How do we describe Mormon polygamy? I’ve often seen it said that 19th century Mormons “practiced” polygamy. For example, here’s President Hinckley on Larry King Live in 1998:
The figures I have are from — between two percent and five percent of our people were involved in [polygamy]. It was a very limited practice; carefully safeguarded. In 1890, that practice was discontinued.
There’s lots to criticize here, but what I’m concerned with is his use of the word “practice.” The word is used to minimize how central polygamy was, to demote it to just a minor incidental thing that some Church members did.
I’ve always thought that a big positive of the Proclamation on the Family is that it mentions Heavenly Mother. Or to be more precise, it mentions Heavenly Parents. Here’s a quote from the section where they’re brought up:
All human beings—male and female—are created in the image of God. Each is a beloved spirit son or daughter of heavenly parents, and, as such, each has a divine nature and destiny.
I have always read “heavenly parents” here to mean a heavenly couple: Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother. But I was part of an online discussion recently in which Nancy Ross (who you might know from the papers she has co-written on Mormon feminism) pointed out that the wording here is completely compatible with the possibility of a polygamous Heavenly Father married to many Heavenly Mothers. “Heavenly parents” could be two (as I’ve always read it) or it could be 50 or 10001. Another participant in the discussion, Melissa Mayhew (who you may know from her blogging as Rune at Feminist Mormon Housewives), suggested that it would be interesting to look at other statements GAs have made about Heavenly Mother to see if they’re also compatible with a multiple-Heavenly Mother reading. I thought that was a great idea, so that’s what I’ll be doing in this post.
I was sitting in the lobby of a hotel in Cairo when a man came up to me. He commented on what I was wearing, suggesting that I wear red more often.
I was used to this. Egyptian culture, unlike the culture that I grew up in, encourages men to have opinions about things like the colors that women wear. Men will accompany their wives to makeup counters, and even go alone to department stores to purchase high-end cosmetics and perfume for their wives, mothers, and sisters.
We fell into conversation. His English was excellent. As we spoke, he mentioned Islam and asked if I was married. I was used to this, too. Muslim men in Cairo – even married Muslim men – would often approach single women and flirt with or proposition them. A common line was “I should take you as my second wife.” It was always a bit jarring to me, as an American woman, to have men approach me in an obviously lusty, flirtatious way when they were already married. But this particular man in the lobby had not yet married. He was planning on working a few more years before he did so. Read More
How would you describe Emma Hale’s relationship with Joseph Smith? They were married, so she was his wife. But now that the Church is being somewhat more open about Joseph’s polygamy, shouldn’t we be a little more accurate and describe Emma as Joseph’s first wife?
This question occurred to me while reading BHodges’s post at BCC where he lists a bunch of references to Joseph Smith’s polygamy in Church sources. He points out that of course he’s not listing Church source references to Emma and Joseph that do not mention Joseph’s polygamy, because they’re much more common than the references that do talk about polygamy. I thought it might be interesting to go back and look at some of these sources, though, to see if Emma is ever referred to as Joseph’s first wife. More generally, I wanted to look at these sources because even though we know in a general sense that they’re probably numerous and that they probably gloss over or ignore Joseph’s polygamy, seeing the particulars might give us a better sense of just how common they are and how much glossing and hiding they do.
This essay was originally posted at Both Sides Now. Its aim is to explore how contemporary Mormon women relate to and feel about polygny. Please be sensitive in the comments.
The excellent series at Feminist Mormon Housewives “Remembering the Forgotten Women of Joseph Smith” has given me pause on a lot of levels. It is a series of posts that, using primary and secondary sources, works to recover the stories, voices, and (when available) photographs of each of Joseph Smith, Jr.’s many plural wives.
As a historian-in-training and scholar of gender, I am always very pleased – no, thrilled – when there are sources available about women, and when the stories of women can be reclaimed from obscurity and inscribed in the record. As a scholar with some background in subaltern studies, I am delighted when we can find ways to tell the stories of not just the famous and powerful, but also of those who are often overlooked, usually the poor, minorities, and women.
(As an aside – I am relieved that I’ve never felt compelled in the slightest to do early LDS history professionally. The sources, though plentiful, are all so incredibly biased – whether toward apologetics or toward nasty and vengeful indictments of early leaders – that recovering any sort of coherent narrative of early LDS history, let alone attempting an accurate one, is phenomenally difficult. And I say this with the added acknowledgement that “accuracy” in history is a very thorny idea indeed.) Read More
I was reading this article about laws that are no longer really enforced, of which anti-polygamy laws are one. I’ve read about this other places, too. The only time anti-polygamy laws are prosecuted is when someone is being prosecuted for something else (i.e. they’re prosecuted for enabling statutory or other rape, or for misusing the welfare system, or something, and since they’re also a polygamist, that charge gets tacked on, too). No one really wants to prosecute anyone for having more than one spouse unless they’re doing other things we don’t approve of. And the next logical step to our society’s acceptance of polygamy as a valid life choice (even if most people don’t want to participate in it) is to make it legal to make that choice.
What do you think the church would do/say if there was a push to get anti-polygamy laws off the books? Read More