistic irritation: a tendency to badly overstate the degree to which the LDS church has historically hidden the history of Nauvoo and Utah polygamy.
Having come full circle — denial, secrecy, discovery, open advocacy, secrecy, and denial again — the next step for the Latter-day Saints was to forget that they had ever countenanced polygamy. Rather than explore this curious, and perhaps most fascinating aspect of its esoteric past, the church mounted an effort to dispel plural marriage from memory. However, as Latter-day Saints began discovering a renewed interest in their past, they reconstructed the lives of their ancestors, and this “lost” chapter of the church’s pilgrimage from east coast to west began to make more sense. That the church had sought to disclaim this colorful aspect of its past became motivation to locate primary documents — diaries and affadavits — in dusty attic spaces and from the shelves of church archives which were tended by wary gatekeepers. (pg. 409)
I agree completely that official LDS church publications today sometimes go to unhelpful lengths to obscure the history of polygamy. Yet the idea that Latter-day Saints in general ever came close to forgetting that polygamy had happened is nothing short of puzzling to me. As a child, I remember listening to the relatively extensive treatment of polygamy in the Living Scriptures Dramatized Church History, and later reading pulpy mainstream Mormon novels like the Storm Chronicles, Saints, and The Work and the Glory that also talked frankly — if sometimes inaccurately — about polygamy. While recent converts may often not know much if anything about polygamy, especially in the developing world, my experience is that multi-generational members always know that polygamy happened. Mormon folk culture seems to be replete with jokes and stories about the days of polygamy. None of this is consistent with the image of mass forgetting that George D. Smith presents.
In fact, while Nauvoo Polygamy is salted with statements about how “official” Mormon history has completely hidden Mormonism’s polygamous past, the book also routinely cites official Mormon sources to provide evidence regarding various aspects of that polygamous past. Smith makes repeated use of B. H. Roberts’ Comprehensive History of the Church, as well as various widely available historical church publications such as the Journal of Discourses. He also draws evidence for conclusions about polygamy from recent Deseret Book publications such as Dean C. Jessee’s The Papers of Joseph Smith. Simply put, the book’s claims of official cover-up and mass forgetting regarding polygamy are a caricature.
George D. Smith’s legacy within Mormon culture is secure, with or without this book. He has done invaluable work as an entrepreneur within the independent Mormon intellectual world. Without his efforts, a large number of books and journal articles that I love may never have seen publication. His name belongs in any catalog of influential late-20th- and early-21st-century Mormons. Furthermore, this book is not a total waste; its information regarding the early polygamous experience of Mormon men other than Joseph Smith is a real contribution. Even so, the book as a whole is a disappointment. We still await the really definitive treatment of Nauvoo polygamy.