Friday, May 29, 2015

How They Defended Polygamy

I remember the very beginnings of my research into the written records of 19th century polygamist wives for the play I'm currently writing. (Click here for a description of the play).

"I'm looking for writings by polygamist women about how they felt about, y'know . . . being polygamists." I asked awkwardly.  Going all the way down to Brigham Young University's Harold B. Lee Library was an odd choice, because I live in Salt Lake City, an hour's drive North of BYU. But I thought it would be nice to start at my alma mater, because it was something familiar, and in all other ways, I was clueless about how to begin.

"Okay," replied the library at the desk, "do you have a call number?"


"No problem. Whose writings should I help you look up?"

"I don't know." By this time I was already blushing. What I really needed was advice on how to get started. "Is there a list of polygamist women somewhere?"

"Um, I don't think so." While I stood for a minute, feeling stupid and unprepared, the librarian was engrossed in typing a variety of search terms into the catalog. "Aha!" she announced, "got something for you."

It was "Defence of Polygamy" (original spelling) by Belinda Pratt, an 1854 letter Belinda wrote from her home in Utah to her sister (not Mormon) in New Hampshire. She later published the letter as an essay for a public audience. Upon reading the letter, I knew immediately that it would become a monologue for my play.

Utah women in 19th century polygamy were up against much more than the worries of family and friends back East. Even after escaping anti-Mormon persecution in Missouri and Illinois by migrating across the plains and over the Rocky Mountains, polygamists continued to fight philosophical persecution. In Utah, they were not isolated from eastern American media, and were well aware of the many books, pamphlets, articles and political cartoons that formed an anti-polygamy campaign against them. Sometimes Mormon women were called harlots, their homes being termed harems. Alternatively, there were anti-polygamy media attempting a sympathetic view of the women in polygamy. These portrayed polygamist wives as deceived, helpless, and oppressed, as in the political cartoon featured below. The women in polygamy took umbrage at both characterizations. Here's how Helen Mar Whitney Kimball (a daughter of Heber C. Kimball, and wife of Joseph Smith Jr.) responds to the view the female polygamists are deceived and oppressed.
To such as believe Mormon women to be the dupes and slaves of men, I will relate the testimon[y] of my sainted mother . . . which I heard repeatedly from [her] own lips in days gone by. My mother said she could not doubt that the principle of plurality of wives was of divine origin, for the Lord had shown it to her in answer to prayer (A Woman's View: Helen Mar Whitney's Reminiscences of Early Church History, 136).

If some of us are willing that our husbands should marry more wives and provide for them and their offspring, I cannot see whose business it is but our own. There is no compulsion in the matter as our self-appointed judges would make it appear. Every Latter-day Saint has his or her own free agency, if it affects their sensitive morals too much I would advise them to seek homes in a more congenial climes in some other part of the Earth, where they will not infringe upon the rights of others. (Ibid., 62-3)
Image source:
More Wives Than One: Transformation of the Mormon
Marriage System 1840-1910
by Kathryn M. Daynes
 These quotations written by Helen in the 1880s are complex in light of the fact that she may have been exactly the type of woman the anti-polygamy media was concerned about. She explains that as a 14-year-old she chose to marry Joseph Smith, not because of love, not because of seduction, but due to the strong encouragement of her father, and Joseph's promise that the marriage would "ensure your salvation & that of your father's household & all of your kindred." Although she was a very young person under a great deal of pressure, in her reminiscences, she defends herself to the world, emphasizing that the choice was hers, "I will-ingly gave myself to purchase so glorious a reward" (Ibid., 196-7). In this same part of her writing, Helen makes a metaphor that reveals the complicated nature of her mother's feelings. Here, Helen refers to the biblical practice of animal sacrifice, then to her mother, Vilate, Kimball, Heber C. Kimball's first wife, and a Sarah Noon, one of Heber C. Kimball's plural wives.
My father had but one Ewe Lamb [Helen], but willingly laid her upon the alter; how cruel this seamed to the mother whose heartstrings were already stretched until they were ready to snap asunder, for he had taken Sarah Noon to wife & she [Vilate] thought she had made sufficient sacrifise, but the Lord required more (Ibid. 196-7, spelling errors are Helen's).
Although Helen uses the story of her mother's acceptance of polygamy (the result of an answer to prayer) to prove that women in polygamy were not "the dupes and slaves of men," she also lets us know that acceptance of polygamy wasn't simple. To say that she and her mother accepted or were willing to become part of polygamy was not to say that they genuinely looked forward to it. Although they entered the practice of their own free will, they did so out of a religious obligation, rather than desire. To someone outside of the practice of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, this would seem nonsensical. The choices women made to enter polygamy can only be understood in the context of a culture that believes in a God who expects strict obedience, commands mankind by means of a prophet, and rewards a person in the hereafter for righteous sacrifices made in this life.

While they were seen as duped by blind obedience, many women in polygamy spoke intelligently about their decision-making process before entering it, and were sincere in their assessment of the system after years of living in it. In my own study of women who remained faithful to the Church and polygamy, several wrote critically of the practice even as they defended it, explaining that while the principle was pure, there were those living it who lacked pure intentions or habits. Mary Jane Mount Tanner says as much in an 1882 letter to her aunt, Mary Bessac Hunt in New England. In the quotation below, I have retained Mary's original punctuation and spelling errors.
It is a principle that is easily abused if a man is not sound at the core and does not rely on the strength of God to direct and sustain him he is liable to err. Error in any capacity creates confusions President Young used to say that many were sealed up to damnation. But only those who lived the law could enter the Celestial Kingdom. Meaning that many of those who entered the law of celestial marriage [polygamy] would not live it righteously and would receive condemnation and wander into wickedness I have lived in it sixteen years. Have I been happy? Not always. It takes time to overcome our weaknesses. We have the same disposition, the same selfishness, and jealousy and egotism to contend with, but we accept it as a religious duty. And ask God for wisdom . . . I have seen much happiness, contentment and satisfaction. It opens to us a broader field for usefulness. We are working for the emancipation of mankind. Woman is not a stone in poligamy, let people say what they may (A Fragment: The Autobiography of Mary Jane Mount Tanner, 189-191).
In my study of the public and private writings of 18 women faithful to polygamy, 9 women wrote statements that could be classified as "defense of polygamy." Most of these women wrote extensively on this topic; this category of my notes is comprised of 12 typed pages of quotations. To conclude this blog post, I will offer one more compelling statement. This is part of an essay in response to the accusation that the men and women in polygamy are vile and corrupt.  It's written by a wife of both Joseph Smith, and Brigham Young, Emily Dow Partridge Young.
Polygamy tends to ennoble and glorify. It was not installed for those who love wickedness and would trample on the gems of heaven. It has been given to earth for the benefit of those who love truth and righteousness. It is true, that every good principle is often abused. The vile cannot live happy in polygamy. It does not belong to them. And those that condemn it are not free from guilt. And I would say to the intelligent and honorable ladies of the Christian world, do not accept the misrepresentations and lies that are thrown broadcast but investigate our principles--our works. The tree is known by its fruits (Journal, Emily Dow Partridge Young, November 16, 1878).

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