Is Polygamy Funny?

The Pros and Cons of Laughing about Polygamy

Look at Great-Great-Grandpa in his jailbird stripes!” The large photo was taken down from the mantelpiece and passed around to the cousins with a chuckle. 

Did you kids know that your grandfather was in the state penitentiary (haha)?” Everybody seemed to get a kick out of the photo of grandpa in jail.

Many generational Latter-day Saints from Canada, the US, and Mexico have polygamists in their family tree. If this describes you, what is your family’s attitude about your ancestors? What are the pros and cons of how your family tells their story? Perhaps my list of pros and cons will clarify or challenge the narrative you received. 

The narrative that I internalized as a child about the photo from the mantelpiece was, “Good ol’ Grandpa, punished for living his religion … although jail was a lark because he was with all his buddies … and how ludicrous to think that someone from our family could end up in jail!” 

Polygamy was brought up with a chuckle on the other side of my family, too. One story went something like this: 

G-G-Grandpa dressed up in his Sunday clothes and hitched up the wagon to go court another wife. Grandma wasn’t having it, so when the time came for him to drive off, she threw a brick at him, and the brick broke the wagon. By the time Grandpa repaired the wagon, he wasn’t so keen to go courting anymore.” (=insert the family laugh=) 

I knew John D. Lee, another ancestor, had loads of wives. No one seemed to know much about any of them, and, as a child, I couldn’t remember the name of the wife who was my direct ancestor.

It wasn’t until recently that I stopped to question my family’s attitude about our polygamous ancestors.

  • What was the narrative about polygamy? What were the pros and cons of the narrative? 
  • What might I have misinterpreted as a youngster observing the older generation/s? 
  • What effect did my perception of my family’s worldview have on my development and identity? 
  • What are my kids absorbing now?

The pros and cons of laughing about polygamy

Pro

  • TRANSPARENCY. The topic of polygamy (and Mountain Meadows) were out in the open. We didn’t have university-style lectures about polygamy, by any means, but the issue of polygamy didn’t seem charged or taboo. References to polygamy were not off-limits, nor were questions. Stories about polygamy were okay for all ages, even for young children.

Con

  • MINIMIZATION. Just because something is out in the open doesn’t mean the narrative is a healthy one. Laughing about something traumatic, sad, or sexist isn’t the norm in my family, so chuckling about polygamy communicated the message that polygamy was basically no big deal, not traumatic, not sexist, not even that difficult. Laughing about polygamy makes light of it.

Pro

  • SENSE OF HUMOR. Keeping a good sense of humor about the human condition – the quirkiness of humanity – is a wonderful family heritage. Gentle chuckling is different from mocking or derisive laughter. Why shouldn’t we chuckle gently about the foibles, adventures, and sacrifices of humans trying their sincere best to live biblically? Laughing at ourselves is a sign of integration, self-compassion, and self-acceptance.

Con

  • BETRAYAL. The ‘family chuckle’ did not prepare me to read The Giant Joshua when I was 18 years old, study D&C 132, or process temple sealing policies and hierarchies. As a youth, I was shielded from the anguish and heaviness of polygamy, but I was not innoculated against betrayal trauma as I grew older. 

Pro

  • POLYGAMY PINNED IN THE PAST. Laughing about polygamy made it seem old-fashioned, harmless, outdated, and perhaps even childish. Laughing at polygamy reminded me of laughing at old-fashioned swimsuits or the hairstyles in old photos. Chuckling about polygamy made it seem like polygamy was a practice that was safely pinned in the past, just like those old-fashioned swimsuits and hairstyles.

Con

  • POLYGAMISTS HAVE INNER LIVES. Making polygamists seem childish and outdated brushes over the realities of their choices, their inner lives, and their sacrifices. Besides, pinning polygamy in the past can lead to a sense of betrayal (see the above paragraph about betrayal). 

Pro

  • DISTANCE. Humor communicated to me that I was not responsible for my ancestors’ behavior. It created a healthy distance between their actions and mine.

Con

  • POLYGAMY IN HEAVEN. Growing older, I realized that most adults around me felt that polygamy would likely be an eternal reality; it wasn’t firmly pinned in the past after all. I might be a polygamist wife in heaven, and my family would chuckle about it? Pat my knee and tell me that I’d get over it? If my family wasn’t going to protect me, then who would? Not God either. It wasn’t until a decade later that I found Eugene England’s essay and, for the first time, considered the idea that rejecting polygamy didn’t mean rejecting my family’s faith. What a relief. I felt angry that I hadn’t considered it before.

Pro

  • AMBIVALENCE – People laugh when they are uncomfortable. Gentle chuckling happens in reserved, Scandinavian-rooted families like mine when people don’t know what else to say. Laughing was a response suited to the multiple ages involved in the interactions I observed. My family used laughter to diffuse tense situations and to communicate ambivalence. 

Con

  • BULLY. It’s not okay to be ambivalent when other people are getting hurt. If there’s any traction to the idea that polygamy is hurtful to women or men, or classifies women as second-class citizens, then it’s not a laughing matter. 

Underneath the humor, there was a sense of pride that our ancestors were righteous enough to make the sacrifices associated with polygamy. At this point in my life, I wish I could look my younger self in the eye and say, “It’s one thing to acknowledge the difficult facts of history; it’s another thing to take pride in them.”

“It’s one thing to acknowledge the difficult facts of history; it’s another thing to take pride in them.”

For example, acknowledging that my ancestors settled on Ute ancestral land is different from taking pride in the fact. It is one thing for my family to recognize that there were slaveholders in our family tree; another thing entirely if my family were to take pride in that fact – or chuckle about it. It’s one thing for my ancestors to acknowledge that they actively participated in the church during the time of the black priesthood and temple ban; another thing altogether if my family were to take pride in this specific aspect of their church activity.

As unbelievable as it might seem to my secular friends, many of my extended family members don’t believe that polygamy put women in a lower status than men. At least, that’s my perception. The narrative that I internalized about polygamy was to “look at polygamy through a ‘faithful’ perspective” and “doubt your thoughts and feelings about polygamy – polygamy must have been okay, or God wouldn’t have let it happen.

Although there were both pros and cons to growing up in a family that chuckled about polygamy, it seems complicated and hurtful for the family to be taking pride in – or chuckle about – our polygamist ancestors. That’s not the message I want to give to my kids. It’s possible to honor our ancestors without taking pride in polygamy. Honoring ancestors involves trying to understand their choices and challenges, not laughing them off.

Comments

  1. Polygamy stories in my family are very complicated. There is my great great grandmother Sarah who was married at 14 to her husband James in American Fork, and they proceeded to have 4 kids in 5 years. Then her husband took a second wife. Nine months later, Sarah wanted to go to a pre-Christmas dance, but James and his new wife didn’t. She went by herself, but when she returned home the new wife had locked her out for going. After pounding on the door and not getting in, she walked 2 miles in the freezing cold and dark to her brother’s house, where she died of pneumonia 3 or 4 days later, at age 20.

    Then there is my great grandmother Emily who was a third wife. She was dead set against polygamy when her husband first proposed, but she was persuaded by him over time. During the time when polygamy was outlawed, she was separated for years at a time from her husband, and we have the love letters that they wrote each other. I used to think that polygamists’ marriages couldn’t be ones of love until I read those letters. There is every indication that they were devoted to each other during their years of marriage (I assume he was probably devoted to his other wives as well, but I don’t know that). What would persuade an intelligent thoughtful woman to marry a man and become his third wife?

    We never laughed about polygamy or their marriages, but it always seemed so complicated to me. I never knew quite how to feel about it. I can’t really understand what lead them to live that way.

  2. john m willis says:

    For those of us who have been to law school it is an interesting experience to study the case Reynolds v U.S. which held that laws against polygamy did not violate the free exercise of religion know that some of our ancestors went to jail for violating that law.

    Most scholars now agree that if Reynolds were tried today it would come out differently. Judge Christina Durham now retired from the Utah Supreme Court made a strong argument that this is the case in her dissent in State v. Holm

  3. In the LDS circles I associate with, “polygamy” is a term used by outsiders and those members who have not grappled with the issues. “Plural marriage” is the term used by those who have sought to do so. And yes, it was an extraordinary sacrifice and burden for all involved.

  4. My great-grandfather is in that group of men in the photo you shared. A blow up of that photo was pasted on the wall in a popular Salt Lake City restaurant for a long time and when we’d go there to eat, my mother would point out Great Grand-pappy and we as children would all laugh ourselves silly to think we had *gasp* criminals in our family tree. Little did we know. Polygamy was one of the lesser lawless acts some of my ancestors got up to. As a child I didn’t understand fully what it even meant, but I grew up hearing about it and to me it wasn’t weird or strange at all. Then I met people from ‘outside’ Utah when I went to college and when I had a career. I came to see another side to that practice, one where polygamists were viewed as weirdos. The reality TV show “Sister Wives” hasn’t helped that image much IMHO, nor the prominently talked about media splashes by persons such as Warren Jeffs.
    I tend to agree with you though, that if we can’t laugh at ourselves, the world will do it for us sometimes.

  5. Ironically, there is no legal difference between polygamy and same sex marriage.

  6. Stephen Hardy says:

    Melanie B Cee: when reading your account I wondered if your ancestor was Emily Harris Wells, third husband to Henry J Grant. The two of them were an item when they were young. A highly educated woman, she could not abide the thought of plural marriage. Since he informed her that he intended to follow the practice she would not marry him .. at first. She later agreed to be his third wife although I’ve never heard why. But the two of them truly loved each other.

    It was interesting because president Grant choose to take different wives with him on different church assignments. When called on a mission to Japan he took one of his wives. (Not Emily). Then when called to London he brought his sophisticated, pretty, and educated Emily with him. He appears to have taken turns. Only one wife was pstill alive when he became prophet (post-manifesto)

    I am a direct descendant of George Reynolds. He was my great grandfather. I’m descended from his third wife who he took on as a wife after serving time for polygamy. Our family is both endeared to and appalled at the complex legacy.

  7. Stephen Hardy says:

    … *third wife… sheesh

  8. Stephen Hardy. I’ve heard there are “Wells’ in my family tree somewhere. I also have relatives (cousins to my parents) who were Hardys. They settled in Canada. No the fellow with the one extra wife only was Peter Barton. He had two separate households and farms for the two women and they never interacted. Peter would visit his second wife (my great grandmother) Ellen Beazer (I believe her name was) and her second or third daughter was my grandmother. Interesting history! If you’re from Utah, I bet we do have ancestors in common somewhere! Thanks for the reply! :)

  9. Chad Nielsen says:

    Thank you for this post. First off, I never really understood why I would laugh awkwardly when talking about things like deaths in someone’s family, but when you said that “Gentle chuckling happens in reserved, Scandinavian-rooted families like mine when people don’t know what else to say,” that suddenly clicked into place.

    More to the topic of the post, my family’s approach has largely been similar to what you described. For example, one ancestor married two women and moved to Arizona. During the Raid, they all went into hiding, but while they were in hiding, he had an affair with a third woman. He was eventually excommunicated, turned over to the authorities and thrown in jail, with his wives leaving him and moving back to Utah. After a while, he managed to break out of jail and made it to the Mexican colonies where he lived out his life and was eventually able to regain his Church membership. His first wife went on remarry and build a successful and happy life in Utah, but his second wife (my great-great grandmother) spent the rest of her life in grief. As in, she wore black clothing and outwardly displayed her grief for the rest of her life. The family apparently even called her the witch of the west because of how she dressed. When we’ve talked about it as a family, it’s usually in a more lighthearted manner, with the husband being a colorful character, but good for his wives to leave him and move on from what he did. It allows us to handle talking about it, but does minimize the pain and suffering included in that story.

    In general, in my family, we do honor our ancestors for practicing polygamy for their faith (they did it because they had been taught it was essential for exaltation by people they believed spoke for God), but there is also some celebration of those who refused to do so too. On my father’s side, we have an ancestor who (according to family legend) was told by Brigham Young to take a second wife and to go on a mission to settle southern Utah. He refused on both accounts (with some strong support from his wife) and left the Church. That story is generally told with a “good for him!” attitude about the whole thing.

    I’m grateful that we’ve been able to talk about this history in my family, and I think that I feel similar to Stephen Hardy when he stated that: “Our family is both endeared to and appalled at the complex legacy.” But thank you for helping me stop and think about how we talk about these stories, Holly. I haven’t really thought about the cons side of things you brought up before.

  10. zebostoneleigh says:

    Although we’ve never laughed about the polygamists in our family tree (it’s just a matter of fact part of the family story which has never seemed comical), we do occasionally share a hearty laugh over murdered John Billington. Inappropriate? Maybe. Healthy? Sure.

    Never condoning or revering what he did… many of the pros and cons you mention still apply.

  11. Holladay says:

    A family story that comes up from time to time is my great great grandfather living in southern AZ with two wives. The women were sisters who apparently married the same man but didn’t know it. My grandfather worked on the railroad and would visit one wife when he traveled through the wife’s respective town, separated by about 100 miles. Eventually the sisters found out (how could they not) and it caused a deep family rift that supposedly continues to this day. I have distant relatives in another part of AZ that rumor has it won’t speak with us, although I doubt anyone has tried to connect recently.

    Everyone just laughs it off because this grandfather was quite a character in other ways, also being a vigilante, horse thief, and who knows what else. I always thought it was quite funny until my faith transition and now I wonder what those families went through. That said perhaps we can admit it humorous while at the same time thinking that guy was a real *sshole.

    A few years ago I asked a BYU professor what would happen when the church becomes stronger in countries where polygamy is accepted. Won’t we be required to obey the laws of the land? He responded that ironically the church will never again publicly sanction polygamy even if it becomes acceptable in the US or other countries. So an interesting hypothetical scenario is what if LGBT laws also allow for polygamy and we eventually accept LGBT folks fully but not polygamists.

    My pioneer ancestors entered the SL valley in the same company as Brigham Young and there’s a town in Utah named after my ancestor. That is a course of pride for me, while his grandson I mentioned above was the source of shame. I think my takeaway is that history is messy, complicated, beautiful, and we only get small snippets of it. I’ve told my kids about both ancestors and we acknowledge that we inherent good and bad traits from our predecessors.

  12. J. Stapley says:

    I don’t really have anything to add, but wanted to to thank you for a this thoughtful treatment of an important topic.

  13. Good topic. A paternal great grandmother was the 12th child of a second wife. A great grandfather remembered serving as lookout for US Marshals coming to snare polygamists. Interesting how these stories evolve in my mind as I age.

  14. I grew up with my mother telling me the horror stories, while I got minimization from my father, and the joking about it at church, and a “we must sacrifice for the gospel” from my grandmother, mixed with “we are so proud of our pioneer ancestors” at family reunions. My mother grew up living in the same home as her grandmother who was a child of an abusive polygamous marriage, so she heard stories first hand from her grandmother who was essentially abandoned to raise her younger siblings when her mother fled from the abuse. It was not legal in those days for a woman to take her children if she left and the fleeing wife didn’t want to be hunted down by the law, so she *assumed* their father and his other wives would take care of her children. But, with his wife gone, the polygamous man sort of abandoned the children and tried to pawn them off on his other wives. So, my great grandmother as the oldest mostly raised her younger siblings, and yes, she was bitter about the abuse of her mother and the abandonment by her father and blamed it on polygamy because the abuse of her mother started when her father married two cute young things after his first wife had born six children and was no longer a cute young thing.

    It was really a crazy combination of pride, horror, sacrifice, and minimization. Like I mentioned, my father minimized it, acting like it was no difficulty at all and something the women had no difficulty with, even when they were totally supporting themselves and their children because their husband could not come close to supporting all his wives and children. At church, it was the usual joke, with men joking about how great it would be and women joking that as long as they were first wife and could use the other wives as slaves… and then there were the family reunions in which we were gives t-shirts with which of the six wives of our pioneer ancestor we came from. This was good in that at least the wives were mentioned, if only as a number on a t-shirt. I know I am from wife #6, but don’t remember her name. But there was a lot of pride in this ancestor, in spite of the fact that he abandoned his first wife who couldn’t travel to cross the plains because she was pregnant, lied to her in his letters about the fact that he had married two more women, and in many ways proved himself to be a j***a**. (I understand there is a group in Pennsylvania who hate Mormons who are the descendants of that first wife, that he never bothered to send money so she could join him.)

    So, I would say I grew up with thinking all the adults around me were crazy not to see how horrible polygamy was, and were schizophrenic in the way the talked about it.

  15. pseudonymous person (you think I'm crazy?) says:

    I haven’t yet read comments so this is not in direct response to anybody in particular.

    The trouble with social media discussions of historical polygamy is that almost always pseudonymous people make outrageous claims about their ancestors without providing any identity clues to authenticate or refute them. People who can’t even remember which of the polygamous goats’ wives they descend from are still somehow thoroughly conversant with intimate details of their ancestors’ marital lives.

    I don’t believe any of them.

  16. Polygamy is not funny. Period. I’ll bet when Grandma threw that brick she wasn’t laughing, and I’ll bet she would be pretty irritated if she knew people were laughing about it now.

  17. Pseudonymous person (you think I am crazy) says they won’t believe any of us anonymous people on the internet who can’t remember the names of the wives, and I don’t blame him/her. I tend to take such stories with two grains of salt myself. It is possible to remember a story without remembering names, but in order for me to really believe stories, I like names too. Of course, I could easily look up the name of my fifth great grandmother, as I have it all in the genealogy books given to me by the people who told me the stories, but I still wouldn’t want to post it publicly on the internet for someone to come along and argue with me because they heard the way the other side of the family told the story. Not unless I had access to the diary of the person the story is about, and sorry, but those were donated to the church and the church won’t even let family see them. But I would say the stories my great grandmother told my mother and my mother told me are pretty accurate, but I still don’t want to put those name out for the public to argue about, because I have found that there are people who feel it is their duty to argue with any story where a woman was hurt by polygamy in a stupid attempt to defend the church and I just don’t need more people minimizing and denying the harm of polygamy.

    But if Pseudonymous wants to read some stories where the person is named and the story documented, I would recommend Tod Compton’s book, In Sacred Loneliness. It tells the stories of Joseph Smith’s wives.

  18. Holly Miller says:

    A few replies…
    Thanks, everyone, for helping me process my thoughts on the matter. It’s been interesting to hear about your experiences. A few of you sound like you also find ‘schizophrenic’ elements in the narrative you received. Because I love my family so much, it took me this long to realize that I was getting mixed messages. My article was meant to be more about the stories I picked up and the messages between the lines, more than a historical article about the people involved in the practice.
    I’ve been thinking about the ‘plural marriage’ vs ‘polygamy’ comment. I’m aware of the distinction between the terms, but forget to think about it when writing this article, so you’re right to think I’m a novice. But, I wouldn’t change my article now that I’ve remembered. Just because I know that answering ‘well’ instead of ‘good’ when people ask how I’m doing is more grammatically correct, doesn’t mean that I choose to say ‘well.’ It’s a matter of whose rules and habits I want to respect and adopt.

  19. Away from the Mothership says:

    My family in the 19th century was ambivalent to plural marriage/polygamy – about half of them were members of the Church. An equal number migrated west to “rescue” family members from the Mormons.

    My great great grandfather is a prime example of the messy ambivalence. He was a Civil War hero – he received brevets for valor in battles in Louisiana and Virginia. He protected the civil rights of freedmen during reconstruction. He was possibly a member of the Louisiana militia with Gen. Longstreet protecting the rights of African American citizens in New Orleans.

    He was never Mormon. He was the nephew of a Relief Society General President; he married the granddaughter of Brigham Young (my great great grandmother – third wife), and while he was still married to her wrote a play exposing the Mormons, denouncing Mormon polygamy and playing up his relationship to Brigham Young. My great great grandmother divorced him and remarried. one family story reports my great great grandmother on her dying bed told her son, his father was the only man she ever loved. He may have been a bigamist at the time he married her. I can find no evidence of a divorce from his second wife.

    How can you not laugh at something so tragic, lovely, contradictory, and human?

  20. the other Marie says:

    Another con: laughing about polygamy likely affects how we treat modern day polygamists and pass over their own religious freedom concerns. It seems that the church as a whole is guilty of this as well as individual members–we were very serious about being allowed the religious freedom to practice plural marriage in the 19th Century, but we look ridiculous today wailing about protecting religious freedom while doing nothing to protect that same right for our religious cousins (though it should of course be only with the full knowledge and consent of all parties, should only involve adults, and should include polyandry and not just polygyny). Hypocrisy is a bad look, especially on a church with such lofty truth claims. So is church members mocking modern polygynists of whatever faith, but particularly those that splintered from our tradition. (We should of course mock Warren Jeffs and his ilk.)

    As for my family’s polygyny–the stories I’ve heard are quite positive, though for a couple of the polygynous situations I’ve not heard any stories about how my ancestors felt or acted. For a family history to not comment at all on such a major thing to me suggests that the situation was less than sunny in those households.

  21. I agree with pseudonymous person. The anecdotes being shared here are folklore, not biography. Like the game of telephone, they’re adaptations of family stories that have been told and retold until their current form may bear little resemblance to what happened. The folklore reveals more about the needs of later generations than what actually happened.

    Like Dr Laurel Thatcher Ulrich said after her recent Juanita Brooks lecture: I love family stories. I don’t believe them, but I love them.

    There is a similar body of folklore about the experience of slavery within the Latter-day Saint tradition. As I discussed at the recent meetings of the Mormon History Association, the stories that have been passed down about ancestral enslavers bear little resemblance to what happened in the nineteenth century. Many of the family accounts make ridiculous claims about the culture and laws of slavery. It is rare to find a family account about ancestral slavery that is more than fractionally accurate. In the case of slavery, the appallingly inaccurate body of folklore helps create and shore up racial stories about the inferiority of enslaved members of ancestral households and the magnanimity and generosity of enslavers. It’s both shocking and predictable.

    Sometimes if an ancestral woman kept a diary or there are original letters there may be ways to document some parts of the stories being told here. But it’s unfortunately rare to have firsthand accounts. They do exist, including the writings of Emmeline Wells and Annie Clark Tanner, so if you have any life writings known to be original to women in plural marriage in your family (and not later fiction disguised as autobiography) it is a real treasure.

    But the folklore? Keep it coming! It’s an insight into current understandings and misunderstandings of plural marriage.

  22. In our family, polygamy (the word we regularly used and not in denigration) was discussed as a reality of who we are and where we came from. I knew at a very young age who my GGG Grandmother and GGG Grandfather were and that they were very early participants in “the new order of marriage” / “new and everlasting covenant.” There was never any confusion that Section 132 came after the fact when these marriages were already taking place since my Grandfather married his second wife in 1842. So there were polygamous marriages in my father’s direct line starting in Nauvoo before Joseph died and in my mother’s direct line during the early settlements in Utah. In both cases of my direct line, the son (on my father’s side – my GG Grandfather) and the daughter (on my mother’s side – my GG Grandmother) were also in polygamous marriages.

    We have hard bound thick histories for both of these families with letters, journals, and narratives from the women and men since the second generation lived well into the 20th century. These aren’t “important families” in that we have no General Women leaders, Apostles or Prophets in our lineage but they were part of many of the movements and organizations we study in Church History so their journals intersect.

    Reading their histories it’s evident that these were hard lives and the marriages were very happy in some cases and very problematic in others. They were uprooted as families many times due to the upheavals in areas we settled and eventually due to the nature of their marriages at least one line fled to Mexico where my Dad’s mother was born. I have the good fortune where the men in these direct lines were supportive and caring for their wives and took their responsibilities seriously.

    As someone who grew up in the South, East Coast and Midwest, I was quick with a quip when someone asked me how many wives my father had, I declared I only had one mother but I had 10 grandmothers. This was my humor and effort to defuse the question in saying, “If you really want to know we can talk about it but this isn’t something Mormons practice now.”

    What we’ve taught our children is that this was a complex issue and clearly the Prophets taught this principle and some of our ancestors participated because they were trying to be faithful in their testimonies of Jesus Christ and the Church. They worked along side these leaders and knew them well. Was Joseph an innovative leader trying to understand and explore what he found in his translation and restorationist efforts? Yes. Did Brigham take some of those innovations to a new level along with some of his unusual fixations evident in his Journal of Discourses that we as a Church have very much since set aside? Yes.

    Polygamy is a mixed bag as far as I am concerned. It is part of my history and a part of who I and my family are. I try to be open and realistic in engaging with the topic with all the warts and relationships involved to the extent they can be properly understood.

  23. Perhaps I’m just no fun, but I personally don’t find polygamy to be at all funny.

    My uninformed assumption, given my own personal experience with religious decisions I made in my formative years, is that informed consent was not always part of the process, and I presume the same in this situation.

  24. Avid Reader says:

    I do not have pioneer ancestry, and I am not white American, I don’t feel any obligation to honor polygamists or say things like “It was a great sacrifice.” In this discussion and other discussions, I have heard people lament how unfair it was or what a blessing it was. I have never heard anyone say that for some women, who did not feel romantic love for the husband, did not enjoy sex with that husband, and treated the marriage like the financial arrangement for survival that so many marriages were in past eras, polygamy (at least in the version where the wives had no interaction with each other) was what it was…just life as they knew it. I don’t think that justifies it or makes it any less disturbing to someone like me, who wouldn’t engage in the practice, whether Joseph Smith, President Nelson, or Jesus told me to do it (because then he wouldn’t be Jesus, in my belief system, forcing me to do something against my will). But that’s because I have other options.

    In other words, as an outsider to the culture, I cringe when I hear polygamy jokes, as if something so complicated can be minimized to a wink-wink joke. It is what I hate about Mormon culture: the mental gymnastics people go through instead of just saying “That was messed up.”

  25. A Turtle Named Mack says:

    “I cringe when I hear polygamy jokes, as if something so complicated can be minimized to a wink-wink joke. It is what I hate about Mormon culture: the mental gymnastics people go through instead of just saying “That was messed up.” “. Wow, Avid Reader, this really resonates with me. Yes, it’s complicated. And, yes, there were many early Church members who had very positive experiences with this. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t messed up. And it doesn’t mean things wouldn’t have been better without it.
    When asked about polygamy by someone who isn’t a member I do find that I try to laugh it off with some version of “yeah, that was pretty messed up.” I guess that qualifies as joking about it. But it’s my preferred tactic to deflect and turn attention to something else. But what I’m really thinking is “yeah, my Church leaders have done some pretty stupid things in the past, and they continue to do pretty stupid things today. While that’s what happens in all organizations, I’m not going to just dismiss these things.” But that would start a much longer conversation than I’m usually interested in.

  26. Holly Miller says:

    Amy T – I heard your MHA presentation and thought it was outstanding. I wasn’t there in person, but I heard it online. Your comment here is all the more vivid to me because your presentation is still fresh in my mind. Your research underlines how important it is to analyze our family stories and try to be as clear-sighted as possible when retelling them. I couldn’t agree more, that our family stories are “an insight into current understandings and misunderstanding of plural marriage.”

  27. Holly Miller says:

    Good point, that laughing about heritage polygamy flattens and distances modern-day polygamists.

  28. nobody, really says:

    I think it’s important to remember, that at the time of Abraham Lincoln, the popular notion was that polygamy and slavery were the twin relics of barbarism.

    Is slavery funny? Is anything equated to slavery funny?

    What’s the difference between Nat Turner’s rebellion and the “martyrdom” of Joseph Smith?

  29. Not a Cougar says:

    I’m a big standup comedy fan and so my response is that it depends on who is telling the polygamy joke and where. At the pulpit of General Conference in connection with a fearful sister’s letter pleading for comfort from a member of the First Presidency? Not so much. On stage at the Laugh Factory? Absolutely.

  30. A Poor Wayfaring Stranger says:

    Polygamy has left terrible scars on both sides of my family. On my mother’s side her grandfather groomed his second wife for eight years all while being her Sunday School teacher post the 1890 Manifesto. They ran off to get married in Mexico in 1900. Great-Grandpa told his first wife (my great-grandmother) that he’d found a good job in Mexico and would send for her and their five kids when he got everything ready for them. Imagine my grandma, her sibs and her mother’s shock and horror when they reached Mexico only to find out that their father and husband had lied to them about the reason for going to Mexico and that he now had a second wife with a child on the way! Even worse, it quickly became apparent that he liked the second wife much better than his legally and lawfully wedded wife and family. His second family got first consideration in all things-his time, money and emotional support. What my grandmother and her siblings found especially galling was the fact that the church leaders knew of the unequal and abusive situation that was going on with the first family and they did absolutely nothing to stop it in spite of my great-grandmother’s pleas to them for help. In fact, Great-Grandma was threatened with a church court if she tried to divorce her husband and sue him for alimony and child support or for withholding her “affections” from him which resulted in two more children being born. The final indignity was when Pancho Villa was on the warpath my great-grandfather took his second family and hightailed it to El Paso, Texas. The first family was left to fend for themselves and had to make the journey to the US border on foot because Great-Grandpa hadn’t left them enough money to take trains or other forms of transportation on their journey to safety. The emotional damage that this polygamous marriage did to my grandmother and her sibs was terrible. The damage was passed on to my mother’s generation in extremely unhealthy physical and emotional behaviors along with a warped view of what it meant to fully live the gospel.

    On my father’s side his great-grandmother was one of the first Danish converts to the church, and she and her family were among the first Danish Saints to arrive in Utah. A prominent man in both the church and the town government of a community in the Salt Lake Valley met her soon after their arrival in the valley. After a few months they were married. This young woman Anna sometimes wondered why her husband had to be gone on business so much, but it was at a time when many people were pouring into the valley from wagon trains of Saints crossing the plains. Nine months after her marriage she gave birth to my great-grandfather. A day later a strange lady and a sheriff showed up at her home with a writ saying that because the strange lady had not given her husband permission to take a second wife this woman, who was Anna’s husband’s first wife was there to evict Anna and her baby from this property. The midwife who had attended Anna just happened to close friends with the first wife. Up until my great-grandfather’s birth neither wife had known about the other one. The first wife was beyond angry, but because her husband was out of town on church business she’d decided to take matters into her own hands and not only evict Anna and her baby but to make sure that Anna would leave the marriage for good-which she did. The first wife’s father was well known in church and political circles so she had might on her side. When the husband returned home he didn’t even apologize to Anna and her parents for not telling her that she was a second wife and that his first wife hadn’t given her permission for him to take another wife. He also felt no need to financially support her or her baby. Again bad feelings and emotional trauma ensued. When Anna’s son, my great-grandfather, tried later on to get his birth father to recognize him and give him the financial assistance that he felt that he deserved his father threatened him with dire consequences both church and legal.

    My generation has been the generation to bring these stories to light much to the chagrin of my parents’ and their family and extended family members’. My generation has been the generation that has said “NO” to the sick and twisted things that warped our family for four or more generations. We’ve gotten the necessary help in order to stop polygamy from destroying yet another generation. Polygamy is NOT funny and never has been. If you read the OT there is not one single story of polygamy where the family(ies) lives happily ever after. The stories are full of jealousy, hatred, murder, rape, one upmanship, abandoned and/or grieving wives, and lives that are blighted. Surely God has never sanctioned something that has been so destructive in every possible way. Even before I discovered the documents and the dictated oral histories that told the shameful tales of polygamy in our church and in my own family I instinctively knew that it was wrong. After reading many of the histories of 19th century church members along with well researched books such as “In Sacred Loneliness” and “A Room Full of Women” that conviction has only grown stronger.

  31. I’m a single woman who does not find polygamy funny. I also am not amused at how single women are constantly left out of this conversation. We get it, we know that married women don’t want to share their husbands, but do you honestly think we single women like the idea of being Wife # 2, Wife # 3, Wife # 4, Wife # 19, so on and so forth? Do you think we single women like the idea of being told that it’s polygamy or bust in the eternities when we were the ones who were deprived of the blessings pertaining to marriage and motherhood on earth? Do you think we single women like the idea of being seen as nothing more than maids to the first wives? Do you think we single women like the idea of being in a marriage where we or our children will never be a priority?

    Since turning 30 last year, I’ve been told by well-meaning, but happily married people who cannot understand my situation that I need to be more open to dating single fathers and eventually marrying one. I have said no to this. I have heard way too many horror stories about women who’ve married single fathers. Too often, these women always come in last place to his children and ex-wife, are made to be treated like outsiders in their own homes, are held to an impossible standard and always seen as the bad guy, seen as glorified maids and nannies, expected to be okay with sacrificing for and going above and beyond for stepchildren and an ex-wife and receive nothing in return, expected to be okay with being seen as the wicked stepmother, and are expected to be okay with having decisions (particularly about finances) that directly affect them be made without their consent. It also doesn’t help that their biological children often have less in life because of the obligations the husband has to his ex-wife and the children he has with her.

    I do not want enter into such a relationship or marriage. I do not want to be in a position where my life and identity are no longer mine, where I will never be a priority, where my love will never be reciprocated, where my own children will be deprived of certain opportunities and experiences, and am expected to be okay with giving everything I have and more to a family that I had no part in creating and will very likely hate me. It also doesn’t help that a divorced man in the church often remains sealed to his first wife even after remarrying.

    Now that I think about it, polygamy and being a stepmother are basically the same thing. It’s really no wonder I find it unfunny and just plain wrong.

Trackbacks

  1. […] By Common Consent blogger Holly Miller has seen such pictures of her imprisoned ancestors and recalls the laughter they evoked among family members. But Miller sees both good and bad in viewing plural marriage through jokes. […]

  2. […] By Common Consent blogger Holly Miller has seen such pictures of her imprisoned ancestors and recalls the laughter they evoked among family members. But Miller sees both good and bad in viewing plural marriage through jokes. […]

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