The New Mormon History
D. Michael Quinn, editor
Notes on Mormon Polygamy
Stanley S. Ivins
[p.169] Time was when, in the popular mind, Mormonism meant only polygamy.1 It was assumed that every Mormon man was a practical or theoretical polygamist. This was a misconception, for there were always many of these Latter-day Saints who refused to go along with the doctrine of “plurality of wives.” It was accepted by only a few of the more than fifty churches or factions which grew out of the revelations of the prophet Joseph Smith. Principal advocate of the doctrine was the Utah church, which far outnumbered all other branches of Mormonism. And strongest opposition from within Mormondom came from the second largest group, the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, with headquarters at Independence, Missouri.
This strange experiment in family relations extended over a period of approximately sixty-five years. It was professedly inaugurated on 5 April 1841 in a cornfield outside the city of Nauvoo, Illinois, with the sealing of Louisa Beaman to Joseph Smith. And it was brought to an official end by a resolution adopted at the 74th annual conference of the Utah church on 4 April 1904. Since that time those who have persisted in carrying on with it have been excommunicated. But the project was openly and energetically prosecuted during only about forty years. For the first ten years the new doctrine was kept pretty well under wraps, and it was not until the fall of 1852 that it was openly avowed and the Saints were told that only those who embraced it could hope for the highest exaltation in [p. 170] the resurrection. And during the fifteen years prior to 1904, there were only a few privately solemnized plural marriages. So it might be said that the experiment was ten years in embryo, enjoyed a vigorous life of forty years, and took fifteen years to die.
The extent to which polygamy was practiced in Utah will probably never be known. Plural marriages were not publicly recorded, and there is little chance that any private records which might have been kept will ever be revealed.
Curious visitors to Utah in the days when polygamy was flourishing were usually told that about one-tenth of the people actually practiced it. Since the abandonment of the principle, this estimate has been revised downward. A recent official published statement by the Mormon church said: “The practice of plural marriage has never been general in the Church and at no time have more than three per cent of families in the Church been polygamous.” This estimate was apparently based upon testimony given during the investigation into the right of Reed Smoot to retain his seat in the United States Senate. A high church official, testifying there, referred to the 1882 report of the Utah Commission, which said that application of the anti-polygamy laws had disfranchised approximately 12,000 persons in Utah. The witness declared that since at least two-thirds of these must have been women, there remained no more than 4,000 polygamists, which he believed constituted less than 2 percent of the church population. The error of setting heads of families against total church membership is obvious. Using the same report, Senator Dubois concluded that 23 percent of Utah Mormons over eighteen years of age were involved in polygamy. Later on in the Smoot hearing, the same church official testified that a careful census taken in 1890 revealed that there were 2,451 plural families in the United States. This suggests that at that time, 10 percent or more of the Utah Mormons might have been involved in polygamy.
Of more than 6,000 Mormon families, sketches of which are found in a huge volume published in 1913, between 15 and 20 percent appear to have been polygamous.2 And a history of Sanpete and Emery counties contains biographical sketches of 722 men, of whom 12.6 percent married more than one woman.3
From information obtainable from all available sources, it appears that there may have been a time when 15 or possibly 20 [p. 171] percent of the Mormon families of Utah were polygamous. This leaves the great majority of the Saints delinquent in their obligation to the principle of plurality of wives.
While the small proportion of Mormons who went into polygamy may not necessarily be a true measure of its popularity, there is other evidence that they were not anxious to rush into it, although they were constantly reminded of its importance to their salvation.
A tabulation by years of about 2,500 polygamous marriages, covering the whole period of this experiment, reveals some interesting facts. It indicates that until the death of the prophet Joseph Smith in the summer of 1844, the privilege of taking extra wives was pretty well monopolized by him and a few of his trusted disciples. Following his death and the assumption of leadership by the twelve apostles under Brigham Young, there was a noticeable increase in plural marriages. This may be accounted for by the fact that during the winter of 1845-46, the Nauvoo temple was finished to a point where it could be used for the performance of sacred rites and ordinances. For a few weeks before their departure in search of a refuge in the Rocky Mountains, the Saints worked feverishly at their sealings and endowments. As part of this religious activity, the rate of polygamous marrying rose to a point it was not again to reach for ten years. It then fell off sharply and remained low until the stimulation given by the public announcement in the fall of 1852 that polygamy was an essential tenet of the church. This spurt was followed by a sharp decline over the next few years.
Beginning in the fall of 1856 and during a good part of the following year, the Utah Mormons were engaged in the greatest religious revival of their history. To the fiery and sometimes intemperate exhortations of their leaders, they responded with fanatical enthusiasm, which at times led to acts of violence against those who were slow to repent. There was a general confession of sins and renewal of covenants through baptism, people hastened to return articles “borrowed” from their neighbors, and men who had not before given a thought to the matter began looking for new wives. And as one of the fruits of “the Reformation,” plural marriages skyrocketed to a height not before approached and never again to be reached. If our tabulation is a true index, there were 65 percent more of such marriages during 1856 and 1857 than in any other two years [p. 172] of this experiment.
With the waning of the spirit of reformation, the rate of polygamous marrying dropped in 1858 to less than a third and in 1859 to less than a fifth of what it was in 1857. This decline continued until 1862 when Congress, responding to the clamor of alarmists, enacted a law prohibiting bigamy in Utah and other territories. The answer of the Mormons to this rebuke was a revival of plural marrying to a point not previously reached except during the gala years of the Reformation.
The next noticeable acceleration in the marriage rate came in 1868 and 1869 and coincided with the inauguration of a boycott against the gentile merchants and the organization of an anti-Mormon political party. But this increased activity was short-lived and was followed by a slump lasting for a dozen years. By 1881 polygamous marrying had fallen to almost its lowest ebb since the public avowal of the doctrine of plurality.
With the passage of the Edmunds Act of 1882, which greatly strengthened the anti-polygamy laws, the government began its first serious effort to suppress the practice of polygamy. The Mormons responded with their last major revival of polygamous activity, which reached its height in 1884 and 1885. But with hundreds of polygamists imprisoned and most of the church leaders driven into exile to avoid arrest, resistance weakened and there was a sudden decline in marriages, which culminated in formal capitulation in the fall of 1890. This was the end except for a few under-cover marriages during the ensuing fifteen years while the experiment was in its death throes.
If there is any significance in this chronicle of polygamous marrying, it is in the lack of evidence that the steady growth of the Utah church was accompanied by a corresponding increase in the number of such marriages. The story is rather one of sporadic outbursts of enthusiasm followed by relapses, with the proportion of the Saints living in polygamy steadily falling. And it appears to be more than chance that each outbreak of fervor coincided with some revivalist activity within the church or with some menace from without. It is evidence that far from looking upon plural marriage as a privilege to be made the most of, the rank and file Mormons accepted it as one of the onerous obligations of church membership. Left alone they were prone to neglect it, and it always took some form of pressure to stir them to renewed zeal.
[p. 173] The number of wives married by the men who practiced polygamy offers further evidence of lack of enthusiasm for the principle. A common mistaken notion was that most polygamists maintained large harems, an idea which can be attributed to the publicity given the few men who went in for marrying on a grand scale. Joseph Smith was probably the most married of these men. The number of his wives can only be guessed at, but it might have gone as high as sixty or more. Brigham Young is usually credited with only twenty-seven wives, but he was sealed to more than twice that many living women and to at least 150 more who had died. Heber C. Kimball had forty-five living wives, a number of them elderly ladies who never lived with him. No one else came close to these three men in the point of marrying. John D. Lee gave the names of his nineteen wives but modestly explained that “as I was married to old Mrs. Woolsey for her soul’s sake, and she was near sixty years old when I married her, I never considered her really a wife… . That is the reason that I claim only eighteen true wives.” And by taking fourteen wives, Jens Hansen earned special mention in the Latter-day Saint Biographical Encyclopedia, which said: “Of all the Scandinavian brethren who figured prominently in the Church Bro. Hansen distinguished himself by marrying more wives than any other of his countrymen in modern times.” Orson Pratt, who was chosen to deliver the first public discourse on the subject of plural marriage and became its most able defender, had only ten living wives, but on two days a week apart, he was sealed for eternity to more than two hundred dead women.
But these men with many wives were the few exceptions to the rule. Of 1,784 polygamists, 66.3 percent married only one extra wife. Another 21.2 percent were three-wife men, and 6.7 percent went as far as to take four wives. This left a small group of less than 6 percent who married five or more women. The typical polygamist, far from being the insatiable male of popular fable, was a dispassionate fellow, content to call a halt after marrying the one extra wife required to assure him of his chance at salvation.
Another false conception was that polygamists were bearded patriarchs who continued marrying young girls as long as they were able to hobble about. It is true that Brigham Young took a young wife when he was sixty-seven years old, and a few others followed his example, but such marriages were not much more common with the [p. 174] Mormons than among other groups. Of 1,229 polygamists more than 10 percent married their last wives while still in their twenties, and more than one half of them before arriving at the still lusty age of forty years. Not one in five took a wife after reaching his fiftieth year. The average age at which the group ceased marrying was forty years.
There appears to be more basis in fact for the reports that polygamists were likely to choose their wives from among the young girls who might bear them many children. Of 1,348 women selected as plural wives, 38 percent were in their teens, 67 percent were under twenty-five, and only 30 percent over thirty years of age. A few had passed forty, and about one in a hundred had, like John D. Lee’s old Mrs. Woolsey, seen her fiftieth birthday.
There were a few notable instances of high speed marrying among the polygamists. Whatever the number of Joseph Smith’s wives, he must have married them all over a period of thirty-nine months. And Brigham Young took eight wives in a single month, four of them on the same day. But only a few enthusiasts indulged in such rapid marrying. As a rule it proceeded at a much less hurried pace. Not one plural marriage in ten followed a previous marriage by less than a year. The composite polygamist was first married at the age of twenty-three to a girl of twenty. Thirteen years later he took a plural wife, choosing a twenty-two-year-old girl. The chances were two to one that having demonstrated his acceptance of the principle of plurality, he was finished with marrying. If, however, he took a third wife, he waited four years and then selected another girl of twenty-two. The odds were now three to one against his taking a fourth wife, but if he did so, he waited another four years and once more chose a twenty-two-year-old girl, although he had now reached the ripe age of forty-four. In case he decided to add a fifth wife, he waited only two years, and this time the lady of his choice was twenty-one years old. This was the end of his marrying, unless he belonged to a 3 percent minority.
Available records offer no corroboration of the accusation that many polygamous marriages were incestuous. They do, however, suggest the source of such reports in the surprisingly common practice of marrying sisters. The custom was initiated by Joseph Smith, among whose wives were at least three pairs of sisters. His example was followed by Heber C. Kimball, whose forty-five wives included Clarissa and Emily Cutler, Amanda and Anna Gheen, [p. 175] Harriet and Ellen Sanders, Hannah and Dorothy Moon, and Laura and Abigail Pitkin. Brigham Young honored the precedent by marrying the Decker sisters, Lucy and Clara, and the Bigelow girls, Mary and Lucy. And John D. Lee told how he married the three Woolsey sisters, Agatha Ann, Rachel, and Andora, and rounded out the family circle by having their mother sealed to him for her soul’s sake. Among his other wives were the Young sisters, Polly and Lovina, sealed to him on the same evening. The popularity of this custom is indicated by the fact that of 1,642 polygamists, 10 percent married one or more pairs of sisters.
While marrying sisters could have been a simple matter of propinquity, there probably was some method in it. Many a man went into polygamy reluctantly, fully aware of its hazards. Knowing that his double family must live in one small home and realizing that the peace of his household would hinge upon the congeniality between its two mistresses, he might well hope that if they were sisters the chances for domestic tranquility would be more even. And a wife consenting to share her husband with another could not be blamed for asking that he choose her sister instead of bringing home a strange woman.
The fruits of this experiment in polygamy are not easy to appraise. In defense of their marriage system, the Mormons talked much about the benefits it would bring. By depriving husbands of an excuse for seeking extra-marital pleasures and by making it possible for every woman to marry, it was to solve the problem of the “social evil” by eliminating professional prostitution and other adulterous activities. It was to furnish healthy tabernacles for the countless spirits waiting anxiously to assume their earthly bodies. It was to build up a “righteous generation” of physically and intellectually superior individuals. It was to enhance the glory of the polygamist through a posterity so numerous that in the course of eternity he might become the god of a world peopled by his descendants. And there was another blessing in store for men who lived this principle. Heber C. Kimball, Brigham Young’s chief lieutenant, explained it this way: “I would not be afraid to promise a man who is sixty years of age, if he will take the counsel of brother Brigham and his brethren, that he will renew his age. 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. Why is this? [p. 176] Because God loves that man, and because he honors His work and word. Some of you may not believe this; but I not only believe it—I also know it. For a man of God to be confined to one woman is small business; for it is as much as we can do now to keep up under the burdens we have to carry; and I do not know what we should do if we had only one wife apiece.”4
It does appear that Mormon communities of the polygamous era were comparatively free from the evils of professional prostitution. But this can hardly be attributed to the fact that a few men, supposedly selected for their moral superiority, were permitted to marry more than one wife. It might better be credited to the common teaching that adultery was a sin so monstrous that there was no atonement for it short of the spilling of the blood of the offender. It would be strange indeed if such a fearful warning failed to exert a restraining influence upon the potential adulterer… .
When it came to fathering large families and supplying bodies for waiting spirits, the polygamists did fairly well but fell far short of some of their dreams. Heber C. Kimball once said of himself and Brigham Young: “In twenty-five or thirty years we will have a larger number in our two families than there now is in this whole Territory, which numbers more than seventy-five thousand. If twenty-five years will produce this amount of people, how much will be the increase in one hundred years?”5 And the Millennial Star reckoned that a hypothetical Mr. Fruitful with forty wives might at the age of seventy-eight number among his seed 3,508,441 souls while his monogamous counterpart could boast of only 152.6
With such reminders of their potentialities before them, the most married of the polygamist must have been far from satisfied with the results they could show. There is no conclusive evidence that any of Joseph Smith’s many plural wives bore children by him. Heber C. Kimball with his forty-five wives was the father of sixty-five children. John D. Lee with only eighteen “true wives” fell one short of Kimball’s record, and Brigham Young fathered fifty-six children, approximately one for each wife.
Although the issue of the few men of many wives was disappointing in numbers, the rank and file of polygamists made a fair showing. Of 1,651 families more than four-fifths numbered ten or more children. Half of them had fifteen or more and one fourth, twenty or more. There were eighty-eight families of thirty or more, [p. 177] nineteen of forty or more, and seven of fifty or more. The average number of children per family was fifteen. And by the third or fourth generation some families had reached rather impressive proportions. When one six-wife elder had been dead fifty-five years, his descendants numbered 1,900.
While polygamy increased the number of children of the men, it did not do the same for the women involved. A count revealed that 3,335 wives of polygamists bore 19,806 children, for an average of 5.9 per woman. An equal number of wives of monogamists taken from the same general group bore 26,780 for an average of 8. This suggests the possibility that the overall production of children in Utah may have been less than it would have been without benefit of plurality of wives. The claim that plurality was needed because of a surplus of women is not borne out by statistics.
There is little doubt that the plural wife system went a good way toward making it possible for every woman to marry. According to Mormon teachings, a woman could “never obtain a fullness of glory, without being married to a righteous man for time and all eternity.” If she never married or was the wife of a gentile, her chance of attaining a high degree of salvation was indeed slim. And one of the responsibilities of those in official church positions was to try to make sure that no woman went without a husband. When a widow or a maiden lady “gathered” to Utah, it was a community obligation to see to it that she had food and shelter and the privilege of being married to a good man. If she received no offer of marriage, it was not considered inconsistent with feminine modesty for her to “apply” to the man of her choice, but if she set her sights too high, she might be disappointed. My grandmother, who did sewing for the family of Brigham Young, was fond of telling how she watched through a partly open doorway while he forcibly ejected a woman who was too persistent in applying to be sealed to him. Her story would always end with the same words: “And I just couldn’t help laughing to see brother Brigham get so out of patience with that woman.” However, if the lady in search of a husband was not too ambitious, her chances of success were good. It was said of the bishop of one small settlement that he “was a good bishop. He married all the widows in town and took good care of them.” And John D. Lee was following accepted precedent when he married old Mrs. Woolsey for her soul’s sake.
As for Mr. Kimball’s claims concerning the spiritual uplift to [p. 178] be derived from taking a fresh young wife, what man is going to quarrel with him about that?
The most common reasons given for opposition to the plural wife system were that it was not compatible with the American way of life, that it debased the women who lived under it, and that it caused disharmony and unhappiness in the family. To these charges the Mormon replied that their women enjoyed a higher social position than those of the outside world and that there was less contention and unhappiness in their families than in those of the gentiles. There is no statistical information upon which to base a judgment as to who had the better of this argument.
In addition to these general complaints about polygamy, its critics told some fantastic stories about the evils which followed in its wake. It was said that through some mysterious workings of the laws of heredity, polygamous children were born with such peculiarities as feeble-mindedness, abnormal sexual desires, and weak and deformed bodies.
At a meeting of the New Orleans Academy of Sciences in 1861, a remarkable paper was presented by Dr. Samuel A. Cartwright and Prof. C. G. Forshey. It consisted mainly of quotations from a report made by Assistant Surgeon Robert Barthelow of the United States Army on the “Effects and Tendencies of Mormon Polygamy in the Territory of Utah.” Barthelow had observed that the Mormon system of marriage was already producing a people with distinct racial characteristics. He said: “The yellow, sunken, cadaverous visage; the greenish-colored eye; the thick, protuberant lips; the low forehead; the light, yellowish hair, and the lank, angular person, constitute an appearance so characteristic of the new race, the production of polygamy, as to distinguish them at a glance. The older men and women present all the physical peculiarities of the nationalities to which they belong; but these peculiarities are not propagated and continued in the new race; they are lost in the prevailing type.” Dr. Cartwright observed that the Barthelow report went far “to prove that polygamy not only blights the physical organism, but the moral nature of the white or Adamic woman to so great a degree as to render her incapable of breeding any other than abortive specimens of humanity—a new race that would die out—utterly perish from the earth, if left to sustain itself.”7
When one or two of the New Orleans scientists questioned [p. 179] the soundness of parts of this paper, the hecklers were silenced by Dr. Cartwright’s retort that the facts presented were not so strong as “those which might be brought in proof of the debasing influence of abolitionism on the moral principles and character of that portion of the Northern people who have enacted personal liberty bills to evade a compliance with their constitutional obligations to the Southern States, and have elevated the Poltroon Sumner into a hero, and made a Saint of the miscreant Brown.”8
Needless to say there is no evidence that polygamy produced any such physical and mental effects upon the progeny of those who practiced it. A study of the infant mortality rate in a large number of Mormon families showed no difference between the polygamous and monogamous households.
It is difficult to arrive at general conclusions concerning this experiment in polygamy, but a few facts about it are evident. Mormondom was not a society in which all men married many wives, but one in which a few men married two or more wives. Although plurality of wives was taught as a tenet of the church, it was not one of the fundamental principles of the Mormon faith, and its abandonment was accomplished with less disturbance than that caused by its introduction. The Saints accepted plurality in theory, but most of them were loath to put it into practice, despite the continual urging of leaders in whose divine authority they had the utmost faith. Once the initial impetus given the venture had subsided it became increasingly unpopular. In 1857 there were nearly fourteen times as many plural marriages for each one thousand Utah Mormons as there were in 1880. Left to itself undisturbed by pressure from without, the church would inevitably have given up the practice of polygamy, perhaps even sooner than it did under pressure. The experiment was not a satisfactory test of plurality of wives as a social system. Its results were neither spectacular nor conclusive, and they gave little justification for either the high hopes of its promoters or the dire predictions of its critics.