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Book Review: Mormon Polygamy: A History (2nd Edition)

Mormon Polygamy: A History (2nd Edition)

By Richard S. Van Wagoner

Reviewed by Eric Johnson

With three different Gospel Topic essays written in 2014 on the topic of plural marriage (or polygamy), much has been discussed recently on this topic. When the leaders say these essays were written to correct false information on the topic, they overstate their case. In fact, there has been plenty of accurate information on this topic published over the past three decades, with books like In Sacred Loneliness, Mormon Enigma, and Nauvoo Polygamy readily available well before the church began officially talking about this issue. (These three books all deal with Mormon plural marriages during the lifetime of Joseph Smith.) For an overview of the topic, I highly recommend the 255-page Mormon Polygamy, which in the early 1990s was the first book I ever read on this topic.

Written for laypeople by respected LDS historian Richard S. Van Wagoner in 1989, Mormon Polygamy provides an excellent starting place for anyone interested in this topic. While many other resources cover Smith’s polygamous ways, Van Wagoner does an admirable job on this topic. In chapter 4 he admits to Smith’s polyandrous (one woman, multiple men) ways. In chapter 5, he discusses how Smith was able to get multiple wives. On page 53, he writes, “There is evidence to suggest that on at least one other occasion Smith convinced one of his would-be young wives to accept polygamy by persuading her that is was a ‘spiritual order and not a temporal one.’”

Van Wagoner tells the story of how 14-year-old Helen Mar Kimball (not “fifteen-year-old,” as he reports) was approached by Smith and told, “If you will take this step, it will insure your eternal salvation & exaltation and that of your father’s household & all of your kindred.” Kimball said that “this promise was so great that I willingly gave myself to purchase so glorious a reward.” Later, however, “she confided to a close friend in Nauvoo: ‘I would never have been sealed to Joseph had I known it was anything more than ceremony. I was young, and they deceived me, by saying the salvation of our whole family depended on it.’”

After Smith was killed, the LDS leaders worked overtime to  rationalize its teaching. For example, Apostle Orson Pratt

asserted that four-fifths of the world believed in a plurality of wives. The practice could provide an opportunity for every Mormon woman to be a wife and mother. Monogamy, reasoned Pratt, invited immorality. Prostitution could be prevented “in the way the Lord devised in ancient times; that is, by giving to his faithful servants a plurality of wives.” (p. 85)

Plural marriage was not popular with the European Mormons, who “were evidently aghast at the church’s announcement of polygamy. . . . during the first six months polygamy was preached 1,776 British Saints left the church.” (p. 86) But the topic was very much preached from the pulpit starting in the early 1850s, including Brigham Young who, in 1855, taught that “if any of you will deny the plurality of wives and continue to do so, I promise that you will be damned.” (p. 91) Still, most LDS men at that time remained monogamous despite the teaching.

As Van Wagoner writes, “No period of Mormon history demonstrated a devotion to polygamous duty more than the two-year period from 1856 to 1857, known as the Mormon Reformation” (p. 92) However, by 1871, Van Wagoner reports that Brigham Young responded to a rash of polygamous divorces in the early 1870s by “advising church leaders to marry only one wife. In 1871 Young reversed his previously held position that polygamy was essential to reaching the highest degree of heaven. . . . “ (p. 112)

When the 1890 Manifesto (apparently known in those days as the “Wilford Woodruff Manifesto”) was released, it caused a huge uproar in the LDS Church. As Van Wagoner explains,

Many longtime church members, steeped in the philosophy that plural marriage was essential for the highest degree of exaltation, wondered about the eternal consequences of the announcement.” In addition, “the absence of the signatures of First Presidency counselors George Q. Cannon and Joseph F. Smith on the Manifesto also concerned some Saints. Others wondered why the document began with the unusual “To Whom It May Concern” rather than the authoritative “Thus Saith the Lord” usually associated with revelatory pronouncements. (p. 143)

For a church that claims to have direct revelation from God with leaders officially connected to God, this is an excellent point.

Regardless, there was much debate about whether or not “the Manifesto was a divine manifestation or a political ruse.” Van Wagoner writes,

Woodruff, perhaps more pragmatic and certainly less combative than John Taylor, recognized the necessity of changing the church’s public position on polygamy. Continued opposition to the government was clearly foolhardy. The government had both the power and the resolve to destroy the church’s influence in the territory if it did not publicly capitulate on the polygamy issue.” (p. 147)

The Manifesto did not end polygamy with church leaders. In fact, “with the exception of Lorenzo Snow, who cohabited only with his youngest wife, not a single apostle or member of the First Presidency discontinued connubial relationships with plural wives.” (p. 155) In addition, “eleven General Authorities, including Heber J. Grant, fathered seventy-six children by twenty-seven plural wives during the years 1890-1095. Though Grant had children by only one wife after 1890, he pled guilty to a charge of unlawful cohabitation in 1899 and was fined $100.” (pp. 155-6)

Meanwhile, “until 1904 scores of new plural marriages were authorized and performed in Mexico, Canada, and even in the United States.” As Van Wagoner writes,

The Wilford Woodruff Manifesto was not intended, by those who issued it, to stop polygamy. Virtually all church leaders, either by action or assent, disregarded the Woodruff Manifesto. President Woodruff himself may have married at least one post-Manifesto wife. (p. 168)

It wasn’t until the Reed Smoot hearings in 1904 that the church banned polygamy a second time, a fact not known by many Latter-day Saints but recently acknowledged in one Gospel Topic essay.

The most interesting chapter for me was chapter 17 (“Founding Mormon Fundamentalism”), which describes the history of the splinter churches that are still around today. Many leaders of these groups

trace their authority of President John Taylor, who, on the underground at the John W. Woolley home in Centerville, Utah, in September 1886, allegedly “asked the Lord if it would not be right under the circumstances to discontinue plural marriages.” Taylor’s son, John W., claimed he found among his father’s papers after his death the response to this question—“ a revelation given him of the Lord, and which is not in my possession, in which the Lord told him that the principle of plural marriage would never be overcome.” (p. 183)


even if tests proved the document to be in John Taylor’s hand, the official Mormon position would be that the revelation was not submitted to a General Conference of the Saints for approval and was therefore not binding. Fundamentalist would argue that when God has spoken, he does not need the confirming vote of the church. They would also point out that the church has systematically suppressed critical documents related to the 1886 revelation. (pp. 186-7)

Oh, to have access to the Church Archives in Salt Lake City! Alas, I don’t expect church leaders to want anyone to have access to records that could shed doubt on Mormonism itself.

Chapter 19 (“Polygamists in the News”) liberally uses names such as LeBarnon, Lafferty, and Allred, providing a number of fascinating stories. Unfortunately, the chapter is extremely dated since it was written so many years ago. Wouldn’t it be fun to have someone revise this book and then add the history of polygamist groups since the 1980s? At the same time, it should be pointed out that a number of books are available on these topics, including many of Warren Jeffs and the RLDS movement based in Utah/Arizona.

The weakest part of this book is that it offers no graphics (such as a quick overview of Smith’s wives or a timeline of plural marriage in the LDS Church). Fortunately, charts like these can be found in other scholarly works on this topic. Also, we must remember that, in 1989, the Internet was not yet up and it was much more difficult to do historical research, so we will give the author a break.

All in all, Mormon Polygamy is still a book worthy of being read and I recommend it.

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