Review: Bringhurst and Foster, eds., “The Persistence of Polygamy”

Title: The Persistence of Polygamy: Joseph Smith and the Origins of Mormon Polygamy
Editors: Newell G. Bringhurst and Craig L. Foster
Publisher: John Whitmer Books
Genre: History
Year: 2010
Pages: 306
Binding: Softcover
ISBN13: 978-1-934901-13-7
Price: $24.95

We usually just want the unvarnished truth. Tell us the facts. Drop the spin. Lay it all out on the table. State your case objectively and we’ll decide to believe you or to reject your views. Give us some easy bullet points, a quick overview, a succinct argument, and the jury will return shortly with the verdict. The problem is that we all too often forget we’re all incapable of constructing, let alone judging between, contrasting claims about our past in an “objective” way. This is my non-comprehensive way of explaining our persistent interest in history, of course. “History speaks not only of the past but also of the present.”1

So it is with books about polygamy, one of the most debated subjects within the history of Mormonism. Not merely about Mormonism, but within it. And this has been the case from the very start, as several essays demonstrate in a new book called The Persistence of Polygamy. From the shadowy beginnings of the controversial practice by Joseph Smith to the prolonged debate between the “Brighamite” (Salt Lake City-based) and “Josephite” (the former RLDS church) branches of Mormonism, Mormons themselves have debated the origins and purposes of the peculiar principle. (These two issues in particular are handled impressively by Don Bradley and Newell Bringhurst, respectively.) And historians of the movement have published dozens of dozens of books on polygamy, which the editors of the present volume helpfully explain by including the best references to past works in their Introduction (2). If you’re not caught up on the ongoing debate about plural marriage, this book provides a steady bedrock of references from which researchers—casual and professional—can confidently wade into the depths.

Persistence is the first of a projected three-volume collection of essays by various scholars approaching the study of polygamy from a variety of methodological approaches. (As Richard Bushman notes on the book’s back cover: “Polygamy will not die.”) In addition to the two essays mentioned above, it also includes essays examining the age and marital status of Joseph Smith’s plural wives, dissecting the contents of Smith’s revelation now canonized by the LDS Church as D&C 132, and the question of whether Smith sired any children by wives other than Emma, his first. This question is approached by Ugo A. Perego using rigorous DNA analysis, demonstrating the strengths and weaknesses of such an approach to determining paternity. It’s highly technical, but Perego manages to make the science fairly accessible to an amateur like me, although a few of his conclusions won’t satisfy those seeking definitive answers. He ably demonstrates that several of the alleged offspring couldn’t have been Smith’s, including several whom Fawn Brodie and others had alleged.

Two other essays reach Perego’s level of complexity. Both approach the question of the ages of Smith’s brides. The first, by Craig L. Foster, David Keller, and Gregory L. Smith, seeks to place the ages in the social and demographic context of early-to-mid 19th-century frontier America. In the most polemical-toned section of the entire volume, they begin their essay by confronting the criticism of commentators and writers like Lawrence O’Donnell and Jon Krakauer who label Smith a pedophile based on marriage to a girl as young as 14. They call for greater sensitivity in not imposing present values “upon another place and time” when marriage patterns were different (157). They trace long-term marriage trends in a variety of cultures noting legal, geographic, economic and cultural elements which help shape marriage age expectations. They zoom in on 19th century America and argue that—especially in a frontier context like that of Nauvoo—the marriage ages of brides were neither normal nor abnormal, but similar to other relatively newly established frontier settlements (179). They also note the lack of evidence that Smith consummated marriage with the youngest, Helen Kimball, following the analysis of historian Todd Compton who identifies the girl as part of a “dynastic” marriage—that is, a marriage thought to unite the Kimball and Smith families more generally (157).

Their calculations are complex, their analysis cold, as acknowledged by Todd Compton’s own essay which follows it, “Early Marriage…What Was the Norm” (184). Compton covers a bit of the same ground as the former essay regarding economic and cultural factors of marriage age, but he elects to confine his statistical comparison to “nineteenth-century New England and northeastern America (the cultural background for Mormonism)” (186). Like Compton and the other authors, I’m neither a social historian nor a trained statistician (187), but I think Compton’s reliance on statistical data from areas said to “root” Mormonism overlooks the immediate relevance of the actual location, the immediate circumstances, of the frontier community in which plural marriage arose, a point noted by the former essay and even within Compton’s (229). More interesting is Compton’s continued analysis of marriage ages in the Utah territory through the end of the 19th century, where he argues that increased competition for wives due to a male/female imbalance led to lower-aged wives than elsewhere in the United States.

A deeper comparison of these two essays could result in its own fascinating essay, as the authors are tip-toeing around a highly sensitive subject, one which remains fairly volatile today. If the former essay is highly attuned to the intellectual side of the argument regarding the brute statistical facts the latter is slightly more attuned to the affective aspects of the debate.1 Even when Compton argues that Smith’s marriage to nearly-15-year-old Helen Kimball was “dynastic” and thus consummation was postponed he is careful to add “I find dynastic marriages of teenage girls problematic, even if sexual consummation is delayed” (231). He acknowledges Smith, et. al.’s cautions against presentism (projecting our values onto peoples of the past in judgment) but also agrees with Smith that “a caution against presentism is not to claim that no moral judgments are possible about historical events” (232). They all seem to agree with Compton that “finding the correct balance in avoiding presentism, yet not condoning very early marriages for young women, may be difficult,” and that caution is needed especially considering that some polygamous Mormon offshoots may be impacted by such historical arguments (232). Publishing these essays side-by-side is an excellent maneuver on the part of the editors to present contrasting though somewhat complementary approaches to a complex historical situation.

All that being said, leave it to Linda King Newell, who wrote the volume’s Foreword, to point out that “This volume represents an impersonal treatment…Polygamy affected women most profoundly and their voices are nearly absent in this anthology” (ix-x). Even Brian Hales’s contribution, which determines that Smith’s marriages to already-or-previously-married women sometimes constituted “eternity-only” sealings, doesn’t focus directly on the views of the women involved. And Jessie L. Embry’s Afterword reads like the resigned sigh of a historian doubtful of the fruits of ongoing studies. “The authors demonstrate the problems in answering questions because there will always be disputes over what sources to trust” she notes (285). She sees the conversation as largely being bogged down by the same old questions, following Jan Shipps’s view that by generating new questions (as this volume attempts) “Mormon history could be ‘researched’ and ‘reinvestigated’ and not just ‘retold,’ defended, or attacked” (289). She fears that the “old questions will continue to dominate,” even though volumes like the present “show the variety of opinions.” Her parting words: “There is no one easy answer” (289).

Following the Afterword is a useful Appendix listing and annotating a comprehensive list of Joseph Smith’s plural wives, with an explanation of the reasons for these marriages and the compilation’s method for the inclusion of each of the thirty-three women. Two more volumes in the series are slated to follow, which ought to delve more deeply into the views of women, the growth of polygamy after Smith’s death, and the emergence of twentieth-century Mormon Fundamentalism (13). Perhaps the most remarkable detail about the series is that it comes from John Whitmer Books, a fruit of the Community of Christ organization, which for decades denied Joseph Smith’s involvement in polygamy, circumstances which Bringhurst explores in detail in his essay. The openness and rigor of this volume bodes well for the series as a whole and for the folks at John Whitmer Books who facilitated its production.

The volume’s editors, Craig Foster and Newell Bringhurst, hope this series will “stimulate discussion and debate, and more importantly encourage further scholarly research” (12). Yes, this is a rather boilerplate statement for a collection of essays, but if the book serves any particular purpose above all, it ought to stand as a firm reminder that reasons for the origins and persistence of polygamy remain contestable. Obviously there are easy and reductionist explanations (“it was instituted by direct revelation” or “it was instituted because of sexual appetite”). Such claims will likely remain the psychological place-holders in the minds of foes and friends of Mormonism for the foreseeable future. But this volume again invites us to tread a bit more carefully when handling fragmentary historical sources, while digging through the past for our own contemporary reasons and with our own contemporary perspectives. Anyone who is seriously interested in researching polygamy in the Mormon tradition should be willing to discover and analyze contrasting methods, competing questions, mutual problems—all of which directly bears on the resources themselves (census records, family histories, diaries, etc.) from which we piece together a story about the past. As a collection of essays, it doesn’t offer an easily-accessible smooth narrative. It’s more of an analytical workbook with examples of different methodologies, and as such serves as a reminder that there are still many more questions to ask. Here’s to hoping along with Linda Newell that this volume will evoke “a healthy skepticism for glibly drawn conclusions” like the kind we instinctively adopt from various bullet points and sound bites (xiv).



1. Bernard Lonergan, Method in Theology (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1971), 220.

2. These categories are borrowed from Clifford Geertz’s “Religion as a Cultural System,” in The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books, 1973), 104.


  1. Meldrum the Less says:


    Pick up extra copies for the wives.

  2. BHodges, while you find Todd Compton’s focus to be a little askew, how do you react to the wide-ranging evidence of the Foster-Keller-Smith essay? I haven’t seen the final version, but I remember reading some preliminary discussion on a blog that argued for the normalcy of young brides by sweeping in statistics having to do with the average age of onset of menses among 17th century Hungarian gypsies or some such thing (I might not remember correctly all the details of this weirdest of weird fact sets). Does the final text limit their study to something more directly applicable to the time and place of Nauvoo, or was their argument still based on such, um, esoteric considerations?

  3. The 10th century?

  4. BHodges says:

    They do begin by taking a sweeping view including much older and far distant cultures, but those wider examples are used to establish the basic idea that marriages are tied up with economic and other cultural considerations, thus, flexible and not static. (Interesting to consider in terms of recent talk about “traditional marriage,” by the way, but they don’t enter that discussion of course.) Then they zoom specifically in to 19th century America, and especially frontier versus more established populaces, to look at the ages of JS wives in comparison to similar circumstances (acknowledging that the plurality itself was a rather stark departure!).

  5. Historical polygamy? Don’t really care. I want to know why church doctrine has us as serial monogamists in mortality, but, in light of sealilng policies, plural and polyamorous in perpetuity. Don’t we seal all men to the wives they manage to marry in mortality, and all women to the husbands they manage to marry in mortality? Is there anything anywhere that says they will have to pick and choose among spouses? Have you ever heard a widow or widower who has remarried say anything other than that she or he expects to spend eternity with all spouses they’ve had? Why strain at the gnat of early LDS polygamy that lasted, what, 50 years, when as a matter of current church doctrine, we swallow the camel of eternal, plural marriage consisting of both polygny and polyandry? Three percent of the LDS men may have practiced polygamy back in the good old days, but since we’ve been sealing husbands and wives (membes and non-members alike) to all their spouses for a number of years now, I would say we have a much higher percentage of etermal plural marriages now on the books of the temple rolls than three percent. Why won’t someone write a book on that?

  6. BHodges says:

    Whoa, good catch Duffy. Fixed!

    IDIAT: Why strain at the gnat of early LDS polygamy that lasted, what, 50 years, when as a matter of current church doctrine, we swallow the camel of eternal, plural marriage consisting of both polygny and polyandry?

    Certainly agree that a close look at policy changes and theological implications is necessary, but it isn’t the topic of this particular series of books. (I suspect, by the way, that many folks take a “it’ll all get sorted out in the eternal wash” stance if they aren’t otherwise overly troubled by things, recognizing that there are also such troubled folks who don’t like that sentiment.)

  7. Great review, BHodges.

  8. But you see, there isn’t anything in church doctrine or the church handbook that says “it will all get sorted out.” That’s my point. Look at quotes from Elder Oaks. He doesn’t say “I guess my marriages to Wife 1 and Wife 2 will get sorted out.” He says he doesn’t know how it will operate, but he fully expects to be with Wife 1 and Wife 2. That is eternal plural marriage. And if you corner the local widows and widowers in your ward who’ve remarried and had happy first marriages and are in happy second marriages, they also expect to be in eternal plural marriages. Our doctrine does not say there will be any kind of sorting at all. And if people believe that, I wish they would quote an official source for that position. Every article you read, every quote from modern day church leaders, is that if you are faithful, your covenants are valid. There is no wiggle room for any kind of “sorting” to take place. I’m not saying people need to worry or be troubled by current sealing policies. I only question why we continue to have all this angst over polygamy that happened 100 years ago. If you aren’t worried about eternal plural marriage today, I don’t see why you would worry about eternal plural marriage from 100 years ago.

  9. IDIAT: “…but since we’ve been sealing husbands and wives (membes and non-members alike) to all their spouses for a number of years now, I would say we have a much higher percentage of etermal plural marriages now on the books of the temple rolls than three percent.”

    To my understanding, under current policy men may be sealed to more than one woman, but each woman may only be sealed to one man at a time. While they may get remarried civilly, they need to receive an annulment of any previous sealing to get sealed to a new husband – a process that is anything but simple.

    If I’m wrong, please correct me!

  10. Also, IDIAT, the closest I’ve seen to an actual doctrine of “sorting things out” is from Wilford Woodruff in the conference address that formally did away with the Law of Adoption in 1896. Before that point, people could not get sealed as children to anyone who had not held the priesthood in mortal life, meaning that people would be “adopted” to Priesthood-holding church leaders as children instead of to their deceased non-member ancestors. In his address, however, Pres. Woodruff confronted the concern that being sealed to a non-celestially-worthy ancestor would drag a person down to a lower degree of glory by basically saying, “Don’t worry about it; just seal yourselves to your ancestors.”

  11. Michael H. Current temple sealing policy is: A living woman can only be sealed to one man at a time. Once she is deceased, she may be sealed to all huabands she’s had in mortality. I can also give examples within the last 50 years or so where, in fact, living women were sealed to more than one man at a time. They come straight from FamilySearch.

  12. Harold Glen Clark was the first temple president of the Provo Temple. He was sealed to Virginia Driggs in 1929, and she died in March of 1950. He was then sealed to Mary Deane Peterson Gilbert in December of 1950. (Bro. Clark didn’t waste any time finding another wife.) He died in 1984. The interesting thing is that Mary Deane Peterson was first sealed to Arthur Gene Gilbert in 1941. Bro. Gilbert died in 1947, so at the time she was “sealed” to Bro. Clark in 1950, she was already sealed and living. This is in direct violation of the temple sealing policies of today. Then, after Bro. Clark died in 1984, Mary Deane Peterson married a third time to Glenn Andrew in 1986. He died in 2004, then she died in 2006, and they were sealed by proxy in 2009. So Mary Deane Peterson is sealed to three husbands. And Glen Andrew was also previously sealed to a first wife. How did she get away with being sealed to two men at the same time while living? I guess in 1950 it was allowed. So, Harold Clark is sealed to two wives, Mary Peterson is sealed to three husbands, and Glenn Andrew is sealed to two wives. I know we don’t know the individual righteousness of all parties involved, but assuming they are all worthy of the Celestial Kingdom, they are in eternal plural marriages.

  13. Okay – no more threadjack. Was simply trying to point out that while scholars can hash and rehash polygamy, and analyze it until the cows come home, I don’t think we’ll ever understand it completely until we understand what we believe today with respect to polygamy. We may not practice it but we certainly believe in it. We’ll ever be studying and never coming to a knowledge of the truth. Perhaps the answer is staring us right in the face in light of modern day sealing policies.

  14. Why is any of that such a big problem for you, IDIAT? The FamilySearch datapoint is a policy decision as much as anything — it hasn’t been very many years ago that no deceased woman could be sealed to more than one spouse, and there were endless wrangles, and un-sealings and re-sealings, in families like mine where the descendants of two husbands fought continuously over which husband a grandmother should be sealed to. With the rise of the extraction program, where couples were identified for sealings from civil marriage registers but without the research to know whether registered marriages were first or later unions, the policy was changed. Why would there need to be a public doctrinal statement authorizing that? No ordinance done on earth is valid without the sealing of the Holy Spirit of Promise anyway, so any sealing done here that turns out not to be the way the Lord and the parties involved want it is invalid.

    But as BHodges notes, this is not the subject of this book or of his review.

  15. StillConfused says:

    I think IDIAT brings up good points. The problem with the mormon version of the afterlife is that it tries to stay in “human” form with marriages, babies, etc. As a result, the mind games can get pretty intense trying to figure it all out.

  16. Being a serial polygamist, and firmly committed to whatever will happen, my present and dearly beloved wife endures the tension partly on the basis of polyandry in the hereafter.

    My opinion, after considerable reflection, is that the celestial kingdom will be very open since we will all love each other perfectly. Maybe this is what Joseph was trying to teach us. The requirements that wives belong to husbands as the basis of his eternal kingdom is an outdated perception.

    Threadjack prompted by the review, sorry. Great review, BTW.

  17. first sentence:

    I, being a serial polygamist, am firmly committed to whatever will happen, My present….

  18. Great review! I want to read this. Polygamy is a subject that holds my attention quite well (as anyone who has ever read my comments probably knows). I want to check this book out because if it has a lot of history in it I can even give it to my brother.

  19. Oh wait, forget it, not for $24.95. My frugal nature would never allow me that purchase price! I had to buy my graduation present two years early in order to justify buying that pioneer dress that I did.

  20. BHodges says:

    IDIAT: The topic of Mormon plural marriage extends beyond (though it still includes) present theological concerns of practicing or former members of the Salt Lake City-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,including those you mention. Such particular ritual/theology issues of present practice in the LDS Church are very interesting and important, but they are not (nor do they need to be) the primary focus of this book, which examines the origins of polygamy in Mormonism.

    I should point out, to the extent that this volume left out a discussion of such theological implications in the context of 19th century Mormonism, it overlooked an important part of the discussion. Craig Foster’s essay is the closest attempt to approach the sort of concerns you raise, concerns which would be different then than they are today based on changed policies. But Foster’s essay is primarily concerned with the more-often-discussed question regarding the distinction made between eternal marriage itself, and the plurality of wives.

  21. BHodges says:

    EOR: You can always request it at your local library!

  22. Thanks BHodges. Great review, as usual.

  23. KerBearRN says:

    EOR– or you can get it in kindle format from amazon for $9.99.

    I have to say, Linda King Newell’s quote (“Polygamy affected women most profoundly And their voices are nearly absent in this anthology”) really hit the nail on the head for me. We strain at all KINDS of gnats, generally about “whys” that really only affected men. I would love to hear it from the girls’ perspective…especially some of the so-called “dynastic wives”. Wouldn’t she feel a bit of a pawn? I wonder if it wasn’t all a big let down for many? Just sayin’.

  24. Pedantic threadjack- The KJV phrase being bantered about here, “strain at a gnat” is a misprint that was never corrected. Jesus contrasts the pharisees swallowing huge camels whole with straining *out* (i.e. filtering out) gnats as the Greek and other translations make clear, “based on the Pharisaic practice of drinking water through a straining cloth to avoid swallowing an insect regarded as unclean.” Camels were also definitely unclean. In other words, it’s a charge of hypocrisy and inconsistency; the passage follows immediately upon this one, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!”
    “In terms of hyperbolic metaphor, the Pharisees were scrupulous in straining out gnats (tithing herbs), but they should have been more concerned to guard against swallowing camels (omitting the weightier matters). It is interesting to note that the Aramaic words for “gnat” (qalma) and “camel” (gamla) are quite similar, so Jesus’ hyperbole was also a pun. Additionally, this language speaks to the inconsistency of the Pharisees, since both gnats and camels were unclean and could not be eaten (Lev 11:4, 23).”
    Jesus isn’t condemning the gnat-straining so much as the camel-swallowing. We’ve lost the context a bit, and now use the misprinted phrase alone and somewhat pejoratively, “to nitpick, uselessly make a fuss over small things.” Language naturally changes, of course, but we shouldn’t read our usage back into Jesus’ comment, or assume our usage carries Jesus’ critical weight.

    Excellent review Blair.

  25. Blair – Great review. I’m currently working through the Kindle version, which does have it’s downsides (easily accessible footnotes and whatnot, which is the one problem with digital books).

    While this might be a “boilerplate” list of essays, I think it’s great to have all of these readily available in one volume. While I’m not one who can speak of the quality of research (not knowing where to start, and not being a trained researcher/historian), the authors seem to present facts in an “objective” way, and when personal interpretations and thoughts are used, the authors seem to do a good job of differentiating their thoughts from the facts, a la Compton above.

    I found Bradley’s essay on Fanny Alger and Polygamy before Nauvoo to be very well done, as it’s a vague subject where he attempts to offer multiple scenarios and explanations for the whole situation. I’m curious as to your thoughts to Bradley’s treatment of the issue, Blair?

  26. I liked Bradley’s essay; it’s one of the pieces that most inspired my opening paragraph of the review. In other words, people who just want a straight-up narrative of the Smith/Alger stuff will likely be annoyed by Bradley. Rather than picking his pony and riding all the way to the finish line he discusses the overall pony race, the other racers, the other tracks, and tries to give a general appraisal of the complex historical circumstances. As a narrative his chapter is a failure–but it isn’t intended to be a narrative, but rather an example of critical historical analysis. People who think end-products should leave such minutia to footnotes, or to discarded drafts, won’t like it, whereas people who enjoy seeing someone at the craft of analyzing historical accounts will be pleased.

  27. Todd Compton says:

    Mr. Hodges: a fine, thoughtful review. As I’ve said elsewhere, I was influenced, and helped in my research, by the work Foster, Keller, and Smith did on the net. At the same time, I disagree with them on some issues. So respectful point-counterpoint can be very fruitful. On the issue of Nauvoo as a frontier city — this is something that both I and Foster et al. should have looked at more carefully. Since my article was published I have been looking at it. My conclusions are that defining “frontier” is not a simple thing. In America the frontier was always in flux. And some characteristics of the frontier might be in a place while other characteristics were absent. My conclusion is that those characteristics of the frontier that would drive the marriage age of women down (which is an important part of the argument of Foster et al.) were not present in Mormon Nauvoo. (And many characteristics of the frontier were not present in Nauvoo.) But this is starting to sound like it would need to be developed at article-length…

  28. Wow – I wish there was a “like” button for Todd’s comment.

  29. Cool, Todd, I think it’s a conversation worth considering further for sure. I think both essays would have benefited from direct engagement between all authors before publication, or another pair of papers could help advance the ball again. It was cool to see two such essays back to back in the same book, nevertheless.

%d bloggers like this: