Charlotte Cannon Johnston, Living the Principle: My Progenitors and Polygamy (Self-published, 2016)
Charlotte Cannon Johnston’s Living the Principle: My Progenitors and Polygamy takes seriously the idea that polygamy is fundamentally connected to the history both of Mormonism as a whole and of families ancestrally tied to plural marriage. She writes that “our past is our present” and argues for the need for Mormons to re-evaluate their relationship to their ancestors’ polygamous past. Many of the stories of early Mormon women, especially in the Church curriculum, are either sanitized or erased because of discomfort around Mormon polygamy. Johnston seeks to discover the history of polygamy through the ways that plural marriage was practiced in her own family. The idea for the book emerged when she wanted to record her own story. She soon realized that before she could make sense of her own story, “I first needed to tell the stories of my ancestors” who are “inextricably linked to the history of Mormon polygamy.” (xi) The reader, therefore, is consistently aware of the relationship between Johnston and her historical subjects. Her subjectivity as author, researcher, and descendant is never too far from the surface of her writing.
Throughout the book, Johnston revisits A Mormon Mother, a memoir in which Annie Clark Tanner discusses her painful and lonely polygamous marriage to and separation from Joseph Marion Tanner, a prominent Mormon educator. Johnston reviewed this book for the famous Pink Issue of Dialogue in 1971 and at that time called the book a representation of an “articulate minority report of a difficult era.” (Appendix A, 225) As Johnston continued to research the experiences of her own family, however, she increasingly recognized the nuance in the written records on polygamy. The book therefore represents a conversation between the viewpoint in Annie Clark Tanner’s memoir and Johnston’s own relatives’ history.
The reader follows Johnston as she takes them on a tour of her polygamous history. The first two chapters are about the lives and personal records of Leonora Cannon Taylor and Elizabeth Hoagland Cannon respectively. Subsequent chapters discuss Johnston’s later polygamous ancestors. As she switches from ancestors whom she knows only through archival records to people she knows from family stories and personal relationships, the tenor of her writing also changes; later in the book, it is harder for readers to keep up with all of the family names and she references. Additionally, it is difficult for readers to disentangle the increasingly complicated family relationships that included marriages “for time,” marriages “for eternity,” and Levirate marriages. Some of this might have been dealt with more clearly, but Johnston’s narrative also points to the basic challenge of representing complicated family relationships. What happens when plural marriage warps family into shapes that no longer resemble trees? How can we visually represent the different kinds of marriages and parental relationships that emerged in polygamy?
Much of the value of this book is the way that Johnston lays bare her assumptions and the process through which her research unfolded. It has more introductory material and appendices than I have ever seen. The book will no doubt be a resource to her family as well as to those interested in the process of making and documenting family history. Johnston is scrupulous, almost to a fault, about conveying her process and how she makes sense of her history. Finally, not only does the book map out familial relationships of the dead, but it also shows the ways in which Johnston’s living family helped her scan and research archival materials as well as edit and format her manuscript. In content and form, the book fulfills the Mormon call to “turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the heart of the children to their fathers.” (Malachi 4:6)