The following was originally printed in the September/October 2010 edition of Mormonism Researched. To request a free subscription, please visit here.
A popular tourist attraction in downtown Salt Lake City is the Beehive House. This building, constructed in 1854, and located at South Temple and State Street, doubled as a personal residence and office for LDS Church President and Utah Governor, Brigham Young. Named for the large beehive that sits atop the building, it was purchased by the church after Young’s death and eventually turned into a museum/visitors’ center in the 1950’s.
As with most Mormon visitors’ centers, tourists will find a warm welcome from missionaries, and after a polite “Where are you from,” are escorted on a short tour.
Brigham Young was, by far, the most famous polygamist in Mormon history, and perhaps for this reason the topic of plural marriage is mentioned at the beginning of the tour. However, unless specifically asked, the missionaries don’t normally volunteer why plural marriage was practiced.
Should you ask, the chances are you will be told that because of the persecution and deaths of so many Mormon men, it was necessary for polygamy to be instituted. I’ve been told more than once that the reason Brigham Young practiced plural marriage was so he could take care of the many widows left behind after the deaths of their husbands.
I assume that most tourists allow such a superficial answer to slide, but really, why would marriage be necessary if the goal was to merely meet the material needs of a widow? When asked, I’ve been told that it was also for legal reasons; however, polygamy was never legal under American law, even though the Federal government didn’t do much to stop it until Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act in 1862, and even then, the Civil War postponed serious action until the Edmunds-Tucker Act was passed in 1887.
It is rare to hear a retelling of Mormon history without a reference being made to the persecution the Mormons faced in Missouri and Illinois. This was very real and I certainly have no intention to downplay any atrocities against the LDS people during that period (despite the fact that some LDS historians have admitted that the Saints were not totally without blame when it came to conflict between them and their “Gentile” neighbors).
I am fully aware that Smith’s alleged revelation on plural marriage had nothing to do with taking care of widows. In fact, Smith married at least ten women who at the time had living husbands! However, when I hear missionaries tell me polygamy was necessary because of the huge surplus of widows, I can’t help but ask, “How many married men died in order to justify such a huge shift in social ethics?” I’ve asked this question on several occasions, but have never received a satisfactory answer. Most of the missionary tour guides simply admit they just don’t know.
I have yet to find any list that documents how many people actually died from persecution in the early years of Mormonism, although I have heard Mormons insist that it was a very large number. For example, on MRM’s blog site, Mormon Coffee, one LDS poster insisted that,
“The historical facts are clear and irrefutable: persecutions against Mormons and the LDS Church during the 19th century were often violent, vicious, and cruel. Many Mormons were murdered and HUNDREDS died fleeing their persecutors during the Missouri War. Even HUNDREDS more Mormons perished from exposure fleeing their persecutors after the martyrdom of Joseph and Hyram Smith. This is not fiction, this is historical fact!”
Well, as John Adams, America’s second president once said, “Facts are stubborn things,” and the fact is such numbers cannot be substantiated.
In chapter one of their book, Massacre at Mountain Meadows, LDS historians Ronald W. Walker, Richard E. Turley, and Glen M. Leonard, recap the struggles the Mormons faced in Missouri. On pages 12-13 they note that “while the Saints never made a full accounting of their casualties, their various reports listed rape, gunshot wounds, beatings, exposure, and dozens of resulting deaths”
Speaking in general conference in October 1901, Mormon historian and Seventy B.H. Roberts said,
“First, let me tell you the net results of the persecution of the Latter-day Saints in Missouri, so far as they can be told in a summary: There were killed outright of men, women and children, so far as careful estimates can be made, more than fifty souls. There were as many more wounded and beaten. How many perished by slow death, suffering untold agonies, by reason of exposure and cruelties, no one knows, nor can it be computed.”
If Mormons never made a “full accounting of their casualties” and no one really knows how many died from exposure, etc., why do some Mormons insist that hundreds perished? Though the loss of 50+ souls should never be minimized, if B.H. Roberts’ assessment is accurate, tourists are led to believe polygamy was necessary because fewer than a hundred women found themselves without husbands. Perhaps the LDS Church needs to revise the script they give to missionaries at the Beehive House, because that story is just not believable.