The New Mormon History
D. Michael Quinn, editor

Chapter 11
Divorce among Mormon Polygamists: Extent and Explanations
Eugene E. Campbell and Bruce L. Campbell

[p.180] Studies of Mormon polygamy have tended to emphasize the origin and motivation for the practice, courtship techniques, interfamily relationships, economic adjustments, housing arrangements, and legal difficulties, but very little has been written concerning divorce. Kimball Young has one short chapter in his Isn’t One Wife Enough?, but he admitted that he had “no adequate information as to the number of church divorces, granted annually or in toto.”1 He believed that most divorces were granted by bishop’s courts but said, “apparently some separations were managed by the President of the Church directly.”2 To further complicate matters, it may never be possible to secure an accurate divorce rate for polygamous marriages because it is not known how many marriages took place, since plural marriages were not recorded officially. Stanley Ivins contended that “there is little chance that any private records which might have been kept will ever be revealed.”3

Nevertheless recent studies have revealed that 1,645 divorces were granted by Brigham Young during the period of his presidency and that many of these were obtained by prominent pioneer leaders involved in the practice of plural marriage. Unfortunately most of these records do not state the grounds for these divorces nor the number of children involved nor even if they were the result of [p. 181] polygamous marriages. However, they do indicate that many Mormon marriages during this period were unstable and that official attitudes toward divorce were lenient.4

Despite the lack of documentary evidence that these divorces resulted from polygamous marriages, there are reasons to believe that most if not all of these certificates were issued to polygamists. First, many prominent men known to be polygamists are listed on these records of divorce. The names of many general authorities of the LDS church as well as stake and ward leaders are included. Second, several cases reveal that two or more wives were divorced from one man on the same day. The most unusual case is that of George D. Grant who was divorced from three wives on the same day and from a fourth wife within five weeks. More conclusive evidence is the fact that Brigham Young did not have authority to grant civil divorces terminating monogamous marriages, but as president of the church he alone had the right to sever polygamous relationships. Polygamous marriages were always extralegal, and in the Mormon system only the president had the right to authorize marriages and divorces. The incoming and outgoing correspondence of the pioneer leader is replete with requests for permission to take extra wives as well as to be divorced from them.

It should be noted that polygamous marriages continued to be solemnized by Brigham Young’s successors, John Taylor and Wilford Woodruff, for thirteen years after President Young’s demise, and it seems logical to believe that they also granted divorces. If they granted them in similar numbers, it is likely that there were well in excess of 2,000 divorces granted prior to the 1890 Wilford Woodruff Manifesto. Since officially there were only an estimated 2,400 men practicing polygamy in 1885,5 2,000 or more divorces might be higher than the national divorce rate in 1890 which was about one divorce per 1,000 existing marriages per year.

Evidence from D. Michael Quinn’s prosopographical study of early LDS church leaders tends to bear out these assumptions. He discovered that of the seventy-two general authorities who entered plural marriage, thirty-nine were involved in broken marriages, including fifty-four divorces, twenty-six separations, and one annulment.6

George Levinger in his article on “Marital Cohesiveness” discusses three factors related to marital stability: positive attractions [p. 183] within the marriage, barriers to divorce, and alternative attractions outside the marriage.7 Some notable positive attractions within marriage are the status it gives, attraction to the spouse, children, and financial success through the economic cooperation of family members. Alternative attractions outside the marriage include such considerations as a new partner or increased status. If the marriage relationship is poor, escaping the marriage may be seen as an alternative attraction. In most societies, however, there are barriers to divorce such as “the emotional, religious and moral commitments that a partner feels toward his marriage or toward his children; the external pressures of kin and community, of the law, the church and other associational membership.”8 In Mormon theology, marriage “for time and all eternity” was the key to exaltation and eternal glory. Such marriages sealed by the priesthood would endure forever and give men and women the possibility of eternal increase whereby they could achieve godhood, ruling over their progeny. Such concepts put successful marriage at the top of the Mormon value system and supplied many of the positive attractions of plural marriage.

Gradually plural marriage became such an important institution in the Mormon subculture that some leaders were teaching that it was essential for eternal exaltation. For example, in 1886 the Mutual Improvement Association of Hyrum, Utah, began producing weekly manuscript newspapers that were passed around the community from home to home. The first edition of the Evening Star contained a sermon by a local leader on the front page that began “no one may be saved in the celestial kingdom of God unless he enters into the practice of plural marriage.” A later edition asserted that “Abraham, the friend of God, was a polygamist. We have no account of the Lord appearing to Abraham before he had taken his second wife.”9 Another example of Mormon beliefs in this regard was suggested by Apostle Orson Pratt in the first official announcement and defense of polygamy in 1852. Asserting that polygamy was a sacred order that had been the practice of such biblical figures as Abraham, Jacob, and others, he then suggested “that there were several holy women that greatly loved Jesus—such as Mary, and Martha her sister, and Mary Magdalene; and Jesus greatly loved them, and associated with them much, and when he arose from the dead, instead of first showing himself to his chosen witnesses, the Apostles, he appeared first to these women, or at least to one of them, namely Mary Magdalene. [p. 184] Now, it would be very natural for a husband in the resurrection to appear first to his own dear wives, and afterwards show himself to his other friends.”10

Although this was not official church doctrine, there was considerable pressure in Mormon communities to enter polygamy. During one of the October general conference meetings in 1875, Apostle Wilford Woodruff asserted: “We have many bishops and elders who have but one wife. They are abundantly qualified to enter the higher law and take more, but their wives will not let them. Any man who will permit a woman to lead him and bind him down is but little account in the Church and Kingdom of God. The law of Patriarchal marriage and plurality of wives is a revelation and commandment of God to us, and we should obey it.”11

Despite such teachings, Stanley Ivins theorized that even without pressure from the federal government Mormons would still have given up polygamy, perhaps even sooner than they did. He stated 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.”12

Kimball Young believed that “a marriage and family system such as polygamy, superimposed as it was upon Christian monogamy with all its values, was, at times, bound to induce such stress as to require some official form of divorce.”13 Both Young and Ivins seem to support the proposition that in the particular circumstances of Mormon polygamy, the positive attractions to polygamous unions were so few that in spite of theological barriers against divorce, many would desire to be freed from plural marriages. Kimball Young also noted that in many cases couples separated without divorce. He maintained that “while the records are often rather uncertain, the inference may be drawn that there was a general public acceptance of the idea that if a man and woman could not get along, they were free to break up and seek new mates.”14 In some cases, the wife would leave for California or return to her home in the East or run off with another man.

Thus even if it is believed that the positive attractions to polygamy were limited, it should not be assumed that because Mormons strongly advocated polygamy and the eternal family concept, [p. 185] the barriers against divorce, at least in polygamous unions, were very strong. Church leaders recognized the difficulties involved in establishing a different marriage system, and their own limited experience convinced them that there would be failures. In addition to the normal problems that arise in marriage relationships, the Mormon concepts of millennialism, feelings of romantic love, and lack of proven standards of conduct and behavior all contributed to the relatively high ratio of divorce among Mormon polygamists.

Millennialism. There are numerous evidences that LDS church leaders and members alike expected to witness the second coming of Jesus Christ and planned to participate in his millennial kingdom. A case in point was the millennialist fervor expressed at the dedication of the cornerstones of the Salt Lake Temple in 1853 and Orson Pratt’s warning in 1855 that “this event [Jesus Christ’s second coming] is nearer than this people are aware of.”15 In 1862 Brigham Young’s statement to a group of his colleagues at the site of the Salt Lake Temple was even more explicit: “I expect this temple will stand through the millennium … and this is the reason why I am having the foundation of the temple taken up… . If we do not hurry with this, I am afraid we shall not get it up until we have to go back to Jackson County, (Missouri) which I expect will be in seven years.”16

Millennial expectations rose to a considerable height during the so-called Reformation in the years 1856 to 1858, and apparently many plural marriages were contracted as a result of this extreme religious pressure. Stanley Ivins’s study summarized these developments as follows: “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 two years of this experiment.”17

An interesting glimpse of this period is provided by a letter from Wilford Woodruff to George A. Smith in April 1857: “We have had a great reformation this winter; some of the fruits are: all have confessed their sins either great or small, restored their stolen property; all have been baptized from the presidency down; all are trying to pay their tithing and nearly all are trying to get wives, until there is hardly a girl 14 years old in Utah, but what is married, or just going to be. President Young has hardly time to eat, drink or sleep, in consequence of marrying the people and attending the endowments.”18

[p. 186] In fact competition for wives was so intense that several men asked permission to marry girls under the age of fourteen. One man was given permission but was counseled by Brigham Young to “preserve her intact until she is fully developed into womanhood.” To another who requested permission to marry two sisters, he wrote, “I do not wish children to be married to men before an age which the mothers generally can best determine.” A third applicant was advised, “Go ahead, but leave the children to grow.”19 Circumstances that promoted such pressures may be seen in the following letter written to Brigham Young at the height of the Reformation by a resident of Fillmore, Utah: “My circumstances is this, my wife has been cut off from the Church and Bishop Brunson commanded me to have no more to do with her as wife that I was free from her, and go and get me a good wife, and a half a dozen of them if I wanted them, but did not tell me where to go, as it is evident that I must go somewhere else than Fillmore as there is 56 single men here besides all the married ones that are on the anxious seat to get more and only 4 single women. Now Sir would it not be [be a] good policy for me to go on a Mission to the States or England if you thought best I know of some good women in the States of my own Baptizing that might be got besides many more.”20

The pressure to marry polygamously appears to have been intense, and little attention was paid to the future stability of such marriages because of the belief that the coming millennium would solve such earthly problems. This pressure to marry for religious reasons may not have taken into account the necessary compatibility of the marriage partners. Additionally many of the normal problems of marriage, such as earning a livelihood, personality adjustment, the sexual relationship, jealousies, and child rearing were all magnified in plural marriage. When the idealism of millennial expectations subsided, many couples discovered the incompatibility of their plural marriage, and divorce or separation seemed to be the solution to their dilemma.

Apparently the field of eligible women one had to choose from became very limited in some areas, and compatibility in such marriages became even more problematic. Thus the millennialist orientation of the early Mormons tended to induce them to contract plural marriages for religious reasons, and this led to strains and tensions in the everyday management of marriage.

[p. 187] The leaders of the church were well aware of the strains in polygamous marriages. Speaking on polygamy in September 1856 at the height of the Reformation, Brigham Young said: “[I]t is frequently happening that women say they are unhappy. Men will say `My wife, though a most excellent woman, has not seen a happy day since I took my second wife;’ … another has not seen a happy day for five years. It is said that women are tied down and abused: that they are misused and have not the liberty they ought to have; that many of them are wading through a perfect flood of tears, because of the conduct of some men together with their own folly. I wish my own women to understand,” he continued, “that what I am going to say is for them as well as others, and I want those who are here to tell their sisters, yes, all the women of the community, and then write back to the States, and do as you please with it. I am going to give you from this time to the 6th day of october next, for reflection, that you may determine whether you wish to stay with your husbands or not, and then I am going to set every woman at liberty and say to them, Now go your way, my women with the rest, go your way. And my wives have got to do one of two things; either round up their shoulders to endure the afflictions of this world, and live their religion, or they may leave, for I will not have them about me. I will go into heaven alone, rather than have scratching and fighting around me.”21

Two weeks later at general conference, Young announced that he would fulfill his promise by releasing women under “certain conditions and that is that you will appear forthwith at my office and give good and sufficient reasons, and then marry men that will not have but one wife.”22

On 15 December 1858 George A. Smith called on the church president to make application for a divorce in behalf of Nicholas Groesbeck from his second wife. Young said that when a man married a wife, he took her for better or worse and had no right to ill use her; a man that would mistreat a woman in order to get her to leave him would find himself alone in the worlds to come. He said he knew of no law to give a man in polygamy a divorce. He had told the brethren that if they would break the law, they should pay for it; but he did not want them to come to him for a divorce as it was not right. He then appealed to George A. Smith for confirmation of his position. Smith said, “President Young it is with you as it was with Moses. There [p. 188] is no law authorizing divorce, but through the hardness of the people you are obligated to permit it.”23 Three days later Young said: “It is not right for the brethren to divorce their wives the way they do. I am determined that if men don’t stop divorcing their wives, I shall stop sealing. Men shall not abuse the gifts of God and the privileges the way they are doing. Nobody can say that I have any interest in the matter, for I charge nothing for sealings, but I do charge for divorcing. I want the brethren to stop divorcing their wives for it is not right.”24

Although Young was opposed to divorce and was seriously concerned about the number of men divorcing their wives, it appears that he was willing to grant divorces when the people requested it. In the case of women, he seemed especially generous in freeing them from an unhappy marriage. On one occasion in a meeting with George A. Smith and others, he complained that “many men who come to him to get sealed would say `thank you Brother Brigham,’ and when a woman wanted to leave they were too stingy to get [buy] a bill of divorce.”25 His advice to a woman who came to him for counsel, was to “stay with her husband as long as she could bear with him, but if life became too burdensome, then leave and get a divorce.” Then he remarked that other than a little scripture on the subject, he was not aware that the Lord had given any special revelations on the subject of divorce.26

Young was in a difficult position. As head of the LDS church he could have made obtaining divorces more difficult, but such a move could have resulted in rather undesirable (from his perspective) outcomes. If pressure was needed to force people into polygamy and divorce became difficult to obtain, perhaps fewer people would be willing to enter into plural marriages. And if Kimball Young’s observation that the subculture allowed for casual separation of incompatible couples is correct, any attempt to strengthen the barriers to divorce may have only increased the number of Saints who were marrying and divorcing and remarrying outside of any authority—church or state. Perhaps President Young sensed that if he were to have any reasonable control over polygamy he must permit some divorces.

Thus although statements about the family and the eternal nature of the marriage covenant might lead one to conclude that the barrier against divorce in Mormon polygamy was strong, there were [p. 189] other factors tending to reduce that barrier. In fact the belief in millennialism may have operated to increase marriage tensions, resulting in a rather ambivalent attitude toward divorce in the Mormon subculture.

William J. Goode in his article on love suggests that the theoretical importance of this universal psychological potential (romantic love) is “to be seen in the sociostructural patterns which are developed to keep it from disrupting existing social arrangements.”27 Romantic love posed a dilemma for Mormon polygamists because it had the potential to disrupt marriages contracted for religious reasons rather than for love or personal attraction. On the other hand many Mormons of marriageable age were influenced by the American norm of romantic love as the most acceptable basis for marriages.

This norm was rather new to America, but a study of the reactions of foreign visitors to American marriage customs between 1800 and 1850 noted that they universally reported the startling conclusion that romantic love was the basis for marriage in America during that era.28 Romantic love is explosive enough in and of itself, but combined with a futuristic millennial spirit and the openness of the western frontier, it created a potentially volatile situation in the Mormon communities. Bessie Strong, the second wife of Aaron Strong, remarked, “In the beginning of the movement men took wives because it was a sacred duty, but in later years they were beginning to take them more because they fell in love with younger women. And when they did this, the older wife often suffered. Men abused the Principle.”29 The difficulties encountered in trying to manage love in Mormon polygamy were described by Richard Ballantyne, founder of the Mormon Sunday school system:

“How delicate is the position of man in plural marriage who loves his wives and who in turn is loved by them. Every move he makes, in his relation or intercourse with them, is an arrow that pierces deep into the heart of one or the other. Even his very looks and thoughts are read; true, often misinterpreted to mean partiality for one at the expense of another, be he ever so fair and good in his intention. How difficult his situation. What can he do to please them all? In trying to solve this question his difficulties only increase. A thousand thoughts and plans may come into his mind, but there is only one true solution. He must please God. In doing this, it may be hoped that bye and bye, he may also please them.

[p. 190] “Again, the situation is only aggravated when we discover the natural jealousy of the sex gradually unfolding itself. We speak of the attitude women should assume, and which, I have no doubt, they will hereafter be educated to assume, when the love of God and godliness predominates over low and sensual passions; but of this I do not now write, but of things that have existed in the past, and that, somewhat modified by experience for the better, exists today.

“Jealousy, then allied to its twin sister, Hatred, manifests its hideous form in various ways. In its extreme aspects it is said to be `cruel as the grave,’ which swallows up and consumes its victim. But even in a modified form its influence makes much trouble to the husband. Out of it comes selfishness which destroys that nice sense of justice which should exist in every household. Then discontent; murmurings; deceit, slander, misrepresentations.”30

An interesting letter supporting the idea that love and polygamy were antithetical, written by a prominent Mormon educator whose father was a polygamist, contains the following excerpt:

“This is a subject I know a great deal about; my father was a polygamist—as good as the general run—probably no better, but he just was not able to keep harmony in the family. In all my research, when you are able to get all the way to the bottom, you will find heartaches. The women try to be brave, but no woman is able to share a husband whom she loves with one or more other women. And the second and third wives have even a harder time.

“Only a few of the women involved in polygamy asked for a divorce simply because it was not a popular thing to do. Convention would not allow it. But I can show you journal after journal when a wife is talking from her heart … that they felt … bitter … “31

On the difficulty of combining love and plural marriage Kimball Young concluded: “Perhaps Brigham Young and others were wise when they pooh-poohed romantic love as a factor in polygamous situations. Certainly there is some evidence in a few of our records that where the wives did not seem to be particularly fond of their husbands in the romantic sense, they were able to make a better adjustment than were those who were romantically involved with their spouses.”32

It appears that in the Mormon system, romantic love and millennial ideas were not entirely consistent. Millennial zeal and pressures to obtain new wives were a threat to the stability of existing [p. 191] love marriages. On the other hand if the first marriage was not based on love, a new plural relationship based on romance was also a threat to existing relationships.

Anomie. Emile Durkheim, the French sociologist, theorized that society was needed to place some constraints on the behavior of men and women but that society could be disturbed by some painful crisis or by beneficent but abrupt transitions so that momentarily it could no longer regulate the affairs of humanity.33 This is known as the state of anomie or normlessness. Durkheim describes this state as follows: “the scale is upset; but a new scale cannot be immediately improvised. Time is required for the public conscience to reclassify men and things. So long as the social forces thus freed have not regained equilibrium, their respective values are unknown and so all regulation is lacking for a time. The limits are unknown between the possible and the impossible, what is just and what is unjust, legitimate claims and hopes and those which are immoderate.”34 In a societal state of anomie, suicide rates increase, according to Durkheim, and divorces also increase—a sort of anomic suicide.35 Divorce rates increase not because there are more bad husbands and wives, or even bad marriages, but because of a lack of regulations in the social structure including the marriage and family system.

It cannot be argued that polygamy per se is related to the state of normlessness. George Murdock, a noted anthropologist, has demonstrated that polygyny is the preferred marriage system in a majority of societies he studied. He points out, however, that polygyny poses some personal adjustment problems that may not arise in monogamy, such as sexual jealousy, but that societies that favor polygyny have elaborate social mechanisms to control the interaction of husband and wives in marriage. Speaking of the Mormon experience he wrote: “It is very probably their internal troubles in making the institution operate harmoniously, rather than external pressures, that induced the Mormons ultimately to abandon polygamy. That it can be made to work smoothly is perfectly clear from the evidence of ethnography.”36 It is here argued that Mormon polygamy developed within a context of normlessness or anomie, resulting from millennialist expectations that alienated Mormons from conventional society. As Thomas O’Dea suggests: “The very separateness of the Mormon group removed them still further from the inhibitions that discourage innovation in the general society. They were not really a [p. 192] part of conventional society. Moreover, hostility set them further apart, increased their separateness, and thereby further weakened the bonds of convention. As separateness encouraged innovation, innovation in return increased separateness by providing a creedal basis for evolving peculiarity.”37

In addition to “evolving peculiarity,” Mormons were moving en masse to establish a new society in the Great Basin, involving immigrants from Europe, Canada, and the United States, many of whom had left parents, spouses, even children, as well as jobs and secure positions in their communities in order to embrace the new faith and gather to the new Zion. Lives were in a state of flux, and pragmatic adjustments were the order of the day.

Robert Flanders believes that Joseph Smith and many of his prominent followers (such as Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball) were alienated from the greater American culture and that they saw themselves living in a world they needed to prepare for the cataclysmic second coming of Jesus Christ. “Specifically, he [Joseph Smith] believed himself called to found the pre-millennial kingdom of God on earth. In this age of the Prophet Joseph, tens of thousand believed, even during his own brief lifetime.”38 Acting on this belief Mormons gathered to Zion at various times in New York, Iowa, Missouri, and Illinois only to be driven to the Rocky Mountains by their fellow Americans. For many Mormons the society of the United States was corrupt and antithetical to their religious goals so that society no longer regulated them. But the new society of Mormonism with its millennialist future orientation had not developed into anything resembling a mature social system with the many forms of checks and balances that are needed to regulate any society. A condition of anomie existed in which “the limits are unknown between the possible and the impossible, what is just and what is unjust, legitimate claims and hopes and those which are immoderate.”

Rudger Clawson, defendant in the first polygamy case to come to trial under the Edmunds law, revealed the Mormon position regarding society’s laws when he said: “I very much regret that the laws of my country should come in conflict with the laws of God; but whenever they do, I shall invariably choose the latter. If I did not so express myself, I would feel unworthy of the cause I represent… . The law of 1862 and the Edmunds law were expressly designed to operate against marriage as practiced and believed by the Latter-day [p. 193] Saints. They are therefore unconstitutional and, of course, cannot command the respect that a Constitutional law would.”39

Eleanor J. McLean married Parley P. Pratt in polygamy while still married to Hector McLean, although she was separated from him. When asked if she had divorced McLean before she married Pratt, she answered: “No, the sectarian priests have no power from God to marry; and a so called marriage ceremony performed by them is no marriage at all; no divorce was needed… . The priesthood, with its powers and privileges can be found nowhere upon the face of the earth but in Utah.”40 Such a dichotomy between the laws of God and the laws of humankind is strongly expressed in many early Mormon writings. The roots of anomic thought can be seen in such statements.

Another interesting case is that of Apostle Orson Hyde who eventually married nine wives and had three divorces. He was assigned to Carson Valley to serve as probate judge in 1854. When it became apparent that he should spend the winter of 1854-55 there, he wrote Brigham Young as follows: “But if I do stay, I want a wife with me. Either Marinder or Mary Ann or someone else, say Sister Paschall–I will leave it to you to determine… . If you think it not wisdom for anyone to come to me from the lake, may I get one here if I can find one to suit … ? The chances to get a wife here are not very many even if a man wanted to get one in this country. Women are scarce and good ones are scarcer still!”41 His wife Mary Ann was sent to him, and after spending the winter with her, he proposed to leave her “here with her sister, having taken up a good ranch that will do for both, and not knowing what my future destiny may be.”42 Marriage for Hyde seems to have been a temporary convenience. Such an attitude would not have been honored in a well-established community that had developed strict standards of conjugal behavior.

Consider the case of George Stringham who married Polly Hendrickson in 1820 and raised a family of six children. In 1858 after all of the children were married, he married a much younger woman polygamously and moved from the home of his first wife, leaving her almost destitute. This embittered some of the children, and one daughter gave vent to her feelings in a letter written to her mother in 1860, portions of which follow:

“Mama, you was telling me of your trials. Oh how sorry it makes me feel for you to think you have to live alone, but I am glad you are as well satisfied with your lot, but I don’t know how you can [p. 194] believe it is right for an old man to put away an old woman after they have raised a great family of children for them, and get a young one, and I tell you I don’t believe there is any God in it. I would like to know what poor miserable woman was made for. If that is right they are no better off than the beasts, I tell you mama I can’t believe that it is a just God to require such as that of women, for when he created them, he made the woman his helpmate. He didn’t say for a while or till they was old and tired of them and then put them away for a younger one or another and leave the old one in sorrow and trouble. I tell you mama, the man that does it will have to answer for. How many times I heard you say that you believed that a man would have to answer for the trouble he made for woman. I don’t know how you can believe it for the way I look at it its against the Bible and strongly against the Book of Mormon. I know I shall always believe it, you know it says that was the downfall of the Nephites, they getting wives and concubines. The God was angry with them and destroyed them off from the earth, because it was not right. If it had been right why didn’t he make more than one for old Adam, I tell you mama it is not right nor never was nor never will be for God has not changed.”43

This arrangement lasted fourteen years, and then in his old age he returned to his first wife. Apparently there were no powerful social mechanisms to regulate Stringham’s behavior.

Another unusual case was that of Thomas Grover. A widower with six children, he married a woman with three children of her own before becoming involved in polygamy. Later he claimed that while praying for a testimony on plural marriage the Lord showed him in a vision the woman he should marry. He subsequently met her, married her, and she ultimately bore him twelve children. In later life when it became apparent that Grover was never going to make much of a mark in the world, his wife Hannah became restless and hard to live with. She began suggesting divorce and even wrote to Daniel H. Wells, a member of the First Presidency of the LDS church, proposing that Grover’s entire family including wives and children be sealed to Wells. Wells advised her to stay with her husband, because “Thomas Grover is as good a man as I am” and cautioned her to keep the situation secret. However Hannah left her husband and went to live with her son Thomas in Nephi. On 14 November 1871 she was sealed to Daniel H. Wells in the Endowment House.44 There is no record of her securing a divorce or having her sealing to Grover [p. 195] canceled, although that would have been the normal procedure. There appear to have been no checks on her behavior.

This case may be an example of a doctrine that appears to be rooted in anomie which was preached by Brigham Young in October 1861: “But there was a way in which a woman could leave a man lawfully—when a woman becomes alienated in her feelings and affections from her husband, it is his duty to give her a bill and set her free—it would be fornication for a man to cohabit with his wife after she had thus become alienated from him… . Also, there was another way in which a woman could leave a man—if the woman preferred a man higher in authority and he is willing to take her and her husband gives her up. There is no bill of divorce required, in [this] case it is right in the sight of God.”45

All of these cases appear to share a common normless quality about them—the limits on action and the source of those limits are not at all clear. In this regard Kimball Young remarked: “It would by no means be assumed that conflict was the inevitable aspect of plural family life. The real problem was that the difficulties could not be easily settled because the culture did not provide any standardized way for handling these conflicts. For the most part, these people genuinely tried to live according to the Principle, but when they applied the rules of the game borrowed from monogamy, such as not controlling feelings of jealousy, they got into real trouble.”46

Thus the regulations in American monogamy emphasizing romantic love and interpersonal attractions as social mechanisms were not easily adapted to Mormon polygamy. Murdock reports that in those societies preferring polygyny as a marriage system, the majority prefer sororal polygyny, the marriage of one man with two or more sisters. Kimball Young reports that about 19 percent of the Mormon families he studied practiced sororal polygyny and that this method worked quite well; but when other wives were added who were not sisters, difficulties multiplied.47 This practice, far from universal, appears to have occurred because there were no limits rather than because it was a preferred mode of marriage. The example of John D. Lee marrying the mother of three of his wives “for her soul’s sake” and others marrying a mother and daughter at the same time are examples of a lack of limits that would not have been tolerated in other more well-established societies.

For polygamous norms Mormons could and did turn to the [p. 196] Old Testament. Even then they had problems adapting those teachings to their needs. For example, although the practice of sororal polygamy was frequently used in Mormon polygamy, the code of the Old Testament forbade this practice. Queen and Haberstein’s description of Hebrew attitudes makes that clear: “The Hebrews, like all other peoples, had laws prohibiting marriage between persons with certain degrees of kinship and affinity. In earliest times stress was laid on the mother’s line. Thus a man might marry his half-sister if they had different mothers, but not if they had the same mother. In those early days the prohibition included mother’s sister, mother and daughter. Later regulations extended the ban to paternal half-sisters, stepmother, mother-in-law and daughter-in-law. The levitical code barred, in addition to the preceding, marriage of any man with any wife of his father, his father’s sister, father’s brother’s wife, daughter’s daughter, son’s wife or daughter, brother’s wife and wife’s sister (during the lifetime of the wife).”48

The rules governing marriage in Jewish culture developed over thousands of years and reflected the move from a migratory life to a more sedentary one. Many of the regulations were not compatible with the Mormon circumstance. In the Mormon situation the extended family was not a particularly important structure. Intergenerational ties and living conditions were not prominent for a number of reasons. When a marriage broke up, the family also was broken. Queen and Haberstein say: “the Hebrew family for most purposes, was not the small conjugal group, but the household or ever larger kinship group. Marriage was not unimportant, but the wedded couple was absorbed in the consanguine family of the three generations and many collateral relatives.”49

Although Mormons may have wished for regulation out of the Old Testament, it did not seem compatible with their circumstance; there is little indication that the Old Testament was ever used as a serious guide to their marriage regulation. There were rules, however. The first wife’s permission was supposed to be obtained before another wife was taken. Each wife was to have a separate house or apartment of her own, and the husband was supposed to show evidence that he could support additional households. But these rules were not followed carefully. There were no rules governing courtship procedures nor the number of wives a man might marry.

Conclusions. Evidence has been represented in this essay indicating that the Mormon system of polygamy was not one of consistent and strong regulation. In fact in many ways it appears to have been a system in which unusual practices developed as the limits were not clear to those involved. The divorce rate and number of separations were high not because polygamous marriage was difficult in this American context per se but because the context of Mormon polygamy was a state of anomie or normlessness caused by the Saints’ millennialist belief system and the instability of their lives in colonizing the Great Basin. The explosive nature of this system can be seen in the troubles Mormons experienced with their American contemporaries in the West and Midwest.50

The only standards for conduct were the actions and advice of church leaders, and they could not be fully effective in regulating plural marriage for many reasons. They apparently claimed no special inspiration for regulating such a system, and their own limited experience with polygamy allowed them to propose only individualistic solutions to many problems.

Because of the sub rosa nature of the practice of polygamy, one could not always take statements about it from church leaders at face value. Some things were said for private information and others for public consumption. This often left the membership of the church without a clear guide for action. During the 1880s when federal agents were arresting Mormon polygamists and sending them to prison, lying and other forms of deception to protect polygamists, especially husbands, were expected and applauded by the Mormon community.

President Wilford Woodruff’s Manifesto in 1890 publicly announced that the church leader “advised” members to abide by the law. However, Charles W. Penrose claimed authorship of the Manifesto and asserted that it was written to satisfy the federal government and was not taken seriously by the Mormon hierarchy.51 It is certain that plural marriages were approved and performed by church leaders in Mexico and elsewhere until a second manifesto in 1904. Mormon fundamentalists, who have continued the practice of polygamy to the present, believe that LDS church leaders made secret ordinations in order to guarantee the continuance of the practice. In anomic circumstances, if the only voice of possible regulation is muted or ambivalent, a fluid marriage system may be expected. Given such circumstances perhaps the number of marriage failures and [p. 198] divorces among Mormon polygamists should not be surprising, but the fact that so many succeeded in developing happy marriage relationships and producing fine families should command both wonder and respect.



1. Kimball Young, Isn’t One Wife Enough? (New York: Henry Holt, 1954), 234. Technically Mormons practiced polygyny, the marriage of one man to two or more women. However, in the Mormon subculture polygamy is always taken to mean the marriage of one man to two or more wives. In this essay polygamy, polygyny, and plural marriage will all refer to the Mormon practice.

2. Ibid., 235.

3. Stanley Ivins, “Notes on Mormon Polygamy,” Western Humanities Review 10 (1956): 230.

4. Box containing nine folders, plus several ledgers, archives, Historical Department, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah; hereafter LDS archives.

5. See B. H. Roberts, A Comprehensive History of the Church of Jesus Christ of latter-day Saints, Century 1, 6 vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1930), 6:149, who “estimates that male members practicing polygamy represented only 2% of church population,” which was about 120,000 in 1888.

6. D. Michael Quinn, “Organizational Development and Social Origins of the Mormon Hierarchy, 1832-1932: A Prosopographical Study,” M.A. thesis, University of Utah, 1973, 248-91. Although there were eighty-one failures listed among church leaders, they were involved in more than 400 marriages.

7. George Levinger, “Marital Cohesiveness and Dissolution: An Interpretive Review,” Journal of Marriage and the Family (1965): 248-91.

8. Ibid., 20.

9. Eugene E. Campbell, “Social, Cultural and Recreational Life,” in The History of a Valley: Cache Valley, Utah-Idaho, eds. Joel E. Ricks and Everett L. Cooley (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Publishing Co., 1956), 418

10. Young, 39-40.

11. Matthias F. Cowley, Wilford Woodruff … (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1909), 490.

12. Ivins, 232.

13. Young, 226.

14. Ibid., 452.

15. Louis G. Reinwand, “An Interpretative Study of Mormon Millennialism during the Nineteenth Century …,” M.A. thesis, Brigham Young [p. 199] University, 1971, 81, 86.

16. Journal History, 22 Aug. 1862, LDS archives. Mormons equate “going back to Jackson County” with the beginning of the Millennium.

17. Ivins, 231.

18. Journal History, 1 Apr. 1857.

19. Brigham Young, Outgoing Correspondence, 22-26, LDS archives.

20. Brigham Young, Incoming Correspondence, 5 Mar. 1857, LDS archives.

21. Journal of Discourses, 26 vols. (Liverpool, 1854-86), 4:55.

22. Wilford Woodruff Journal, 6 Oct. 1856, LDS archives.

23. Journal History, 18 Dec. 1858.

24. Ibid., 15 Dec. 1858.

25. Ibid., 15 Nov. 1858.

26. Brigham Young’s Office Journal, 5 Oct. 1861, LDS archives.

27. William J. Goode, “The Theoretical Importance of Love,” American Sociological Review 24 (1959): 47.

28. Frank Furstenberg, Jr., “Industrialization and the American Family: A Look Backward,” American Sociological Review 31 (June 1966): 326-37.

29. Young, 385.

30. Richard Ballantyne Journal, 234, LDS archives.

31. George Shepherd Tanner to Max Tanner, copy in our possession.

32. Young, 209.

33. Emile Durkheim, Suicide, trans. John A Spalding and George Simpson (New York: Free Press, 1951), 252.

34. Ibid., 253.

35. Ibid., 273.

36. George P. Murdock, Social Structure (New York: MacMillan Company, 1949), 31.

37. Thomas F. O’Dea, The Mormons (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957), 54-55.

38. Robert Flanders, “To Transform History: Early Mormon Culture and the Concept of Time and Space,” Church History 40 (1971):

39. Salt Lake Tribune, 4 Nov. 1884.

40. Stephen Pratt, “The Last Days of Parley P. Pratt,” Brigham Young University Studies (1975): 20.

41. Albert Page, “Orson Hyde and the Carson Valley Mission, 1855-

42. Ibid.

43. Letter from Sabra Stringham to Polly Stringham, 10 June 1860, [p. 200] copy in our possession.

44. Mark Grover, “The Effects of Polygamy upon Thomas Grover,” seminar paper in our possession.

45. Conference Reports, 8 Oct. 1861, reported by George D. Watt, LDS archives; also found in the journal of James Beck, 8 Oct. 1861, LDS archives. A more careful study of the marriages of Zina Huntington Jacobs and Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner may be justified in light of this pronouncement.

46. Young, 209.

47. Ibid., 111.

48. Stuart A. Queen and Robert W. Haberstein, The Family in Various Cultures (New York: J. B. Lippincott Co., 1967), 167.

49. Ibid.

50. The Mountain Meadow Massacre is another indication of the relative normlessness that existed in the Mormon subculture at that time.

51. Minutes of the trial of Matthias F. Cowley for violation of the Manifesto, 27 Apr. 1911, Special Collections, Marriott Library, University of Utah. Penrose later became a member of the First Presidency.