Zelophehad’s Daughters

Polygamy and Fatherhood

Posted by Kiskilili

In the past we’ve argued repeatedly on the bloggernacle over the ways in which polygyny, in particular, does (or does not) negatively impact women, who are asked to share their husbands with rival wives but are also potentially afforded worldly opportunities while their sister wives conveniently stay home and play Hausfrau and nanny.

But the effects polygamy had on children have received, in my experience, little or no mention. (Perhaps someone can point me to literature on the topic?) With the Proclamation on the Family as a centerpiece, a fair portion of the Church’s rhetoric about fatherhood specifically seems to revolve around governance and provision, both of which can theoretically be accomplished in the absence of any particular emotional bond or even interaction with offspring. But a number of statements go further than this, insisting that fatherly involvement brings an integral component to children’s lives:  “The contribution of fathers to childrearing is unique and irreplaceable,” David Popenoe is quoted as asserting in a recent Church press release on same-sex marriage.

In our current thought, then, both motherhood and fatherhood are indispensable to the welfare of children, such that the absence of a parent of one sex sets in motion deleterious repercussions that cannot entirely be mitigated by the presence of a second parent of the same sex (presumably including a helpful sister wife).

I genuinely wonder: how involved in their children’s lives were those fathers who presided over polygamous fiefdoms? Was Joseph F. Smith, for example, able to maintain, in practical terms, a close relationship with all 48 children, or did the finitude of his resources, both temporal and emotional, compromise and compress such opportunities in spite of his best intentions?

Were polygamous fathers adequately enough involved to satisfy the requirements sociologists such as Popenoe have outlined–and if so, how did they pull it off without stretching themselves to the breaking point? And if polygamous fathers were not fixtures in their children’s emotional landscapes, in what ways can the current claim that involved fathers are essential to God’s plan be grounded? We hear a lot of static about the importance of gender roles, but what exactly does the Church’s vision of fatherhood entail?

36 Responses to “Polygamy and Fatherhood”

  1. 1.

    One possible way of reconciling these different visions of fatherhood is to maintain that fatherhood matters qualitatively–some of children’s interaction with adults should be with males–but that quantity is not necessary. In certain respects the FamProc sets up such a conclusion with its insistence that “nurturing” is a gendered activity, “primarily” appertaining to the sphere of the female. Appropriate masculine behavior, then, among other things, should involve nurturing less than women. As long as fatherhood’s essential activities center on governance and provision, fathers can (theoretically) responsibly discharge their duties over whole fiefdoms of children. It’s only when we want fathers to become emotionally involved role-models that we encounter potential problems.

  2. 2.

    Great post. I was chatting with friends recently about our husbands and their duties as fathers. It seems that we all have husbands who are extremely involved in parenting, but when we talked about our fathers, only one of us had a father who was as actively involved with the children.
    It seems that the trend to better fathering is upon us and that last generation, and certainly the many generations ago when polygamy was around lacked the emphasis of involved fathers.

  3. 3.

    I have wondered about this so often. I think it must give single mothers today a great wealth of history and example on how to do it alone. Because get real, no father of 48 even knows all his kids names let alone what makes each scared, happy or the date of their birthday.

  4. 4.

    I was read Anson Call Jr diary and while it seemed he had a decent relationship with his children from polygamous marriages he had nothing very positive to say about his father who had 5 wives. He talked about feeling abandoned and his mother left to provide food and clothing with little of no help from his father. He talks about hating polygamy and refused to accept his second wife when he was ordered to go to Wyoming and pick her up. It was some period of time and only with his dad pushing that he went along and took her to be his wife.

    It didn’t sound too positive of a relationship between he and his father.

  5. 5.

    Most of my friends are polygamist. My co-worker has 59 brothers and sisters. I can testify that my polygamist friends spend just as much time, if not more, with their children than do my LDS friends. I might also add that none of my polygamist friends send their children to daycare, which can not be said of my LDS friends.

    Plural marriage is about family. You generally don’t enter into plural marriage unless family is important to you.

  6. 6.

    I, too come from polygamous ancestors, and for my crowd, the mothers involved were essentially single mothers. One in particular got no help from her husband after she reached about 40 and he married two 19 year old “babe” wives.

    I have read similar accounts elsewhere. Some number of Brigham Young’s wives, for example, got no or very little financial support and very little if any co-childraising. I have a good friend who is the descendent of a second wife, there are still stories about her trying to feed her family; begging the first wife for food, etc. Heartbreaking.

    In Islam, you’re required to support all wives equally. They have laws to make it at least fairish for the women involved. The mormon experience was quite different.

    So, yeah, for some percent of women and children, Polygamy meant single motherhood with pregnancies.

  7. 7.

    Brent, a polygamous father may spend exactly as much time with his children as a monogamous father, but if the former has 60 children and the latter only 6, that’s 10 times as much “father” to go around, so to speak. You’re looking at it from the perspective of the father; I’m looking at it from the perspective of the kid. Does your coworker with the 59 siblings have a close relationship with his father? Do all 60 of them? I’m honestly interested–I’m not trying to presume what the answer is.

    I’m not trying to argue that plural marriage isn’t about family, just that it’s about a different kind of family–one in which there are fewer fathers to go around.

  8. 8.

    Djinn and Jerry, thanks for the instructive examples. It does seem like polygyny not infrequently leaves women virtually single (and thus children virtually fatherless).

    Miles, I do think to the degree we want to claim polygamy was inspired, we allow the value of fatherhood to depreciate–at least in the way it’s currently construed as emotional involvement in children’s lives.

    Jessawhy, it definitely seems that fatherhood has changed drastically over the last few generations, and I’m sure shifting mores that second-wave feminism untethered are responsible for at least some of that. My impression, though, is that the stern authoritative father figure of the 1950s was itself a shift from the ideal father of the 19th century. Anyone know more about this?

  9. 9.

    I do think to the degree we want to claim polygamy was inspired, we allow the value of fatherhood to depreciate

    I guess I should add, logically, this is only true if all the wives have lots of children. If only one wife is allowed to give birth, or each wife is allowed only one child, the situation might look different.

  10. 10.

    There was no one single model of polygamous family in 19th century Mormondom — everybody was working things out as they went, learning and trying (or not), and some families were much more successful than others. So beware of monolithic answers.

    Successful plural families, like Brigham Young’s, George Q. Cannon’s, and a few lesser-known ones that I’ve become familiar with, seem to have some things in common. The father — even when he might have lived in a different town — was very much a constant presence in the lives of his children. That was largely due to the attitude of the mothers. When Father was constantly talked about as a member of the family (athough absent this week or month), when the children were taught that Father expected them to behave this way, learn this task, assume this role in the family, the children felt like the father was a part of their lives. I suppose it’s a lot like the case of a modern family whose father is absent in the military or transferred to a new job with the family to follow at the end of the school year: When Father consistently expresses his love and concern for his children by letter or phone call, and Mother refers to Father and his activities and his membership in the family even when he is away, children seem to accept his role even when they don’t see him every day.

    Despite spiteful stories to the contrary, Brigham Young did know all of his children by name and sight and temperament, and whether they were doing well in school or were lording their social position over the other kids, and he took steps, either in person or by letter (I love the document trail) to praise or correct them. He knew his grandchildren, too — when he writes to sons absent on missions, he frequently has news about their small children, the kind of intimate, homey, childish-behavior news that you take for granted with any doting grandpa.

    Other families were not so successful, of course. Perhaps the most widely known of the unsuccessful ones is Annie Clark Tanner, through her “Mormon Mother” writings. J.M. Tanner was not a consistent part of the lives of Annie’s children, and reading between the lines you can pretty well lay the responsibility for that on Annie herself, who did not welcome J.M.’s necessarily sporadic presence, and who did not speak of him to her children in a way that was calculated to increase their respect for him. (I say “lay the responsibility” on her, but please know that I understand that her life as a plural wife was not easy — she simply did not handle it as well as some other wives did.) J.M. Tanner had much more successful relationships with others of his families.

  11. 11.

    Wow, K. Just when I thought I had seen it all, you come up with a unique and novel mix of volatile and otherwise well-worn topics. Kudos. :)

  12. 12.


    It’s interesting that you cite Brigham Young as an example of a successful father. I like the examples you’ve given, and you know a thousand times more about this than I do; still, other snippets I’ve read here and there suggest that, even with all of his natural attentiveness and good intentions, there were instances where people fell between the cracks significantly. In particular, parts of Emily Partridge’s journals that I’ve read discuss what sounds like some pretty serious familial neglect.

  13. 13.


    Also, it’s interesting that fathers at the time seem very interested in the idealized trappings of fatherhood, so to speak. Even while Joseph Smith was taking plural wives, he was writing to Emma about how he longed to hold the children on his lap and play with them; similar language is in Henry Jacobs’ letters as well, who was also dealing with polygamy on all fronts — taking plural wives, and watching his own wife marry first Joseph Smith and then Brigham Young — but who at the same time expressed a desire to hold his children on his lap and play with them.

  14. 14.

    Have you seen this?

  15. 15.

    Kaimi, there was trouble between Emily and Brigham Young, true, but he had a good relationship with his children by that marriage; despite their mother’s belief that she didn’t get her fair share financially, the children of that marriage were close to their half-siblings (one daughter was married to the same man as a half-sister; another daughter had an even closer marriage relationship — we should talk about that sometime, but I don’t want to derail this thread by spelling it out here). The children of this marriage cooperated with their half-siblings in the settlement of BY’s estate (they didn’t join legal protest made by others). And you find the children of this marriage attending social functions and family gatherings with their half-siblings all their adult lives — they were close.

    I don’t want to say harsh things about Emily any more than I do about Annie Clark Tanner. I can’t imagine how difficult they had it emotionally. Just the same, despite Emily’s claims that she wasn’t supported financially, she *was* — just not to the extent that she thought she deserved as the wife of the president. Whatever trouble there was between spouses, it was between the spouses and didn’t have a noticeable effect on the children — no doubt to Emily’s credit.

  16. 16.

    The contribution of fathers to childrearing is unique and irreplaceable.

    We talk a lot about how irreplaceable both mothers and fathers are. However what about widows with children, what about children being raised by their grandmothers, what about children of divorced parents, etc.? Are these children doomed to failure in life? I don’t think so. Children seem to be more resilient than that. Elder Oaks has often spoken of being raised by his mother after his father died. Obviously, there are a lot of factors that can influence how a child turns out beyond having two parents and the gender of those parents. (You can think of a lot of children who had a mother and a father and didn’t turn out so well). We can debate about what the ideal situation would be for a child, but you also need to recognize the reality and discuss how children can succeed who aren’t living that ideal. (I know this a bit off the polygamy topic, but I have been thinking about this a lot recently).

  17. 17.

    BiV- I can’t believe that is anything but a hoax.

  18. 18.

    Look, and I’m sure Ardis Parshall can back me up on this, in my family, and lots of other families as well, the men took off and settled various parts of Deseret with their newer, younger wives, leaving their older wives and the children of such behind, and unsupported. The women were single mothers, and their kids had, essentially no father figure in their lives.

    In another category of Mormon polygynous marriages, the first wife had all the power, and the succeeding wives and their children had, let us say, a rather tough row to hoe. I speak as the granddaughter-in-law of a woman (whom I was friends with for a few years, and, truth be told, would disapprove of this comment in its entirety) who was the oldest daughter of the second wife of a family in Juarez, Mexico. I read between the lines. It wasn’t difficult.

    I also am the descendent of one of the wives of Abraham Owen Smoot. Each wife had their own house, enough money to go around, and all (from the diary entries I have read) got along just fine. Though I do wonder about that 16 year old Scandanavian bride he took in secret, when the US authorities were coming down on him. He got off, though, and they never found out. About the babe bride.

    Frankly, unlike Islam, which I referenced earlier; there were no rules on how husbands should treat their vaious wives and offspring in Mormonism. So, some families were treated well; others, not so much.

  19. 19.

    So, I suppose, to summarize, the idea that fatherhood is unique and irreplacable is a relatively new idea in Mormonism. For what it’s worth.

  20. 20.

    Look, and I’m sure Ardis Parshall can back me up on this, in my family, and lots of other families as well, the men took off and settled various parts of Deseret with their newer, younger wives, leaving their older wives and the children of such behind, and unsupported.

    Don’t be sure. That’s certainlly the modern stereotype, but that it occurred in “lots” of families is the kind of statement that demands evidence, not stereotype based on modern distaste for the idea of polygamy. There is far more to the story even when this “taking off” was fact: First wives who were settled in established homes in relative comfort (“relative” to earlier frontier conditions), especially when they lived in cities, sometimes preferred to stay put rather than strike off again into the raw wilderness and build another home from the ground up — this is not the abandonment (implied by your statement) of a man who prefers the sexy company of a younger wife. “Support” (if you mean financial support, as I think you do) is also a relative term — in an age before monthly support checks became synonymous with “support,” an adequate house, some moderately developed land that produced a garden, and a cow or two, was considered completely adequate support, not only for wives who may have been living apart from their husbands, but also in the case of widowhood or divorce. And the last, perhaps greatest factor overlooked by the stereotype is that the children of “older” wives were themselves generally older, either already out on their own or well able to contribute to the support of their mothers, a normal societal expectation in their generation far more than it is in ours. In short, the image of a worn-out woman surrounded by a flock of toddlers, abandoned to starve in the wilderness by an old goat who preferred to set up housekeeping in some unspoiled wilderness paradise with a pretty young thing of a plural wife is greatly exaggerated. It may happened — as I said earlier, there was no one model of plural family — but that was hardly typical.

    the idea that fatherhood is unique and irreplacable is a relatively new idea in Mormonism

    If by this you mean the daily presence of a father who takes equal responsibility with a mother for daily childcare, I’d agree that’s extremely recent, not only in Mormondom but in the wider society. But I would also argue that the importance of the expectations set by a father for his children, and the expectations that they would live up to those expectations and preserve the honor and reputation of the father’s name and all that that implied, whether or not the father was actually living daily with his children, or was even living at all, is very old and was very strong within the setting of 19th century Mormondom. Fathers and children fell short of living the ideal, no argument there, but it was still the expectation.

  21. 21.

    Apologizes for the typos — I’ve taken my contacts out and typed that with my nose pressed against the computer screen.

  22. 22.

    BiV, if the blog isn’t a hoax, it is the most frightening thing I’ve read and that Seminary teacher needs to be reported NOW and removed from his position as seminary teacher and possibly excommunicated. I

  23. 23.

    Some of the children of George Q Cannon wrote a book about what it was like to live in a polygamous family. I can’t find it right now, it has been to long since I read it, I can’t even remember the title.

    GQC had six wives, though if I recall only five at any one time. He owned five houses on the same street in Salt Lake and the children all knew each other well. GQC was alternately in hiding, in jail , and in Washington DC. But when he was home he interacted with all his children. The account is mostly favorable, but you can read what they actually thought of the arrangement.

    Though there was a story about how he came home to find them involved in some unspecified mischief. So he lined them up and scolded them, not knowing, according to his kids, that not all those involved were even his.

  24. 24.

    Bruce, that’s hilarious!

    Biv, that’s horrifying, if it’s for real. But it’s also an eerily familiar story given our history.

    Kaimi, yeah, I guess I did manage to throw together polygamy, gender, and even some gay marriage in a single post! Just wait till you see what I’ve got baking in the oven. :)

    Beatrice, you raise some good points, and I actually have some posts in the works wondering specifically why certain people are asked to sacrifice for the Church’s image of the ideal family in a way others not.

    Djinn, thanks for your examples–I’m sure you’re right that the Church’s current vision of involved fatherhood is a recent development (especially since everything the Church says about gender is so confused it’s not entirely clear what its current position on fatherhood is exactly). I’d love to see someone do a study on how the issue of gay marriage is (or is not) shaping the Church’s view of fatherhood.

    Ardis, I’m sure you’re right that the ideal of fatherhood was different in the 19th century and its realization was anything but uniform, although it seems not unreasonable that there were behavioral tendencies among Mormon polygamous families that differed from, for example, Muslim polygamists, as Djinn has pointed out? In any case, thanks for weighing in with your expertise.

  25. 25.

    My comment adds nothing to this fascinating discussion, but djinn’s reference to polygamy in Islam made me think of Une si longue lettre by Mariama Ba about polygamy in Senegal. I recommend it not only as an excellent work of literature, but also because it’s a very interesting insight into the similarities and differences in the understanding and practice of polygamy in a different culture (and I’m suddenly wondering about all my high school French teacher’s motivations in having us read it). I think there’s an English translation of it…
    Anyway, please continue.

  26. 26.

    I should have pointed out, since this the point of the thread, that the father in my second example, with two wives and 18? children, from what I know, was very involved in his children’s lives.

  27. 27.


    You have to remember that a polygamous father doesn’t have 60 children, all between the ages of 1-10. The children are usually spread out over decades. If you know how to manage your time, and don’t blow 10-20 hours a week watching T.V., then spending time with your children isn’t a problem.

    A first grade school teacher has 30 children, all at the same age, and all at once, and I don’t think anyone would argue that the teacher is lacking in influence in those children’s lives. Is a father incapable of doing what the average elementry school teacher can do?

  28. 28.

    re #27. I’m not so sure a first grade teacher would think that having a class of 30 children is all that easy. Those who need the most help or cause the most trouble are likely to get the attention – and many of the others have to get by on their own. A first grade class of 15-18 children (a more medium polygamous family) would be much more reasonable. So perhaps a talanted polygamous father could handle that many. On the other hand, the teacher is doing this full time, while the father has many other responsibilities that limit his time with his children.

  29. 29.

    I don’t know about the analogy between a teacher and a parent; it seems to me that they are fundamentally different roles. A parent has a kind of ultimate responsibility for the well-being of a child that I don’t see a teacher having. If the sort of influence a father has in a family is only of the sort that a good teacher might have, I’m not sure that speaks very highly of the importance of fatherhood. (Not to downplay the potential influence of a good teacher, of course–just that I’m uncomfortable with the idea that the contributions of a father are essentially equivalent to those of a teacher.)

  30. 30.

    Since you’ve already got so many controversial topics simmering here, maybe we should stir in Heavenly Mother, too. Namely, if it’s crucial for children to have two opposite-gender parents involved in their lives, why here on earth do we have only one? In a sense, that’s the opposite of what one might conclude from the polygamy situation, which seems to indicate that it’s the father’s influence which is less important. But it’s interesting that both scenarios involve a sort of single parent situation, especially in light of our current strong emphasis on the need for two opposite-sex parents for a child’s optimal well-being. (I do realize that there are some problems with making this kind of comparison between earthly parents and God parenting us, as the situations aren’t completely comparable–but I still think it’s interesting in terms of our ideal family models.)

  31. 31.

    Brent, I think your comparison probably has some merit–it’s definitely true an adult can have a relationship with a whole crowd of children at least enough to be a significant figure in their lives. I do think, as ImaL suggests, the squeaky wheels probably disproportionately draw away some of that energy. In any case, the question certainly isn’t whether but to what degree.

    But just as a thought experiement, let’s imagine it was the mother with 60 children, spread out over generations (maybe she had multiple births repeatedly, or went on an adopting spree). Certainly she should be capable of knowing all their names and birthdates. Do we imagine she’d be a “good parent”? If we’re suspicious, why is this situation different from fatherhood?

  32. 32.

    Thanks for the book recommendation, Zillah! I’ll add that to my French reading list. :)

  33. 33.

    Very interesting thread. I especially liked what Ardis Parshall said about how the role of even an absent father can be sustained and reinforced by his wife.

    A couple of things occurred to me while reading the comments:

    Not all polygamous fathers had many wives and tons of children; and not all of them were asked to travel frequently away from their homes. As I understand it, many men were like my great-grandfather, who lived his entire life in the Salt Lake Valley, had only two wives (djinnn, #26, gave another example of that), and only six of his eleven children lived past early childhood.

    Also, a large proportion of people living in the 19th century were involved either full or part-time with farming, and that usually meant that all the boys (and sometimes the girls) often spent time with their fathers as they worked side by side on the farm.

  34. 34.

    Ardis Parshell said “In short, the image of a worn-out woman surrounded by a flock of toddlers, abandoned to starve in the wilderness by an old goat who preferred to set up housekeeping in some unspoiled wilderness paradise with a pretty young thing of a plural wife is greatly exaggerated. It may happened — as I said earlier, there was no one model of plural family — but that was hardly typical.”

    Happened in my family. Not only that, but the only happy polygynous family I know of is Abraham Owen Smoot’s. When I was studying anthropology at the U of U, I looked at polygynous (ok, I said “anthropology, so my acedemic vocabulary, such as it is, is kicking in), marriage ages. First marriage, 20ish. Second marriage, 40ish for man, 19ish for the woman. Third marriage, older for man, 19ish for woman, and so it goes.

    With each successive marriage, the man gets older, the female is always about 19, though. Even Abraham Owen Smoot, whose marriages were pretty happy (mainly because they weren’t really marriages, as far as I can tell) took a 17 year old wife when he was in his 60′s and being prosecuted for polygamy. He kept her secret, and it took some ferreting for me to discover her. He lived with her. Pretty much all the men “lived’ with their youngest wives, no matter their age.

    So, yes, the older women got essentially abandoned all the time. All the time.
    All my friends with family memories of polgamy (I know it’s polygyny, but I’m going with the folk spelling) are sad, sad, sad. Including Brigham Young’s comment that his wives wanted him to divorce all the other wives but them.

    Plus, couldn’t you get a divorce in Utah for 50 bucks? I seem to recall Utah was a haven for such activities in the latter part of the 19th century, for both men and women.

    Ardis, I would like to see some documentation that my premise, that the

  35. 35.

    I’m so sorry, my comment is completely scrambled. I have no idea what happened.

  36. 36.

    I know this is ridiculously late to the party, but for future readers I felt compelled to add the comment that while we in this day and age judge these old men who took young wives as being perverted, we are looking at it with the modern perspective that marriage is about companionship, and equal companionship at that. Wheras these polygamous marriages were generally about children, and lots of them, and after age 40 there was no more children for a woman, so why would you marry a 40 year old?

    I think in our current affluent society where children are a life goal, and booed from many quarters now as making overpopulation a worse problem, we really struggle to understand that in harder times, you MUST have children or you as a people would die. You MUST have people willing to make hard decisions and risk offending people, as all uncertainties could lead to death.

    The current patriarchy and male-women relations chafe us because we are so comfortable there is no need for harshness or someone to step up and make life-or-death decisions. Maybe they are irrelevant and should be done away with. But maybe they are a blueprint for survival being passed down like old family lace, with the expectation that someone may really need this again some day.

    They say a dog is two meals short of a wolf. How many days of power outages are humans short of having to return to “repressive” survival tactics?

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