Polygamy Drama


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Have you ever seen the TV series “Little House on the Prairie” with the incredibly talented Michael Landon? Well, when most members think about early polygamy in the LDS Church, they think about perfect families like the Ingalls. The husband (Charles) was always in a great mood despite the fact that he worked long hours in the hot sun or sometimes forced to hold two jobs at the same time and even yet, he was always smiling and had a cheerful disposition.As a father, he was perfect and no matter what situation or circumstance, he was always willing to teach his girls unforgettable lessons and was never afraid to show affection.

Then you have the wife (Caroline Ingalls) who was what we would call in LDS lingo, a typical Molly Mormon. She never burned the food because she was an amazing cook, never ever shouted at the children despite the fact that sometimes they did wrong things such as cheating, disobeying, or lying and never, ever complained about how many dishes she had to wash, or how many breads she had to bake or how many chickens she had to butcher or the fact that she never had money to shop for things she liked in the local mercantile owned by Mr and Mrs. Oleson.

So when you think about Brigham Young and his 50 something wives you gotta wonder: How the heck did he do it? I mean, seriously. If I was a man, I couldn’t imagine being married to so many women. Why? Because pioneer women or not, we are sometimes a pain in the a**. My grandmother used to say that 10 men can live peacefully in one room but two women cannot live peacefully in a mansion. Add ONE husband to the mix and is the perfect setting for a novel, Hollywood movie or a reality TV series.

Young had a very hard time accepting Polygamy, he said it was the first time in his life that he desired the grave and he would feel envy for corpses at funerals and regret that he was not the one in the coffin! He had some wonderful wives who loved him and cared for him but perhaps you wonder. Is it possible for a husband to provide economically, physically, sexually, emotionally and equally to 50 something wives? The thing is, not every single wife lived with Young and a lot of these relationships were non-conjugal.

A little over a quarter of those women also had children with him and because of his many Church responsibilities, and his travels, he was often times an absent husband and father. I am not stating this as a criticism, but as historical fact and as much as I can empathize with his desire to fulfill God’s commandments, I have to also empathize with his wives and children whom desired to spend more time with him but were unable to do so.

One of these wives was Augusta Adams who wrote to Young hundreds of letters and in a good portion of them, expressing how lonely she felt. Ann Eliza Young was also another of his wives who wasn’t afraid to express how she felt. As a matter of fact, she was so unhappy about the relationship with Young, that she applied for a civil divorce on grounds of cruel treatment and neglect between other reasons.

Later on, she was excommunicated and wrote “Wife No. 19 or the story of the life in bondage, being a complete expose of Mormonism and revealing the sorrows, sacrifices and sufferings of women in polygamy”, some refer to this book as probably one of the first anti-Mormon literature writings, because it denounces Mormonism as a false religion.

Ann was certainly not the only wife to ask him for a divorce. Mary Woodward who was married to him for quite a short period of time, also requested a divorce. The interesting thing is that Young never argued when they requested him such a thing, he would grant the divorce immediately and yet offer further assistance if they needed financial help (Even though they will no longer be considered his wives). Mary Ann Clark Powers, Mary Jane Bigelow, Mary Ann Turley, Elizabeth Fairchild and Eliza Babcock all requested a divorce from Brigham Young and a few of them re-married.

Yup, he wasn’t Charles Ingalls and their wives weren’t Caroline but yet again, this wasn’t a TV show but a real life situation. These wives weren’t the only ones complaining about Plural marriage, many early brethren talked about fights, gossiping, murmuring and jealousy. Brigham Young gave the following ultimatum to the sisters in the Church after being fed up with the complaining:

“Now for my proposition; it is more particularly for my sisters, as it 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;” “No, not a happy day for a year,” says one; and 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 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 this community, and then write it 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. I will set all at liberty. “What, first wife too?” Yes, I will liberate you all.

I know what my women will say; they will say, “You can have as many women as you please, Brigham.” But I want to go somewhere and do something to get rid of the whiners; I do not want them to receive a part of the truth and spurn the rest out of doors.

I wish my women, and brother Kimball’s and brother Grant’s to leave, and every woman in this Territory, or else say in their hearts that they will embrace the Gospel-the whole of it. Tell the Gentiles that I will free every woman in this Territory at our next Conference. “What, the first wife too?” Yes, there shall not be one held in bondage, all shall be set free. And then let the father be the head of the family, the master of his own household; and let him treat them as an angel would treat them; and let the wives and the children say amen to what he says, and be subject to his dictates, instead of their dictating the man, instead of their trying to govern him.

No doubt some are thinking, “I wish brother Brigham would say what would become of the children.” I will tell you what my feelings are; I will let my wives take the children, and I have property enough to support them, and can educate them, and then give them a good fortune, and I can take a fresh start…

Sisters, I am not joking, I do not throw out my proposition to banter your feelings, to see whether you will leave your husbands, all or any of you. But I do know that there is no cessation to the everlasting whining of many of the women in this Territory; I am satisfied that this is the case. And if the women will turn from the commandments of God and continue to despise the order of heaven, I will pray that the curse of the Almighty may be close to their heels, and that it may be following them all the day long. And those that enter into it and are faithful, I will promise them that they shall be queens in heaven, and rulers to all eternity.

Prepare yourselves for two weeks from tomorrow; and I will tell you now, that if you will tarry with your husbands, after I have set you free, you must bow down to it, and submit yourselves to the celestial law. You may go where you please, after two weeks from tomorrow; but, remember, that I will not hear any more of this whining.” (Journal of Discourses Vol. 5 pages 56-57).”

Men always complain about wives whining and fighting and they have only one”¦well, imagine that pressure times 55(Add to that the fact that you have to support them financially and otherwise) and whatever crazy idea you have of living this law here on Earth will seem like something you wish it never happen to you.

Well, I know for a fact that I wouldn’t be able to handle polyandry, too much drama for a Cheeky Mormon. You see, when women perhaps fought in a polygamous marriage what they probably did?

Well, what women usually do: They shout, they call each other nasty names (You are fat as a balloon wife number 4! And you are as flat as an iron board wife number 5, ha!). If they go physical in an extreme situation probably there will be some hair pulling and the show is practically over but with men…

Now THAT’S a different story, first will be the competition. (My carriage has more horses than yours, husband number 3! And? Pfffff who cares? I have a stagecoach husband number 6!)

And of course, then will be the physical. There will be broken noses, broken legs, broken ribs, broken every -single -part-of -the- body! Did I say blood? Yup, blood. Let’s face it, more blood men see.. manlier they seem to feel.

So excuse me if I am not interested folks, I don’t wish that sort of melodrama in real life, there are enough Latin American soap operas and Jerry Springer TV shows.

9 thoughts on “Polygamy Drama”

  1. The thing with Brother Brigham is that we tend to focus on his initial shock at the idea of plural marriage, and his famous grave line.

    What we usually leave out of the narrative is that once he started practicing it, he was all in. And I don’t mean all in as in It’s my duty, so I’ll just shut up and do it, but all in as in: Hey look, when I get tired of a woman, I can set her off to the side and get me another!?.

    Follow the chronology of his wives, read the diaries (Or books regarding the diaries), and you can clearly see the pattern. He always had his favorite(S), and the rest. This second group was an obligation to him, where he visited them infrequently, at times joking with his friends that he did so only because the women needed to visit a man at least once a year to keep the progeny coming. But the favorites were a different group. He doted on them, took them places, etc. And when a favorite started demanding more of his time, he’d relegate them to the other group, and pretty soon he’d replace her with another, usually a much younger woman.

    Look at his SLC days. While in his 50’s, he married a 19 year old, a couple of early 20’s, and while in his 60’s he married a handful of 23 and 24 year olds (Periodically interspersed with purely ceremonial marriages to women who were already married to other men). He wasn’t the begrudging participant we sometimes hold him up to be.

    Don’t get me going on the other men practicing polygamy at the time. The rhetoric that we like to throw out, that only a few practiced it, that there were so many more women than men, and only to raise up seed, is clearly revisionist, a product of the time the church held records private, and any idea presented outside of the official church statement was
    Considered heretical, anti-mormon, worthy of disciplinary action.

    With the wide availability of information nowadays, and the church opening up (Slowly but surely) the records it has kept heretofore private, it’s become quite clear that the practice was widespread. And it had social standing attached to it. That the men had to get permission from their church leaders to take on more wives at times became almost a granting of favors by the ecclesiastical leaders.

    The saddest line I read was the time when a church member wanted another wife, but there were no more adult women to be found in the area, so he asked his bishop permission to marry a 12 year old girl. The bishop took the matter to Brother Brigham, who gave permission, only under the condition that the man wait until the girl flowered first before he consummate the marriage.

    When I think of my own girls at that age, and having adult men wanting to take them on as a sexual partner, with Brother Brigham saying it’s ok, with the only condition being that she’s had her first menses, it personalizes it to a point where I understand why the rest of the country reviled the practice. We need look no further than the current FLDS and other polygamist groups to get a glimpse of ourselves 150 years ago.

    To me, this was a strange period in the church. I realize I have the benefit of time, and the constraints of current social/moral norms, but despite that, it’s still difficult for me to understand that period of time. God only knows (Quite literally) why it happened. I am extremely grateful
    For the US Government starting to seize the church assets in
    The 1890’s that led to the end of this practice.

    Rant over.

    More on topic, I agree with you, it would be extremely hard to live with multiple wives. On a practical basis, I have a hard time just trying to do well by my one wife, providing temporal things, being a companion and confidant, trying to figure out her complex mind (Why, oh why is the feminine brain so complicated?). There’s no way I could do so with more than one. So I’ll pass on the idea, and enjoy wholly and fully my one and only wife.

  2. Teacher, you are awfully harsh on President Young. He was indeed a product of his time so why exactly are you judging him this way? If you have issues with Polygamy then you have issues with the Lord since he was the One who instituted the practice.

  3. Thank you so much for such informative post! I had no idea that several of his wives requested a divorce. Part of me understands this doctrine but there are so many unanswered questions.

  4. Hi Chica, may I first gently suggest that it is not within any of our stewardship to call into question the testimony of others.”.

    I’m sorry, it wasn’t my intention to challenge your testimony. What I was trying to say is that if you’re questioning Brigham Young then you’re questioning the Lord because he chose him!

    I would agree that prophets are not perfect but this was a sacred doctrine that the Lord himself authorized then IF we’re questioning how the prophet himself practiced plural marriage then we’re indirectly stating that the Lord is mistaken and that’s not a possibility.

    About his Adam-God theory is just speculation and a misunderstanding in the part of many but I don’t want to go off topic because this post isn’t about that theory but about polygamy.

    I also want to say to Cheeky mormon thank you for blogging about a topic that a lot of members think is taboo and yet you have done it in a funny way (Which is your style) and at the same time, proving how much you seem to know about this topic and others, very informative.

  5. Teacher makes some good points however I find a little hard to accept this statement: “We need look no further than the current FLDS and other polygamist groups to get a glimpse of ourselves 150 years ago.”. I have a problem with that. The FLDS church is practicing polygamy without Heavenly Father’s approval so how can we compare the unauthorized practice of plural marriage vs. The authorized practice?

    Cheeky shares some historical facts that few people seem to be aware of such as: divorce, a big opposition to the practice and the constant complaints from sisters who were against it…yet most of them remained faithful even if they couldn’t fully understand why.

  6. J., thanks for the chance to clarify my statement. Yes, you’re absolutely right that it’s a false comparison in the authorized practice vs. Unauthorized practice. I didn’t mean to imply that they are legitimately practicing plural marriage.

    What I meant to say is if you look at the FLDS, et.al. Right now, from an anthropological point of view, it would look very much like our polygamy practice did back in the day.

    The admittedly superficial details I know of the legacy Mormon groups, it appears they kept the practice going as it was back when it was authorized, without much change. Indeed, they think we are a bunch of apostates who left the truth.

    As for the sisters who stayed in plural marriages despite the challenges, not only did most of them remain faithful, but there was a constant stream of women coming to Brother Brigham asking him to add them as a wife. One possible reason is that at the time, it was understood that the only way to the highest degree of the Celestial Kingdom was to be in a plural marriage. Though that is just speculation on my part. The diaries I’ve read only make glancing mention of that as a driving factor.

    Whatever kept them going, they were remarkable women with remarkable faith.

  7. Thank you for the clarification and for not taking my comment as a criticism. Can we really compare (Anthropologically speaking) the practice of polygamy in the FLDS church now in 2013 vs. The early days of the LDS church? I’m not sure if the comparison would be fair at all.

    We’re talking about two completely different times where it wasn’t uncommon back then to marry young girls, now it is considered a crime if the girl in question happens to be younger than the age of consent.

    However, think about Mary the mother of Jesus and probably many other young women at the time, it wasn’t really uncommon for them to be married by age 16 or even younger. Now, I’m not justifying what Warren Jeffs or even Brigham Young or Joseph did when marrying girls who were 14 or 15, darn it… Even 16 still too young by today’s standards.

    And that’s my point all along, we’re trying to see this issue by our present way of thinking and that is certainly not the same of 150 years ago.

    Yes, Brigham Young married lots of women but as you well pointed out, it was them who requested such marriages (In a lot of cases) and as Cheeky shared in her post, a lot of these marriages were non-conjugal.

    I think he needs a break or at least we should analyze him or his behavior by the standards of back in the 1800’s rather than 2013.

  8. J., points well taken, it is unfair to compare. It’s just so visceral that it’s hard not to. But yes, taking a step back it is an unfair comparison.

    Chica, I maintain that it’s perfectly ok to question the Prophet and do so without challenging God. It is possible for God to give instructions and revelations and have the Prophet mess it up. The Prophet is an agent unto himself, not controlled by God. We can say that he chose the best person for the job of leading the practice of polygamy, and yet that person couldn’t live up to its potential.

    Another example is the Law of Consecration. The Prophet Brigham began in earnest to preach this divine doctrine, setting up the United Order in a number of institutions in various cities. Yet he himself would not join the United Order. That’s a clear example of a Prophet receiving revelation, teaching, preaching, but not practicing. I don’t believe polygamy, as practiced by Brigham Young falls into this level, my perception is that it was much more subtle.

    To me, he should have spent his time more equally with his wives and kids, and when he got tired of a wife, rather than replace her with a younger one, he should have spent his energy on making his existing relationships stronger. Love is pretty easy when it?s fresh and new. Real love comes after the shininess wears off. That’s the missing thing for Me. I just wish he’d been a better example.

  9. I’m sorry, it wasn’t my intention to challenge your testimony. What I was trying to say is that if you’re questioning Brigham Young then you’re questioning the Lord because he chose him!

    I would agree that prophets are not perfect but this was a sacred doctrine that the Lord himself authorized then IF we’re questioning how the prophet himself practiced plural marriage then we’re indirectly stating that the Lord is mistaken and that’s not a possibility.

    About his Adam-God theory is just speculation and a misunderstanding in the part of many but I don’t want to go off topic because this post isn’t about that theory but about polygamy.

    I also want to say to Cheeky mormon thank you for blogging about a topic that a lot of members think is taboo and yet you have done it in a funny way (Which is your style) and at the same time, proving how much you seem to know about this topic and others, very informative.

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