by Larry Logue
University of Oklahoma
Delivered at Dixie College
3 January 1990
Juanita Brooks was a professor at Dixie College for many years and is a well-known author.
She is recognized, by scholarly consent, to be one of Utah’s and Mormondom’s most eminent historians. Her total honesty, unwavering courage, and perceptive interpretation of fact set her fellow historians more stringent standards of scholarship to emulate. Dr. Obert C. and Grace Tanner have been life-long friends of Mrs. Brooks and it was their wish to perpetuate her name through this series. Dixie College and the Brooks family express their thanks to Dr. and Mrs. Tanner.
Nineteenth-century politicians were fond of pairing Mormon polygamy and southern slavery as similar evils, and they continued their campaign against polygamy with some of the same fervor and much of the same language after the end of slavery. Although the actual differences between slavery and polygamy are both obvious and beyond the scope of this essay, there are important parallels between the problems and opportunities they have offered to historians, parallels that are a useful introductory framework for assessing the history of polygamy.
Until fairly recently, the undeniable moral dimension of both slavery and polygamy overshadowed most other considerations for historians. In particular, slavery was presented as either benign or dehumanizing, with far less attention given to the actual conditions of slave life. Largely because scholars have never romanticized Mormon polygamy, there has been less debate over its nature, yet many historians have been affected by shared discomfort about a practice that had been so widely condemned by society and officially renounced by the Latter-day Saints. In the 1950s, for example, one study drew on interviews with polygamous family members to downplay plural marriage’s destructive effects, and an influential article refuted the existence of Mormon “harems” and contended that polygamy was never common among Mormons.1 These studies were not commissioned by church officials, but their themes accorded with the church’s twentieth-century efforts to minimize Latter-day Saints’ differences from mainstream American society.
But changes in historical scholarship have placed new obligations on historians of polygamy and underscored the parallels with the history of slavery. The new social history has called special attention to difference and complexity in America’s past and has encouraged historians to seek evidence of ordinary life. The history of slavery especially reflects these developments: initial attempts to quantify the economics of plantation slavery touched off a process of debate and reassessment that is still underway.2 Studies of Mormon polygamy have likewise been influenced by historians’ broadening interests. Plural marriage has been placed in the context of nineteenth-century Utopian experiments; it has been analyzed as an anachronism that was spontaneously fading as a modern consciousness arose among Mormons; and recent syntheses have explored the origins and nature of Mormon polygamy.3
Yet we have not arrived at a final understanding of polygamy. Works of overview and synthesis are only as authoritative as the evidence on which they rest, as the debates on slavery have demonstrated. Overviews of polygamy have relied on testimony from polygamous Latter-day Saints and their descendants, on samples of Mormon genealogies, and on prior studies of plural marriage. Yet Latter-day Saints lived in communities, which offer a frequently overlooked perspective on daily life in the past. Community studies let historians investigate a wide range of issues while keeping a manageable scale. We can thus assess accepted wisdom by observing people who actually talked and worked and worshiped together.
St. George is an especially appropriate setting for the study of polygamy. The town was undeniably important in the Mormon region: Brigham Young sent more than 200 families to southern Utah in 1861 and continued thereafter to direct settlers and supplies to what he hoped would be a solid foothold in southwestern Utah. Young gave St. George added importance by authorizing what became the first completed temple in Utah in the 1870s, and he made the town his winter quarters. All the while, St. George’s residents endured conditions that were among the harshest of any Utah settlements: the townspeople were expected to raise crops in a place with scarce and unpredictable rainfall and blistering summers. As a result, even though Young kept an eye on Utah’s “Dixie,” nowhere in Utah did the conditions of life supply more reasons for lax observance of doctrine than in St. George.
Yet despite Dixie’s forbidding reputation, about 150 of the families that pulled up stakes for southern Utah went to the spot that would become St. George in the fall of 1861. The average husband among these settlers was just past forty, with a wife in her mid-thirties. About one-fourth of the men were polygamists, though many left at least one wife at home. The genealogical records of 119 of the original families were included in my study of early St. George, in addition to the records of 294 more settlers and their families who came to the town before 1880. Just under a third of the husbands entered plural marriage, which apparently reaffirms the repeatedly asserted claim that polygamy was a minority practice. Yet we should not leap to the usual conclusion that most Mormons rejected plural marriage. For one thing, not all Mormons were equally potential polygamists. Plural marriage created a shortage of marriageable women, evident both in claims by St. George women that they had had quite an assortment of suitors…“both among the single and married men” and in the age at which women married.4 Women in St. George before 1880 typically wed at age 20, three years younger than women in the East, and there was a four-year age gap between them and their husbands; such an age difference was similar to that elsewhere in the West, where there was likewise a significant shortage of women. Moreover, one in seven St. George monogamous couples had never had their marriages sealed by church authorities. The reasons surely varied, but residents who had not received this basic priesthood blessing were unlikely either to seek or to receive approval to enter plural marriage. The wholesale “rejection” of polygamy thus appears less decisive when the lack of opportunities to enter polygamy is taken into account.
And we must carefully consider whom we are talking about when we pronounce polygamy a marginal practice. Polygamy may have included a minority of Mormon men, but it involved nearly two-thirds of the women of St. George prior to 1880, and half of the children as well. From their perspective, being in polygamy was far from a deviant experience: friends and neighbors of polygamous wives and children were as likely as not also to be members of plural families. This prevalence of polygamy did not, on the other hand, solve all the problems confronting life in plural marriage; diaries and autobiographies of St. George residents confirm other studies’ findings that polygamous families had to devise their own rules or their new relationships, with mixed results. Relationships in St. George varied from competition and jealousy among wives to “an almost perfect United Order,” and forms of address similarly varied, including the use of “Ma,” “aunt,” and the first name to address wives in the same household.5 But uncertain relationships and tensions should not mask the fact that plural marriage was neither marginal nor a dying phenomenon for women and children of St. George.
The living arrangements of St. George polygamous families further confirm the influence of plural marriage on family relationships and underscore the justification for community studies. A recent analysis of testimony from Utah polygamous family members indicates that a majority of husbands established separate dwellings for each wife, usually in the same town, and then devised a visiting schedule;6 such an arrangement potentially encouraged some autonomy for wives, though it may also have fostered discord over preferential visiting. In St. George, however, considering all polygamous marriages rather than those with surviving testimony, eighty percent of polygamous families shared the same household. Though actual co-residence might have been slightly lower if census-takers occasionally failed to note separate dwellings on the same property, it is clear that co-residence, with its opportunities for tension, on the one hand, and cooperation and intimacy on the other hand, dominated polygamous life in the town.
There is additional evidence that husbands considered their multiple marriages to be parts of one larger family. Fathers were, in general, determined to pass on their names to their sons: three-quarters of all St. George residents married after 1860 named the first son for his father. Yet they put aside this paternal naming in plural marriages. Parents rarely passed on names more than once; to do so would have caused obvious confusion in co-residing families, but parents were no more likely to duplicate names across separate households. A husband’s wives and children were apparently one family, to be organized and to function as best it could.
One aspect of plural families’ functioning about which even interviews usually fail to inform us is sexual activity. It is a common-sense axiom that a shared husband results in less intercourse and fewer births; it is likewise a unanimous finding of studies of polygamy that, despite Mormon authorities’ emphasis on large families and their confidence that polygamy would insure population growth, polygamous marriages produced fewer children than did monogamous ones. In a limited sense, these studies are right, and polygamous wives in St. George also had fewer births than did monogamous wives, or first wives of polygamists, for that matter. But simple comparisons overlook two vitally important facts: a polygamous husband, since he was typically in his late thirties when he married his second wife, was much more likely to die before the end of her childbearing years than was a monogamist who married at twenty-three; and the federal government’s “Raid” on Utah in the 1880s, which sent many polygamists underground or to Mexico or to jail, undeniably disrupted childbearing in polygamous marriages. The significance of age and history can be confirmed simply by looking at fertility rates by age—that is, how many monogamous and polygamous wives of comparable ages were having children before the Raid disrupted their lives. For St. George, such a comparison eliminates the difference between monogamous and polygamous marriages: before 1880, St. George wives, both monogamous and polygamous, had children at rates which would result in between eight and nine births over the course of a marriage that lasted until the wife reached age fifty. In other words, when the childbearing comparison is between comparable cases, it is clear that polygamy did not reduce childbearing within families. Indeed, plural marriage may have fulfilled the leadership’s hopes for population growth by driving down the age of marriage for women, which in such situations is the most important determinant to family size.
How polygamous husbands and wives overcame the obstacles to having large families is unknown. All we have for solid evidence are fertility rates and the church’s promotion of large families. Residents evidently took their childbearing responsibilities seriously enough to insure that they had large families even in the face of the problems that plural marriage presented and in the face of economic circumstances. There is no evidence that large families were an economic asset in St. George’s unpredictable environment, where crop failures were frequent and much of the work of irrigation farming required grown men. Yet children were spiritual resources if not material ones, and marriages usually produced large families.
Are these aberrant findings the statistics of a community that is atypical of the Mormon experience? More community studies are needed before we know for sure, but recent results from ongoing studies give reasons for confidence in the findings from St. George. Ben Bennion, for example, is investigating the extent of polygamy in a sample of Utah towns in 1880, using family group sheets from the church archives as well as federal censuses.7 This procedure gives by far the most accurate indication of the incidence of plural marriage, since the use of censuses alone results in misclassifying polygamous families in which the wives were in separate households. Indeed, the ten-to-fifteen percent incidence of polygamy that is often cited as proof of plural marriage’s marginality is largely based on studies that used a single source and thus undercounted plural marriages. Bennion’s research, on the other hand, demonstrates that St. George was hardly unique in its proportion of polygamous marriages. Towns in southern Utah did tend to have a higher proportion of residents in polygamy than did those to the north, but there were places in northern Utah where the incidence of polygamy approached the forty percent that Bennion computed for St. George, and places in the south where the proportion far exceeds St. George’s.
This substantial variation in the proportion of plural families is a puzzling feature of Mormon polygamy. The difference between regions may have been due, as Bennion suggests, to the method of settlement.8 Settlers generally moved to northern Utah towns voluntarily, whereas towns in the south were peopled primarily by a “call” from the church leadership. Those most likely to be called, and to comply, were also those who were more likely to comply with the church’s other priorities, including plural marriage.
On the other hand, the incidence of polygamy within regions, which ranged from five to forty-two percent in Washington and Davis counties alone, is harder to explain. Some of the variation is undoubtedly due to the small size of many Mormon settlements, but there may have been social or economic influences at work as well. Ben Bennion’s projected book-length study of the incidence of plural marriage will further help to put polygamy in St. George in perspective.
Other studies are approaching additional issues of plural marriage. A recent article analyzes data on childbearing in plural marriage compiled by the Mormon Demographic History project, which has been computerizing the family group sheets from the church archives.9 The article, though it assumes that plural wives had lower fertility than monogamous wives, provides some evidence to reaffirm findings from St. George: the authors conclude that polygamous spouses did indeed try to maximize the number of children. However, the article does not distinguish between fertility in the “normal” period before the 1880s and childbearing during the disruption that began with the invasion of federal marshals; this is a vital consideration, undoubtedly reflected in birth data beginning in that decade.
If polygamy was indeed an important part of Mormon communities, how did Latter-day Saints manage to relinquish the practice and yet survive and eventually prosper? Here we again encounter the theory of Mormonism’s transition that was mentioned above. The theory holds that if polygamy was ever significant, that significance peaked during the “reformation” of the 1850s and the practice began to disappear thereafter. In this view, polygamy, with its reliance on ancient tradition and patriarchal authority, was out of place within a church whose doctrine emphasized self-determination and individual progress. This focus on individualism, the theory argues, encouraged Mormons to gravitate toward the emerging American middle class even before 1890, and it was with a sigh of relief that the Mormon people gave up the practice of polygamy.
We should thus see signs of disaffection with polygamy in St. George before the Raid began, yet there are few such signs. There was no dramatic drop in the number of plural marriages by St. George residents in the 1870s, when we should see resistance to the practice, compared to the 1850s, at polygamy’s “peak.” As we have seen, St. George couples made no effort to limit their family size in this period, which put them out of step rather than in line with the American middle class. And parents in St. George, as we have also seen, made it their priority in naming children to pass on the father’s name. In doing so, they outdid their own parents in symbolically asserting their commitment to patriarchy and went against the tide of child-centered naming underway among other Americans. “Modern” behavior is thus hard to find among the residents of St. George.
Yet the question of Mormonism’s post-polygamy transition remains unanswered. We do know that family behavior began to change along with the course of events. Mormon parents did begin to limit their family size early in the twentieth century and started to curtail paternal naming of sons, both of which were signals at last of a “modern” consciousness. We also know that some Mormons in southern Utah were puzzled by the church’s abandonment of polygamy. A diarist reported, “an uneasy feeling among the People” in 1891, and noted in 1895 that the leadership “had not the entire confidence of the People as in days past.”10 But Mormonism survived both the transformation of family life and the crisis of confidence. Did the renunciation of polygamy cause these changes or was it simply one step in an inexorable march to modernization?
One answer, though admittedly tentative, can be sought in the role of ritual in religion. Students of religion and culture have long recognized the importance of ritual in modern as well as primitive societies, but we give most of our attention to ritual’s standardized actions rather than to its equally important focus on outcomes. Ritual, in other words, includes standardized, repeatable sets of actions aimed at producing some result—victory, increased reverence, rain, and so on. The ability of a group’s rituals to produce the intended results may indeed be a way of analyzing the group’s “success” or “failure.”
Polygamy was clearly a ritual: it involved standard steps of preparation and conduct, it occurred in the temple, a sacred place, and it had specified (plus some incidental) outcomes. The specified outcomes applied to Mormon society, through demonstrated commitment of members and through commemorating Mormons’ links with the ancient patriarchs, and to the individuals involved, through insuring their status now and in the afterlife. But the incidental outcomes were equally important. Each polygamous marriage was a gesture of defiance toward the non-Mormon world; it provoked the Gentiles’ rage, and even when outrage turned to persecution Mormons could be confident that they were on the right side of the impending Armageddon that would usher in the millennium. Church leaders encouraged members to see persecution as a harbinger of the millennium, and diarists in St. George carefully monitored anti-polygamy campaigns as well as non-Mormons’ other sins, fully aware that their own marriage-making added fuel to the anti-Mormon fire. With their church’s blessing, individuals could contribute to their enemies’ fury and thus hasten the Gentiles’ destruction at the peak of their rage.
What then happened when Mormons lost this perceived power to influence events? The consternation of St. George residents described above is easier to understand in the light of what polygamy had truly meant, and some members surely drifted away in the difficult period following the 1890 Manifesto. But Mormon leaders eventually emphasized other rituals, with other kinds of outcomes. Renewed emphasis on the Word of Wisdom at the turn of the century was part of this effort, but a campaign that had a far greater impact focused attention on economic achievement. Because the church was deep in debt at the end of the nineteenth century, leaders put more stress than ever on tithing, paid in cash rather than in kind. In 1899, for example, Lorenzo Snow promised an end to a drought in St. George if tithers paid up; accounts were settled, the rains came, and Snow’s tithing “reform” caught on. By 1900 the church was announcing that tithing indicated “who is for the kingdom of God and who is against it,” and an unofficial prescription for the ideal character a few years later specified godliness, honesty, and “a good bank account.”11 Latter-day Saints could no longer provoke non-Mormons’ wrath and simultaneously benefit themselves, but they could benefit themselves and their church through financial contributions. To be sure, the rise of a new kind of ritual did not by itself rescue Mormonism; Utah’s potential for economic development surely was at least as important. But because Mormons did begin to exhibit modern, middle-class behavior does not mean that such a change was inevitable. What would have happened to Mormonism if polygamy had continued will remain an intriguing puzzle.
And so we return to comparisons with the history of slavery to predict where we are likely to go from here. In both cases old notions die hard—that the female influence in slave family life was pathological, for example, or that polygamy was increasingly marginal in Mormon life before the Raid and was therefore unviable. Our task is similar in both cases: to be resourceful and thorough in investigating the evidence that will balance the moral implications of the peculiar institution we are studying with an ever-clearer view of its actual features.