Query: sexuality in 19th-century polygamy

My wife and I recently agreed to write an essay on “embodiment and sexuality” in Mormonism and as I have often confessed to many of you I know very little about the Utah period of Mormonism. I suspect that, other than being a little tired of the constant fights about the status of Joseph Smith’s dual wives in Nauvoo, many others are curious about how participants in polygamy might have talked about or understood sexuality, how the Mormon family system might have resisted or intersected with trends in the broader American society. Any of you out there have any primary or secondary sources that you strongly recommend for someone interested in understanding more about sexuality in 19th-century Mormon polygamy? I think it’s fair to say that the Victorian polygamy romance novels are not at the top of my interest list, though if there was one you thought was absolutely exemplary it might be interesting.


  1. For a particular example, see the 1855-56 correspondence (both sides) between Aroet L. Hale and his wife Olive when Aroet was a missionary at Las Vegas (LDS Archives, MS 3212). They get a little frisky in some of their exchanges.

  2. Thanks, Ardis. Do you see women talking much about ideas about the religious significance of procreation?

  3. Doesn’t Jeff Johnson talk about Young’s relationships in his paper? Though, as I remember there was very little to go off of. Young is on record claiming that he would be fine becoming a Shaker if the Lord commanded it and that lust was evil. JDL got disciplined for sexual misconduct with his wives in 47.

    There has been some interesting work on architecture that relates to relationships.

  4. Anonymouse says:

    Who was JDL? Please, can we knock off the three letter acronyms? The saved typing time can’t possibly be worth the confusion for those of us that aren’t complete experts in Mormon History.

  5. “A Mormon Mother” by Annie Tanner is a great resource for a view of how families conducted themselves during the isolationist period from 1850-1920.

  6. As general background for polygamy in Utah, it’s hard to beat “A Mormon Mother” by Annie Clark Tanner.

    It includes stunners like her experience of living as a polygamous wife with a couple of small kids in a small apartment in Boston in the 1890s while her husband (a few years later the president of Utah State University) does graduate work at Harvard and lives with another wife in another small apartment across town. It’s one thing to think of polygamy in the rural Mormon village, it’s another to view it through the more familar lens of married student housing.

  7. John D. Lee.

  8. I’m guessing John D Lee

  9. I haven’t read the whole journal, mostly just skimmed it, but Martha Cragun Cox has a 600 page journal, and is pretty detailed about a lot of other stuff, including her feelings about being asked to be the third wife of a poor farmer, vs marrying a much richer guy as the first wife. It’s in the Church History Library.

    I’ve seen some excerpts from Hannah White Flake’s diary, and the discussion she had with her husband about taking a second wife. There may be some possibilities there. Again, I think there is a copy both at the CHL and the Family History Library.

  10. Conceptions of ritual purity may be interesting (nineteenth century temple proscriptions regarding coitus and menstruation).

  11. Here are some sources that you may find useful as well.

  12. Susan W H says:

    Lawrence Foster’s Religion and Sexuality is where I would begin, unless you’ve read or reread it lately.

  13. I will only say__don’t begin with Sigmund Freud or Carl Jung
    for an understanding! Even your “Victorian polygamy romance novels” might serve you better.

  14. Latter-day Guy says:

    “JDL got disciplined for sexual misconduct with his wives in 47.”

    Where is this mentioned?

  15. Kevin Barney says:

    Kathryn Daynes, More Wives Than One.

  16. I read a fascinating article a few years back called “The Loves of Women for Each Other” about, well, women loving women, back in the 19th century. I would LOVE to hear about this aspect of LDS polygamy. Were the woman all just married to the man, or were they also married to each other? I mean….. they often spent a ton of time without the Mr. around, working together to run households….. it only makes sense that things might develop if there was a predisposition for that sort of thing.

    I realize there’s probably zero chance of ever finding any historical regarding this question. Bummer.

  17. Massacre at Mountain Meadows has the basic outline of the JDL affair.

  18. Natalie B. says:

    16: Sharon Marcus has a good book called “Between Women” on female intimacy in the 19th C, though not on polygamy in particular.

  19. Natalie B. says:

    BTW, I find it incredibly sweet that you and your wife are writing an article together.

  20. SNeilsen says:

    nat kelly
    It’s covered some in Quinn’s book–“Same Sex Dynamics among 19th Century Americans A Mormon Example.”
    I also understand it exists in some mormon fundamentalist groups.

    I also second the book “Between women”

  21. Thanks to all for very useful feedback. Natalie, we’re hoping this is just the tip of the iceberg for us–we have plans for an edited volume on Word of Wisdom and an academic/trade book on “The Metaphysical Colon” over the next few years.

  22. Thanks for the recommendations. I’ve added them to my goodreads list. :)

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