The Pain of Polygamy

Jill Martin Rische

The history of American polygamy is one of great suffering and pain. Polygamy, the practice of one man having many wives, was introduced to America as a “revelation” from God, but its long legacy of heartbreak and despair points instead to a thoroughly malevolent source. Insidious and ruthless, it authorized the enslavement of women and children, the castration of rebellious young men, and the torture and murder of those who dared to disobey.

The Revelation

On July 12, 1843, Joseph Smith formally introduced “A Revelation on the Patriarchal Order of Matrimony” to the Latter-day Saints of Nauvoo, Illinois. It became known as celestial or plural marriage and began with a warning: “For behold, I reveal unto you a new and an everlasting covenant; and if ye abide not in that covenant, then are ye damned; for no one can reject this covenant and be permitted to enter into my glory.” Salvation became contingent on the practice of polygamy, and the Saints, or Mormons as they were commonly called, must obey or face eternal damnation. The “divine” instructions went on to say, “if a man marry a wife and make a covenant with her for time and for all eternity, if that covenant is not by me or by my word then it is not valid neither of force when they are out of the world because they are not joined by me, saith the Lord….” In a single revelation, Joseph Smith claimed authority over every marriage that had taken place within the Mormon Church until the time of the revelation, and over every future marriage. With the control of marriage came the control of the home, and every individual in it. Personal freedom and eternal exaltation were now completely subject to the practice of polygamy. It was a formidable declaration of power by a living “prophet” over his people, and it would change the course of thousands of lives. Few dared to dispute Smith’s authority as the anointed of God, and he used the Old Testament patriarchs to justify the appropriateness of polygamy: “Abraham received concubines, and they bare him children, and it was accounted to him as righteousness. David also received many wives and concubines, as also Solomon and Moses my servants; as also many others of my servants, from the beginning of creation until this time; and in nothing did they sin save in those things which they received not of me. David’s wives and concubines were given unto him of me.”

Interestingly enough, the Book of Mormon flatly contradicted the new revelation, telling the Saints that the argument of the Patriarchs was not valid: “They seek to excuse themselves in committing whoredoms, because of the things written concerning David and Solomon his son. Behold, David and Solomon truly had many wives and concubines, which thing was abominable before me, saith the Lord.” But this strong condemnation of polygamy by a different word from God did not seem to trouble the prophet, even though the Doctrine and Covenants supported the Book of Mormon, stating unequivocally, “Thou shalt love thy wife with all thy heart, and shalt cleave unto her, and none else.” Smith proceeded with his announcement despite the glaring contradiction, and “it fell like a thunderbolt upon the Saints” though it came as no surprise to the leadership of the Church. According to many witnesses, Joseph Smith, Brigham Young and virtually every man of consequence in Nauvoo, practised it secretly long before the announcement in 1843. What had been a clear command from God to live a life of monogamy was swiftly ignored in favour of the new revelation.

The Women of the Past

For many women caught in polygamy, life soon became unbearable. A faithful husband, pressured by his peers and laughed at for having only one wife, soon gave in and married another. A wife stopped being a helpmate and became instead a means to exaltation in the world to come: the more children she bore, the larger her husband’s kingdom. Exaltation meant becoming a god, and she would be his spiritual wife. She could not achieve exaltation on her own, only through her husband. He would be the one to call her name at the resurrection. One early Mormon song exhorted the women to actively assist their husbands in marrying other women:

Now, sisters, list to what I say:

With trials this world is rife,

You can’t expect to miss them all,

Help husband get a wife!

Now, this advice I freely give,

If exalted you would be,

Remember that your husband must

Be blessed with more than thee.

Then, oh, let us say,

God bless the wife that strives,

And aids her husband all she can

To obtain a dozen wives.

This indoctrination, combined with the fear of retribution from the Mormon “Heavenly Father,” produced a powerful incentive to obey. Such an enormous amount of spiritual supremacy allowed men to manipulate and control women, quickly reducing them to the level of slave. In 1857, former Mormon elder John Hyde wrote of Brigham Young’s wives, “They content themselves with his kindness, as they cannot obtain his love. Not being allowed to be happy, they try to be calm because their hearts may not feel, therefore they freeze their hearts, and not being permitted to be women, they try to convince themselves that it is God’s will for them to be slaves.”

Factored into all of this was the confusing doctrine of marriage for time and eternity, with all of its earthly and eternal ramifications. A woman could easily be married to two and even three men all at the same time. She may or may not have sexual relations with all three men, depending on what her husbands decided. Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner was married to Joseph Smith for eternity, Brigham Young for time, and also to her legal husband, whom she lived with in Salt Lake City. It was her husband in eternity that would call her forth on the day of resurrection to father her children eternally on whatever planet he ruled as a “god.” Considering the astounding number of marriages and divorces in Salt Lake City during the time of Brigham Young, keeping track of every change in the time and eternity commitments must have been a logistical nightmare. Many women did not even know who had fathered their children, let alone who would ultimately call them forth at the resurrection. “Sensual salvation” was rampant among the Mormons, making it difficult at times to determine who had fathered whom. It was common practice for a Mormon elder to go on a required mission for several years at a time, leaving his wives in the care of an “agent” or “proxy” he appointed before he left. This man would stand in for him until his return, adding more children to the missing elder’s eternal kingdom!

The Price of Polygamy

Joseph Smith’s new revelation, albeit from a somewhat confused deity, threw open the lid on the proverbial Pandora’s Box, and everyone became preoccupied with the rituals of courtship and marriage. Old men pursued girls thirteen and fourteen years old-and their mothers-often forcing young women to marry the first available young man as quickly as possible. Although some women were not averse to marrying elderly Apostles in order to gain prestige in the next world, too often girls were married with little concern for their feelings. The majority of the settlers in Salt Lake City were immigrants, alone, penniless, and very far from home. It was a common occurrence for an older, powerful man in the Church to meet a wagon train in order to select a new spiritual. It rarely mattered if she was promised to someone else, or married to someone else; a sudden need for a mission to some remote destination could always be arranged.

Every Saint was instructed from childhood in his or her respective spiritual place, and a strong emphasis was placed on the male worth. Men were for ruling, women for breeding. Should this intense indoctrination fail and result in rebellion, Mormons were powerless-in most cases-to change the course of their lives. Men who defied the Church were mutilated or killed. Women could not leave Salt Lake City without permission, and they certainly could not take their children. And even if they managed to escape, there was simply nowhere to go. They were a thousand miles from the nearest place of safety, and the Church had a very long arm. If they defied their husbands, they defied the leadership of the Church, which was a very dangerous thing to do. A charge of adultery was a death sentence-“blood atonement” for the sin of turning against Mormonism. The Church controlled everything and everyone, and if a husband decided to “live his religion” and take another wife-or even two-the first wife learned submission. “Mormonism never forgives,” wrote Hyde,although it often delays the blow.” The first wife had to learn to live with the new spiritual wife, forced not only to share her husband and her home, but also to give the new wife to her husband as part of the marriage ceremony. She did the cooking and cleaning for the wedding, and watched while her husband took a younger, prettier spiritual to his bed. In the end, she invariably lost her husband to the new spiritual. “I will say this much,” wrote one first wife, “that Satan himself could not devise any worse tortures than women experience in the infernal system called ‘Celestial Marriage.'”

If a young woman persisted in rebellion and a young man refused to go on a mission, castration was a punishment the Church did not hesitate to employ:

Bishop Warren Snow of Manti, San Pete County, although the husband of several wives, desired to add to his list a good-looking young woman in that town. When he proposed to her, she declined the honor, informing him that she was engaged to a younger man. The Bishop argued with her on the ground of her duty, offering to have her lover sent on a mission, but in vain. When even the girl’s parents failed to gain her consent, Snow directed the local Church authorities to command the young man to give her up. Finding him equally obstinate, he was one evening summoned to attend a meeting where only trusted members were present. Suddenly the lights were put out, he was beaten and tied to a bench, and Bishop Snow himself castrated him with a bowie knife. In this condition, he was left to crawl to some haystacks, where he lay until discovered, [he] regained his health but has been an idiot or quiet lunatic ever since. And the Bishop married the girl.

But it was not only the Mormons who suffered under polygamy. Anyone not a member of the Mormon Church was called a Gentile, and considered fair game when it came to lying, stealing or murdering. This was called, “milking a Gentile” and was thought to be commendable, something God would approve. It was not sinful because the acts were carried out against a Gentile. One certain way for a Gentile to gain the attention of the Mormon leadership was to make the mistake of falling in love with a Mormon girl. Some Gentiles became Mormons in name only, faithfully paying their tithes and hoping to fool the leadership; few were ever successful at it, and some died trying. Jesse Hartly, a young lawyer from the East, was one of these men. Handsome and charismatic, he fell in love with a Mormon girl and married her. He tried to fit in with the Saints for his wife’s sake, and seemed to succeed for a short while, but as he gained their trust he began to see what was happening inside the Church, and was appalled by it. He started to compile evidence for an expose of the Latter-day Saints, until the day Brigham Young discovered his intent and denounced him from the Temple pulpit. Shortly after this, Jesse Hartly was brutally murdered-shot in the back while trying to escape Salt Lake City. He left a widow and young son. His experience with the Saints was not uncommon. Brigham Young ruled the Mormons and “they learned to dread his iron hand and were daunted by his iron heart.”

It was this iron heart that ensured the success of polygamy. The devaluation of women became a cultural norm, with elders like Heber Kimball referring to his wives from the pulpit of the tabernacle as “my cows” and Brigham Young expounding from the same pulpit that, “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 when I want to go somewhere and do something to get rid of the whiners.”

After Brigham Young’s death, however, the Mormon God appeared to change his mind once more and the Saints were no longer required to “live their religion”. On September 26, 1890, President Wilford Woodruff issued the Manifesto, officially repealing the revelation of polygamy. It seemed that divine law could not withstand the pressure from the United States government. Utah was eventually admitted into the Union, despite the fact that secret polygamous marriages were conducted in Mexico (with the full knowledge and authorization of the LDS Church President) and U.S. Marshal’s regularly ambushed polygamists sneaking home to visit wives. It was the end of public polygamy and the beginning of private polygamy for the Saints.

What does the Bible say about Polygamy?

Is polygamy truly a revelation from almighty God? Polygamists invoke the Old Testament Patriarchs in defence of the practice, but what does the Bible say? Before God called Abraham, he lived as the other people around him lived, and polygamy was an accepted way of life. There are several examples of it throughout the Old Testament, but according to Jewish scholars, “if it was not forbidden it was not directly sanctioned [and] as the civilization of the people reached a higher form, especially under the teaching of the prophets, and their moral and religious consciousness developed, the polygamous system gradually declined.”

In the beginning, as recorded in the Genesis narrative, God established the pattern for human marital relations with the creation and union of one man and one woman. As Dr. Walter Martin often pointed out, “God made them Adam and Eve, not Adam, and Eve, and Eliza, and Mary.” God may have permitted polygamy under the directive to “replenish the earth,” but He was also quite clear on the consequences of it. That polygamy was responsible for much bitterness and strife can be seen in the story of Sarah and Abimelech and in the necessity of instructing men in Leviticus 18:18 not to marry their wife’s sister during her lifetime. In the case of Jacob, Scripture specifies the reasons why he had more than one wife, and this is also the case with the relationship between Abraham and Hagar. In Genesis 16, the Hebrew goes into minute and eloquent detail regarding the emotional pain and suffering experienced by both Sarah and Hagar-again emphasizing the painful price of polygamy. It could be argued that the size of King David’s polygamous family caused the rape of Tamar, Absalom’s rebellion against the throne, and ultimately, his death. Solomon’s weakness and alienation from God was specifically blamed on his wives. Though Mosaic Law did not criticize polygamy, it made it quite clear that life was considerably more complicated because of it. After Israel’s Return from Exile, polygamy declined and “throughout the Talmudic age not one rabbi is known to have had more than one wife. Monogamy was held to be the only ideal legal union; plurality of wives was a concession to time and condition.”

But the most compelling biblical argument against polygamy is found in the New Testament portrait of marriage. Jesus states quite clearly in Matthew 19:5-6 in reference to Genesis 2, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. So they are no longer two, but one.” The Apostle Paul is quite specific in his instructions to the Church in I Corinthians 7:2, “But since there is so much immorality, each man should have his own wife, and each woman her own husband.” He also reminds the Ephesians of Jesus’ words, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” The comparison Paul makes between marital love and the love Christ has for the Church, illustrates the quality of love God requires in marriage: a selfless, sacrificial love. “In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.” The Apostle Paul makes it clear that a leader in the Church is to be the husband of just one wife and that he is to love that wife as much as he loves himself. This selfless love is the antithesis of polygamy. John Hyde Jr., in his poignant 1857 eyewitness account of life in Salt Lake City under Brigham Young, testified that this selfless love was missing in polygamy: “To sacrifice one’s self, to a most trivial extent, for a wife is esteemed as beneath manly dignity…It is impossible for any man to equally love several different women; it is quite possible, however, for him to be equally indifferent about any number.”

Polygamists insist that God is the author of the principle of plural marriage, but the Bible is clear that although God allowed polygamy at one time-as he allowed Israel its kings-this was not the best choice. God’s idea of what the marriage relationship should be is found in the selfless example of Christ’s love for the Church.

The Women of Today

The painful story told by Vicky Prunty of Tapestry Against Polygamy is all too familiar to researchers of early Mormon history. It could easily be taken from the journal of a plural wife of Brigham Young or Heber Kimballso closely does it reflect the testimony of the first Mormon wives.

Prunty met her husband when she was eighteen years old and they were both students at Brigham Young University. “My husband was seven years older and he seemed like the perfect guy. The scriptures were literal to me. I knew from the very beginning that he had more power; he had the priesthood.” It was this balance of spiritual power that would play a key role in their choice of a polygamous lifestyle. After seven years of marriage, both felt there was something missing in the Mormon Church. “We started investigating the early teachings of Mormonism; we were trying to find out why the teachings were so different. I saw some hypocrisy within the scriptures-a void of spirits-and at that time I felt the Church was in apostasy because they weren’t living a higher love. God is the same. If the principle were an everlasting principle, why would it suddenly be taken from God’s people?” They ended up living-literally-in a rock in southern Utah, and polygamy soon became a way of life. When her husband took his second wife, Prunty “gave” her to him in the marriage ceremony. “I realized shortly afterward: How could I give something that wasn’t even mine? But I believed in keeping your covenants: divorce was not an option. If my husband were wrong, God would set him in order.” And Prunty’s husband promised her that when it came to the everlasting principle of polygamy, they would “live it the right way.”

The image projected by polygamists via the media is one of placid smiles and contentment chillingly similar to that of the Stepford Wives. But what really happens when a man chooses to “live his religion?” When asked if the smiles were real and these women truly content with their lives, Prunty exclaimed, exasperated, “How can you be happy with your husband going into the next bedroom and sleeping with your sister-wife? How can you be happy being the sole parent raising your children? It’s like you’re a single mother who is a mistress. People delude themselves into feeling good about getting little brownie points in heaven, but if you take that religion away from them, they wouldn’t be doing it. It’s the religion that keeps them in bondage.”

It seems impossible to believe that a woman would willingly admit another “sister-wife” into her home, but the reality of it is this: she believes she has no choice. The motivation to obey is based on faith that this principle of celestial marriage is indeed from God, and God has given her husband the priesthood. Therefore, to disobey her husband is to risk damnation. “He kept on giving me more scriptures to read-Joseph Smith and the early prophets. These scriptures talked about a woman’s place: she was not to question her husband. A plural wife was not to whine, she was to be supportive of her husband. In a way, I totally brainwashed myself into believing this religious dogma. I was the one who gave the new wife to my husband in the wedding ceremony. But after you give this virgin to your husband, it is a done deal. It is an eternal covenant and those covenants are binding forever.”

Vicky Prunty suddenly found she was no longer a partner in her own marriage. “To have my husband sleeping with another woman, and not truly understanding why inside my heart, was very difficult.” She eventually left the marriage to become the plural wife of another man, but that relationship soured after several months of marriage. “He sat all of his wives down one day and told us he had married us for the sex. He kept his first wife and told the rest of us to leave. I felt so dirty. I wanted to run into the shower and scrub and scrub.” It was a nightmare, and Prunty decided to get out. She took her children and left polygamy for good.

Although the Mormon Church officially rescinded the revelation of polygamy in the Manifesto of 1890 many of its members still practice it, despite the threat of excommunication. It continues to thrive into the new millennium. Estimates vary, but today as many as 60,000 to 100,000 or more men, women, and children, are involved in polygamous relationships throughout the United States and Canada. Prunty considers this number to be conservative because the majority of polygamists are secretive about the practice. Until recently, the LDS Church and government officials in Utah turned a blind eye to it, despite the fact that it is a third-degree felony. It took the severe beating of a sixteen-year-old girl to motivate the authorities in Utah to act.

In 1997, John Daniel Kingston gave his fifteen-year-old daughter to his brother in marriage as his fifteenth wife. When the girl rebelled, repeatedly running away from home, her father took her to a remote piece of property and brutally beat her. Rowenna Erickson, a former member of the Kingston group and a founding board member of Tapestry says, “She kept running away so John Daniel [allegedly] beat the daylights out of her to make her do what he wanted her to do. You beat them up and threaten them. That’s what polygamy’s about-coercion, fear and abuse. It’s a question of power and control and a lot of sex. Polygamists are not as spiritual as you’re led to believe-there’s wife swapping, ménage à trois, use of pornography. There’s no end to it. Polygamy is abuse. It is not of God.”

Christian Polygamy?

Although Mormonism is the first religion that comes to mind when American polygamy is mentioned, several groups practicing it today claim to be Christian. Rev. Steven John Butt recently made headlines around the world with his polygamous lifestyle, and he claims to adhere to fundamental Christian doctrines. He argues that, “The only correct position for a free society to take in this matter is to uphold the rights of consenting adults to freely choose their own relationships, while also protecting children from abuse wherever it occurs.” But Vicky Prunty disagrees, “We don’t believe this is about consensual sex. This is about domestic abuse and children who have no rights. Polygamy is not protected under religious freedom; it is against the law. Why do you think you don’t have to obey the law, and we do? “

But Steven Butt feels it is the Mormons who are abusive, and society should not throw the “baby” of polygamy out with the bathwater. “Fundamentalist Mormon polygamist child abusers are reaping what they’ve sown when outraged society reacts harshly toward their abuses.” And how does he reconcile his lifestyle with the New Testament teaching on marriage? He carefully avoids doing so, focusing instead on the well-worn argument of the Patriarchs. But whether Christian or not, Steven Butt seems to find success in plural marriage as difficult to come by as his Mormon counterparts. One of his former wives left him and is now a founding member of Tapestry Against Polygamy.

The Church Must Speak

The enslavement and abuse of women and children in America continues today under the pretext of “religious freedom” and the protection of “privacy.” The privacy in the bedroom argument is often used as a defence: whatever consenting adults choose to do in the bedroom is not anyone’s business. But in polygamy, the relationships often involve young girls who are nowhere near the age of a consenting adult, and incest is frequently a factor. “Polygamy and its inherent abuses such as statutory rape, child abuses, teen pregnancy, Medicaid fraud, welfare fraud and incest affect all segments of our society. The price of polygamy in terms of humanity and public funds is staggering.” The Christian church can no longer afford to be silent as women and children are abused on its front doorstep. We must take a strong stand against polygamy in America, for if the Church of Jesus Christ is quiet in the presence of such terrible evil it becomes as guilty as those who practice it.

Read more here.

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