Of Curious Workmanship
by Edgar G. Snow, Jr.
The Mormon Embrace of Pluralism (Wives, That Is)
[p.53] I’ve been waiting for someone to take me to task for blatantly avoiding the most obvious curiosity of both Mormon scripture and history—polygamy. There, I’ve said the word, and I’ll say it again, even in this polite company: POLYGAMY. I feel better now. For years we’ve been apologizing for “The Principle” practiced by our spiritual forebears, and I’m not going to do it anymore. Just listen to the lame excuses we’ve been giving over the past 100 years, excuses with little foundation in fact: “Well, a lot of men died crossing the plains, and, well, there were more women than men, and, uh … those women were old anyway and needed support, and, … hmmmm, none of the men liked it anyway, and [p.54] it was a way to build up the kingdom with an accelerated birthing process.” And then we come up with some very interesting explanations for why we’ll have to practice it in the next life: (1) there’ll be more women in the Celestial Kingdom than men, because men are scum (we can’t have all the men killed off in this scenario), (2) those women will have to be married in order to get there, and (3) how can you populate your own universe with billions of spirit children with only one wife? Yeah, and ten wives would really ease the burden. Actually my wife is in favor of polygamy; she says she could use a couple of wives herself.
Why don’t we just layout the facts, as documented by Jessie Embry and others (see her Mormon Polygamous Families: Life in the Principle): women in polygamous relationships had fewer children, there were often more men than women (but usually about 50/50), and, well, some men didn’t hate it. Will this make us a peculiar people in the eyes of our non-Mormon friends? I thought that was the point. And when our Protestant and Catholic friends make those old tired polygamy jokes at cocktail hours over our remonstrances that our drink is only club soda, why not remind them that in 1650 the Catholic church in Germany promoted polygamy in order to repopulate after the Thirty Years’ War, and that Martin Luther told HenryVIII Luther would’ve fixed Henry’s female problem without having to start a [p.55] new church by letting him marry polygamously (all detailed in Embry’s wonderful text). If they give you too much of a hard time, you can always bore them to death by explaining polygamy terminology: polygamy (plural marriage generically speaking), polygyny (more than one wife), polyandry (more than one husband—infrequent, but documented among some Mormons in special circumstances—see Richard Van Wagoner’s Mormon Polygamy: A History), fraternal polyandry (two or more brothers as husbands), sororal polygyny (two or more sisters as wives), and so on. This works, I’ve tried it.
Recently our choir sang a beautiful rendition of “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” my favorite Mormon hymn, even though it’s no longer in the hymn book. For some reason my mind turned to polygamy. Now I remember why … my lesson that week was on Doctrine and Covenants 132! Anyway, I wondered if there were any hymns written and sung during the days of polygamy to, you know, admonish the members to live “The Principle.” You would need a strident tune like “Onward Christian Soldiers” for it to be really effective. Did the arts during this time in our history celebrate polygamous life? During the pioneer period, Mormon rhetoric was certainly not wanting for exhortations on this topic. My favorite is from Heber C. Kimball (a man who had forty-three wives and sixty-[p.56]five kids): “I have noticed that a man who has but one wife and is inclined to that doctrine soon begins to wither and dry up, while a man who goes into plurality looks fresh, young and sprightly” (Embry, Polygamous Families, p. 23).
I know of at least one poem that celebrated faith in polygamy, written by Harold B. Lee as an apostle, even though I couldn’t find it. I recall it being cited by some anti-Mormons, as if his “long-suppressed poem” had been the moral equivalent of Watergate. In a lyrical moment, Brother Lee rejoiced that he would spend eternity with both of his wives, even though he never practiced polygamy, but because his first wife died and he was sealed to his second wife as well.
And then there’s the picture of the Gibson Girl as a plural wife to Brigham Young, one of Utah’s most married men, in which she’s looking bemused while Brigham is busy counting his wives sitting in chairs surrounding the room (as I recall, this appeared in the nineteenth-century British satirical review, Punch). So it’s not far-fetched that polygamy was praised in the arts. Certainly this topic is a Ph.D. dissertation just waiting to happen.
All this reminds me of a Mormon marketing idea I had a few years ago. I think there’d be a market for a line of Mormon action figures for kids, like G.I. Joes, of [p.57] famous Mormons. You can already buy Book of Mormon action figures (no Laban with removable head yet, though). I imagine you could sell a Porter Rockwell, Jacob Hamblin, Samuel Brannon, Lilburn Boggs (you’ll need some bad guys), Lucy Mack Smith, Merlin Olsen, Steve Young, and others, each sold with a trading card containing vital statistics. You could also buy wagons, horses, guns, seventy-two-hour kits, etc., for the figures. You could even market porcelain versions through the Franklin Mint for adults. You’d have to consult with an attorney, though, in connection with some of the packaging. The Brigham Young figure, for instance, would have to have a disclaimer in bold typeface on the front of the package that said: “Wives shown sold separately.”