Friday, 28 September 2012

A little bit of autobiography ~ Polygamy

photoI didn't find out about polygamy until I was about thirteen, and then it was inadvertently, during a lesson at church. People may find it hard to believe that a Mormon girl could be unaware of polygamy, but this was back in the days before the internet. I didn't have a Utah pioneer heritage replete with dozens of polygamous ancestors, and although I had heard people mention polygamy, it had always been to insist, 'No, of course we aren't polygamists!'

There must have been about ten of us in the room. We were attending the church's program for girls aged 12 to 18 (called Young Women's). We were taught weekly lessons on a variety of topics including Preparing for Marriage, Dating Decisions, Creating a Spiritual Environment in the Home, Homemaking, Attitudes about Divine Roles and so on. I assume the lesson that particular week had something to do with marriage - many of the lessons did. I don't know how the topic of polygamy came up, but our Young Women's leader was entirely unprepared for the questions that followed and she went to look for help. It just so happened that a woman we all liked, a mother of several grown-up children, was lurking in the corridor outside our classroom. Our Young Women's leader called, 'Sister Doe (that wasn't her name). Can you come and help us, please?'

Poor Sister Doe. Whenever I picture her, I see her standing at the front of that classroom, trying to justify eternal polygamy to a group of very upset girls. I hardly recall a thing she said, but I do remember watching her laugh nervously as she wrung her hands and played with her wedding ring, and I remember one of the girls asked a question: 'Does it work both ways? Can women have more than one husband in heaven?' Sister Doe shook her head. 'No. It only works one way,' she said.

I had a lot of questions about polygamy after that, but no-one wanted to answer them. I asked whether I would be forced be a polygamist in heaven and I was told I had better worry about getting to heaven first. When I pushed further, I was told polygamy had been instituted to take care of widows (not true - between 1850 and 1950 there were more men than women in Utah). I was told  polygamy was numerically necessary to raise a righteous generation (not true - polygamous women have less children per capita than their monogamous counterparts). Finally, I was told polygamy was God's will and, as a female, (see previous post) I was in no position to argue.

Birthplace of Joseph Smith - relief carving by origamidonIt was several years before I heard Joseph Smith's claim that an angel with a drawn sword had appeared to him and commanded him to take more wives or be utterly destroyed. Smith married at least thirty-three women, including several teenagers and at least eleven women who were already married. I wasn't surprised to learn that many women didn't want to be polygamous wives. Joseph Smith's fourteen year old wife, Helen Mar Kimball wrote, 'I would never have been sealed to Joseph had I known it was anything more than a ceremony. I was young, and they deceived me, by saying the salvation of your whole family depended on it' (Mormon Polygamy: A History p.50). The next Mormon prophet, Brigham Young, had to give a sermon telling women to stop complaining about polygamy:
... '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... 
But the first wife will say, 'It is hard, for I have lived with my husband twenty years, or thirty, and have raised a family of children, and it is a great trial to me for him to have more women; then I say it is time that you gave him up to other women who will bear children.' (Journal of Discourses)

There were even hymns admonishing women to help their husbands acquire extra wives. Here is an example from an edition of Songs of Zion:

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, O, let us say,
God bless the wife that strives
And aids her husband all she can
T' obtain a dozen wives.

Although Joseph Smith and other Mormon prophets were polygamists, mainstream Mormons haven't practiced polygamy since the early 1900s. When Mormons say, 'No, of course we aren't polygamists!' they are technically right. However, eternal polygamy in the afterlife is enshrined in Mormon scripture (see Doctrine and Covenants Section 132) and it's something that causes devout Mormon women a lot of pain (see here and here). In fact, the church continues to perform polygamous eternal marriages by allowing men who have been widowed or civilly divorced (without a religious divorce) to be married for eternity to more than one wife. But a woman who has been widowed or civilly divorced (without a religious divorce) may not be married for eternity to more than one husband.

Polygamy hurt Mormon women in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and it still hurts them today. I remember comforting a friend whose first husband had been unfaithful. She was crying because she was terrified about dying and being forced to share her second, much-loved and faithful husband, with other women. I didn't believe in polygamy by then, in fact I was agnostic about the existence of God, but sharing my unbelief wouldn't have comforted my friend. She believed in Mormonism and consequently had to find some way to rationalize and accept the doctrine of eternal polygamy.

Mormon missionaries don't routinely mention polygamy when they canvas for converts - sometimes women join the Mormon church without knowing anything about it. I know a woman who attended church meetings for several months. She was even baptised. Then she read about polygamy on the internet and she never attended church again. I was asked to go and visit her to explain why polygamy is okay. The man who asked me said it would, 'sound better coming from a woman.' I refused to do it.

After I got married I tried not to think about polygamy at all. Whenever I thought about it, I felt sick to my stomach. Then I had my daughter. And I knew that one day, someone would tell her about her eternal destiny as a polygamous wife; that her idea of heaven would be tainted by a sexist doctrine which rendered her feelings and desires irrelevant. In retrospect, that was the beginning of the end for me. I loved my Mormon community and our funny, Utah-centric culture; I knew even if I managed to tear myself away from the church, a big part of me would always be Mormon - and I was right, if you could turn me upside-down to see my label, you would read, "Made in Mormonism" - but I wanted different, better things for my daughter.

By some strange and circular coincidence, years after I watched Sister Doe attempt to explain polygamy, I was wandering the corridors of my local Mormon church. I didn't want to be there. I couldn't bear to sit through the lessons anymore, but I was reluctant to put my husband through the shame of belonging to a part-member family, (a family where one spouse is not Mormon) so I continued to attend church with him and our children. I felt bruised and lonely as I traipsed up and down the corridors. I was increasingly alienated from the people I loved by doctrines I could no longer embrace. I didn't even look up when one of the Young Women's leaders hurried out of a classroom. 'Carys,' she called. 'Help! It's all kicking off in there. They're talking about polygamy. Some of them didn't know. They're crying. I don't know what to say. Can you come in and talk to them?'

I had a sudden flashback to the day I heard a grown woman stammer through a half-baked justification of eternal polygamy. I looked at the flustered Young Women's leader. 'No,' I said. 'I'm sorry, but I can't.'

To be continued.

Polygamy Porter image from Flickr, by Celebdu
Joseph Smith image from Flickr, by origamidon


  1. Wow, Carys. So powerful! This is just SO powerful!

  2. Thank you Sophia. I enjoyed your book.

  3. Thanks for this post. I am in the middle of writing a similar post about polygamy for Times and Seasons, and I have had to stop several times and put it away for a few days or weeks, because the feelings are so powerful.

    Although I remain a believing Mormon, I have rejected the doctrine of eternal polygamy, and the whole thing has caused me a faith crisis that continues to this day. My daughter will learn the facts about historical polygamy and the lingering issue of eternal polygamy from me, but she will NOT learn that there is even a possibility that she will be forced to be a plural wife in "heaven." That is not the kind of heaven I believe in.

    Thank you for your poignant and honest portrayal of what has caused many Mormon women, including myself, incalculable pain.

  4. Hi Sarah,
    Thank you for you comment. I'd like to link to your Times and Seasons article when it is up, if that's okay. I tried to link to a Joanna Brooks 'Ask Mormon Girl' answer on polygamy, to illustrate that many women today don't believe in eternal polygamy, but I was unable to link to an individual post on her blog. Joanna said, 'We need to talk about polygamy,' and I think she's right. It's really important for there to be a discourse that doesn't just consist of men telling women not to worry their little heads about it!

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  6. Hi Andrew,

    I think most people are aware of Old Testament polygamy. I also think it’s clear that a discussion of Old Testament polygamy isn’t particularly relevant to my post. Fortunately, we’ve moved a long way from a society where people kept slaves and women were the property of men; where soldiers were allowed to take women as spoils of war, and women were forced to marry their rapists etc. The only reason I heard about polygamy during the 1980s in Great Britain, was because I happened to be born into a Mormon family.

    I don’t believe that this post is one of ‘angst and ill-will.’ If you read the comments, you’ll see that Mormon women who still believe in the church continue to find polygamy painful and upsetting. You’ll see a polite and friendly exchange between me and one of those women, and you’ll see that I offered to link to her forthcoming piece on polygamy in order to provide a ‘believing’ counterbalance to my post (you can read Sarah’s thoughtful posts at Times and Seasons here: ).

    In my experience, when people say, 'If you don't believe, move on,' it’s a polite way of saying, ‘Be quiet.' I think I have mentioned Mormonism on my blog on a total of five occasions over the course of three years. I rarely talk about it because I know mentioning it will invite comments telling me to ‘let it go,’ and ‘move on,’ etc.

    But I am allowed to talk about it. I own my life story. The story is *mine*.

    The title of this post includes the word autobiography. As polygamy is part of my story, it's okay for me to talk about it. I can’t just bin the first thirty years of my life, and I certainly don’t have to maintain a judicious silence about my life from 1975 to 2005 in order to ‘move on.’ There isn’t a ‘tear here’ line - a point where I can break myself in two and then chuck the Mormon bit away. And even if there was, I wouldn’t do it. As I said in my post: ‘I loved my Mormon community and our funny, Utah-centric culture; I knew even if I managed to tear myself away from the church, a big part of me would always be Mormon - and I was right, if you could turn me upside-down to see my label, you would read, "Made in Mormonism".’

    You suggest that I am using my feelings about polygamy as a justification to 'take another path.’ Clearly, I don’t see this post an exercise in justification. For me, it’s part of an exploration of the impact of autobiography on fiction writing. It was written in response to a comment by a writer I interviewed recently. She said the relation of the self to writing is, ‘more complex than the insertion of autobiographical experiences or facts or the creation of characters of the same age and gender as the author.’

    This post explores how it felt to grow up believing I would have to endure eternity in a polygamous marriage. It is absolutely not about (a) blaming my faith for my depression (b) a failure to move on (c) incidental, immaterial stuff, like washing dishes or being forced to wear a dress after church on a Sunday (I’m fine washing dishes – we’ve never had a dishwasher – I just don’t see dish-washing as part of my divine purpose as a woman).

    I am really glad that you are a happy member of the church and it works for you and your family. It works for many of my extended family, too - they love the sense of community and purpose and the frequent opportunities to offer service to others. But it didn’t work for me. And I think it’s perfectly reasonable for me to occasionally discuss the reasons why it didn’t work.

  7. Well said.
    Peter Harbon

  8. Well said, Carys. I wish you could see me giving you a air-fist-pump right now.

    You have interesting stories to tell. They are valuable to me. I am glad that you tell them.

  9. I remember the exact lesson I was taught that polygamy wasn't optional in the celestial kingdom. The other Young Women were silent. I can't remember what I said, but it was met with, "When you're in the Celestial Kingdom, you'll be righteous enough not to mind."